HOW TO TELL A PRODUCER FROM A PRODUCER FROM A PRODUCER.
You know that thing about how eskimos have 21 words for snow? I used to think it was because they spent so much time around snow that they appreciated the subtle distinctions between, say, a flurry and a… a… not flurry. (Give me a break. I grew up in Florida.)
Then I moved to Hollywood.
In Hollywood, everybody is a producer. Really. Because there are so many different ways to be a producer. And yet how many words do we have for producer? One.
Want to know why such a small percentage of the film projects out there ever get made? It’s because most people think they’re working with one type of producer when they’re working with another.
I like you, So I’m going to save you a ton of confusion. What I’m about to tell you, a lot of people trying to get a movie made will never understand.
Here you go. The two main types of producers.
First, there’s the producer who actually does something. In commercials, we call this producer the line producer — and to be fair, sometimes that’s what they’re called in Hollywood, too. These are the people who are given a budget and a script and have to figure out how to divvy up the money, negotiate deals with the crew, schedule the shoot, and deal with every emergency that comes up.
Above those people are the producers who attach talent, financing, or material. Talent is usually an actor, but if you’re in a position to get the right director, cinematographer, screenwriter, or even executive producer to sign onto a project, Hollywood protocol doesn’t just allow you to call yourself a producer, it requires you to.
When I say “above,” by the way, I’m not passing judgement, but simply reflecting Hollywood’s priorities. In the film world, who you know is vastly more important than what you do. The thinking is that anybody can be hired. All you need is enough money and the right phone number.
Within each realm, there are sub-types of producers. In the first area, there are producers who specialize in putting budgets together, others who organize the workflow in post production. Some deal with nothing but special effects. On the big shows, there’s so much to do that producers have to cover arcane slivers of responsibility.
In the second realm, you can find three major types. Some producers can get Tom Hanks on the phone; some know hedge fund managers who still have millions of dollars to play with; some are “attached” to a hot property –– which means they are legally affiliated with a book, screenplay, or life story and a movie can’t be made from it without paying them.
And this is where most careers get sidelined.
Tom Hanks isn’t in the phone book and money still doesn’t grow on trees, but the world is full of people with a story they want to see on the big screen. The vast majority of producers in Hollywood are simply people who get themselves affiliated with projects. At their best, these are people who not only see merit in a property, but will work hard to hone it so that it has the most potential and get it into the right hands. At their most typical, these are people trading on hope. They have neither the skill, the connections, or the work ethic to make anything happen, but stand to benefit if you make it happen yourself. So they play the lottery, attaching themselves to as many projects as they can, spending as little as nothing for the right to profit from your hard work and talent.
Many of them, intent on doing what they believe producers do, insist that you rework your material before they can present it. This is called development. And most of it is an utter waste of time. I’m not talking about the development that goes on at the studios. That sort of reworking is inevitable, and not just because studio executives have their own strong feelings about how a story needs to be told. There are also a lot of factors you can’t possibly know. Scenes that you imagine taking place in Rio will fit better with the studio’s resources in Prague. The love interest you see as a blonde in her 20’s will need to be played by a brunette in her 40’s.
Next time you meet a producer who’s really excited to work with you, find out what kind of producer you’re talking to before you commit to anything. And don’t break out the champagne. The reality is that nobody is ever, ever going to love your material — or work as hard to get it made — as you.
Brian Belefant is a director who also works as a producer and by that he means he doesn’t have Tom Hanks’s phone number. But you have his: (503) 715 2852. You even have his email address: belefant (at) me (dot) com.