Adventures in Film Producing (as a Screenwriter) — Part 1

So, around six months ago, following the production of Break Even, a feature film I wrote on assignment staring Tasya Teles, James Callis, and Steve Guttenberg, I moved onto attaching myself to my second feature film project. As the lead producer negotiated signing on, they laid out their baggage which, to my surprise, included me, the screenwriter, becoming a co-producer. This was a shock to me given I had no expectation of ever receiving such a credit and an acknowledgement I found more pleasing to receive than I could have imagined. Seriously, it was one of the nicest unexpected surprises I’ve received thus far in my career. In this blog, I’m going to talk about what I’m learning from being on the other side, how I feel that impacts writing, and I how I believe screenwriters can get ahead.

Firstly, I want to address the elephant in the room; the real life significance of the producer moniker. If you’re a screenwriter, the opening paragraph above most likely impresses you and possibly even sounds like a dream coming true while, if you’re a producer, you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. This is the reality of producer credits. They are both meaningless and meaningful depending on where you stand in relation to them. To most people in the industry, particularly those above the line, the term holds ambiguous weight as people know producer credits can be handed out like participation trophies on some productions. There is always the question “If a dog carries a letter from one side of a set to the other, is it technically now a producer?” and the old quote “Assistant Producer is what you give your secretary instead of a raise” which I don’t subscribe to personally but paints a picture of how some people see things. Regardless of what people think, to the individual, certainly this individual, it means a tremendous amount as I know what I did to get it and what it means for the future. So yeah, rules one and two of Producer Club are “don’t talk too highly of Producer Club” unless you want to look like you have delusions of grandeur.

How Does One Go From Screenwriter to Writer-Producer?

There’s realistically three ways in. Firstly, there’s flat out producing a film yourself and quite rightly crediting yourself as such. To me, this is a producer in the truest sense of the word. It takes a special type of person to get out there and make a film happen without waiting for permission. The second way is being gilded in where a lead producer awards you the credit in a way similar to becoming “made” by the Mafia but with slightly less bloodshed and cursing. This is going to happen when you’ve proven to be dependable in a number of areas within the scope of production, which is massive and entails countless potential roles from paperwork to strategic planning to having to sit through endless parades of models trying on swimwear. Tough times.

The third way, and I’m almost hesitant to even list this, is to make a producer credit a contractual demand if you’re to join the project. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an established industry member negotiating something like this but there’s a lot wrong with a screenwriter listing it as a caveat. In fact, not too long ago, I saw a forum thread where a screenwriter was talking about the pitch decks they were happily building with a producer and another screenwriter (let’s call her Karen) jumped in to say they should halt work and demand a producer credit before continuing. I can’t warn against this type of attitude enough. The worst thing a person can bring to a team, especially one trying to make an independent film, is a sense of entitlement.

What’s the Best Thing a Screenwriter Can Bring to Producing Beyond Just Writing?

Those wanting to expand from writing to producing are most likely going to find it comes as a natural result of personality. If you are the highly collaborative and conscientious type who likes to learn new skills, the filmmaking process is only going to highlight this and smart people are going to do their best to empower it.

As mentioned, the term producer is a broad one that encapsulates many disciplines but the one that stands out above all else is being business savvy. Now, before I go any further, I must point out this doesn’t mean being a ruthless money-hungry capitalist. The business of film, in many circles, is kind and decent. You can be passionate about the art of business and still be a good human being. Yes, there are a lot of robber-barons in the film industry and modern corporations have a habit of turning psychopathic in their operation but this only highlights how much virtuous individuals must be cherished, especially when there’s money and careers at stake. Do not think you need to act like Harvey Weinstein to command respect. I’ve seen people employ that strategy. It does not end well for them.

Ultimately, you should lean in to what you enjoy be that pitching, paperwork, management, marketing, or the whole enchilada if that’s your poison. In my case, I’ve cut my teeth in the business world over the past twenty years freelancing within marketing and graphic design, so I’m as comfortable in the boardroom as I am playing with my crayons.

Why Would a Screenwriter Want to Also Become a Producer?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that taking on a producing role, one that tends to be associated with being at the top of the food chain, is automatically a desirable one but the prestigious image in the public eye should never be your core motivation. Sure, it feels good to say you’re a bonafide movie producer to friends and family but the two key benefits are influence and insight. Yes, being a producer will give you more say but it also makes you far more aware of the mechanics behind making a movie and that’s where the real juicy benefits lie.

Knowing the ins and outs of how movies get made significantly increases your chances of seeing scripts make it into production because you start to write like a producer. What does writing like a producer entail? Well, it’s becoming hyper-aware of the marketplace, considerate of how industry members operate, and sympathetic of production logistics. I’ve been saying for a long time now (well, a year at least) that all screenwriters will greatly benefit from putting a business hat on from time to time. I talk more about this in detail in my blog “The One Rule Of Writing For Independent Film (And It’s Not Even A Strict One)”. Production experience, particularly with a well established filmmaker will unravel a lot of the mystery surrounding how scripts get found, what makes them appealing, and what’s needed to get them into shape ready for pitching and production. You get to see things from the other side.

Becoming a producer also keeps you close to your team throughout the journey to the point you become like family since you are working together so much and it’s most likely you’ll be on set for the shoot too. The camaraderie can be remarkable and a real blessing to someone who feels isolated by spending so much time working alone. Many relationships between productions and screenwriters can be distant and little more than paperwork and thus such a similar bond often fails to be formed.

Then there’s the topic of being taken seriously. Writers tend to be at the bottom of the totem pole and command little respect but a producer credit on a worthy production can change that, significantly helping with networking providing you don’t overplay your hand. Again, strutting into your local film festival drinks meet up while flexing your braces and announcing “make way for the co-producer!” is only going to make you look stupid. Be humble, be modest, and above all, be honest.

What’s the Downside to a Screenwriter Also Becoming a Producer?

This is very easy to answer; workload. As if writing on spec and trying to build a career that sustains regular income isn’t hard enough, becoming a producer multiplies that work considerably with little tangible reward. Your involvement goes from either writing or being commissioned to write/re-write a script to being heavily involved in early meetings, to script development, to pitching, to casting, to securing attachments, to scheduling and so on right to acquisition and distribution. As long as the project exists, it’s partly your baby and that takes us on to…

…Responsibility. As if everything isn’t heightened enough, you are now answerable for far more. You are a decision maker, a member of the chorus, and a part of the brain trust. You are no longer waiting to hear if that actor you love has signed on the dotted line to play the lead. You’re searching for bankable talent, agreeing on offers made to their representation, and part of any subsequent negotiations. Hell, you may end up being the person making sure their SAG paperwork is in order while taking their lunch order.

Getting paid as a producer is probably also even harder than getting paid as a screenwriter too with payment often offset until the end of production if there’s any payment schedule at all — many producers instead opting to rely on profit participation during theatrical runs with the addition of having potentially invested their own money to get the film made in the first place. Suddenly, walking away with two thirds of your fee upon the start of shooting doesn’t seem so bad.

On top of this, you are going to get pestered and manipulated even more by people who think you can make their dreams come true. Within twenty-four hours of updating my LinkedIn profile headline with “Film Producer”, I started receiving multiple emails from writers (sometimes pretending to be their own agents) trying to get me to read their stuff. It’s not all sniffing cocaine off the derriere’s of hookers, you know?

You either find a lot of enjoyment in riding this emotional rollercoaster or you don’t and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the kind of screenwriter who chooses not to get involved and to keep your life simple. It’s important you know it’s your choice and there is no right or wrong answer.

So, that’s a brief overview with some things to consider. Adding a producer role to your skillset is a serious step-up from screenwriting and one that shouldn’t be treated lightly. How fulfilling it is will always be highly subject to your personality and goals but there’s little to fear as you’ll most likely gradually segue into things at your own speed and ability. I hope to feedback more on on this topic as I gain experience but for now, please don’t send me your script, no I don’t drive a Ferrari yet, and yes that line about models and swimwear is at least partly true.