S2_E22 – The Business of Hollywood: Why You Need a Producer to Get Your Project Made
For the last few weeks, we've been discussing how Hollywood works. What are some of the things that you should know as a writer so that you don't end up getting ripped off or scammed by a so-called opportunity that some charlatan brings your way? We also started talking about option agreements and how you have to get a project to a producer, either a novel that you want adapted into a screenplay, or a screenplay that you've written. It's got to be about the story. That's what a producer is working with. This week, I want to explain the basics of what a producer does. This is to educate you. These are broad strokes, not step by step instructions. I don't claim to have all the answers. I just want to give writers more insight into the movie making process so that they're not ignorant, and so that they're less gullible or less easy to be deceived.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
Season 2: E22 - The Business of Hollywood: Why You Need a Producer to get Your Project Made
Published January 27, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: So, for the last couple of weeks, we've been talking about, how does Hollywood work? What are some of the things that you should know as a writer, so that you don't end up getting ripped off or scammed, because of all these so called opportunities that are being presented to you by charlatans who basically want to scam your money. And last week, we started talking about option agreements and how you have to get a project to a producer, either a novel that you want adapted into a screenplay, or a screenplay that you've written somehow. It's got to be about the story. And that's what a producer is working with. This week, I just want to run through some of the basic things that a producer does. Now, this is kind of different, because the thing is, I just want you, the writer, to be aware of it. This is to educate you. So I'm going through broad strokes, right? This is broad strokes. These are not step by step things that you should take to heart as, "Oh, here's Zena is, giving us a, b, c, d, and if I do these, I'm a viable producer." No, no, no. These are broad strokes of what a producer does that're important for you to understand. But I don't claim to have all the answers for you. I just want to give writers more insight into the movie making process so that they're not ignorant, and so that they're less gullible or less easy to be deceived.
PRESENTATION: So again, what we discovered is that once somebody has the option, or the producer has the option agreement, then that gives the producer permission to go out and try to put the project together. It means they have permission to try to raise money. But it means that they're doing all sorts of things all at once. They're developing the project package, they're trying to get all of the assets together so that they can go out to raise money, so that they can take it to viable companies that will help cast it, to agencies, to connections in the business, to distribution companies to try to get commitments prior to even making the film of some sort of distribution deal. That's a wonderful way to help get funding, in fact, is if you can have a deal with a distribution company that says that they'll at least promise to look at your feature, and they'll at least promise to give it a good look over and consider distributing it. Because otherwise, you might have just made a very expensive home movie. If you can't get distribution, meaning, if you can't get it out there into the world, if you have no platform to present it to the world, then how do you ever do anything with your project? You don't. So that's all the stuff that a producer is thinking about.
So that means that there are some preliminary steps that need to be done before the producer can go out and try to put all these assets together.
For example, they need a business plan. If you're the producer, you need a business plan. You need to have the script broken down by somebody who can analyze scripts and determine an approximate budget. Because how can you go out and raise money for a project if you don't know how much it's going to cost to make? So, that is usually something you have to pay for. You have to pay somebody who knows how to analyze the script and figure out how much it's gonna cost to make. You have to know generally who you're trying to cast. And I don't mean a specific person. You might have five different ideal actors involved. But it's a type, right? It's a type, but it's also a level. So, if your project is a $250,000 project, you're not going to get Leonardo DiCaprio to play the lead. He doesn't do small projects like that. So, you have to eliminate A-listers. But maybe it's a $10 or $15 million project. Well, there are some A-list actors that you might still be able to get even if you can't pay their exorbitant rates or some sort of exorbitant fee to have them act in it if the project is good enough to make them interested.
Now, here's the thing (pretending that you are, of course, the producer), what we're talking about are A-listers, versus B-listers versus C-listers. And a lot of times you're trying to lock in your actors, especially if they're A-listers, or you're trying to lock in maybe A-list directors, simultaneously to trying to develop the business plan, and the pitch deck that you're going to ultimately present to people like the financiers, or the distributors. These are things that you're going to present to them. Because if you can get talent attached of a high caliber in advance, it does a lot to basically calm them down. It's all about trying to reduce the risk to the financial elements of the production, to the financiers, to the distribution company. You want them to feel confident that people are going to come see your movie. Guess what? You get an A-list talent attached to your project, they're going to be more likely to take a look at it, because they know that they're going to make their money back, or they know that it's going to sell in the ancillary markets. So, you have to be thinking about those things when you're even trying to get the project put together.
So you can include those actors, or the director or whoever the case may be -- the famous person that maybe has a market built in. Maybe you have connections in Nashville, and you are going to look for a musician that's going to do the opening song, or the title song or something like that. That's a good tie in that gives your project a leg up. It makes it more viable. It reduces risk for all of the players. Again, it's about reducing the risk for everyone involved, which is why they like novels, actually. Because if you have a novel that was published, well, that tells them that there was a market for it, that somebody already took a risk on you, that your story idea has merit in the marketplace of ideas, which means that they're taking less of a risk. Really, people in Hollywood are very afraid. There's so much money at stake. So they want to know that they're taking less of a risk, and you're offering them that if it's a previously published project. That is good. That means somebody else took a risk on it, and it lowers the risk for them.
In any case, the point is you're trying to put all of these pieces together so that you can go out in pre production and get all of the pieces rolling. This includes financing, distribution, talent. And then of course, putting together the project, making sure you have locations, working with a state that is going to offer you locations that fit perfectly with your project. And maybe you can get some tax incentives, which ultimately is going to help with budget and help make sure that your investors get a return on their investment. There's all these things that you're doing. And the first step, of course, is putting together a business plan. And then putting together a pitch deck that you're going to put in front of the people that you're trying to bring on your team. It's called pre production, and there's a lot more things. But that's just a general overview.
Now, you're also looking into the ancillary markets. You need to understand what those are, if you're the producer. You need to understand how you can come up with a plan that is most likely, legitimately going to give your investors a chance to get their money back. That's your job. As a producer, your job is to put the project together. But really your job is to protect your investors. It's to do the work that you need to do to ensure to the best of your ability that your investors have a chance to make their money back and hopefully then some. This means you need to understand the ancillary markets. This means the foreign markets. This means, what are they doing in Europe? This also means, is there a tie into video games? Is there a tie in to some sort of comic book or graphic novel that could really help make some money on this? Is there going to be a spin off TV series? Are there sequels in the mix? What are the possible ways for your project to make money? Are you going to sell it to the airline so that it's shown on the plane when people fly across country? Are you going to show it in the movie theater? So it has a theatrical release? Or is it going to go straight to streaming on one of the streaming venues? Is it going to be on television? Is it going to be for Lifetime? Is it going to be for Hallmark? Is it going to be a made for TV movie? You need to understand what all of the ancillary markets do or how they make their money so that you can see where your film fits according to genre, according to what it has to offer, because different ancillary markets are going to be interested in a different kind of product. This is complicated stuff. It's why you need a producer. If you want to produce a film, you could probably do a lot of the stuff, but there's just things that you learn from experience because your head is in that particular game all the time. So a really good producer is worth their weight in gold, and it's why I would always look for a more experienced producer than myself, because I don't think about those things 24/7 and a good producer does.
Okay. And by the way, that is all about distribution, right? It's about how do I distribute this film to get it in front of the masses? Who's going to see it? And how are they going to see it? And how are they going to pay for it, so that my investors make money back? Everybody should have a viable chance of getting a return on investment, but not every film offers that. It is a risk. So you have to do everything you can to maximize the potential for return on investment. And you need to be realistic about the numbers. Whatever numbers you come up with shouldn't just be made up or shouldn't be fudged, so as to try to trick investors into coming on board. They should be legit. You should be honest about it, and then come up with a game plan that is actually legitimate based on your particular film. It can't just be made up. Nobody wants to invest in a film where the filmmakers don't understand how the film is actually going to potentially make the money back.
Now, again, even if you have a legitimate, realistic game plan, it does not guarantee anything. And that is why this is such a tricky business. You can never guarantee it and investors know this. They know it's a risk, which is why sometimes you're also selling the glory of it, right? There's some glitz and glamour, you get some people involved, it's fun. Being on a film set is fun. So there are things that you can offer where maybe these people have enough money that they don't really care so much about making all their money back, maybe they know they're sort of making a donation, but they want to be involved in something cool. Or maybe they just really believe in the subject matter, or whatever the case may be. So that's where you're targeting the right investors, depending on what their interests are, and what they expect to get out of the project. So, there are creative ways to get investors that are going to be satisfied for different reasons. And that's your job as a producer, or that's the producers job if you're just listening to this as a writer and trying to figure out what a producer supposed to do.
Okay, so one of the things that can be done and that more and more producers are doing and that writers should be thinking about is diversification of investment. What do I mean by that? Well, for example, with Mission Ranch Films, I currently have three feature films in development. And my goal is to be able to make all three of these scripts into feature films. However, I'm not actually going to go out to raise money until all three of them are done. I'm going to bring them out all together, so that if an investor wants to invest, they're investing in all three films, which diversifies their investment, it makes it less of a risk. So, if one of the films does horribly, then they're covered by the other two. So that should mitigate their risk. It's about diversification, so that they have a way to make their money back. Even if one project doesn't do well, they're not totally at a loss.
The other thing that I'm planning to do with these projects, is all three of them take place in the same universe. This is really happening a lot now. And as a writer, you need to be thinking about this. You know, one of the weird things about Hollywood these days is that there's really not a place anymore for a one-off, meaning just one feature film. Now, yes, it still happens on a particular level. But for those of us that are a little lower on the totem pole, we generally have to be thinking much larger than a one-off. For example, M Night Shyamalan did the film series that we didn't even know was a film series at first. He did Unbreakable, Split, and then Glass. Now, that's significant, because it's the exact kind of thing that we are being called to do as writers. They were stories that took place in a particular story world, they were standalone projects, and yet they were connected to each other and the third one brought them all together.
Now, this is important for a number of reasons. First of all, why could that be valuable? Well, I didn't know that this was a trilogy, and I sat down to watch Split. And it was fabulous. It was so good. Well, after I watched it, I learned that, in fact, it was part of a trilogy. So it was like 12 years or something crazy after Unbreakable had been made, but guess what I did? I went and rented Unbreakable. So it gave his project a greater shelf life simply because it was connected to this other universe. And then guess what I did. As soon as Glass came out, I went to the theater and I watched Glass. But not only that, I also rewatched Unbreakable and Split. I paid for them both again before I did the third so that I would remember everything that I needed to. My goodness, the fact that he made a trilogy meant that he got four times as much money from me as he would have if it was a one-off, because I probably wouldn't have ever done it again. Isn't that fantastic? So think about how that works. And by the way, this is kind of what Marvel has done. Marvel has made it almost impossible anymore for a writer to just have a one-off. People want storyworlds That's what the audience wants. They like it when things are connected.
So, this is a greater and greater trend that you're going to see, where stories have a particular story world, their own story world and they're connected and it can be transmedia. It's not that you just do the same story in all different types of media, like, "Oh, let's have a play that is the same story. Oh, let's now have a movie that's this. Oh, let's make a graphic novel of the same story." No, it's that they're spin-offs in their own right, because they're all connected to the same story world and it's transmedia rather than just one project that ends up being filtered into all those mediums. It's a much, much bigger picture. And by the way, if you're interested in that, there's a great book on it called, "You're going to need a bigger story," by a man named Houston Howard, who's actually involved in my stories that I'm developing for Mission Ranch Films. So, in any case, you should check that out. But this is a new sort of trend that's happening. And so as writers, we should be thinking about a bigger universe, a story world where all of our stories take place, that have legs that can go in different directions. Typically speaking, the point is, it's really difficult to just get a single film made. It needs to be part of something bigger. It needs to have transmedia potential.
Okay. Nevertheless, the point is, before you go out and get financing, you have to think through your whole plan of how you're going to make money back for your investors. And it has to be a realistic plan. It can't be some grandiose pie in the sky plan. You have to do the research. You have to figure it out. You need somebody who understands distribution, somebody who understands the ancillary markets and what they're interested in, and why they would buy your product for whatever reason. You need to figure out what that would look like, and where you would sell your project. Where would it show? Who's going to come see it? Who is your market? Would you sell it to Netflix? I mean, good luck doing that because the truth is, Netflix doesn't usually even buy from the normal average Joe anymore. They have their own production company. They're basically a studio now, they're making all of their own originals. So it used to be that you could take a project to Netflix because they were looking for projects, but not really anymore. They have their own in-house development department. They're making their own. So, you have to be realistic. Where are you going to take it? Who's going to want to show it? Where is it going to stream? Is it going to get a theatrical release? These are things that the producer has to figure out.
You also have to come up with a viable marketing plan. Now, the distribution company is supposed to help you with that, but you have to do some of that work before you even present it or the distribution company is going to be like, "Well, we're not going to do all the work from the ground." The distribution company, they're the last money in and the first money out. It's crazy. So, you need to have a lot of that groundwork laid before you ever are going to get your project off the ground. Now, if you're planning on Tom Cruise being in your movie then guess what? It ain't probably gonna happen because you gotta pay Tom Cruise, what, $20 million to be in your movie? And that might be 10 times what your budget is. So you have to choose actors that are realistic in terms of what you can actually pay them, actors that maybe will work for SAG minimum plus 10%. And the 10% goes to their agent. But actors that are good actors, so that they're still good enough to maybe make your film good because it's only as good as the actors are who are in it. So you don't want a bunch of nobodies. You don't want to just cast Joe from the diner down the street. You want legit actors. It makes a difference.
There might be a Tom Cruise out there who would love to play the role that you've written in your story. Because maybe that role is so phenomenal. Maybe that character is so interesting and rich that they would play it even though they would be paid less for the job. But if that's the case, then you have to figure out how to get your script, or the producer has to figure out how to get that script, to Tom Cruise's team, and then how to get it in front of Tom Cruise himself so that he can read it. And that is no easy feat. Getting it to these A-list actors or to the right actor is really hard to do. So, you're still having to think outside of the box, how do I get it to the right people? A big part of being a producer is thinking through, how do I get this project into the right people who would want to be a part of this thing? Because the truth is, filmmaking is a collaborative process. And even though the producer is the quarterback, they still have to have a whole entire team. And so they've got to get it to the right teammates. And they need to be able to identify who those people are, but then they need to identify the correct route to get to them. Because it isn't straightforward. And that is a lot of what you're doing as a producer, is solving those types of challenges. It's very, very hard to do.
It might even take several years to be able to get it to all the right people, to get all of these pieces put together. And maybe when this actor reads it, he'll go, "Yeah, I want to play that role. I'll do it for a grossly reduced price because that is a role that nobody else is offering me and it's so juicy, I can't wait to play it. In fact, I'll probably win an Academy Award. I'll do it. I'll do it. Let me do it." Now they want to do it. And then once they become involved, well guess what? Everything else will probably be gravy. Because once you get an A-list actor like that, that's great. But is your story good enough to attract that kind of talent? It's hard to say. I don't know, I haven't read it. But that's the challenge, isn't it.
So, you have to think outside of the box without being a stalker. And you'll have to find a way to get it in front of the right people. And this is all happening at once as you're doing the business plan, as you're trying to think through distribution, as you're trying to get the budget broken down for your actual script, as you're trying to contact the financiers, as you're trying to attract the right talent ,as you're trying to contact particular states to find out what their rules are or their tax incentives, as you're trying to figure out what kind of contracts you need for what kind of thing that you're doing, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I mean, it's just a lot of stuff. So you can see how hard it is to produce a film.
And this is why you often have to have a certain commitment of finances even before you get a project going, because a lot of these things cost you money along the way, which is why a producer is taking a big risk if they take on your project, because usually it comes out of the producer's pocket. And yeah, if they're able to get the film made, they'll get reimbursed, because they'll usually write that in to the contract. However, what if they're never able to get the film made? They still had to do all these things upfront, they had to front the costs, and yet they might not ever get reimbursed. So you can see the risk that it is to actually be a producer.
And so what that means, by the way, is that you darn well better have a script that you love, that you're passionate about. And that you know is as good as possible. This just proves that there is no such thing as mediocrity, especially if you're not producing it yourself, you have to find a producer that's going to be willing to do all that. How are you going to do that if you have a mediocre script? It's got to blow them away. They have got to love it. You have got to love it. All of the people that come on board have got to love it. It cannot be mediocre. You have to be better. You have to be better.
And then that's just the pre production process. Right? Once you get all that going, you finally raise the money, you get the team put together, you've got all the crew that's gonna shoot the film, you've got all the talent, you've got all the contracts, you've got all of the production people, all those things. Now you've got to go and shoot the film. And sometimes it's going to take 30 days, and sometimes it's going to be 60. And sometimes you will only get two weeks because that's all you can afford. And that's terrible. Because you usually can't make a good film if you're only shooting for two weeks, but it's been done. Nevertheless, the point is, then you have to actually shoot it. And then once you shoot it, now you go into post production, and so much happens in post. So this is where you have an editor, and you do the sound, and you do the score, and you do the color correction and you start putting all the elements together, you start cutting trailers, you start promoting it. Sometimes you're going to start submitting that to film festivals. Because if you can get some viable Film Festival attention, then maybe you'll pick up a distributor if you haven't already. So, all of these things, and that takes another probably year to 18 months to get everything done in the post production process and get it done well. So think about how long it takes to get a movie made. It takes a long time, people.
Okay, so these are the basic steps of how you get a film made, the basic steps of what a producer has to do to get a film made. And it usually takes three to five years. Sometimes they can take even longer if they start with just a novel and they've got to turn it into a screenplay. Now, we can take a shorter amount of time. It's been done, depending on momentum, and you certainly want to try to get momentum, but it's just a long process. And again, that means you better have a script worth it.
CONCLUSION: Okay, so I hope that this is helpful. And by the way, don't be greedy. Yes, this is a film business. Yes, there's a lot of money to be made. But first you got to get your foot in the door. You don't want to be ripped off. You want it to be legit. But you also have to understand, most of us make a living, but not a great one. We are privileged to get to do what we love to do. But we're probably not making as much as you think we are. And that's okay. Because it's fun and I get to influence culture and I get to do the things I love to do. I get to tell stories for a living. But don't get greedy.
INVITATION: And if you have a question, you can always reach out to me at The Storyteller's Mission. Just send an email to Zenzena@thestorytellersmission.com, and I would be happy to help you navigate that if I can. No charge. Free of cost.
Okay. Well, I hope that this has been helpful, this whole series about, how does Hollywood work? What should you expect as a writer? What are the kinds of things or the ways that you might get ripped off? It's just very important for us to be informed so that we can navigate this better.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.