Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The OTHER People besides You

Okay, this is a writer’s blog -- a “Writer’s Collective,” as it says above. Right? You know, our own little corner of cyberspace to call our own. Right! (Glad we wrestled that one to the ground -- I was getting worried.)

Whether you’ve FADED-IN for the first time, were scanning the internet looking for “Morpheus,” or you started-out with us last spring -- I think I know what most of you are thinking:`“The Writer is King!” “All the heavy lifting in this business happens, right here, on the page!” Of course it does.

-- Wrong. Time-out. Back up your HD, cool the laser, and let’s talk for a minute.

This month I’m calling us back to the "root" of all things celluloid and digital. (No, this is NOT a lesson in quantum mechanics, or a discussion of particle vs. wave theory!) Film is a collaborative art, remember? (See my “Schreiber Theory” post back in May.)

Easier said than done – my screenwriting mentor used to say: “The WGA is filled with some of the most bitter people on the planet.” I guess he knew what he was talking about after 35 years in the biz. And yet, he survived. How? He learned to get along … with the OTHER people besides himself who were also making a living in this business.

-- And who are these people?


It’s worth noting up-front that these people are quite necessarily schizophrenic. In production, the director becomes a different person from the one with whom you had creative sessions. Directors must bear all the responsibility of the finished film -- and must use expert swordsmanship to ruthlessly hack to pieces any person or object which blocks the path to making the film they know is the right one. It’s war -- and they must win it.

You are obligated to respect directors. And I don’t mean out of fear for your career. I mean you are morally obligated. They, and they alone, must do the hardest job in the film business -- under circumstances akin to a level five hurricane -- with time restrictions that could kill a person.

If you cannot respect this, you do not have the soul of a creative person, nor any grasp of what this business is.

Of course, some directors are morons, dirtbags, and donkeys. But so are some cab drivers. And when exactly was your last nomination for sainthood?

PRODUCERS. (cha Ching!)

Much has been written about the fact that credits for producing, with or without an adjective before the word, are handed out like flyers for an undiscovered rock band. So much so that one of those credits, airborne by wind, could flap right into your face as you walk down the sidewalk -- and -- bing -- now, it’s yours.

So, let’s put that aside and talk about real producers.

When a studio greenlights a film, it’s the producer’s job to get the train of production rolling, for which the producer is fully prepared. Okay. So, what makes a producer rise to the level of being special?

-- The ones who start this train rolling long before the greenlight.

And don’t take the “train metaphor” too metaphorically. I’m talking about tangibles. Money starts to get spent by the studio on certain aspects of pre-production. A director is attached; movie stars are circling overhead.

How does all this start before a greenlight? The producer generates “heat” on the project, by calling talent agents, managers and other people who could influence movie stars. While that heat still wafts in the air, he persuades the studio that there is heat on the project. At this point, the studio knows it must put up a public “front” that the film will be made, with any number of possible stars who’d be lucky to get an offer. The studio must spend money on pre-production to prove it.

-- Because the director can jump onto another project that’s much closer to shooting, and the stars ask their agents one question every day -- about every project -- one question only:

“How real is it?”

This concept -- “how real” -- is so fragile and so desperately needs proving -- that both the producer and the studio will create masterpieces of contrived deception to achieve “reality” before reality exists.

The only way the studio can bluff that the project is “real” is by spending on pre-production aspects and announcing to the media that the director’s next film is this one.

-- Even though the studio is still not giving it a greenlight. Now, they’re 80 percent sure they will.As the film looks “more real,” the interest of the director and the potential stars grows. These powerful people start having “casual, warm” conversations -- brokered by the producer.

The train is moving. And there’s still not a green light.

It’s an impossible high-stakes game of poker. And the only person who raises every call is the producer -- and he is the only one who holds BLANK CARDS.

Because the star knows his/her cards: there are 20 hard offers on exhilarating projects waiting for a response -- or 20 insufferable projects. Same for the director.

[The producer has gathered intelligence about some of this.]

The studio knows its cards -- it’s playing this game on multiple projects, it knows what its next fiscal year budget is -- and it will, at some point, allot all that money. And the studio is an ocean tide -- ebb and flow -- in its convictions about which projects will get an allotment.

[The producer has also gathered intelligence on some of this.]

As the producer keeps the train moving, it causes the studio to become 90 percent sure, as it does to the powerful elements -- then a full greenlight -- by which time, the train is approaching top speed.

Playing this game requires of a producer 100 percent of his time and concentration. So, he gives it that. He has it to give.

HUH? No. I think not. You see, he just played this game four months ago -- and that project is shooting -- and requires 100 percent of his time and concentration. And he played this game two months ago, and that project is hurdling toward the start date -- and requires 100 percent of his time and concentration.

Oh, and he is, in passionate earnest, developing scripts -- sincerely wanting the writer to do his/her best work.

Oh, and he is constantly scouring for new material -- whether they are scripts or adaptable content -- before another producer grabs them.I think that’s all. Maybe.

Does this sound like a hard occupation?

The great producers are CON men/women that could match the best ones who fleece people on the streets. But, they’re not really lying. They’re telling the truth -- their project is going to get made into a film. They just say it before it’s a fact -- like God, ex nihilo -- and then they make it into a fact.

Which would be called -- “producing” something.

The independent producer does all of the above, but without a studio. However, don’t kid yourself that his job is harder. It isn’t. It’s just different.Manipulating a corporate monolith that’s a microcosm of the Roman Empire is just as difficult as gluing together a patchwork of suspicious, flaky investors and keeping them intact as a single, cooperative unit.Which is to say -- both tasks are impossible. Trying to find “gradations” of impossibility is meaningless.

We can consider the independent world separately, later.

The conclusion I’m reaching here is that, when you see the credit “producer” on a film -- with no adjective in front of it -- some of these people do what I’ve described.

And, thus, you are morally obligated to respect them. And, out of your own dire practical need, you need to know which ones do that job.

And, lastly, some producers and some directors are rising upwards in their career trajectories and are in the process of gaining more and more of their power to do their jobs.

Great -- grab onto them and be a part of it.

Kevin C.

[Special thanks to Coleman Luck, Peter Engel, and Jim Uhls for the imparting to me the ... “wisdom of the ancients” ... as suggested in the above.]


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