The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello, my name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: You’re listening to Episode 17 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig, how are you doing today?
Craig: Pretty good. I’m getting ready for the holidays.
John: Ah, very nice. Are you staying in town this year? Are you traveling, getting on planes?
Craig: I am staying in town. Man, it feels good. This time last year I was in Bangkok which is the least Christmassy place in the world.
John: Yeah. Did they have a concept of Christmas there?
John: Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
Craig: I’m sorry. Say that again.
John: [Singsong] Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?
Craig: [laughs] They’re aware. They know its Christmas time.
Craig: I don’t think they care.
John: Did you see inappropriately dressed Santas on the back of scooters or motorcycles?
Craig: No. It’s not a particularly Christian culture. It’s very traditional — very, I guess, Buddhist.
Craig: Yeah. They’re just not into Christmas. It’s not their thing. It’s also super hot. Also, it wasn’t like I was doing Christmas shopping or anything. I was standing in hot streets with scooters going by.
Craig: This is nice. I’m actually really appreciating the whole pre-Christmas pageantry.
John: Yeah. We’re actually having unseasonably cold weather in Los Angeles right now. It doesn’t usually feel this cold. It was nearing frost temperatures here.
Craig: Yeah. Also, we had this crazy windstorm and Pasadena and La Canada, where I live, got the worst of it. Our power was out for three days. You know, it was kind of fun for a day. By the third day, man, just darkness is a bummer. [laughs] You really start to miss power.
John: Yeah. You start to revert to like earlier primal forms.
John: Never good. Our big damage around here was that our DirecTV satellite dish got knocked askew which is… Yes, okay, first world problems.
Craig: Yeah. You know what I’ll do is I’ll send you a picture of what the street near our office looked like and you can put it up with this podcast. It was crazy. I mean, huge trees just lifted out of the ground and thrown down. I think they had clocked it at 97 miles an hour which, I looked it up, qualifies as hurricane gusts.
John: Well, good.
John: Yeah. We shouldn’t say “good,” but it’s exciting when changes happen and when things that you don’t expect to have happen do happen. The earthquake is actually a really good memory of mine, of Los Angeles.
Craig: You’re so weird.
John: I’m so weird. I kind of like when things fall apart a little bit.
Craig: Yeah. What are you, Sauermon, you like watching trees die?
John: [laughs] I don’t want anyone to be hurt. I don’t want things to necessarily be broken. But I like the idea that things are not permanent or that the way stuff is put together right at this moment isn’t necessarily the only way it can fit together.
Craig: Well, life rewards people like you because, eventually, it strikes you down. [laughs] I think it’s the second law of thermodynamics.
John: Yeah. Everything changes. Everything goes towards chaos.
John: And heat…
John: Heat death of the universe.
Craig: Heat death. We’re on our way.
Speaking of heat death and the universe, that’s not a segue at all actually, today I thought we would talk about producers.
Craig: Heat death and producers.
John: Yeah. Let’s see, how can we tie in heat death and producers? Both thrive on chaos.
Craig: [laughs] Well, they’re supposed to fight entropy, but many times they do contribute to it too.
John: I like that.
John: It’s a better way of thinking about it.
John: Today, let’s talk about what producers are. Craig, what is a producer?
Craig: Well, you ask a different producer you’ll get a different answer. And it’s different for television, it’s different for movies. Do you want to talk about movies first?
John: Yeah. I just want to talk about the general idea of what a producer is supposed to do though. I think we have an image in our head of sort of this rich fat cat who’s smoking a cigar, who’s giving orders and bossing people around. Or like the Robert Evans idea too. Thinking, “Well, that’s what a producer is.”
They used to be a little bit more like that. There’s a reason why some stereotypes are true. There used to be that “force of nature” producer who would storm in and do cocaine off of the table and make five movies before lunch.
Craig: Yes, off of the table. [laughs]
John: Yeah. I always find cocaine stories fascinating because I have just almost no drug experience whatsoever. I remember going to visit a friend of mine who had become a producer and exec at one of the big studios. I’m making this as generic as possible so that no one will actually identify who I’m talking about.
John: He was so excited because he had gotten this new office. It had this built-in sort of cubby cabinet thing with the desk that folded down and there’s a mirror on the desk surface of it, which seems really weird. In the corners you could see the cocaine.
John: This was like a special desk that was built to hold cocaine.
Craig: A cocaine desk.
John: Yeah. Which is such an ’80s thing. We got into the industry just a little too late.
Craig: Wow. I’ll confess something and it’s not a good confession. It’s like the opposite of an interesting confession.
Craig: I’m not a prude or anything. Not only have I never done cocaine, I’ve never seen it.
John: I don’t think I’ve ever seen it consumed in my presence.
Which is weird. It’s not what you would think of like Hollywood should be.
John: You think Hollywood should be like, “Oh, rampant drug use.”
Craig: There should be coke everywhere.
John: I think there is drug use in Hollywood but it’s really not visible.
Craig: Yeah. I feel like cocaine… Cokeheads are really private, I guess, or shy. [laughs]
John: I think it’s also the people who were doing cocaine are probably doing pharmaceuticals now. They’re doing other stuff.
Craig: Oh, like Oxycontin or whatever.
John: Yeah, or like less visible.
Craig: You know, I’m guessing cocaine is still around.
John: Yeah. I’m sure it’s still around.
Craig: Yeah. It’s just… Yeah. Well, most of the producers I know probably aren’t coked up. Some of them, frankly, could do with a little bit of cocaine every now and again. [laughs]
John: Some of them could use a good, firm kick in the butt.
John: In general, a producer’s job — and we’ll just talk like a theoretical of what a producer is supposed to be doing, — is the person who is responsible for a movie — let’s talk features for right now — is responsible for a movie from inception all the way through distribution, which is now, I would say, all the way through iTunes and down the road. They are the person who is most and primarily responsible for the movie. That’s the reason why they get the Academy Award. They are the person who… It’s their movie.
John: They are the person behind it all.
John: Rarely does that actually hold true now. There are exceptions. Laura Ziskin, I think, was largely that kind of producer. She was my very first studio development teacher when I went through my producing program, called Peter Stark, at USC. She was that kind of producer. There were movies where she had the idea, she found the writer, she got the writer to do 15 drafts, she got the studio to green light the movie, she was there for every frame they shot, and she oversaw editing. She oversaw the whole thing. That’s what producers used to do.
Now, if you look at the opening titles of a movie, there will be 14 people’s names listed as some kind of producer.
John: You really can’t know what each of those people did. We can talk through, in general, what those responsibilities are supposed to be, but I really want to also talk about the realities of what it’s like to be a writer working on movies and dealing with producers.
Craig: Yeah. If you think about, sort of, when you and I started in the business, and let’s take Disney for example. It had multiple divisions. It was making a lot of movies. Let’s say it makes 50 movies in a year. There’s only so many executives you have and, ultimately, the job of the studio is to decide whether or not they should make the movie and spend the money on the movie and then market the movie and release the movie. But they can’t be there on the set. They can’t be there in every casting session. It would be impossible.
The producer becomes kind of an interesting independent agent of the studio. They are, ideally, in the best possible world, I’ll describe the best kind of producer, somebody who helps protect and nurture the creative value of the movie while, at the same time, shepherding the business of the production to make sure it’s done in a way that is responsible and satisfying to the financier, typically a studio.
Craig: That doesn’t happen. [laughs] Sometimes that just doesn’t happen. Sometimes you get one and not the other. Usually it’s the business one and not the creative one.
John: What’s interesting is, if you were just looking at Video Village, Video Village being at the monitors in which people are sitting in chairs staring at the little screen while the cameras are rolling. If you were to look at the people sitting in those chairs it’s hard to tell, necessarily, who are the producers and who are people who work for the studio because they seem to be doing the same kind of job. To a large degree, their functions do overlap.
We had a guy who worked at Warner Brothers come in once to talk to our class. He said like, “Oh, my friends, at Christmas, will ask me, ‘Hey, I saw that movie you said you were working on but why didn’t I see your name on the movie?'” He’s like, “My name is that shield that plays at the front. The big Warner Brothers logo, that’s my name.”
The studio executive, his function is really the studio’s function so he doesn’t have his own separate title card on the movie. He is the logo of the company. The exception being, weirdly, like New Line Cinema which all those people got producer credits even though they were really a studio.
Craig: Yeah. It gets very confusing in that regard. You’re right. It is interesting, sometimes a very strong studio executive will have more to do with the inception and shepherding of a film than the producer. It’s a very difficult thing. The reason it’s so confusing about what producers do is there is no barrier to entry, anybody can get a blank producer credit. For instance, associate producer really means a sort of producer-in-training who’s working with the real producer, typically.
Co-Producer could be anybody. A lot of times these things are handed out as little cookies for people to feel good about themselves. Sometimes those people are actually doing more work than the person who is the producer.
Then there is executive producer, which sounds more important than producer but actually isn’t.
John: Yeah. Let’s hop through the ranks from the top to the bottom just so people get a sense of what it means in film. After we talk through in film we’ll talk it through in TV because it’s confusing because everything is reversed.
John: So, in film the most important producer, the person who would actually receive the Academy Award, is the producer. It just says “Producer.”
Craig: Right. “Produced by…”
John: “Producer” or “Produced by…” there’s no other qualifier in front of it.
John: If there are several people with the title “Producer” on a film, the Academy has rules about who gets the award. There’s a Producers Guild which helps step in to specify who gets what kind of award for things. But producers should be the most important, significant person making the film.
John: Below Producer is Executive Producer. Executive Producer used to mean a person who brought money to a project. It still, often, does mean that. It’s a lesser function. It’s probably not a person who is involved day to day although, sometimes, that’s a credit that a Line Producer might be given or someone else who’s incredibly involved day to day but is not the overall overseer of everything about the movie.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Co-Producer, Associate Producer, are sometimes just handout producer credits. I got a Co-Producer credit on Go and I really did a lot of producing on Go, but that was just a stipulation in my contract.
Craig: Right. Or for instance, if there’s a big Producer, they may have somebody working for them that does an enormous amount of work on their behalf and that person might get a Co-Producer or Executive Producer credit.
John: Yep. Co-Producers, a lot of times you’ll see the person who’s responsible for the budgeting, the Line Producer being given that.
John: I should specify: There’s two other titles that you won’t often see in credit blocks but are actual functions and that’s a Line Producer. The Line Producer is, I think of it, almost like the manager of a company. It’s the person who’s physically responsible for doing the budget, for making sure the trucks are showing up at the right place at the right time, all the sort of number responsibilities and production responsibilities.
Craig: Yeah. In the credits they’re called the Unit Production Manager. The Unit Production Manager is, essentially, the business master of the movie. It’s a very interesting position, actually, because the UPM typically is somebody that works more closely with the studio than with the productions. Studios are very particular about which UPMs they use because, ultimately, that’s the person they come to, to say, “You’re spending too much. These days are going on too long. Help us out here. Keep control over this thing.”
John: Yeah. So, the UPM is working with the producers on a general sense, working with the director on a general sense, in terms of some priorities. Or in terms of like how we’re spending our money, really overseeing the accountants and basically everyone who is staying back in those offices who are making sure that all the paperwork is actually done to pay for this thing and to make sure that insurance stuff is handled. All that sort of back office stuff is going to fall under the UPMs job. That person is working as much for the studio as it is for the production.
John: I just realized I have an Executive Producer credit on Prince of Persia, which is very classically the kind of credit I would be given in that situation. It’s a project that Jordan Mechner came to me with. He had the rights to Prince of Persia. We figured out the story, we put together a pitch, and we went around and pitched it to every place. I wasn’t going to write the movie but I was going to oversee the writing of the movie.
I developed Prince of Persia. Like — there wouldn’t be a movie if I hadn’t stepped in to do it, so Executive Producer is my credit for it. But I’m not the Producer. I didn’t oversee every frame of film shot or anything like that. I was a crucial function during one of the stages of production but I didn’t oversee the whole thing.
Craig: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons the Producers Guild exists. It’s not really a guild, it’s not a union, because they don’t… they’re not employees like a union is. But it’s basically, kind of a self-imposed group that wants to try and make some meaning out of these credits.
Because a lot of times, what happens is people get kissed into these things. I was involved in this, I found the initial script, but then it fell apart here. I took it over here, nobody wants to work with this guy. Take an executive producer credit and get the hell out of here.
The producers, rightly, are saying, “Listen, you’re watering down these credits. Executive producer, for some people, means an enormous amount of work, and for others, it literally means nothing. At all.”
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes it means we let you take the rights from us, because we didn’t want to make the movie. It’s that crazy. And obviously, the Writers Guild spent a lot of time and effort and strikes and so forth, to make sure that we can protect what our credits mean. Producers don’t have that.
John: No. And it’s going to be very hard for them to ever organize to the degree that it’s going to be meaningful for them to try to step in and say that, because they have to convince the studios to agree to these credits, and that’s a challenge.
Craig: It is a challenge, because essentially, it’s an open market. And the studios love giving credits like that away instead of money, because it doesn’t cost anything. They don’t care.
That’s why you see these, sometimes, especially in independent films. You’ll see a thousand producers, because everybody’s been handed a credit in lieu of money. It’s not that great of a deal.
John: Yeah. Weirdly, I would say, coming from Broadway, where I’ve just been at these producer and investor things, that is very true in Broadway. Like, all those names you see above the title of a show on Broadway, those were people who were, like, investing money. They would be like the executive producers who are coming in with money on a feature, but they all get their names on there.
And I really don’t want our movies to get to that point. I hope it doesn’t happen.
Craig: Me too.
John: Yeah. Let’s quickly talk through the ranks in TV, because it’s different and really confusing. We’ll try to talk through it. I’ll also link to it. I found I had an old blog post from 2004, and it’s actually accurate. So, I’ll talk you through it now, but you may also want to look at the show notes.
The highest rank in TV, executive producer. Now, the executive producer, whoever is running the show, the show runner, is usually an executive producer — not 100 percent of the time, but usually that person is the executive producer.
There can be multiple executive producers. You could have three or four people listed as executive producer. But that’s the highest rank.
Below executive producer, co-EP, which is confusing, because, you’d think that co-EP means the same thing as executive producer. It doesn’t. It means co-EP, it’s just its own title.
Below that, supervising producer. Below that, producer. Below that, co-producer. Below that, story editor, below that, staff writer.
Now, in that TV ranking that I gave you right there, that’s sort of the writers’ version of it, because most of the producers you think about for TV are actual writers. They’re doing the writing on the show and they’re doing the creative supervision of the show.
There’ll be other people who get producer credits on a TV show who are doing those physical production functions. Kelly Manners is a famous line producer type person for TV who did Angel, who’s done a lot of the sci-fi action shows.
Those people have titles, too, and those could be associate producer, or an executive producer. They could have other titles like that, but because TV tends to be so writer-driven, most of what I’m talking about in TV is really the ranks that you ascend through as you become a more and more powerful writer.
Craig: And what are pods? Tell us about that.
John: PODs are producer overall deals. A POD deal is with, generally, a non-writing producer who oversees a show on behalf of a studio, usually a studio or a network. Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen had a POD at Warner Brothers. They would come in and develop ideas with writers and set them up at Warners and oversee the show as producers who are non-writing producers.
Generally, if you are, and I should specify… I have not been doing this TV writing for a few years now, so some stuff changes. Some stuff’s out of date. I rely on my TV writing brethren to correct me on stuff.
But if you are a writer who has a TV deal, your agents will often send you in to meet with a producer, one of those producers who has a POD deal, before sending you into the studio, the network, because they’re going to want to stick somebody on that show anyway. It’s better that you get matched up with somebody you agree with creatively.
John: Independent of this hierarchy on TV writers is also consulting producers. Josh Friedman, for example, is a consulting producer right now this season on Finder. That is generally a high level writer who is not on any specific show at the given time.
They don’t have their own series on this season, so they’re assigned to a show. They go on and they help out that show, they write episodes, they help write stories. They do a lot of great work on a show, but it’s not their show. It’s a way to keep those people in the fold and keep those people writing and keep better TV being made by applying them to a show that’s already going to be on the air.
Craig: That makes sense.
John: Yeah. Regardless of the actual titles you get, I find that there’s three basic roles that producers play. You may have amendments to this. But I find, no matter what the nature of the production is, somebody in the production has to play these roles. Sometimes you get them found in one person, sometimes they’re split up between three people.
But there’s the peacekeeper/diplomat. There’s one producer whose job is to make everybody feel better. That is the person who’s always going to be on the phone talking to the studio or the network, talking to the agents, talking to the actors, getting everything to feel good.
When the actors have a problem, especially if the actors have a problem with the director, there’s got to be one producer that the actor can go to to discuss the problem. That’s a crucial role.
Craig: Yes. Yes, for sure, producers, good producers are very parental. Movies are made by emotional artists. I don’t care what the movie is. I don’t care if it’s Ernest Goes to Camp. Everybody’s an emotional artist.
In order to be creative, you know, when people always say, “Oh, look at the imagination of a child. When did we lose that imagination?” Well, people who write and make and act and direct, theoretically, didn’t lose their childlike imagination or any of a number of hosts of childlike things that go along with that.
Sometimes, you just need a mommy or a daddy to help everybody play better, feel better about themselves, get over whatever drama or nonsense is going on at the time.
John: Yeah. Classically, this producer’s responsibility is to get the actor to actually come out of his or her trailer.
Craig: Yeah, sometimes, a producer has to undo a hissy fit. But, similarly, I think producers are the ones that sit down with directors and say, “Here’s the thing. The studio does not like the dailies, and we have to really think long and hard about what we’re doing here.”
The producer’s the one that sits down with the writer and says, “We just got notes back from the huge A-list actor, they don’t want to say these lines. So, we have to figure out how to get the dramatic intent across a different way.” The producer is the person in the middle of those problems.
John: Yeah. The second role that a producer often plays, or somebody on the production has to play, is the general, people that just sticks to the physical production, the, “This is how much it’s going to cost us to do this, this is today’s work, this is how much time we have left today.”
Your 1st AD is going to be doing a lot of that, getting the day’s work done. But in terms of getting the whole show done, or figuring out, “Okay, our script is taking place in these five countries, this is how we’re going to fake this country for that country, this is how we’re going to make our schedule work.”
It’s not just the AD’s job, it’s not just the line person’s job, it’s a semi-creative job and an ability to see how you’re actually going to get the movie made. Somebody on the production does that.
Some of the movie’s I’ve worked on, Bruce Cohen serves that function. I think it’s because he, in a previous life, was an AD, so he has a very good sense of, “Okay, this is how we’re going to get it done. These are the problems that are coming up. I’m going to deal with this crazy insurance situation and we’ll get the stuff handled.”
Craig: Yeah, and I would say, conversely, very good producers also understand that the essence of what we do is not to make a budget or make a schedule, but to make a movie. Sometimes, you’ve just got to break the rules and spend a little extra or go above or risk getting slapped on the wrist to get better work.
Somebody said to me the other day, and I thought it was very astute, there are two kinds of producers. There are anxiety buffers, and there are anxiety conductors. Good anxiety buffering producers will sort of see the pressure squeezing down on the director, usually, to get better work out of less time and money, and somehow, protect them from it and help the movie.
Because, in the end, the producer is that one person who needs to be able to play both sides of the field, business and creative. Whereas, the director, frankly, should be entirely concerned with creative and hey, if you want to give me 10 extra days and another 30 million bucks, yeah, of course.
Then there are the anxiety conductors, who get squeezed by the studio, amplify it, and then squeeze everybody else around them. That does not do anybody any good.
John: Yeah. I would say, related to the anxiety people are sort of dual functions I’ll call the bulldozer and the bodyguard. Sometimes you’re doing one or you’re doing the other one.
Dick Zanuck, to me, is classically a bodyguard. Dick Zanuck is a producer with tremendous credits who I’ve worked with on many movies. But I feel like a lot of his job is to serve as a bodyguard.
To say, like, anything that’s coming in Tim Burton’s direction, he will throw himself in front of and catch the bullet, so that Tim can focus on the work he needs to do and that Dick will take the hit and will figure out, like, what to do with this studio note, or just to keep people away from Tim. That’s a crucial function.
Likewise, sometimes you need a bulldozer. The bulldozer’s that person who has no shame and has no off switch. You can say, “Hey look, Paul, Paul. You see this ball in my hand? I need you to get this ball.” You throw the ball as hard as you can and he will knock down every building in the way to get it.
You need that person who’s delighted to break rules and to piss people off, because that’s, a lot of times, what you need. It’s the person who will risk getting the whole production stopped by the police, or will make those really awkward phone calls, because he doesn’t have filtering mechanism to stop him from doing that.
In the era of drugs, the bulldozer function was probably a lot easier. Anyone can be a bulldozer with the right narcotics.
Craig: I mean, they were all slamming into each other. You know, Hollywood is full of the legends of angry yelling producers who are screaming on the phone and throwing ashtrays at assistant’s heads and many of those stories are true.
It is an enormously difficult thing to make a movie. Enormously difficult. It is a business that must be built from scratch, ground up, tuned up to perfection, create this thing that absolutely works, and then be dismantled.
It has to be done on the fly, while you’re going, while temperamental people all around you are asking for something that’s intangible, namely, quality, and also, disagreeing on what that quality is. Everybody knows what it means to create a thousand widgets a day. It’s a number. We don’t have that.
It’s an enormously difficult task for anybody. Yeah, naturally, the people that often succeed are very loud and very dramatic and obstinate, but there are also producers who are known for quietly, magically, getting their way.
Frankly, depending on what the movie, depending on the director, different producers are better in different situations. As writers, typically, we don’t get to pick. And that’s where we can sometimes end up in trouble.
John: Indeed. The other function which I’d never really considered, breaking off here but I think it’s absolutely a good fourth role, is that sort of creative chaperone That’s the function that I think Judd Apatow ends up playing on some of the movies he doesn’t direct, which is that he is the guy that says, like, “Oh, let’s try this, let’s try this, let’s try this.”
It’s the person who reminds you, “Oh, this is what the movie’s supposed to feel like.” That’s the person who is helping out while you’re shooting. It’s the person who is taking a big role in editorial to get to the story, working the way it should, hopefully, early on in the process, was really working with you on the script to get stuff to feel the right way.
That was the function I played at the start in Prince of Persia, it’s the function I played in Go. Now, obviously, I was there during all the shooting, but also, in the editing room, it’s finessing stuff to make it feel like the right thing and reminding people what movie it is you’re trying to make.
Craig: Yeah, I wrote a draft for an animated film production now called Turkeys, and that’s what I’m doing now. I’m serving in that producorial role to help keep things going. We have another writer who’s working. The director and I read his work and we take notes and suggest and all the rest of it.
Interestingly, for most writers, that is the bulk of our experience with producers. Producers, even if you’re selling your own original work, typically, when you go to each studio, you have a producer, quote unquote, “bring it in.” You’re picking a producer to already assign to this project,
If it gets bought, that person will help you develop the material. If it’s an assignment, there’s always a producer already attached. That producer will be the one that’s primarily working with you to develop the draft.
John: Yeah. Now something listeners may not be aware of is that sometimes a studio will develop a movie with producers who were involved with the project originally, but the studio does not feel that they can actually deliver the movie. The producer will go out and put another producer on a film. That happens because the studio has a track record working with a certain producer and believes that he or she can actually develop something.
Sometimes you’ll hear something like, “Oh, he got put on a movie.” That’s because this is a person they had a relationship with, and they really felt more comfortable making the movie knowing that this person was going to be on the film for them. That person is truly a producer. It’s not a studio executive, but it’s somebody who got brought in to help on something.
Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen were brought in on Milk, which was a movie that the studio wanted to make but they didn’t have people they felt could deliver the movie for Gus Van Sant. They came in to do it.
Craig: Yeah, and this is where as a director I always felt like the best situation would be to have the bodyguard kind of producer because if you get the studio’s producer, you just have to be aware of where they land in the big game of things. This is the tricky part. Who do you work for? In the end, we all work for the people that sign our checks. But the writer and the director also work for this other thing called the movie, which we hope is good.
You want very much to make sure that your producer is working for the movie. Unfortunately, there are times when that’s not the case. I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m working with producers right now that I think are terrific and absolutely are in line with supporting the movie. When I work with Todd, he’s the producer along with Dan Goldberg. The filmmaker is the producer, and this is no problem at all.
John: A while back I had an interesting run-in. I was visiting a set, and I was talking with one of the producers in Video Village. I asked him, “Oh, hey, is Universal taking this movie all by themselves or are they splitting it with somebody else?” because this being a pretty expensive movie. He’s like, “Oh, I don’t know.” He asked somebody else. I was like, “You are a producer on this movie, are you not?” He had no idea.
Craig: Yeah, that’s not cool. [laughs]
John: No, I feel like if you’re going to get a producer credit, you should understand who’s releasing your movie, like those basic fundamental business things. I don’t care what role you play on the movie. If you have a producer title, you should know that.
Craig: Well, the job has changed. Here’s the basic evolution of the feature film producer: It used to be that they ruled the world. I mean every studio had multiple producer deals. These producers were very well compensated. Studios made a ton of movies, and they desperately relied on these producers to provide them with that material — to find it, grow it, and provide it to them. That’s changed.
Studios have become far more adversarial with these producers because they feel like a lot of their deals are far too rich for what they get. There are fewer producers because they make fewer movies. The recent strike, for instance, was a chance for them to force majeure out. A ton of their producing deals they just didn’t feel were worth their time or their money.
They tend to look at producers more and more like employees of the studios opposed to independent operators. They tend to look at producers more and more as agents of budget squeezing and schedule enforcement as opposed to creative partners with the filmmakers. Some studios just don’t seem to like producers at all. They think they’re the producers.
All of this adds up. Unfortunately, for writers it adds up to a very unstable environment. A lot of times you can’t quite tell who it is you’re working for. You can’t quite tell who’s in charge. Everybody’s competing internally. It becomes particularly difficult when the producer and the studio are not working together creatively because you just start getting pulled in two different directions.
For me, personally since I began, I’ve always had a simple rule. I don’t mind notes, but I like one set of notes. I don’t want producer notes, then studio notes, then producer notes, then studio notes. It’s a way to basically ruin your movie in three months.
John: Yeah. Really the problem comes even before it gets to the notes stage because if you’re going in for a job… Let’s say a producer bought a book at a studio. That producer is meeting with you to talk about, “Oh, how are you going to adapt this book?” You end up having meetings with this producer to say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to focus on, and we’re doing this.”
You end up spending a lot of time working with that producer to figure out how you’re going to do it. Hopefully, you’re the only writer who is going in to talk on that thing, but maybe there’s other writers, too. Then you’re going in to talk to the studio to pitch your take on this project. The studio may say yes or may say no. Or the studio may have completely different instincts than the producer did.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
John: Whose instincts are you supposed to follow? The producer ultimately just wants to get the movie made, so the producer is really looking for, “Well, what does the studio want? I’m going to somehow magically read their minds, or I’ll just call them on the phone and try to get them to say what they want.”
It’s just functioning as an extra step before you’re getting in to talk to the people who are actually going to make the decisions. The producer’s not making any decisions at all. The producer’s just basically saying, “I will bring in people, and hopefully you will like somebody.”
Craig: Yeah, it’s very important to understand the economics of producing movies to understand the decisions that are made. Writers are paid for the work that they do. It doesn’t matter if the movie gets made or not, to the great chagrin of the producers. “You want me to write a script? Pay me. I’m paid. I’ll write a script.” You decide if you’re going to make it or not or if you want me to do another draft or want another writer to do a draft.
Producers are paid almost nothing until the movie gets made. This is why producing is becoming incredibly difficult. They just don’t make that many movies anymore. The opportunity to get paid has shrunk down dramatically. The stress level therefore for producers, when they’re developing material, has skyrocketed. They are desperate to get these movies made so that they can support themselves and their families. I get that.
In that desperation bad producers tend to make bad decisions. Good producers frankly tend to make good decisions because they understand that the way to get a movie made is to stop caring about getting the movie made and start caring about making a good movie. [laughs] Those are two different things.
But if you have one of those producers that is just hell-bent on getting it through the system, just put it out there, just dump it out there so I can get paid, you end up in a bad place because sooner or later everybody starts to realize that this particular space shuttle is losing heat tiles. This thing was glued together. It wasn’t [laughs] really built right. Then you perish in a ball of fire.
John: Yeah. Along with desperate to get this one particular movie made and make whatever compromises have to be made to get this one movie made, the producer, seeing that there are fewer movies getting made, is incentivized to step up to the plate as many times as possible. The producer has many more irons in the fire and is trying to strike them all just to make one of them actually work.
The amount of time that he or she is able to spend on one given movie is lessened. The amount of time and energy that person has to devote to getting that next step of the movie happening can be diminished as well. My frustrations with movies that haven’t gotten made or have gotten made poorly, sometimes I can pin it on the studio. But a lot of times I really can pin it back on producers not doing their job. I feel like they need to be doing their job.
Producers theoretically should have the ability to take a project out of a studio, too. If a producer came into a studio with the rights to something, to a book or to a remake of something, the studio is optioning those rights for a time. The producer may own some things. The studio may own some things. But that project should be able to travel outside of that studio if it becomes clear that this studio is not going to make this movie.
Unfortunately, producers have fifteen deals on other projects with that studio. They’re loathe to anger the studio by trying to execute turnaround, which they should have — turnaround being the process by which they can reacquire something — to take that project and travel with it to someplace that may actually make that movie.
Craig: Yeah, it’s really difficult for them. I mean look. Put yourself in a producer’s shoes. Let’s say you’ve worked on developing a script for three years. The writer’s been paid. You haven’t. But finally the studio is willing to make the movie. It’s just that they won’t make it unless you do A, B, and C to the movie, and A, B, and C are terrible ideas. What do you do?
You just pack it up? You go home? Or do you compromise? Do you sell out? Do you try and broker some sort of better idea? It becomes a very difficult thing for producers and becomes a difficult thing for everybody involved.
Frankly, they don’t even have the security anymore that they used to have of just what they call the housekeeping deal. Many of them don’t even get their offices and assistants paid for. It is a high-wire act to be a producer. I’m not one of those writers that vilifies producers. Good producers are fantastic — fantastic, and absolutely necessary. The way the business is structured now, I just don’t know why anybody would want to become a producer.
John: I don’t either. I see feature writers who segue into producing. I don’t get it because the only movie I was a producer on that I didn’t write was Prince of Persia. I found the process maddening because here’s what it is: It’s like I’m sitting with Jordan, and we’re working through drafts, it was like, “Okay, here are the controls of the airplane. Now you’re not allowed to touch the controls, but you need to tell Jordan how to fly the plane.”
Craig: [laughs] Right.
John: It’s like, “Oh, just give me the controls. Let me fly the plane.” Jordan was awesome. I love Jordan. I can’t even imagine what that process would be working with a writer who you didn’t respect and like going into it. It ends up being a tremendous amount of time. You end up using the same parts of your brain that you would use to do real writing. It’s just that you’re not allowed to actually touch the paper.
Craig: I totally agree. Writers fall into this trap all the time. Every single one of them always comes back and says, “This was a huge mistake.” We like the idea of being producers because producers have typically represented power to us. We think we’ll be a producer now. We’re that guy. We have the shingle and the sign and the people working for us in the hallway at a studio and look at us and hooray.
Then you realize this is not great. You’re exactly right. I got into the business to write screenplays, not to tell other people how to write their screenplays. In fact, I would argue that writers are terrible producers because we’re writing it in our heads. We don’t have what a good producer has. They can’t write. If they could write, they probably would write.
What they can do is be a really good reader and a really good shoulder to cry on and support us and help us get where we need to go. They’re not sitting there trying to get us to write the script in their head because that’s what I do. [laughs] I’m talking to other writers.
Producing for writers to me, it’s just my opinion, is a trap. I don’t think it’s even helping the writers. I think the best thing would be for studios to be more encouraging of good producers. But unfortunately it seems like the trend is going the other way.
John: Yup. Alas.
John: Alas. Well, Craig, thank you for this discussion of producers.
Craig: Thank you.
John: I look forward to calling all my producers awkwardly after this podcast runs so they think like, “Oh, you weren’t talking about me.” I’m like, “No, no, no. That’s…”
Craig: [laughs] “No, no, no. You’re one of the good ones.”
John: “You’re one of the good ones, yeah.”
John: If I didn’t single you out by name, I lumped you with the good ones.
Craig: [laughs] I’ve actually been pretty lucky. I haven’t worked for…
John: I’ve worked for some terrible producers.
John: I have enough credits and stuff that’s not made that I can just generically say that I’ve worked for some just terrible producers. Terrible producers. Some who were far too meticulous and, “Turn a page. Fifteen notes on this page. Turn a page.” “Oh, my God. Just make the movie.” Others who you can’t get them to lift up the phone and call somebody.
Craig: Yeah, I’ve been lucky, I have to say. Maybe it’s just that I steer clear when I smell trouble but…
John: But you’ve worked for some amazing executives.
Craig: Aha, well. [laughs]
John: Maybe that makes up the whole difference for it.
Craig: Yes, it does.
John: It does. All right. Thank you, Craig. Talk to you soon.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right. Bye.