Most people know what a filmmaker does – they make movies, right? And a film producer has the most thankless job of all: he or she builds the movies from the ground up. The film producer’s job goes like this:
– get a screenplay
– get a director and cast
– get the money
– make the movie
– market and sell it
– move on to the next project
10 Things Producers Must Know About Story
1. Verbal Pitches
The art of pitching is essentially a producer skill that should be honed and sharpened. Verbal pitches are a great way to browse ideas. Learn to identify potential story problems at pitch stage and see whether or not they can be solved. Often story problems can be resolved simply by re-pitching the story using the ‘what if?’ approach.
2. Predictable and generic story ideas
According to western thought, there are only 7 basic storylines:
[wo]man vs. nature
[wo]man vs. [wo]man
[wo]man vs. the environment
[wo]man vs. machines/technology
[wo]man vs. the supernatural
[wo]man vs. self
[wo]man vs. god/religion
All stories have elements of predictable and generic ideas. Your job as a producer is to identify these elements, and then be able to demonstrate or inspire your screenwriter to surmount these ideas and take these generic ideas to a place that hasn’t been seen before.
3. High concept vs. low concept
Low concept films deal primarily with relationships. High concept films do as well, except most film producers get so swept off their feet by the logline of the high concept that they forget that the high concept can deliver just a handful of scenes. It is the producer’s job to work with the writer and extend the story beyond the promise delivered by the high concept, and turn it from a set-piece into a story. A good tool to use for this is to focus on the main opponent and the moral tale within the story.
4. Understanding the rewriting process
It is completely understandable that the second draft of a script is worse than the first for the simple reason that the writer’s awareness of the story are ahead of the actual words he or she is able to put onto paper. A skilful producer will learn to nurture a writer through this painful step and also be able to offer sound advice.
5. Being seduced by dialogue
No one can fix a script by rewriting dialogue. Dialogue is the glitter on the surface of a story. Delve deep into the story and assess the storyline weaknesses and focus on reforming these essential elements before moving on to a dialogue rewrite.
6. Understanding character
The common flaw of unsuccessful scripts is that the main character does not have a clearly defined goal – a goal that can be measured. There must be a point in time when we, the audience, can see if the main character has achieved or failed to achieve their goal. Well drawn characters also need to have morals – and these need not be the morals accepted by western civilisation.
7. Understanding genre
Most, if not all, films sold in America and Britain are combinations of two or more of the basic genres. Romantic/comedy and action/adventure are two of the most popular genre blends. Edgar Wright, my first intern, made Shaun of the Dead work by combining Horror and Comedy with a sprinkling of Love.
Writers have it easy – they need to specialise in two or three genres. But producers need to specialise in all eleven of the basic genre forms because their next project could come in any of the genre combinations.
8. Understanding universal appeal
A comedy with local humour will never travel. But a comedy based on institutions or cultural systems can become huge international hits.
9. Surmounting genre and genre blends
Learning the different genres and genre blends doesn’t make you a good film producer (or a good screenwriter). It simply means that you have joined a cast of hundreds of thousands of sophisticated storytellers with clichéd patterns. The writer’s and producer’s job is to take these generic story forms and twist and bend them into a shape that no one has seen before.
10. Understanding story structure
Story structure is the most unhelpful phrase created in the lingo of screenwriters and film producers. It implies some sort of measure or sliderule that will make your story work.
I prefer to talk about the patterns of your story. Producers and filmmakers should study the story patterns readily seen in commercially successful films and learn how these patterns can be replicated. A producer and writer working together on this can be an awesome and inspiring team to see. Remember that a producer doesn’t write. Writing is the writer’s job. But seeing the bigger picture, and understanding how genre ‘rules’ can be broken is the producer’s job.
There is no denying that mastering these ten steps is a demanding process that requires intense concentration and hard work. There are no short cuts either: you either master these points or you don’t. The upside is that, if you do master these ten points you will be an unstoppable force in the film industry at a time when everyone is crying how difficult it is.
In the following film production checklist, I broke the film making process into 65 steps. Obviously some steps will be more challenging than other steps. But like I said, if you take time to study this film production checklist, you might get a tip or two that can potentially make your life easier.
Here we go. . .
1. Before you get started, make sure you read and study everything you can about the filmmaking process. A good place to start is obviously the Filmmaking Stuff website.
2. A screenplay is the blueprint to your movie. Write or acquire a screenplay you want to produce. Make it something exciting!
3. Complete an initial script breakdown. From there, schedule and budget the project. How much does it cost?
Note: If you’re unsure how to break down and schedule a movie, Peter Marshall has an awesome Movie Script Breakdown course. Also, some invaluable production management software can be found at Light Speed Eps.
4. Write a business plan that details how your movie will be made, marketed and sold – and how much this will cost you.
5. Talk with a lawyer and other producers to figure out your best money strategy. Will you utilize equity funding, crowd funding and tax incentives to fund your movie? A little bit of everything?
6. Following laws and regulations, go after the money. This will require strategy, persistence, honesty and enthusiasm.
7. Finding, meeting and closing prospective investors on the merits of your movie will be one of the tougher parts of the process. Every “no” gets you closer to “yes.”
8. Most people will want to know how the money is going to be spent, what they can expect in return and how will you eventually get their money back. Filmmaking is a risky business, full of unknowns and you should ALWAYS disclose this.
9. Have a plan for the movie when it is complete. Will you take the festival route? Will you market it to colleges and universities? Will you send it directly to sales agents and acquisition pros?
Note: While it’s great to imagine that a movie distributor will hand you a million dollar check, this rarely happens. In fact, most movies end up in popular marketplaces like Amazon and i Tunes, and others. You must plan for this.
10. After following these steps, you have been networking with prospective investors. The question is, were you able to get the money? If not, here are some (but not all) of your options.
A. Choose a new movie project.
B. Alter the screenplay to cut costs.
11. Get more favors and freebies. Seriously, write out a list of everything you can get for free, or at a discount. This includes props, wardrobe, locations, transportation and craft services!
12. Assuming you did get the money, pick a date for production. (And if you don’t get the money, go back and repeat step one.)
13. Hire a lawyer to help you with contracts and releases. If you’re short on cash, do a web search for lawyers for the arts in your area. These folks will usually help with minor legal stuff.
14. Before you have the money, many people will work for little to no money. Expect a lot of “nos” before you find the people who can help you.
15. You can make your life easier if you work with people who have production experience. If you are in a small market, reach out to people who spend their days producing corporate video.
16. Finalize your script. Get it to a point where you are no longer going to keep changing things. This is a locked script.
17. Number your scenes. Then once again, break down your script. This involves grabbing each element, location and character. From this information, create a final schedule.
18. From your schedule and breakdown, create a final budget. You probably know how much money you have to work with. If you find you don’t have enough you have two choices:
A. Get More Money!
B. Modify the script and schedule.
19. Get your crew. Work with a seasoned Physical Producer AKA Line Producer AKA Unit Production Manager to help you get organized. These pros will look at your schedule and tweak it.
20. Additionally, if you’re going to direct and product, having these pros around to help out will open the door to relationships with 1st Ads and crew. These folks will help you hire the right people. They will know a good payroll company. And many know a thing or two about tax credits in your state.
21. I know. Money is tight. So if you cannot hire a location scout, you may have to scout and procure locations yourself. This means you will knock on doors, introduce yourself, your project and your goals. The goal here is to appear reasonable and sane.
22. What can go wrong with a location probably will. So you will want to have a 2nd and 3rd location added to the mix. This way, should something happen, you will have a fall-back plan.
23. Assuming you’re directing your own movie, you will want to find a director of photography who shares your sensibilities and has equal enthusiasm for the project.
24. Your DP will help you find an aesthetic for your movie. Given your cost constraints, you will most likely shoot in HD.
25. Marketing: Create a website specific to your movie. Make sure you have a way to get site visitors on your mailing list.
26. Later as you get into production, you will be able to add a movie trailer. (The goal: increase your mailing list subscribers and create a website you can later modify into a sales funnel.)
27. If you’ve raised money, you can hire talented actors interested in your project. But in the event your budget is tight, try to cast people with large social media followings.
28. Once you have all of your actors, you will want to find a location for a table read. Go through the script. If you wrote it, now is a time to take some notes for a final tweak.
Note: Anything you change in the script also changes the budget and the schedule. Seriously.
29. DO NOT skimp on food. You will want someone in charge of Craft Services. They should be good at going out and getting deals on food and catering. If you can not find anyone to do this for you, you’ll have to do it yourself. Allow me to repeat. . .
30. Make sure you have adequate food. If you are doing a union shoot, there are guidelines and rules you must follow. If you are doing a non-union indie, then some advice is: GET QUALITY!
31. Do you have all of your permits, releases and agreements? Do you have production insurance? There are so many different types of insurance, it will make your head spin. Make sure you talk with some experienced insurance professionals to make sure you have adequate insurance for your movie!
32. Meet with your Camera Department and find out how much memory you’ll need (assuming you’re shooting in HD). If you’re shooting film, which might be costly for your first feature – you will want to have an idea of these needs too.
33. Try to take as many naps as you can. This is a fun, but stressful time. So sleep. Eat. And take time to exercise.
34. Once you have all the above stuff checked off the list, you will want to meet with your department heads and make sure everyone’s needs are met. Assuming you’ve maintained limited locations, with a limited cast and crew, you will probably still be baffled by the amount of questions that come flying at you.
35. Seriously, you would think you’re making a gazillion dollar movie. But this is indication people care about their work. They care about the movie. And they want to make it a success!
36. This goes without saying, but don’t be a jerk. Seriously, never forget you are making a movie. Enjoy the experience.
37. Did I mention you need plenty of sleep? I am serious here. Making a movie is going to demand a TON of energy. You need to keep up with the physical and mental demands.
38. Commence production. Defer to your 1st AD and Line Producer to keep everything running on time and under budget. Keep your cool and always remember to have fun!
39. During production, try to constantly get press to profile your movie. It would be great to create buzz, get people to your website and get them to opt into your newsletter mailing list.
40. After the WRAP, have a wrap party. Don’t sleep with your cast and crew, get overly drunk or make a fool of yourself! You are a professional. Act like one.
41. After you recover from your hangover (I just warned you), you will probably start editing the movie. I suggest sharing the edit suite with another set of eyes. And do be nice to your editor. Those professionals can offer valuable feedback. Listen to it!
42. Your first cut will be rough. Screen it with a group of people who have never seen the movie. Get feedback.
43. Take the feedback and refine your edit. After that, take a week off – Do not look at the movie or mess around with it. This way, when you come back to the suite, refine and refine again.
44. Have another small screening with people who have not seen the movie. Take notes. Take those notes back to your edit suite.
45. Add some sound FX to your movie. Clean up actor dialogue and rough areas. Sound is more important than visual.
46. Screen the movie again. This time, have the screening with a new, small set of people. Take notes. Go back and refine.
47. When you have a cut you’re happy with, then you can begin to plan your next strategy. Find out how to sell your movie.
48. There are opportunities for traditional distribution. With some qualified professionals, analyze each deal. Find out if the deal will fit your business objectives. If not, PASS.
49. What if there are no traditional deals? If you planned accordingly, you will have a strong mailing list, a marketable hook and a plan for reaching your target audience.
50. When you are ready to start selling, refine your website into a sales funnel. Upload your movie to one of the many popular VOD platforms. Refine your movie poster and artwork to fit.
51. Upload your trailer to You Tube and all the other video sites on the Internet. I prefer to stream from You Tube because I don’t have to pay for streaming and I can monitor viewer comments.
52. Write press releases related to the release of your movie. Have a blog component that details your movie and allows other people to comment.
53. Play around with your key words and SEO (Search Engine Optimization). If those terms are new to you, find someone in your network who understands the importance of the web.
54. Marketing is all about telling memorable stories and getting into the conversations. Adding your thoughts on website forums is one way to get the word out about your movie. But if you totally disregard the conversation – that’s bad form.
55. Create both a Face book and Twitter handle for your movie. The purpose of this page is to lead people back to your site.
56. Have adequate social share buttons on your website so people can easily tell their friends about your movie.
57. If you have the budget, purchase some off-line advertising in publications related to your movie. (This assumes you’ve taken time to define your target audience and ways to reach them!)
58. Wait. . . You don’t have a website yet? Stop what you’re doing and head to Blue host
and grab a domain name and website hosting for your movie website.
59. All of these methods are intended to get people back to your website. The purpose of your site is to get people to watch your movie trailer and click the BUY NOW button. Anything that distracts these visitors must go! Install Google Analytics.
60. If your website visitors fail BUY NOW, then at least try to get them to opt into your mailing list. Do you need a mailing list?
61. Out of all the people who click the BUY NOW button, some will actually buy. If you have access to the contact information, reach out and personally thank your customer.
62. Assuming you are generating revenue, consider using that money to purchase more advertising and repeat the process. In internet marketing, they call this scaling a business. The name of the game is: “Conversion Rates.” Read this marketing article.
63. Sooner or later, you will figure out how to jump-start your next project. And you will realize that making movies and making money making movies is possible.
64. The thing to remember is long term perspective. On average it takes seven meetings to make a relationship! Most people quit long before they get to meeting number seven. Not you!
65. As a final thought, I would ask you to consider the following questions: Given the resources that you have right now, what is the movie that you will make this year?
I hope you enjoyed this brief film production checklist.