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Alt Script: How to Pick the Right Independent Producer

Working with independent film producers, has taught me that one of the most complicated decisions a screenwriter will ever make, is choosing which indie (alt-cinema) producer to collaborate with. And, just to make it clear, in the world of independent film-making the word “collaborate” is code for: we’d like you to work without payment, in return for the vague promise of future earnings or career benefits.

For a lot of writers the opportunity to work with a producer, any producer, to actually have a script in development, may sound like a dream come true. The problems is, this overwhelming desire to find a producer who believes in you as a writer can blind you to potential issues. Writers often perceive the opportunity of working with a producer, any producer, as a milestone career breakthrough, and because of this they can be extremely vulnerable to exploitation. The sad truth is, there are “producers” out there willing to cynically exploit a fresh, new writer’s ambitions. There are also other “producers,” whose enthusiasm to play at being a movie producer outweighs either their abilities or their knowledge of the industry. And some, are just plain wacko, mad-as-a-box-of-frogs, time wasting, dingbats.

 Creative Producing Summit Sundance Institute

Creative Producing Summit Sundance Institute

The other thing worth knowing, is that a writer can be asked to collaborate on anything from a no-budget DSLR movie, right up to a movie with a projected production budget of $1.5M. Lack of development money isn’t just a problem for the bloke down the road with the cheap camera and some homemade lights. Bigger, more established producers also suffer from it. My guess is that 95% of UK, non-broadcast, productions fall into this range. So, any meeting you do where someone is still offering to pay for an option is unusual. Being asked to collaborate is rapidly becoming the norm. Which seems like good news for producers, but not so good for writers. Especially writers trying to get their first break.

It’s not all bad news, mind you, there can be real and genuine benefits in collaborating with these kinds of producers, even if it is just to get a short film into production. Especially if that short can get itself into a festival that lists its films online. The main advantages are: the writer gets to see how their script works (or not) when it is transformed from script to screen. This is always a humbling experience. Production, without doubt, is the best kind of feedback a writer can get. Another benefit gained from having something, almost anything in production, is that when a film makes it into a film festival, even a short film, it can give a writer their first IMDb credit, and that IMDb credit is what you need to get accreditation to professional film festivals like Cannes. Industry events like this are important, because that’s where you get to network with a better class of independent producer.

Set Goals

What should be clear from this, is that when considering a collaboration, a writer’s starting place should be what you expect to get from the experience. A writer can’t just assume the producer will have a plan to get your film out there, or to get your work credited. If that’s what you need from the project, then that has to be made an explicit part of the deal. “I will write this script for you, if you can guarantee you’ll put the film into festivals and will get me my first confirmed credit.” That way the producer knows what you’re expecting in return for your work, right from the outset. In fact, I think one of the best things a writer can do is to make a list of the things they expect to gain from any collaboration. Make an honest list, because understanding what you need from a collaboration will help you decide what kind of projects to take on and what kind of producer to work with.

Here’s a potential list of things a writer may want from a collaboration:

  • An IMDb writer’s credit (which means the script MUST be produced, and then at the very least, entered/listed in a festival that IMDb can check for validity)
  • To see a film into production (not to be confused with wanting to see a film into production, because once people see your first film, the industry will fall at your feet, and from that day onward everything will be toast and jam).
  • The opportunity to experience the development and production processes
  • To be paid
  • To build your profile in a particular sector of the industry
  • To see a pet project made and put in front of an audience

Maybe you only want one of the things on this list. So, for instance, your only goal may be to get paid for writing. If that’s the case, the kind of producer you’ll be looking for will be different from the kind you’d seek out to make a film for the festival circuit. To get paid, you’re going to need to look for a more established producer, or a producer with a first time investor, who is prepared to pay for development.

However, to get to that point, a writer has to decide who to work with. So, let’s look at how a writer can decide whether a producer is right for them or right for a particular project. I want to do this because I genuinely believe in the opportunities for writers a good collaboration can bring. I want to encourage writers to seek out producers to work with, but without making the mistake of settling for the first dim-wit, free-loader, or PINO (Producer in Name Only) who wants a free option on your script.

What I am suggesting, in all seriousness, is that writers who are prepared to collaborate on projects without development finance, should be auditioning producers. That they should actively chose who they want to work with, rather than seeing themselves as the person to be chosen. That just because someone says, “I’d like to produce your script” you shouldn’t necessarily say yes.

The first thing I want to make clear, is that providing a wage isn’t your primary concern, there is absolutely no reason why a writer should automatically rule out working with an unknown producer. After all, we all have to start somewhere, and in the same way it takes a writer a few goes (about ten) to learn how to write a decent feature script, it takes a good producer at least a couple of projects to figure out how the business works, and how to build credibility with distributors and investors. So, this article is not about slamming first-time producers. However, with that said, pretty much the first question a writer needs to ask anyone who says, “I’m an independent producer and I’m interested in your script” is, “What have you done so far?” You just have to be open to the idea that “Just a couple of short films,” isn’t necessarily a bad answer, if the short films are good ones.

Sizing Up an Independent Producer

When you’re sizing up a new producer, writers often start by checking the producer’s credits on IMDb. That’s a pretty sensible starting point. However, it’s not definitive. I know producers with extensive feature credits on IMDb, who are about as toxic as it is possible to get in this industry. There are some very shoddy dingbats out there. The trick is to learn how to avoid the bad ones, so you only put your time and effort into the good ones.

When you’re looking at a producer’s IMDb listing, there are a couple of things to look out for, which may give you clues as to the kind of beast you’re dealing with. The first thing worth looking at is fairly obvious:

Does this producer make the kind of films you’re interested in making?

The type of movies a producer has put their name to can tell you a lot about them. It may sound obvious, but it makes sense for me to look for a producer who is interested in making the kind of movies I want to write. If I’m writing a Rom-Com, a producer who specialises in gangster movies isn’t likely to be a good fit. It really pays to deal with producers who have a track record for making the kind of project you’re pitching. If nothing else, producers appreciate approaches from writers who know what their slate consists of. Nothing is more likely to piss off a prospective producer, than pitching a Rom-Com to a guy who specialises in Kung-Fu movies, and visa versa.

On top of looking for a good match, there are other indicators to look out for in a producer’s IMDb listing. For instance, if you find a producer who keeps switching genres: a drama you’ve never heard of, followed by a horror you’ve never heard of, followed by a gangster movie you’ve never heard of, followed by a Rom Com, this may just be a producer who is searching for the sector in which they can do decent business. This constant switching of genres may just be due to a series of poor production choices. On the other hand, this pattern of genre shifting can also be a red flag, a danger sign, a warning. This kind of genre shifting may, in fact, point to something more insidious. It may be telling you this is an opportunist producer. The kind of producer who will take on any project, regardless of its commercial potential, providing it has production finance. Producers take a percentage of the production budget as their fee, so there are producers out there who don’t look any further than the money they can earn from the next set of investors. Either way, if a producer is switching genres with every movie, it makes sense to ask to see everything they’ve made, before you commit to working with them. Nothing gives you a better indication of whether a producer is worth working with, than watching what they’ve done in the past.

A simple rule of thumb is: if their previous work is shoddy, if you wouldn’t be proud to have your name attached to it, then walk away and find someone better. Whatever you do, NEVER collaborate with a producer who blames their poor back catalogue on the writers of those projects. The most dangerous kind of dingbat, is a producer who casts you and your script as their saviour, whilst blaming every writer they’ve previously worked with for their piss poor slate. The reason any writer should run from a producer who blames previous writers for their poor output, is because what they are really telling you, is that they have zero capacity to tell a good script from a bad one, and that they have absolutely no script development skills. Even if they can get your script into production, they will be doing you and your career a disservice, if they put something out there that needed more development.

Given the choice, I would pretty much always chose an unknown producer with one half-decent short film, one who shows real potential, over a producer with a dozen or so credits on dreadful movies. Unless, of course, your ambition is to make dreadful movies. And, if you do decide to work with that kind of producer, do it because there is definitely an up-front wage for the work. If a producer has a dozen credits for feature films and is still asking writers to “collaborate” on projects, you need to consider carefully why the producer still can’t afford to option your script and is also unwilling to include a reasonable writer’s fee in the production budget. I’m automatically suspicious of any producer who wants a writer to wait for payment until the film goes into profit, especially if they are taking their producer’s fee out of the production budget.

What to Look For

Ideally, what I look for, is a producer whose body of work inspires me. These days, I won’t work with a producer just because they can get a bad script into production. Getting a bad script into production isn’t satisfying, life affirming and isn’t good for anyone’s career. The only time it’s worth working with that kind of producer, is if they are prepared to pay for your work up front, and that kind of producer NEVER, EVER, wants to pay writers up front. In fact, a lot of those kinds of producers have no intention of paying anyone, under any circumstances.

The second useful indicator, to gauge whether a producer is worth working with, is to look at each of their projects on IMDb and check to see who, if anyone, got the script editor credit on their projects.

One of the best signs of an intelligent indie producer, is a consistent script editor credit. Especially if that credit is given to someone who has good quality, industry credentials. A producer who always hires in a great script editor is telling you two things about themselves: they really want the script to be good before it goes into production, and, they don’t believe that their opinion is the WORD OF GOD. This last one is important, because one of the best definitions of a bad indie producer is: a frustrated writer wannabe who believes that they’re qualified to give notes, without any evidence to support their belief. Producers like that, turn the development and production process into their own personal ego trip.

I’d like to tell you that this is rare, but it’s much more common than you’d expect. Once you start looking at independent producer’s credits, you’ll be amazed and appalled at how few take script development seriously. The ones who do, are the ones to collaborate with.

As it happens, this is one of the reasons that sometimes it’s better to chose a less experienced producer, one who has made a couple of really nice short films, to work with you on your Alt-cinema project. A newbie producer is less likely to want to run their ego-trip on your project. However, it’s only a better choice, providing one of the conditions of that collaboration is that development money is put into hiring a professional script-editor, someone to mentor the team through the development process. If everyone concerned is prepared to take professional notes, everyone wins.

These days, what I look for in a producer is a degree of humility when it comes to script development. I want someone who has good instincts, who really understands what their distributor’s needs are, who understands what their investors will finance, but who is prepared to back-up their instincts with either an exceptional body of work, or who is open to having their opinions tested by the hiring of a good script consultant. That, for my money, is a good producer.

If consistently hiring good script editors is the sign of a good producer, then conversely a producer whose projects don’t have a script editor credit, should be a red-flag to any writer. If you combine: no script editor, with a lot of genre shifting and a poor body of work, it doesn’t take a genius to understand you’re looking at a producer to avoid, at all costs.

Seek and You Can Find

What are the positives to be taken from all of this? Well, the first is the fact that there are a lot of producers out there who may not have development funds, but who are interested in the kind of movies you want to make. There are people out there who want to make no-budget festival films; folks out there who live and breathe horror; people who specialise in Rom-Coms. Basically, there are a lot of producers out there, and most of them are looking for a half-decent script; a script which will push their career to the next level. The other positive is that it is possible to make sensible choices, when it comes to deciding who to collaborate with.

In my opinion, a smart writer will always chose to work with:

  • A producer who works consistently in one sector or genre
  • A producer who consistently hires a good script editor
  • A producer whose body of work you admire (even if that is just a few short films)
  • A producer who understands that when a writer is collaborating on a project, they expect certain things in return, and who is able to deliver on those promises

And the producers to avoid are:

  • Producers who shift genres with every movie
  • Producers with a poor body of work
  • Producers who blame previous writers for their poor body of work
  • Producers who act as if producing your script is doing you a favour
  • Producers who don’t use script editors, but who instead rely on their superior knowledge of writing (especially when they have a poor body of work)

Actually, it’s all pretty simple. It’s a good idea to work with producers who make good movies and to avoid producers who don’t. I know that may sound like the most obvious thing in the world, but, you’d be amazed at how many writers fail to do even basic research into the producers they’re talking to, simply because they believe that attention from any producer, regardless of how toxic they are, is better than nothing. It isn’t. You and your writing are better than that.

Working with a bad producer is never a good idea and many of them are very credible liars, right up to the point you look closely at what they’ve done in the past. Good producers are harder to find, but infinitely more valuable. If you’re going to invest your time, energy and your career ambitions into working with someone, make sure it’s someone worth working with.

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