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Alt Script: Should You Become Your Own Producer?

For me alt-cinema only really starts to become interesting when a screenwriter decides to become their own producer.

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The problem is, too many writers only embrace this way of working because they see it as an easy option. They are eager to embrace low-no budget production because, at first glance, it does appear to remove all of the people who can reject your project. After the frustrations of having your work largely ignored by producers, the lure of “showing them,” by making your script into a film, is huge. A lot of people sincerely seem to believe it is just that simple: become your own producer, make your film and all those barriers will magically disappear. But, of course, they don’t. Just because you are green-lighting your own script, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to pitch. All that changes in alt-cinema are the people you end up pitching to.

Despite the fact that becoming your own producer isn’t a cure-all, one-size-fits-all, solution for screenwriters, I believe that providing you make sane choices, it’s a exciting way to work. However, before a writer even considers producing their first film, I strongly suggest they take the time to understand what a producer actually does. And, in order to understand what becoming your own producer means, we need to examine the producer’s role in the process of making and distributing a film. Did you notice I didn’t say selling? That was a very deliberate choice. I chose the verb to distribute rather than to sell, because once you enter alt-cinema fully, you rapidly discover selling is just one distribution paradigm. There are a growing number of alt-cinema practitioners who believe the best distribution strategy is to give the finished movie away. Regardless how insane that may sound, there is fairly compelling evidence out there that, in some cases, giving your movie away and removing copyright may make good financial and career sense. This is something I want to talk more about in future articles, but for the moment let’s just be aware that it’s one choice amongst many.

So, let’s try to encapsulate the producer’s role into two simple sentences:

The producers job is to devise and carry through a strategy that takes the script from the page to audiences.

They then follow the plan, so the film achieves its full potential.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

You have a script. For that script to reach an audience you have to:

  • decide how it’s going to be filmed
  • work out how much the production resources are going to cost
  • find investment to acquire those production resources
  • create a plan for post-production - how the film is to be edited, how the the images will be colour corrected and the audio mixed
  • decide how the film is going to be mastered (film print/Digital Master)
  • you also need a plan to get the finished movie to audiences (distribution).

It sounds like a simple process: write, breakdown and plan, gather investment, shoot, edit, grade, distribute.

The only problem is, by far the easiest way for a writer/producer make their life utterly miserable, is to follow exactly that process. And yet, this is exactly how many new writer/producers approach it. They are so driven by their need to see their script in production, they rush into that process before understanding what a producer’s job really is. Getting a script into production doesn’t make someone a producer, it only makes them a film-maker. And, the primary difference between being a film-maker and being a producer, is the difference between making a film and getting that film to audiences.

An experienced producer doesn’t move from script to production, from post-production to sales. An experienced producer starts with a distribution strategy and then finds or creates a project best suited to that distribution.

The first questions a good producer asks are:

What do we want to achieve with this movie? And, what would be the best distribution strategy to achieve that aim?

So here is a short list of questions a producer may ask themselves, designed to help you understand your film:

  • Is this project strong enough to go for a cinema release? (If you’re not sure, you need to work with a producer who does know)
  • Is this a festival film?
  • Is this a strong genre/direct to DVD movie?
  • Is this film suitable for international TV sales?
  • What is the likely rating for the movie? (U, 12, 15, 18 etc)
  • Is this a movie that we’ll want to self-distribute via something like Distrify or Seed and Spark?
  • Is this a movie I can break down into episodes, to release as a web-series?

There are very good reasons for doing it this way. Mainly, because if you don’t consider the needs of distribution before committing to production, chances are you’ll make a lot of poor decisions at the production stage, which will cripple your film’s chances of ever meeting its distribution objectives. This ought to be obvious, but, just in case it isn’t, the technical requirements for a web-series are considerably different than those for a cinema release.

There is also a direct relationship between: distribution options, cast, budget and production methodology. Which in simple terms means, if your primary goal is to make a profit on a European cinema release, you may need: at least one recognisable name in the cast, to work in a specific genre, and to have a budget expressed in $250K plus bracket. That’s not to say that’s it’s impossible to get a cinema release on a no-budget, unknown-cast movie, it just presents different challenges. No budget, isn’t always the right answer. These are the thing that a good producer understands. They understand the sector of the industry they are working in. They understand what boxes they need to tick in order to sell their movie within their specialist genre/sector, and they understand the simple fact that the more ambitious the sales strategy, the bigger the production budget probably needs to be.

This, of course, is the where a lot of alt-cinema falls on its face. New writer/producers find it relatively unchallenging to pull together a no-budget or micro-budget shoot. Conversely, they find it daunting to raise investment, because finding investment means pitching your project to people. And, people who come to alt-cinema because they hate pitching, rarely decide to then tackle it as producers. As such, they make a passive decision that their budget will dictate their distribution strategy, as opposed to an active decision to let their distribution strategy and budget be dictated by the nature of the script. Personally, I don’t think fear of pitching should be the decisive factor in determining a script’s production budget. And, trust me, no-budget is not the easy option, in fact I think no-budget is the hardest sector in the industry to succeed in.

It is vitally important for a producer to understand the relationship between budgets and sectors. So, for instance, there are straight to DVD action movies out there with production budgets of $7M. A UK crime drama can afford to carry a $1.2M budget. Even a European art house drama, with the right producer and cast, can afford to carry a hefty budget, in the hands of the right producer… and, some scripts really are best suited to no-lo budget production. If you understand the sector you are writing in, zero-budget production doesn’t have to be an automatic choice for a first time producer. It is all about matching projects and budgets to sectors.

However, regardless of whether you are making a no-budget movie, which you intend to give away for free or a $7M straight-to-DVD action movie, a good producer starts by completely understanding the way the finished movie will get to the audience. A good producer plans the post-production (editing) to deliver the best result for that distribution method. They then plan their production around the requirements of the post-production. They then budget for all these requirements and find the right level of resources and talent to get that job done. Only then do they go into production. In other words, they plan backwards through the process.

What this really means is that being a producer is all about understanding distribution. Everything else in the process is driven by the route the film will get to audiences. A producer with a successful relationship with a good distributor knows that they can raise investment based on that relationship. This is the reason a lot of producers define themselves as working within a budget range. More specifically they’ll say, “I produce movies in this genre (horror movies), in this budget range (£200K-£600K).” That definition comes from their contacts and expertise at selling in one particular sector of the industry. What they are really saying is “I can turn a profit on a crime drama with a couple of good names, if the budget is less that $1.5M.”

Whether a writer decides to become a writer/producer or not, I believe writers should understand this process, simply because understanding what producers need is 90% of the pitching process.

All of which leads us to one of the greatest fallacies of the screenwriting world, which is “there is no such thing as a great unproduced script.” Anyone who understands the process I’ve just described, of how distribution drives producer’s choices, knows that there are hundreds if not thousands of great unproduced scripts out there. There are also hundreds, if not thousands of poor and mediocre scripts produced every year. Once you understand the way producers work and think, it’s pretty easy see how this is possible. Just because a script is great, that doesn’t make it commercial for the producers you presented it to. Just because the script is dreadful, doesn’t mean a buck can’t be turned on it. I’m constantly amazed at how many writers believe that if they just write something good enough, success is assured. When, what’s closer to the truth is “No script that’s in the right genre, in the right budget range, that can attract the right talent, for this specific producer’s requirements, will remain unproduced; provided there aren’t any legal, logistical or financial foul ups; or providing the producer doesn’t gets distracted by something else or because of a chance meeting with a commissioning editor in a bar.”

Or to put it more simply “right concept + right sector/genre + right script + right producer + right moment in time.” It’s entirely possible to have a great script, and to never find the right producer, at the right moment, for that specific project. It’s also possible to turn a profit on a script so bad, it stinks the room out.

All of which brings us closer to the main point I wanted to get to in this article, which is that if you’ve got a story you want to get out there, it really is about matching your script to the right producer. And, sometimes, the best producer is you. However, if you are going to be your own producer, the most important thing to get right are decisions about how you intend to put your film in front of audiences.

One of the reasons I really approve of co-productions for writer/producers, is simply because a good co-production gives you access and exposure to the more established producer’s sector of the industry. One of the hardest things for a new producer to do is to open a door to distribution. In many respects being a new and unknown producer, is exactly like being an unknown screenwriter. Like I said at the top of this piece, alt-cinema doesn’t remove pitching, it just changes when and to whom it happens.

So, what can a writer take from all of this:

  • A producer is someone who can create a viable distribution strategy
  • If you intend to sell or co-producer a script, you need to pitch it to a producer whose distribution strategy matches the strengths of your script (genre/budget range/ability to attach appropriate talent/right concept)
  • Sometimes the right producer is you
  • Sometimes it isn’t
  • Fear of pitching isn’t a good enough reason to self-produce
  • Being a first time producer is exactly as problematic as being a first time screenwriter (life’s a pitch)
  • When in doubt, co-produce with a more experienced producer

And finally

  • Anyone who makes a film without a rock solid and tested distribution strategy is entering a world of pain.

So, what can we conclude from all of this? I think there are a couple of things. The most important of which is that a writer who is considering becoming their own producer, doesn’t automatically need to look at no-budget production. There is another choice, and that choice is to co-produce with a more experienced producer, one who understands the sector you are writing for. There is a third choice, which is to try to take on a budgeted shoot yourself, first time out. My advice on that is, don’t. If you can’t guarantee (look that word up, it doesn’t mean “hope that”) that you have a sales route that will bring back the investment, then work with someone who does. For a first time producer, co-production is a safety net, mentorship, and the introduction to the business side of the industry. The co-producer provides all the things that you’ll find difficult to set up on your own. If you really are intent of going it alone, and co-production isn’t for you, then my other piece of advice is to pull together a project that you can do for next to nothing.

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