10 Things Producers Must Know...and Usually Don't    -  by John Truby

Most people have no idea what a producer does. But if you’ve done the job, you know it’s the toughest one in the entire filmmaking process. A producer essentially builds a business from the ground up, from acquiring the script to hiring the actors and crew to selling the finished film.

So where do 9 out of 10 producers go wrong? At the very first step: acquiring and developing the script. Ask any producer and they’ll tell you they have a good eye for material. But ask them what they base that on and they’ll usually fall back on the lame “I feel it in my gut.”

99% of a successful script is having a good story. Yet few producers get anything more than the most superficial training in how to recognize a good story. And they know even less about how to work with the writer to develop the story in the script they’ve bought.

Writers the world over know the horror of “development hell.” Development hell comes from producers and story executives who give superficial and contradictory notes. Producers think writers don’t want to hear feedback. Nothing could be further from the truth. What they don’t want to hear are comments that are impossible to translate into actual fixes (“Your characters are one-dimensional.”) Or two comments that are complete opposites and therefore impossible to execute. Or comments that don’t mean anything (“Change the name of the dog.”)

A good writer is dying for feedback so long as it’s useful. And the only feedback that is useful is about the structure. Since few producers learn anything about story structure, they tell the writer some vague feelings they have about the script and then say, “I don’t want to tell you how to write it. You’re the writer.” That’s a massive cop-out. Bottom line: the best producers are masters of story structure and genre, and the final script is infinitely better because of it.

Here are 10 things you must know to be a great producer:

1. When listening to a pitch, focus on the probable structural problems embedded in the story idea. Every idea comes with them. You want to figure out now if they are solvable or not.

2. No matter how good an idea sounds at first, it will inevitably have elements that are predictable and generic. Ask yourself: What are some of the possibilities of this idea? Where can we take this that is more ambitious and hasn’t been done before?

3. Most story ideas, especially “high concept” ones, produce only two or three great scenes. You have to know how to help the writer extend the idea to a feature length script. That requires focusing on the opposition and the central moral problem embedded in the story idea.

4. Most of the time, the second draft is worse than the first. That’s because writers and producers don’t know that rewriting and development are a unique set of skills that must be learned, just like character, plot and dialogue. And the most important of this set of skills is knowing the proper order for development.

5. Good script development is all about fixing the structure and not the surface of the script. Dialogue is the surface. Deal with that only at the very end. Often it will fix itself as you work with the writer on getting the structure right. There are many elements involved in fixing story structure. But the most important is to make sure the main character drives the plot.

6. Never give a writer vague comments about character, such as “one-dimensional,” “flat,” or “unlikable.” These terms tell the writer nothing about how the character is built structurally, or why that character is not working. A good character always develops according to what I refer to as the 7 basic structure steps. These steps are in every story, including the one you are working on. The key is to help the writer find the 7 steps in this script and make them say what you and the writer want them to say.

7. Learn how the major genres work under the surface. 99% of all stories made for film and TV are a combination of two or three of the eleven most popular story forms (for example, thriller, love, action, fantasy). Each genre is a particular story structure, with set story beats that must be present or the audience will be disappointed. A writer has to know the beats of only the two or three forms that he or she specializes in. But your job as a producer is much tougher. You have to know the key structural beats of all the major genres, because a good story idea or script could pull from any of them.

8. If you want to produce a film that has worldwide appeal, you need to know which genres, sub-genres and combinations of genres are best at transcending national and cultural boundaries. For example, comedies based on dialogue (jokes) do not travel beyond the country they are made in. Comedies based on cultural, system, or time conflicts (for example, “Crocodile Dundee”) can be huge worldwide hits.

9. Learning the structure beats of all the major genres isn’t enough. If a writer just hits those beats, you end up with a well-structured copy of a thousand other scripts in that form. So you also have to know the tricks for twisting the beats in each genre. How important is this for your success as a producer in the current entertainment business? All of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees are stories where the basic genre has been twisted in key structural ways.

10. Find out how the most important advanced story structure techniques work. Not that you have to be able to execute them yourself. That’s the writer’s job. But if you know the effects of these techniques you can work with the writer in making the story stand above the crowd. For example, understanding the power and limits of the storyteller technique was crucial to the successful adaptation of “Atonement” from book to script. 

All of this sounds difficult, and I won’t deny the fact that mastering these ten things takes some study and hard work. But the good news is that everything I’ve talked about can be learned. And the best news of all is that if you do learn it, you will be unstoppable as a producer in the incredibly competitive worldwide entertainment business.

John Truby

For more information about John Truby and his educational services,
please visit: http://www.truby.com

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