Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and script coverage consultant whose publishing credits include 21 books, 112 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns that appear throughout the world. For more information, visit her website.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
THE PRODUCER’S VIEW: An Interview with David GorderOnce a script leaves your hands, how exactly does it become a film? Just like the task of making a sausage, (1) there’s a lot that goes into it and (2) you probably don’t need to know all the details.
It does help, however, to glean an appreciation for the critical role of today’s film producer in ensuring that only the best quality ingredients go into the final mix. Fox Producer David Gorder (Fantastic Four, Planet of the Apes, X-Men, X2, Deep Blue Sea, My Best Friend’s Wedding) allows us a look inside at what happens to a film once the cameras start rolling.
As a producer, how do you draw the balance between the need for commercial success and the desire for artistic expression?
The objective of all studios/financiers is commercial success, and the primary objective of the director (in most cases) is artistic expression. This almost always leads to conflict. Therein lies the role of the producer: to mitigate the conflict by respecting the artistic wishes of the director but also convincing him/her that certain creative choices may be wise for the movie’s commercial appeal, essentially aiming to get the best of both worlds. You have to be a constant diplomat and do what’s best for the movie. Filmmakers are in the business of selling tickets so you must keep the audience in mind but support the director as much as possible to get his vision to the screen. The producer also has to engage in a leadership role to protect the overall vision of what the movie about.
To what extent do you get involved in the review and evaluation of the actual screenplay for a project?
All producers on a film generally get involved with the script at some level. It is important for producers to compose story notes and script suggestions for the director. This process begins with a budgetary review of the first draft and continues through production. Sometimes you find that your notes mirror those of the other producers and often the studio creative executives, then you consolidate notes and address the bigger creative issues in the script. You look for potential problems with the storytelling and try to solve them before you shoot the scenes. It really is imperative that all producers read the script and provide notes to some extent, whether the notes are creative or production/financial related in nature.
How would you describe the nature of the relationship you as a producer have with the investors who finance films on your recommendation?
There is much pressure on a producer to deliver to a financier, both creatively and financially; so much of the producer’s integrity and professionalism is at stake. Therefore, you try to forge a business relationship based on trust and good faith with the financier first, and then you try to take it further into the creative realm if the financier wishes to do so. Some financiers do not wish to get involved in the creative aspects of filmmaking; they entrust the director and producers they hire.
What is the process that you go through when evaluating proposed projects?
I first ask myself if there is a story to be told. If so, is it a good story that would interest others? Secondly, I assess if the story could be commercial or made more commercial if it’s not already. Thirdly, are there interesting and relatable characters? Lastly, I imagine the approximate budget that would be needed to make the story into a movie.
Once a film begins production, what is your ongoing role with the project?
Basically, once a film begins production, the producer acts as a troubleshooter to foresee and avoid production related problems that could arise. Every shooting day on a movie set poses a new set of challenges and problem solving. The skilled producer tries to handle these challenges and problems with minimal involvement of the director. It is of utmost importance for the producer not to involve the director in any situations that would divert his focus from shooting the movie and completing the day’s work. The producer also continues his/her leadership role along with providing guidance and inspiration to the cast and crew.
What are the top three criteria you use to decide whether to produce a script?
1. Story idea or premise. 2. Characterizations—do want to go on a journey with the characters? 3. Is there potential for good production value in the story—will people want to see the world in which the story is set?
What role does research (market, economic, demographic, etc.) play in the production business?
This is a frustrating question for many producers because market and economic trends are so volatile and demographic trends tend to be fickle as well. Often it seems audience tastes change weekly. Some generalizations could be made about the market through research (e.g., there is generally always a market for teen/young adult horror films, action films and broad comedies) that has remained relatively constant over the years. Basically I find that it’s really all about how good of a story you have and if you have told it well on the screen. If you have told a good story on screen, then market research be damned, audiences will see the movie you’ve made—if it entertains them and they leave the theater feeling satisfied.
From your perspective, what constitutes a “successful” movie?
A “successful” movie is a film that does well commercially at the box office, provides a return on the investment, and has a “shelf life” (i.e., audiences will pay to see it again whether it be in the theater or on home video).
What criteria do you use when considering whether a particular script is suitable for a specific market (TV, straight to video, European, etc.)?
The first criteria is what type of audience does the story appeal to and is there a theatrical market for the story? The second criteria is the screenwriting. If the script tends to be simple in its structure and the characters more generally written, it is probably more suitable for TV. Straight-to-video films are usually those films which are geared to a particular market niche and are inexpensively made.
What opportunities do independent filmmakers present to you as a producer? To what do you attribute the apparent increase in independent filmmaking?
Independent filmmakers are bigger risk takers and, therefore, you are more apt to get a complex or controversial story made into a movie. Also directors on independent films have a bit more creative freedom since the studio is not second guessing their artistry and storytelling abilities for a mass audience. More independent films are being made today because studios are unwilling to take financial risks associated with controversial, complex or unproven subject matter. Studios want to finance films they are fairly sure will attract a broad audience and that have built-in market recognition (e.g., The Hulk, Spiderman, remakes of classic films like Planet of the Apes, hit TV series, video games, cartoons, etc.). This is why most character driven drama and innovative films being released today are independently made. The financial risk is lower because they are usually less costly to produce.
What role do you as a producer play in the release and distribution of a film? If the decision is made not to release a film, or to release a film directly to video rather than through theaters, how does that affect the investors who financed the film, and do you or the investors have any say in such decisions?
You try to sell your movie to a distributor as best you can by building interest and holding screenings, and generally convincing them there is a commercial audience for the film, but if they don’t like it, there is not much you can do to change it at that point without spending “fix it” money in post production, re-editing, etc. You must do what is best for all investors involved, even if that means foregoing a theatrical release for direct-to-video. The longer the film is in the can and not bought and distributed, the harder it is to make money on the film. The law of diminishing returns begins to apply. If there is no promise of a theatrical release, the returns will usually be lower.
How do you maintain a comfort level about the timeliness of a project, given the length of time between accepting the project and the film’s release, considering today’s rapidly changing political and cultural environment?
A producer on a studio picture has very little control over the timeliness of a movie’s release or release date. There are too many extraneous factors which undermine the ability of a producer or studio to target a release date which makes the film timely in the cultural and political environment. Sometimes incredible events lead to unplanned and ironic sleeper success of a film (e.g., Three Mile Island and The China Syndrome). But generally you cross your fingers and hope the film connects with audiences at the time of release. Movies about the atrocities of war usually do not do well in times of war simply because audiences wish to escape what they see in everyday life. The time it takes to shoot some movies precludes them from being released during a relevant social or political time—simply because time marches on and changes occur in the political and cultural realms.
Are there any particular genres you consider lacking in quality script proposals?
The sci-fi and fantasy genres seem to be the hardest genres to find quality scripts. Most sci-fi and fantasy writers get so caught up in creating a world, special jargon and creatures, that they lose sight of good storytelling. Comedy is another genre in which it is hard to find quality scripts because there are different types of comedy (e.g., slapstick, screwball, satire). Sometimes what I read as unfunny can be made funny by a gifted comedic actor/writer. I read Austin Powers before Mike Myers was brought in and I thought it was the dumbest and most unfunny script I’d ever read—but then when the comic genius of Mike Myers created the character and world on screen, it was hilarious.
Could you please provide some background on how you became a film producer?
I started as a production assist in the production office on the film My Best Friend’s Wedding and that afforded me the opportunity to work around the producers Jerry Zucker and Gil Netter and study what they did on the job. I was observant and made sure I asked them questions about their work if I did not understand. I was mentored by some of the biggest producers in Hollywood (Ralph Winter, Richard Zanuck and Lauren Shuler Donner) and aligned myself with them and observed them producing movies. They are the producers who saw the “producer” potential in me, believed in me, and saw that I was serious and passionate about producing and they were able to open the door for me to become a producer. You must build relationships of trust with those who are in the position to help you achieve your goals. You also have to persevere and work very hard and long hours.
Given that hundreds, if not thousands, of scripts are written every year, do you have any particular advice you could impart to an aspiring screenwriter on how to get his or her script to your desk?
It generally helps to know if the writer has sold a screenplay before or has been produced. That will usually pique my interest in reading a writer’s script. If they are new to screenwriting and submitting a spec script, I suggest they work on a logical one-page synopsis of the story which reveals a discernible story arc and interesting characters. I believe that if a writer cannot write an interesting one-page synopsis of their story, then generally the writer will not be a talented screenwriter and the screenplay will not be worth reading.