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01/19/2001 - Getting Started

How to Produce Movies for Television

Getting Started

If you're a first-time producer without any projects to submit to the marketplace you'll have to go on a treasure hunt, searching for viable source material. For example, published books and unpublished book manuscripts, fiction and non-fiction magazine articles, newspaper stories, original screenplays and teleplays, and even recorded songs are all potential sources for broadcast network and cable television movies.

Obtaining Rights

Let's assume that you've read a book and you're convinced it would make a great movie. What do you do next? 1) Call the publisher of the book to find out if motion picture and television rights are available. Even though the odds are that someone else with more experience has already retained the rights to the book in question this may not necessarily be the case. You may be surprised to learn that many excellent books are overlooked by producers for one reason or another. 2.) After calling the publisher, ask to speak to the subsidiary rights director (fiction or non-fiction department, depending of course upon what type of book you're interested in securing the film rights to).

How to Deal with Subsidiary Rights Directors

Here's some important tips on how to approach a "sub" rights director: ( a.) Never be hesitant. (b.) Speak in a confident tone of voice. (c) Tell the sub rights director that you're a producer. (You are, if you think you are). (d.) Ask if the author has an agent or an attorney representing the book and where you may contact that person.

Most subsidiary rights directors will offer the name, address and phone number of the person who represents the author. Usually it will be a literary agent. On occasion it will be an attorney acting as an agent or perhaps representing the estate of a deceased author. And, in some instances, the publisher may actually represent the author. If the publisher does represent the author, be prepared to answer some intimidating questions.

For example, the subsidiary rights director will almost certainly ask you for your producing credits. Tell the truth. Don't be afraid to let someone know that you're a first-time producer.

Early in our career, we ran into a brick wall when we tried to option a non-fiction children's book, "Skeezer: Dog With A Mission." Harvey House, the publishers of the book, had also represented the book's author, Elizabeth Yates. Ms. Yates was a Newberry Award -winner and a prolific author of numerous children's books. The publishers were rightfully protective of Ms. Yates' work. As a result, they had carefully screened potential producers who had wanted to option her latest book.


When the subsidiary rights director found out that we didn't have a "track record" as producers she was reluctant to deal with us. This did not deter us. Instead, we viewed her negative response as a challenge.

Overcoming Resistance

How does one turn a negative into a positive situation? In our case, we remained enthusiastic and persistent. We decided to call the subsidiary rights director on a weekly basis. Admittedly, we were also na?ve, which in the end had fortunately worked out to our advantage. Had we given up too soon, we would have been history.

We also had a helping hand when fate stepped in. A producer with a track record was interested in obtaining rights to "Skeezer." However, the negotiation lingered and her legal fees began to escalate. As a result, she decided not to pursue book rights.

Timing is Everything

We came along at a time when there were no other offers on the table for "Skeezer." We continued to call the subsidiary rights director. Eventually, she had decided that it was better to let two enthusiastic people "run with the book" rather than to let it gather dust on the shelves. She even gave us a 90-day "freehold option, which meant that we didn't have to pay upfront for the right to bring the book to potential stars, buyers, and suppliers.

Within the initial 90-day option period, we were able to interest an entertainment attorney and a literary agent in representing us a producers. At the end of the option period, we made a co-production deal with an established production company. We paid the publishers a negotiable fee to option the book for a full year with the right to renew for an additional year. The production company that we had partnered with reimbursed us for the option payment and our out-of-pocket expenses. We emerged whole and were no longer at financial risk..

A Producer's Journey

Being na?ve, we thought this was it. The movie would happen overnight. Had we only known then what we know now. Unfortunately, we were young and foolish. After seven years, 247 rejections, two more production company partnership agreements, two network script development deals with two different teleplay writers, and two air dates that were announced and cancelled, in a touch of irony, "Skeeer," the movie about a stray dog had become a stray in it's own right -- the film that nobody wanted.

After seven years, we had finally produced "Skeeer, the true story of a stray dog that had become a "caninine co-therapist," working with emotionally disturbed children and reaching some of them with her unconditional love


Along the way to making the movie, we heard every negative reason why this project would never be made as a film. Many people said that no star in her right mind would want to work opposite a dog and kids. They'd steal every scene. Others insisted that

the story was "too soft" (meaning it lacked a "high concept" and therefore would hold limited appeal to a buyer or to an audience). Still others had turned us away with a blunt, "there's no market for it."

If we had allowed any one of those 247 rejections to influence us, we would have never produced "Skeezer." Instead, we drew strength from our conviction that we were onto something worth pursuing and so we decided to prove them all wrong. Eventually, with the help of others who had shared our vision, we finally had accomplished our goal.

"Skeezer" went on to win the night for NBC, which at the time was in the ratings cellar, placing a dismal third to ABC and CBS. This film that nobody wanted had also won the coveted George Foster Peabody Award for Programming Excellence; an Emmy nomination; and The Film Advisory Board Award.

It's interesting to note that two weeks before "Skeezer" aired on NBC, we had bumped into a number of industry people in New York and California who had previously turned down the movie when we were searching for partners. We told them that "Skeezer" would air on NBC and mentioned the air date. Many of them said to us with a source of pride: "I always knew that was a winner!." We smiled and thanked them.

We're reminded of an inspirational proverb which we'd like to share with you:

"Winners never quit; Quitters never in."

Fighting for What You Believe In

We've been asked many times why we had hung in with "Skeezer." The answer is that we knew that this movie would eventually get made. At times, of course, we had harbored self-doubts when wr were down and almost out for the count. But something deep inside wouldn't let us quit. Just like the lyric in the song, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and started all over again.

Currently, we're involved with a true story based on an autobiographical book that we had optioned back in 1988. The book is in active script development at a cable network. This is by far the longest period of time that we've ever spent trying to get a film off the ground.


Will it ever happen? We believe that it will because it's a timeless story. Some projects are meant to happen. When the timing is right, something almost mystical occurs. Suddenly, everything falls into place. The project builds, gaining energy and momentum as it takes on a life of its own. There is magic in believing.

Lesson Learned

No matter how hard one tries, it's not often in the cards to make something happen just because you want to make it happen. Do you remember what we had said to you in our first column - that some projects really do have a life of their own? All one has to do is to nurture them.

So, if you are a new writer or a first time producer, you're goals and objectives are not dissimilar. Please know that you're not alone. There will always be other people there to help share your vision and to offer you guidance and support.

Believing in yourself and in your talent is the all-important first step that you will take in your journal of personal discovery.

Deja Vu

Even though we have a proven track record, we have come to understand that nothing worthwhile ever comes easily..

We look forward to the day that the book we had optioned in 1988 will finally air as a movie on cable television.

And when that day comes, as we know it will, we'll bump into people who had turned down the book and we'll hear them say the sweetest sounds we've ever heard:

"I always knew that was a winner!."


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