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01/24/2006 - SCREENWRITING EXPO 4 EXPLAINS WHAT PRODUCERS WANT
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SCREENWRITING EXPO 4 EXPLAINS WHAT PRODUCERS WANT by Tom McCurrie


Above all others, there is one question all screenwriters eventually ask. No, it's not what kind of brads work best. It's what do producers want? After listening to a producer's panel at Screenwriting Expo 4, I discovered that what producers want all depends on what producer you're talking about.

If it's a producer like Jason Shuman, whose Blue Star Pictures (DARKNESS FALLS, LITTLE BLACK BOOK) has a first-look deal at Sony/Revolution Studios, it means he is only "looking for concepts" or "the bigger idea of the movie." Shuman doesn't care if the writer is new or established, or what genre the story is (unless it's sci-fi), or even what the story is about. He just needs a concept that is both compelling and can "sum up the movie in one sentence," since he has to pitch the "Reader's Digest version" of the script to Sony/Revolution to get a greenlight. Shuman is definitely plot-driven, so if a script's concept doesn't grab him, he "just passes on it right then and there." With someone like Shuman, you have to hook him in twenty-five words or less, guys.

Tracy Becker of Beachfront Films is the polar opposite. She doesn't care if you can pitch the project in twenty-five words or a hundred, but instead looks for things that "move me." Not a fan of sci-fi or broad comedy, Becker prefers "character-driven material," or period or coming of age stories like FINDING NEVERLAND, which she helped develop from play to screen. Becker in fact has a special passion for adaptations, especially books that are tricky to adapt. For Becker, "finding a way to tell a cinematic story that isn't obvious" makes her groove the most, not whether the one-line will please the studio marketing department. So if you want to pitch a novel with a Pynchonesque level of linguistic complexity, a producer like Becker is probably for you.

Somewhere in the middle of Shuman and Becker is Sheila Hanahan Taylor of Practical Pictures, a production company run by Craig Perry (FINAL DESTINATION, AMERICAN PIE). According to Taylor, Practical prefers "medium budget studio movies [that are] relatively high concept." Genres in comedy and horror are best, while the more expensive sci-fi and epic scripts are not welcome. Perry personally likes projects about "getting back at The Man," since they can be crowd-pleasers on a fairly modest budget. Tyro scribes should definitely check out Practical, since Taylor says they specialize in grooming rookie writers.

And finally there is Whitewater Films, run by producer Jeff Balis of PROJECT GREENLIGHT fame. Balis' company focuses on low-budget, independent projects like the recently-released WAITING. Scripts with budgets of $500,000 or less are preferred, since anything above that requires Balis to get a studio partner. Balis also looks for scripts with "risk," that push the envelope in content or theme so much that studios can't do them. This is the only way he can compete with and distinguish himself from studio-based production companies with deeper pockets. As Balis explains, bland is a bad idea when it comes to "grass roots independent movies," since audiences will always gravitate towards bland studio pictures, with their expensive star talent and production value, instead. Pushing the envelope on a shoestring creates marketing benefits as well. For if you can "make it for less, it gets press."

Just as there is not one type of script, there is not one type of producer. Instead of carpet-bombing your material to every shingle in Hollywood, use the "surgical strike" method to submit it to those producers who would be suited for it (both aesthetically and financially). That's what producers want.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.

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