Producers make a creative contributionEveryone freely acknowledges that the producer is the main champion of the film.  It’s the producer that makes the sales pitch to get finance,  and essentially it’s the producer who carries the can for the success or failure of the film.  But the contribution of the producer often starts at the very beginning of the screenplay, with a significant creative input.

Screenplay as blueprint for the film

The screenplay is the initial description of what a film is going to be about.  It is a narrative form that represents the internal emotional life of the characters through action, expression and dialogue.  Subtexts are the means of revealing discrepancies between the external, conscious behaviour of the characters and their internal, unconscious inner life and motivation.  Compare this with the literary genre (the novel), where the emphasis, especially in the last hundred years or so, has moved away from narrative to predominantly, the representation of the character’s inner life and feelings; using descriptions of their thoughts through streams of consciousness, for example.

Maybe it is no coincidence that this has happened at a time when realistic images (through photography, film and TV) have replaced representational painting; allowing art to become more abstract, more about ideas and feelings than about graphical realism.

A screenplay is a word-based literary blueprint of a film that depicts the drama through action, before the script is developed and crucially, before any director has been assigned.  Yet financiers must assess the screenplay’s  suitability to be made into a film, without much information about what the film will eventually look like; and on the basis of a description written by someone who will not be the eventual writer of the film.

This may be one reason why adaptations of novels are so popular as the source of films – because the novel has a track record and is much more complete than a screenplay.

The screenplay is a selling document for other people (the producer and/or director) to raise the finance for the making of the film.  Often a different person writes the final script.  This may be the reason why writers end up being seen as (and seeing themselves as) jobbing hacks brought in to write up someone else’s ideas.

Enter the creative producer

It’s the producer’s job to bring everything together and sell the screenplay to get finance.  The producer does not usually invest his or her own money in the production of the film.  He or she has to go out and raise money for the script.  If the producer is employed by the studio, he has to persuade the studio’s executives to invest in it.  If the producer is an independent, he has to persuade a variety of third parties to invest in it – a mixture of broadcasters, equity investors, banks and distributors.

But the role of the producer is both financial and creative.  This has been so from the early days of the film industry, and in fact, in many languages, the word for produce and create is the same.

If the producer leans more towards the financial side, he may have the title executive producer.  If he sees himself as more involved in the creative side, he may be called creative producer.  Creative producers are more involved with initiating script ideas, finding the right director or writer, and casting characters; as David Puttnam was on Chariots of Fire, Local Hero, and The Killing Fields.

In the 1950s, the auteur theory of the influential French film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma, argued that the artistic authorship of the film belonged fairly and squarely to the director.  This sidelined the creative roles of both the writer and the producer.  In contrast, at various times, for example in the 1990s, the far-reaching vision and creative flair of some producers became clear in their films – whoever the director was.

In his 2010 paper, The Film Producer as a Creative Force, Alejandro Pardo says:

‘At times, however, it happens that the question of whom the dominant creative vision belongs to becomes a little blurry, especially in the case of those directors and producers who possess genuine creative talent and a marked personality.  Proof of this is the appearance of the category of producer-director used for defining both directors (Capra, Wilder, Hitchcock, Preminger, Pollack, Spielberg or Eastwood) and producers (Selznick, Kramer or Lucas), whose common characteristic centres on their role as the principal authors of their films, beyond the specific work of direction or production that they have fulfilled.’

Role of the development executive

Sometimes producers employ a development executive to help source and develop a slate of several script projects; to research appropriate writers and directors; and to provide creative input into the development of the different drafts of the screenplay.   The degree of input allowed to the development executive, varies greatly from producer to producer.  Some advise on plot structure and character development, some do not.

Sole creative producer

This type of producer does not usually employ a development executive, preferring to work in a very hands-on way with the writer from the very beginning of script development.  They may have an assistant who does some script reading, but essentially, choosing the project and working with the writer is done by the producer.

This results in the producer having a very small slate of projects, typically only two or three films at any one time.  There is a constant dialogue and discussion between producer and writer(s); rather than the writer delivering a draft, the producer commenting on it, and then the writer delivering another draft; taking the producer’s comments on board.  (Sometimes the producer may employ a freelance script editor during this process.)

This kind of producer often works with the same teams of writers and directors, but this is not a scalable business that can be built up or sold on, as it is dependent on the in-depth work of the producer on one or two films.  Such producers may find it difficult to attract large-scale outside investment, but by keeping overheads low, they can produce films every two years or so, and still make a good living, particularly if they occasionally work with a larger company like Working Title, perhaps.

Creative team producer

The creative team producer does employ a development executive, who has some degree of autonomy over sourcing and developing projects.  The slate of active projects is greater, perhaps six to eight films, and the number of creative writers and directors is also larger.  There will also be an assistant, and maybe a runner too.  However, the producer is still involved creatively, attending script meetings, deciding on cast members and so on.  Sometimes they develop films for television as well, thus helping to support the development of their films.  Some producers are linked to a distribution company to release the film in its home territory, either through outright ownership or through a deal for a series of films.

After a big success, some producers move from the category of sole creative producer, to creative team producer so they can afford a larger slate of projects; but some prefer to remain small and hands-on.  Occasionally problems arise when the producer hires a development executive but does not give them enough authority to develop projects, continuing to take a very hands-on role in development.

Sometimes two producers work together, perhaps sharing a development executive, and the extra capacity can help them attract development funding from subsidy funds (national or international), or from private investors.

Role of executive or associate producers in development

Neither executive nor associate producers are very involved in script development, unless they are part of a studio or broadcaster.  Broadly, there are four types of executive or associate producer:

  1. Executive producers whose main role is to raise funding after the script is highly developed.  They may produce their own script notes, and are sometimes freelance, in which case they are paid a finder’s fee if they bring production funds to the film.
  2. Executive producers who are ‘friends’ of the project, and who help attract finance, writers, or cast.  In the US, they may be spouses or friends of the producer or director.  They usually come on board after the script is highly developed.
  3. Employee executive producers come from within other organizations, such as broadcasters, studios,  and publicly funded bodies, and are sometimes credited as executive or associate producers.  They do not attract any other form of third-party funds, but represent the interests of their organizations during development.  Often working with the development executive, lawyers and accountants, their script notes are influential in the final drafts, as they may play a part in budget approval.
  4. Screenwriters and actors whose agents have negotiated executive producer credits for them, (usually  for reasons of prestige), may also be credited as executive producers.

Co-producers are technically producers from another country that co-finances or co-produces the film, for example because of location filming in that country.  They are essentially executive producers, as they come on board at a late stage, often simply bringing additional finance to the project.

Line producersare responsible for the shooting and production management of the film and are not usually involved in script development.

So there are many types of producer, who can have a big – or a not so big – impact on the script.  I hope that by explaining in some detail how producers work, prospective film makers and writers will know a little bit more about how different projects may be treated during the development phase of different films.