The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs

Part 7: Attaching producers.

I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

In Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900–1942.

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942–1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990–2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

Part 7: Attaching producers.

Cary Grant with a potential producer.

This question has come up several times on the blog: What about attaching a producer to a spec script? I posed the question to screenwriter Jeremiah Friedman. Here is his response:

Like most attachments, this likely depends on the quality and frankly, the clout of the producer. Having a major producer attached — somebody with a studio deal, multiple credits, relationships at the major agencies, independent financing maybe — can definitely be a plus as it adds credibility to the spec. For instance, when we sold “Family Getaway,” Mosaic was attached to produce. However, producer attachments can also be complicated. Taking a script out with a producer who has no real track record likely won’t attract any greater attention and may just complicate any potential deal by giving the buyer another headache to worry about. In short, the big question to ask is what is the attachment bringing to the table? How does this producer add value to the spec?

So there is a bottom line: How does the producer add value to the spec? Good question. Screenwriter Justin Rhodes weighs in with these thoughts:

Having a producer attached generally means that he, and more often his development people, have had a role in developing the story with a writer before sending it out to the market. It’s a bit like writing a spec, because during this phase you’re still not getting paid, but it’s also a bit like writing for the studio in the sense that you’re getting notes that you’re expected to deliver on. More rarely (at least in my humble experience), a producer might read a screenplay and decide that he’s willing to attach himself to it after it’s been written. But both the producer and the people he employs are in the business of putting their stamp on things, and even in this scenario there would probably be at least a cursory bit of polish work done to bring the project in line with the producer’s vision for it.
But that’s the mechanics of the relationship. The question pertains to what a producer’s involvement portends for taking the script/pitch to market. What you have to remember is that studios don’t really produce movies themselves. If you read about the studio execs assigned to any project after a sale, the trades will always refer to them as “overseeing” the development process. From the studio’s perspective, the producer is the trusted chaperone who will make sure the artists don’t get into too much trouble. He provides a buffer for the writer as well, as hopefully he becomes an ally to help run interference for you when the studio’s notes are vague, destructive, or otherwise difficult to manage. The studio sees its job as managing its slate from a macro point of view. They see the producer as the man they pay to manage a particular granular entry on that slate.
So, if you sell a screenplay, you are going to get a producer attached no matter what. The studio won’t proceed otherwise. Your options are either to try and attach someone you respect and who you believe is on the same page with you with regards to the material, or wait for the studio to assign this person after the fact. It’s a bit like picking your first dorm roommate: do you want to room with a friend, or let the RA assign you to a stranger?
As far as advantages/disadvantages go, I feel this is really depends upon the particular producer in question. If you’re talking about a producer who the studio sees as “hot,” who has great relationships with the execs and equally great access to talent, then basically his involvement is a blessing that greases all the wheels through the first couple of gauntlets your project must pass through on its way to becoming a movie. If, on the other hand, your producer is seen as impotent, ineffectual, difficult, or otherwise has a bad reputation, then you’re project inherits all these qualities regardless of the words you’ve put on the page. Because, remember, nobody else gets paid unless the movie gets made. Not the producer, not the studio, not the crew, not the director. So nobody really cares about buying a script, per se. They care about buying a movie, and your producer plays an enormous role in helping them visualize what kind of movie-making experience they’re actually buying.
From my point of view, and especially during the attachment-dependent buyer’s market we’re dealing with right now, I would almost always recommend attaching a producer at some point before you attempt a sale, because this is the time where you have the most control over who you become involved with. Ideally you find someone whose reputation and work you respect who also believes in you and the project.

If your reps decide to go wide with your spec, most often they will try to attach producers to go into every major buyer. This producer for Studio A, that producer for Studio B, another producer for Studio C, and so on. Why different producers? Because even with studio-producer deals about half what they were 10–15 years ago, studios still want to work with producers they have relationships with. Yes, there are some producers who carry heft with multiple buyers, but generally if your reps do decide to pursue producer attachments — which is almost always — they will try to position your script to represent as strong a package as possible, and that means targeting producers with a deal at an individual studio.

It can all be quite exciting. Script goes out. This producer. That producer. This buyer. That buyer. Names you recognize, movies they made. Wow! Great! But there’s also this:

Do they believe in you and the project?

The reality is a deal could go down and you’ve never even met the producer in question.

Seriously.

This is where you have to balance trusting your reps and trusting your gut. Normally you just want to make a deal and whatever attachments can be made to facilitate that process, you go with that strategic flow. This is more in the trust your rep territory.

However if this spec script is one over which you’ve slaved, sweated blood and pieces of your soul — in other words this is not just a script, but a part of who you are — then this could very well be gut-check time.

What does that mean? At minimum, how about a phone call with the producers who attach themselves to your script? Talk with them about your story. Get a feel for their sensibilities and how they match up with your own. Because the fact is after all the high fives and drinks and dinners and whoops and hollering after there is a deal…

You have to work with these people.

So much of the process is about making a deal. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of money to be made even if your script that sells never gets produced. Depending upon where you are in your career, the deal may be the most important consideration.

But do we get into this business just to make a deal… or to make movies?

To make the latter happen, we have to do our part which is write the shit out of our stories. Process notes. Rewrite. More notes. More rewriting. Yet somehow through it all keep the vision alive.

And to support that process, we need champions, advocates, and mentors. Producers can fill that role. But only if they ‘get’ our stories and what we’re trying to do.

So to sum up: Attaching a producer to a spec script can be extremely helpful in making a deal. But depending upon your connection to your script and what your ultimate goal is for that story, you may need to call a time-out in the process and say this: “I want to talk with them about my story.”

In other words, your gut may be take precedence over your wallet.

Hopefully that translates into a writer-producer relationship which results in a great script and a movie getting produced.

Next week: Another installment in this series.

UPDATE: Timely guest column in TheWrap from producer Jon Landau.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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