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Monday, June 13, 2005

Q. I've been working with a production company that makes a LOT of low-budget TV movies and am trying to help them improve their work, especially on the writing side. One of the problems I have is that, basically, their movies are truly terrible. Bad plots. Bad characters. Bad dialog. Even when they get quality actors, the dialog tends to make the actors come off as idiots. If the actors manage to get a good performance despite all the bad dialog, the plots trip them up.

On one level they know there are issues because a) everyone tells them their movies suck and b) they brought me in to help them. On another level, they seem to have no idea why things are bad, so we' ve been making little constructive headway. They'll proudly show me the script from a new writer they've just brought in and, if anything, it's worse than the others. I've come to the realization that they just can't tell good writing from bad. Any suggestions on how to work with them to overcome these issues? I know I can help them if we can just find a way to communicate, but when I say "black" and they hear "peach" it seems hopeless!
I know the feeling. I've been in those offices too.

It's funny. Everyone in showbiz says "a good script is so important." Producers, directors, actors. And then they behave as if the script is the least important thing. Producers won't spend the money to develop a script before they have the financing, and then when they have the financing, they won't spend the money to develop it because hell, they got the financing, didn't they? Directors rewrite or ignore the script. Actors make up their own dialog. Then the results are bad. And everyone is surprised. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I've heard "the script is the most important thing" from people who make such crap you wouldn't believe.

You may be out of luck. Talk with the last guy who had your job at the company. It may be that they theoretically "know" their scripts suck, but they can't tell good from bad, and they're really not willing to learn. They're just giving lip service. Most producers are salesmen. If they don't have development skills, they can hire someone who does. If they're repeatedly putting out the same crap over a decade, maybe they don't really give a damn. They're just saying they do. And you're barking up the wrong tree.

On the other hand, maybe they've never had someone good. Maybe with passion and eloquence you can take charge of the development department.

Figure out whether your bosses respond better to memos or oral presentations. Make sure when you talk about material that there are no distractions. If necessary get your boss to go on a walk out of the office sans cellular. Get a clear mandate to go and work with the writers on your own. When confronted with a new bad script, argue. Producers are like children: they may not seem like they're listening while they're talking to you. They may just argue back. But later on what you say will sink in.

Then if nothing changes, decide whether it's worth staying. Under a certain level, no one will hold your company's reputation against you. Past a certain age, you become one of the schleps who make films that are not worth their effect on global warming.

Bear in mind there are other reasons scripts get made than simply being good. If a bankable actor wants to do the story, for a producer that is reason enough. If the script has financing attached, that may give the project momentum, which the script you love does not have. Producers are all about elements. It costs money to run a production company. They may be so close to hunger that they are just looking for their next score.

Try to stay away from guys like that.

When I was a development exec, I think I got some stuff done. I championed Barry Schneider's epic adventure story The Sailmaker, which turned into a Richard Attenborough project. I championed Ehren Kruger's Mythic and got it optioned, before Ehren Kruger became a big studio writer. I helped improve some scripts that did get made. But that's because the producers I worked with really did want me to do my job. They weren't just pretending. And I think they had a sense that I was picking good material and giving good rewrite notes. So it's possible to make a difference.

I should add that great development people are even rarer than great writers, because being a great development person requires a profound understanding of how scripts work, coupled with no desire to write or produce (or at least an awareness of no ability). I know a few development people who really nail a script's problems instead of just doing the Truby thing. Victoria Lucas. Jamie Gaetz. Uh, those are the ones I know.

Producers, it really is the script. And that means you really do have to hire a good development person and listen to her.

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