DEVELOPMENT EXECComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Monday, March 20, 2006

Did you like being a development executive? What was your typical day? Is it mainly just meetings, reading scripts, and reading about current events in the industry? I know there are a lot of bad scripts out there, so the job may be tiresome, but what did you like and dislike about the job?
A fella just sent me a slew of questions about my days as a development person. I'll try to answer them all over the next few days.

Before I finished film school, I'd had assorted jobs in the biz. In the six months before film school, I'd tried to be a production assistant in New York. I'd got on a number of commercials, but I'd spent more time looking for work than working. About when I left for the Left Coast, I was starting to actually get calls to work on things. Working as a p.a. taught me very little that I needed to know later.

While in film school, I worked as an apprentice electrician (worked lights) on a few shoots, which taught me a lot about being on a set, and a little about lighting, and revealed that I was too interested in the directing to make a good electrician. I also read scripts for a college friend who was already a development exec at Carolco (having skipped film school, he was ahead of me).

So when I got my MFA, I did not have a lot of really swell experience in the biz, though I might have had more than many of my fellow film school grads. And UCLA at the time did not have a strong industry liaison system; maybe it does now, I don't know.

What I had was a BA in Computer Science, a year spent in France, and a tiny, tiny, tiny award for my student film. (If you apply to obscure enough festivals, you are bound to win an award somewhere.) These turned out to be the ideal qualifications for an independent producer who was looking for an assistant to figure out how to put his voluminous rolodex into a computer, and who was doing a French/Canadian/Israeli co-production. He was one of the hundreds of guys who work out of their big house, making phone calls and trying to package a script, a star, a director and some foreign sales together to make a movie. Occasionally, he did it.

I worked for the guy for four and a half years. I got out of the assistant spot and climbed up one rank to the heady position of VP Production (which was really a development job, but sounded more impressive).

As VP Production, my job was to do everything interesting the producer did not want to do. He was a salesman, not an organizer. He did not like to read scripts, read contracts, or write contracts, so I did those things. I also put together the packages of material we had to deliver to the foreign buyers in order to get paid. He also liked to take me to meetings with agents, directors and financing people. I wound up knowing quite a bit about multi-country independent co-productions. When we did a deal with Disney for one of our pictures, I also learned a lot about working with studio people. When we did a development deal with Richard Attenborough, I learned a lot about working with charmers.

It was a day job because I was always writing scripts on the side, mostly free, sometimes for okay money, once for $800 (it was supposed to be $1000 but I got stiffed on the last $200). It was one of the best day jobs a boy could have, though, since I saw what kinds of scripts we could set up -- ones with hooks -- and what kinds we couldn't -- well written scripts without hooks.

My job was much more varied than your typical development exec. At a bigger company, I would have (a) read scripts (b) told people if I liked them (c) written development notes to writers on projects in development (d) often seen them largely ignored. The terrible thing about development is you are often the person with the best story sense in the room; and you are the person with the least clout. The director, the producer, the star, the studio exec: all these people have to be listened to. You are heard, but even if you are brilliant, often ignored. No one wants to go without having a development exec -- then you'd have to read all the scripts yourself -- but they feel free to disregard their point of view.

I have no idea how you climb out of development into positions of clout, but development has a "path to colonel" just like becoming an agent: you are supposed to figure it out yourself, and if you don't, well, you weren't cut out for more authority.

After four and a half years, I felt I'd learned everything I could learn working for this particular producer, and I quit. I figured I'd try to produce on my own. But that's another story...


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