My name is Tennyson E. Stead, and I’m a showperson with thirty years of stage experience, fifteen years in film development, and more than 40 screenplays under my belt as a writer. I’ve survived fraudster film producers, I’ve survived a crippling brain injury subequent to having an actor accidentally beat my head in with a prop sword, I’ve survived homelessness, starvation, and even employment as an Arclight Cinemas usher and concessionaire in order to make my dreams and plans in Hollywood a reality. I’ve directed on stage and screen, I’m a produced writer in almost every conceivable form of performing art, I’ve worked with many of my heroes... and yes, I am a producer.
To be clear, I’m not the “it’s who you know” kind of producer. I’m more the “empower people to do their best, build a foundation of support, and keep the expectations very, very high” kind of producer. I’m also a writer and director first. My hands are more than full with the work in front of me, and when I do read a script, these are probably the notes I'm going to give. My goal on Stage 32 is to use my limited time and availability to make myself useful to the greatest possible number of people, so please don’t send me unsolicited submissions.
Ok? Ok. Let’s talk about producing!
Have you ever had an idea for a movie, or met a filmmaker who you believe will make a huge difference in the industry if only someone would support them, or heard a story that you thought would make for great cinema? Sure, you have. In Hollywood, everybody has these experiences.
What would it take to make that idea a reality? For most people, asking that question creates an avalanche of ideas, insecurities and fears from which they flee in an unapologetically desperate scramble for safety and sanity. If you’re willing to take that question at face value, to start figuring out the answer, and to assume accountability for any information you find along the way, then you are a producer.
Literally, that’s all it takes to be a producer. Tag, you’re it. Congratulations!
More than anything, a producer’s job is to take care of all the things nobody else knows how to do. Motion pictures are enterprises involving hundreds of people and millions of moving parts. Putting all the people resources in place to make a movie, making sure those people and resources show up on time and are utilized correctly, and getting everything done in such a way as to make the film presentable and excellent is, quite simply, a logistical nightmare.
No single part of that process is a producer’s job, per se. Most producers do a lot of delegating, and there are specialists who can handle most of these responsibilities better than even the most accomplished producer ever could. With that said, someone has to be responsible for making sure these things actually do get done on time, on budget, and with the appropriate degree of craft. When specialists aren’t affordable, or aren’t available, or simply aren’t anywhere to be found, someone needs to make sure the job gets done regardless. Managing this mess represents the bulk of a producer’s workload.
Most producers know very little about the filmmaking process, when they start their first project. All they know was that “this movie has to get made.” To get from that very first creative impulse to the day when you present your film to an audience, the first thing you need to do is stop stressing out about questions that don’t matter. Stop asking “why.” If any particular person or process doesn’t work for you, just let it go and find a person or process that does.
Focus on “how” to make your movie. How to get the money you need. How to meet the actors you want to attach to your film. How, how, how. “Why” is for people who have free time, and you are no longer such a person.
Most producers start with what they know. If someone with a background in line producing (which is a fancy way of saying “budgeting”) is producing their first film, then they’re very naturally going to look at things in terms of pricing and logistics. Actors are going to approach their film in terms of the creative collaborations involved, and how those relationships add up to something more. Managers are going to see producing as a networking problem. Directors are going to look at producing in terms of casting and crewing.
While I’m obviously generalizing here, my larger point is that any of these approaches can be valid. Start with what you know. Build a foundation for the film that gives you confidence and faith. Use that confidence and faith to bring in additional support, as you start figuring out all the other things you need. Bit by bit, your movie will start taking shape.
Every film is different, and every producer has holes in their body of knowledge and experience. Stop worrying about all the things you don’t know, and just learn the things you need to make your movie. Along the way, you’ll make lots of mistakes. You’ll discover that easier ways of doing things were right in front of you, the whole time. Inevitably, other people will criticize your work and point out your weaknesses. Just accept it as a normal part of the process. Learn with humility, and proceed with confidence.
Most of all, don’t complain about the expense of protecting people’s health and safety. What’s more, don’t complain about the expense of hiring excellent people. Success in showbusiness comes down to two simple things: the strength of your craft, and the strength of your community. Together, these pillars will serve as the foundation of your success. Don’t borrow from one to reinforce the other. Support them both with uncompromising commitment.
If the movie needs to be cheaper, focus on making the film less technically ambitious in a way that keeps your creators safe and well-supported. Find your spectacle in the strength and specificity of your performances, and build from there. Don’t overextend yourself. Remember that the excellence and the safety of this film are your responsibility. Keep the risks under your control, and support the people who are doing the actual work, instead of demanding twice the movie with half the resources.
Who’s in charge of the movie’s creative elements? Ultimately, every film is different. Every producer/director relationship is unique. When you hire someone, that’s when you get to decide what their job is.
If you’re hiring a director to make the movie you want, make those expectations clear before you bring them onto the project. If you’re a director who’s hiring a producer to help you with certain elements of production, or even to help you manage the overall production so you can make a specific film in a specific way, then it’s important to communicate your needs with clarity. Place your trust in the people who will help you achieve the goals of the film, and then let those people do their best work with as little interference as possible.
If you’re using “creative control” as some kind of reward system, you’re essentially leaving the quality control of your movie up to chance. Filmmaking is an inherently risky enterprise. Don’t hand out creative control as an incentive for ignoring those risks. Hand your creative authority to the people who are best equipped to deliver an excellent film. Managing your risks effectively is how you earn respect and trust, and it’s definitely a quality that attracts investors.
Some producers get into film specifically because they have the kinds of relationships that make film finance a straightforward process. Other producers struggle with finding money… and it’s important to know that finding money and making money are two very different skills. Just because you need to put together a system of finance that works for you, that doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, plenty of people who excel at finding financing are also really bad at making successful films.
Maybe you need to find your investors yourself. Maybe you need to package your film around a cast, and get a bank involved. Maybe you’ll wind up crowdfunding, or maybe you’ll find an executive producer who believes in your work completely enough to manage the financing for you. Remember that a producer’s job is to do the things nobody else knows how to do. Your responsibilities, when it comes to money and everything else, will depend greatly on the specific expertise of the people working with you.
If you’re looking for a place to start when it comes to money, I’ve written two articles to help you along. One is for crowdfunding, and one is for financing. Personally, I recommend reading both of them.
Up until now, I’ve given you plenty of permission to screw up. All of us do it, and it’s how we learn. If you ask 10 different producers how to make a movie, I know you’ll get ten different answers - so I don’t want you thinking that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. Finding your own way is a necessary truth of the producing process, even if finding your own way means working with a mentor.
If there is one thing I will urge you NOT to do as a producer, it is not to do this for yourself. Don’t do this because you have an idea that you believe will glorify you, regardless of whether your idea is creative, technical, or business-oriented. Believe me when I say that producing movies is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. Even if you tell me love the producing process, which is a fucking crazy thing for you to say, you need to know this is a workload that will inevitably overwhelm you. Accepting that part of the process, and building the stamina and the community to safeguard against it, is necessary.
Putting the ethics of production aside, nobody loves the sound of their own voice so much that producing movies will ever be worth it on that basis. If you’re doing this to see your ideas up on the screen, your passion is not deep enough to sustain you through what’s coming. To do this at all, it has to be about the people you’re working with and it has to be about the audience.
If you’re not sure what I mean, watch the monologue Josh Brolin does at the end of Hail, Caesar!. Ask yourself if you care that much. Watch Hugh Jackman’s death scene at the end of The Prestige, where he says “It was the look on their faces.” For you, does that statement reveal the motivation behind the terrible things this man has done? Watch My Name Is Dolemite all the way to the end. Do you belong sitting in the theater, or do you belong out there on the frigging street?
“The show must go on” is not some goofy, charming sentiment. It is a mission statement. It’s a way of life.
Is it your way of life?
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 40 projects. In collaboration with producer Lucinda Bruce, Stead is writing and directing a sci-fi heist feature with his company 8 Sided Films entitled Quantum Theory. When Stead is not writing and directing feature films, he’s keeping busy as a working script doctor, he’s working in the theater, or he’s developing content for gaming and transmedia. Here is a list of the articles Stead has written for the Stage 32 community:
Let's hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Got an idea for a post? Or have you collaborated with Stage 32 members to create a project? We'd love to hear about it. Email Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org and let's get your post published!
Please help support your fellow Stage 32ers by sharing this on social. Check out the social media buttons at the top to share on Instagram @stage32 Twitter @stage32 Facebook @stage32 and LinkedIn @stage-32
|Stage 32 Member Spotlight: Derek Johnson, Director & Cinematographer|
|Behind the Scenes of Acting, Stunts and Directing with Jackie Chan and Major TV & Film Projects|