Probably the most coveted of all Hollywood’s many careers and titles, more widely sought after even than the dream of becoming a movie star itself, is the position of “idea guy.” Someone has to be doing this job, according to popular wisdom. What’s more, all the remakes and adaptations we see in theaters today make it clear beyond doubt that this person, whoever they are, is doing a pretty terrible job. If someone is going to sit in a room all day, getting paid millions and millions of dollars a year just to think up awesome new things for the studios to do with their time and money… why shouldn’t it be me?!? Why shouldn’t it be YOU?!!
(In the pursuit of inclusivity, I’ve been wracking my brain for a gender-neutral way to express the notion of an “idea guy.” Ultimately, I am humbly forced to admit that every single one of the people I’ve ever met who believes Hollywood should pay them a huge salary just for sitting around and brainstorming cool ideas... is a man! Take from this whatever you may, dear reader, and let’s move on!)
So! All you need is that one brilliant, million-dollar idea to jumpstart the whole thing and oust the loser who keeps greenlighting sequels to the same old movies, and you’re in... and here’s the great news! You truly do have that one, visionary idea that will change Hollywood forever; the metaphorical keystone in a new gateway to limitless creative and financial renewal. What you have will be the next Star Wars, or possibly the next 12 Years a Slave or The King’s Speech, so long as someone takes your idea seriously enough to write and produce it.
Now what? Is there a submission hotline for this? What is an “idea guy” even called, in what passes for real life in Hollywood?
If you’re reading this article with any eye for subtext, you’ve already noticed that I’m treating the whole “idea guy” plan like a piece of flaming wreckage that’s plummeting from the sky at twice the speed of sound. My intention with this article is to fire off your ejection seat before you hit the salt flats, and this is the moment when I help you find the “oh, shit” handle. Your idea is valid, and there is a clear and simple path by which you can use your story to find success in Hollywood.
Buddy, it’s going to take some work. Do you have a good grip on that safety handle? Here we go...
Consider the possibility that ideas have no value in Hollywood. Yes, imagination is a vital part of filmmaking. Observe, however, that truly great films are made by people who have mastered their craft through years, even decades, of rigorous practice. When a screenwriter offers up that one inspired, industry-changing piece of writing, they’re working from a foundation earned by sitting in front of a computer for the last twenty years and pounding out film after film. When a producer releases a truly visionary film, that film is benefitting from the skills, the knowledge, and the community of support they’ve built over countless other productions.
Why do you think these people work so hard, for so long, to get good at their craft? Is it because they figured someday, maybe twenty years down the road, they’d have the skills to start making legitimate contributions to the industry? No. Definitely not. In real life, nobody is that patient.
Every time a writer writes a screenplay, every time a producer invests the overwhelming effort it takes to create even the simplest, most independent movie, they do it because they have an idea they believe will transform their work into something truly great. For a moment, imagine the sheer number of ideas it must have taken to give an accomplished writer or producer all the skills that make them worth hiring. In reality, every writer and producer is constantly struggling to keep up with their own imagination.
What most “idea guys” fail to understand is that every writer or producer of substance mastered their skill set specifically because they have stories they need to tell. Practice is how the disciplines of filmmaking are learned, and people practice those disciplines because they are driven by this or that creative impulse... so if all you have to offer is another creative impulse, people will most likely see your idea as a distraction from the work they actually need to be doing.
Allow me to explain the oversaturation of Hollywood’s idea market just one or two degrees further. Most actors, directors, and crew members have spent enough time around the creative process that they, too, have ideas they believe will benefit their collaborators and the industry at large. If these professionals are not trying their own hand at the screenwriting process, then they’re putting pressure on the writers and producers they work with to help them transform their ideas into film or television productions.
In fact, just about everyone in Los Angeles spends enough time around showbusiness to have some pretty urgent ideas about how things should be done. I’ve been pitched screenplays by cab drivers so many times, it’s simpler just to take the train. Anytime my background in film finance comes up in conversation, someone less experienced than me is going to pitch me on what I should be doing with the rest of my life.
Don’t tell me you’ve got an idea that I need to work on. I’VE got ideas I need to work on! If the beginning of this article felt a little sarcastic or hostile towards any “idea guys” who might be reading this, then hopefully I’ve given you a little context for my tough attitude.
Now, let me put your hand securely back on that “oh, shit” handle. Your idea is valid. Ok? Even with all this new context, there is a clear and simple path to success for you and your story.
Your idea’s value is determined more or less entirely by how much work your idea inspires you to personally undertake. For your idea to become a movie, one of two things needs to happen. Either you need to write and sell a fantastic screenplay, or you need to start pulling together the people and the resources involved in making this film as great as it can possibly be. Doing either of these things will help move your project forward. What I’m saying is:
Perhaps the most misleading, liberating thing about screenwriting is that writing a fantastic script has very little to do with being a fantastic writer. Great screenwriting comes from the ability to give every actor in your film a strong, well-motivated mission to pursue - and from how the missions you give your characters draw them into conflict with one another. In many ways, you’re just writing lesson plans for actors. In fact, one thing I always tell new screenwriters is that they should be taking acting classes. When you do this, pick classes that focus on what they call “scene work.” If you’re learning scene work, then you’re learning screenwriting.
If you want a little more from me personally on what makes a great screenplay, check out my last Stage 32 article: “Why I Passed On That Screenplay” For a great primer on the “three-act structure” and how it works, I recommend “The Screenwriter’s Workbook” by Syd Field. Most screenwriters will urge you towards reading tons of screenplays and books about screenwriting, and I’m going to shock and offend all of them by telling you it’s probably more efficient to ignore that advice.
Screenwriting is not an academic craft. Keep studying your scene work. Get the action of a scene into your body. Make “cinematic action” a habit, instead of some esoteric principle you’re constantly struggling to live up to. Apart from that, just write a shit ton of screenplays. Writing three new screenplays a year is more than achievable, if you’re following the steps in “A Screenwriter’s Workbook.”
If you’re still resisting the idea of writing a screenplay, then you need to enlist the services of a screenwriter. From there, you need to start pulling together all the other people and resources it’s going to take to make this movie...and really, that’s all a producer does. Taking personal responsibility for whether this movie is happening, instead of looking for someone else to shoulder that responsibility for you, is literally all it takes to become a producer.
Every producer starts somewhere, and that very first day on the job is where you are right now. Inevitably, a new producer has an idea they feel certain will change the lives of their collaborators and their audience. What that change looks like will vary from film to film, and the point of your movie could be something as simple as offering delight to everyone involved. Maybe the film is about creating some kind of social awareness. Maybe it’s about challenging people. What’s important here is that the idea is worth pursuing.
No producer ever started their career with more than that. All producers are entrepreneurs. Don’t worry about the fact that you have no idea where to start. Figure out how you’re going to get this idea turned into a screenplay, and then figure out how to turn that script into a movie. Stumble around in the dark. Learn the hard way. Every great producer had to do exactly the same thing.
What’s going to define you as a producer in Hollywood will be your commitment to learning, adapting, and growing into someone who can get movies made - as well as your adherence to the values and ethics that make you a good person to begin with. As you start building your production, lots of people will start selling you shortcuts and snake oil. Every single one of these people has their own agenda. If something sounds wrong to you, don’t do it. Find another way. Digging deep for new and better solutions to everyday problems is how producers make the Hollywood community stronger.
What I haven’t told you yet, and what I’m afraid to share with you this early in your Hollywood career, is that once you’ve gotten comfortable with your chosen role as a screenwriter or as a producer… you’re most likely going to have to master the other role as well, which is probably a workload you’ve deliberately decided to avoid. Most production companies today won’t even look at your script unless it’s got huge stars already committed to being in the film, unless the financing is already locked in place, or both. If you’re a screenwriter in today’s market... surprise! You’re a producer.
On the other hand, first-time producers almost never have the money to hire a great screenwriter. If a brand new, indie producer wants a job done right, there’s always that strong chance they’ll wind up learning how to do the job themselves. Finding that “fresh out of college” writer who can turn out screenplays like a thirty-year veteran is a lot like looking for a winning lottery ticket.
More than anything, what I want to impress on you is that success in Hollywood is not a lottery. Nobody’s handing out prizes for creative thinking, here. What you get out of Hollywood is directly related to what you put in… but the return on your investment starts off VERY low. As you put in more time and more effort, as you give more and more to this community, the benefits of doing so start scaling up. What makes success in Hollywood so tricky is that the rate at which Hollywood starts giving back is reliant on so many crazy variables, it might as well be random.
If you believe with a passion that your ideas can make a real difference in this industry, then the next step is to put that passion to work. Make every day about taking your idea one step further. When you’re not working on your idea, fill in that time with work and support for other people’s projects. If your idea inspires you to become a useful, vital, necessary part of the Hollywood community, then the value of your idea is self-evident.
If you’re just here to tell everyone else how to do their job, then there’s the door. At least once a day, some stranger tries to start a conversation with me by asking “You know what movie you should make?” My answer is always the same:
“Yes, I do.”
Now, I’m going to ask you that same question...
Do you know what movie you should make?
Since the beginning of this year, screenwriter Tennyson E. Stead has written feature films for Emagine Content and Be the Change Productions. Of the 30 screenplays Stead has written, seven are produced, sold, or under option. Currently, Stead is working hand-in-hand with some of New Hollywood’s brightest producers, performers, and production talents to develop a slate of independent sci-fi and fantasy features under his “repertory film” label 8 Sided Films, which will launch with the sci-fi heist movie Quantum Theory.
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