Actors act. Directors direct. Producers…. If you have ever wondered what exactly it is that producers do, you are in luck! The Exchange recently chatted with Tom Johnson, Texas native and Head of Development for Flashpoint Entertainment, about the role of a producer, how films are developed, and why he decides to bring certain stories to the big screen.
Tell us about your background. How did you become Head of Development for Flashpoint Entertainment?
Before coming to work at Flashpoint, I ran a comedy writer’s company and was an executive at a production company with a deal at Paramount. My very first job was on a desk at Creative Artists Agency working for a literary agent. I learned the art of the sale and how information is traded. From there, I went to work for an award-winning producer and earned credits on a number of studio films. Next, I spent a couple of years at Universal Pictures working on comedies and thrillers before I was promoted to executive.
Most people out of the entertainment industry do not know much about how stories and characters for films are developed. Can you tell us a little about the process? How does a film start as an idea and get to production? What is a development executive’s role in that process?
William Goldman, the great screenwriter, opened his book about Hollywood with the quote, “Nobody knows anything.” With that in mind, I’ll share what I’ve picked up over the years. First off, every film is different and thus, the way to “get it made” is different. When people tell you that it can’t be done this way or that, it just tells you that they haven’t done it that way … yet.
The easiest explanation of what I do is that I work with screenwriters trying to craft the most entertaining and interesting stories we can. The first step of development is generally to create a treatment that breaks down the world where we are set, the plot, the characters (as well as their motivations), and any themes that will help tie it all together.
From there, a writer goes off to write the screenplay. As producers, we read the draft and give notes that will make the script the best it can be. By this, we generally help tighten story structure, create identifiable characters with arcs, and edit the action and dialogue to pop off the page. If everyone agrees on the changes, then this back-and-forth process can be quick, but more often than not, this “development hell” can take months, and even years.
Once there is a script, the producer goes about putting the bigger pieces in place by attaching elements like a director or actor.
In the good old days, you could walk into a studio with a book or script, pitch your take on the material and if the studio liked it, then they would buy it. Unfortunately, we’ve progressed to the point where the producer has to walk into the studio with almost everything already in place – the director, an A-list star, partial financing, and even a marketing strategy.
Once you have a studio or financier happy with the project (and that’s assuming the executives who bought it do not want to put their stamp on it – which can take even longer), you get the green light and go into pre-production – which is rounding out the cast, hiring physical production, rehearsals, etc. Finally, it is time for principal photography.
Along the way, there are no less than 100,000 hurdles to kill your project. There can be creative differences, legal conflicts, financial disagreements, and even schedule conflicts with key talent. The point is that the producer is there the entire time, driving the project forward, focusing on the macro as well as the micro, and most importantly not taking “no” for an answer.
There’s an old Hollywood adage: If writers write the screenplay and directors direct the film, what do producers do? The answer: Whatever it takes.
When you first find a story that you want to make into a film – maybe a book or a news article or a script – what are some of the qualities you look for as you decide to bring it to the screen?
There are a number of things I consider before taking on a new project. First, the characters have to be interesting. The world where it’s set needs to be exciting or special. The plot has to be unique enough that people will feel that they have to go see it in the theater. And finally, I ask myself the hardest question: “Does this really need to be a feature film?” It’s a sign of the times but to get people into theaters, movies have to be events – something worth experiencing with your friends or a collective audience.
Some of the best dramatic stories being told today are better served on pay and basic cable because there’s more time and space to explore characters and subplots. For example, The Wire is an amazing TV show that chronicled over five seasons the deconstruction of the modern American city. It’s hard for studio films to compete on this level and as a result, the range of films that studios make is narrowing.
What role can science play in the development of a film? How does accurate information in a story keep an audience engaged in a plot?
Audiences want stories grounded in some sort of reality. Not to imply that everything in a movie has to be realistic, but it does have to be plausible for them to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief. When characters do something or there’s a plot device so far-fetched that it pulls the viewer out of the story, you break the connection and lose them for good. It’s easy to cheat the science, but audiences respect stories that play within a set of rules.
Generally, how has The Exchange helped you in developing ideas?
It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment of inspiration but The Exchange supplies such wonderful speakers and specialists that are so passionate about spreading their knowledge that it’s almost infectious. You just never really know what bit of scientific fact is going to stick inside your head and then manifest itself later when reading an article or graphic novel.
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