What Is One Underappreciated Attribute of a Great Producer?
I want to raise an idea that I believe is fundamental to producing but is not focused on enough during the work of producers. Nor is it focused on enough during the public discussions of producers, including at the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and Screen Producers Australia (SPA.)
Narrative film and television producers bring many skills to their demanding job: story developing, financing, deal making, hiring talent and crew, managing physical production, supervising post and distribution, and on and on.
These roles have become so big that today they can be divided into separate titles such as “physical producer” and “creative producer,” or be shared by many (how many producers does a Marvel show have?). But one of the key (some would say the most important) attributes of a great producer is not listed above. Nor is it diligence, hard work, managing ability, or charisma. To help determine what is that key trait of a great producer, ask yourself the following question:
What Makes a Great Producer? What is the essential skill of a producer that most determines the success or failure of his or her venture?
To help answer this question, let’s briefly consider some of the greatest producers in Hollywood history. And by greatest producers I especially mean those who produced high quality, popular films for many years. Consider, for instance, the long careers of these legendary producers from the Golden Age of Hollywood:
- Cecil B. DeMille, whose career spanned 1913 to 1958, during which he produced at least 70 films.
- John Ford, whose career spanned 1921 to 1971, during which he earned 15 on-screen producer credits and dozens more uncredited ones.
- Daryl F. Zanuck, whose career spanned 1926 to 1970, during which he is credited with producing more than 110 films and dozens of others for which he received no on-screen credit.
- Stanley Kramer, whose career spanned 1942 to 1979, during which he produced around 40 films.
Of more contemporary producers, we can note Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Clint Eastwood, and John Lassiter, to name just a few of the superstars who have had long and productive careers creating popular films.
The Skill That Gives Producers and Directors Long Careers?
Perhaps it’s not coincidental that many of these producers cited above were also directors. Perhaps the essential skill that separates the great from the good in directing is the same fundamental skill that we are leading to in regard to producers.
One might claim that the real credit for making hit films goes to the stars or writers attached to them. There is, of course, some truth to this, but many flops have featured great stars or were written by A-list writers. But this last point leads us directly to what I believe is that essential ingredient to making great films and which very much undergirds the long careers of producers creating successful films.
It is a Story Sense. A good Story Sense.
Story, Story, Story.
So, what is a Story Sense?
It’s not so much knowing how to tell a good story (though that is related and important, too) but more of a talent of recognising a good story when one hears it or its premise. To clarify the point, ponder this old Hollywood story related by writer Ayn Rand:
“At the start of my career, I had a valuable conversation with Cecil DeMille….He said that a good story depends on what he called ‘the situation,’ by which he meant a complicated conflict…and that the best stories are those which can be told in one sentence.…He told me how he happened to buy the story for one of his most successful silent-day pictures, Manslaughter. It was originally a novel, and a friend of his wired him in Hollywood advising him to buy it for the screen. The friend included only one sentence about the story: ‘A righteous young district attorney has to prosecute the woman he loves, a spoiled heiress, for killing a policeman in an automobile accident.’ This is all DeMille knew about the story, and he bought it.” * The film was a huge hit for DeMille.
Today we might call DeMille’s “situation” a high concept premise or logline.
Story is King
Rand’s story about DeMille reveals that a great producer knows a good story concept when he hears it and so picks the best stories to produce. (And, of course, he also uses his story sense to help develop this premise into a good script.)
Look at many of the best films of the producers noted above and you will see that these producers very often knew a good story when they ran across it. And with this nose for a good story, these producers also very often had a story sensibility similar to their audience’s. (But that’s another story.) And consider the films of these masters that are below the usual quality of their films. Most often the key reason for this difference is the quality of the story.
The Searchers and Story
Regarding the importance of story sense, let’s consider in detail one example, The Searchers, which is often cited as John Ford’s (and John Wayne’s) best film. The Searchers has been voted by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the greatest western ever made and considered by many as the greatest film ever made. Yes, the score is poignant and evocative, the acting superlative, the cinematography amongst the most colourful and dramatic ever captured, the locations perfect, and so on down a list of film credits and incredible artistic qualities. But what about the story and script?
Let’s first give great credit to producer-director John Ford for selecting this novel by Alan LeMay to produce as a film. Frank Nugent is the credited screenwriter and he deserves great plaudits for his writing work to adapt the novel. Research reveals that John Ford was closely involved with Nugent in developing the script**. What is also instructive is that when on location, Ford improved the script, as you can see if you compare the opening of the final script with the beautifully written and acted opening scene of the film itself.*** One may reasonably argue that all this great story work was from John Ford the director, and that in a sense is true. However, whether you laud John Ford as a great director or as a great producer, his greatest skill in both these arenas is his story sense and storytelling ability. It is arguably Ford’s story sense more than any other skill that undergirds the great artistic achievement that is The Searchers and is the chief cause of its six decades long popularity. Consider the issue this way: If one were to excise Ford’s multi-layered characters and poignant story from The Searchers and replace them with western clichés, the film would be boring and a flop, though very pretty to look at and to listen to. But if one took out all of The Searchers’ prodigious stylistic elements but kept the same characters and story, I predict it would still be a good and popular film. (But as we know, a film should be an integration of all its elements at their highest levels.)
What Audiences Want Most of All
Although producers can legitimately argue about what is a good story, it can be strongly argued that a good story is what a film audience has always desired most. Most very popular films have had a good story. It is rare for a film with a terrible story to be a hit. And we have all seen beautifully produced films that had no story and failed at the box office.
One can also argue that directors, writers, and actors who have long and productive careers in Hollywood do so because they too know how to pick the best stories.
Some producers reading this article might react: “Of course story is important to a good, popular film. All producers know that.” That claim, however, isn’t born out in much of the film and television product created today. Let’s be blunt: How many films do you see each year where you exclaim: “That was a great story!”? And let’s also remember that each year many films do not make a profit and that many television shows fail to find an audience and are cancelled. We can cite many reasons for this but isn’t the main one story quality?
Producers and Story
It’s time for producers to ask themselves: How often is story a big topic of discussion in the public meetings of producers today, including at the Producers Guild of America and Screen Producers Australia? Let’s focus a little more on the PGA, of which I am a proud and contented member: How many articles in our Produced By magazine or sessions/classes at the Produced By Conference or PGA meetings ever deeply focus on story? Very few. Why?
My purpose with this article is not to derogate the importance of any skill or work of a producer, such as those cited in the introduction. The work of a producer is incredibly challenging and all of his or her roles are important and often difficult. But the Producers Guild of America and Screen Producers Australia, as just two examples, could be making more room in their producing discussions for story.
The Producers Guild and Story
This article is also not meant to be the definitive case for the critical role of story aptitude in a producer’s skills box. My hope is that this short article will prompt a long debate about the fundamental importance of story sense to producers and that producers could focus more on story in their work and meetings. I hope that the Producers Guild and Screen Producers Australia will come to lead this important debate. If producing a film really does begin with a story as its blueprint and heart, shouldn’t story be a bigger focus at producer organizations, publications and websites?
Here are a few practical suggestions of how the PGA, for instance, could focus more on story: Invite story experts to write for and speak at the Guild. Build more bridges to writers and storytellers, including the many PGA members who are also writers. Be open to more ways to find quality stories and to develop them. And blow up any Hollywood bubbles to let in a greater range of story ideas, to truly have a diversity of old, new, even radical story ideas, including ones you might passionately disagree with.
Unite Around Story
In any of our debates about producing and story, whatever we may disagree about, long may film and television producers run as the most important storytellers in the world. Producers of the world unite – around story!
Former Los Angeles producer, Scott McConnell is script consultant and researcher of lost classic stories. Read more of Scott’s articles about story and film.
* P 57 The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand (Plume/Penguin)
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