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Ben Yennie: Seven Pieces of Advice from an Executive Producer to a Screenwriter

In addition to being the CMO of ProductionNext, I’m also an Executive Producer and Producer’s Rep.  In my time at film markets, I’ve spoken with a lot of screenwriters.  Sometimes they were early in their careers, other times they were not.  As you would expect, Some of them went on the be more successful than others.  I’ve learned a lot by doing so, and it’s made me a better Executive Producer. 

Since ProductionNext is launching our new PDF Script ingesting tool today, I thought I would share some of those tips from my perspective as an executive producer.   Here are 7 pieces of advice for a screenwriter from an executive producer.  

    1.    Consider how the content will be consumed.

Media isn’t what it used to be.  More and more content is being consumed on the web or via OTT platforms.   Due to this, many of the traditional narrative structures need to be adapted to fit the changing way content is being delivered.  Every story still needs a beginning, middle, and end, but how quickly you get to each part is changing both quickly and drastically. 

Apart from considerations of length and page count, you need to consider the size of the screen the content is likely to end up on.  Bigger is not always better.  If you’re writing a web series which will probably be delivered on mobile, you should shy away from sweeping landscapes.  They’re expensive and lose their impact on a mobile device.  

Instead, consider something that may be more at home on a mobile device, being watched on the bus while the viewer heads into work.  

    2.    Understand the audience you’re writing about.

It’s always been important to write about things you understand, however, in the age of the internet, it’s even more important than it has been in the past.  The internet gives viewers the power to share content, which can greatly help increase the visibility of your content.  If your content is good, it will get a reputation for being so.  If it’s not, it will get a reputation for being not good or inauthentic very quickly.  

Now more than ever, you need to thoroughly understand the communities that you’re writing about.  Authenticity is key, and if you don’t understand your subject matter those within the community you’re targeting will see through it, and tell their friends not to see it.  If you’re marketing your content to a niche, that will end poorly for you.  

You need to figure out who your story will appeal to, and research the community you’re making it for thoroughly.  You need to have a thorough understanding of what will resonate with this audience.  If you’re ambitious, you may want to take note of how to access that demographic.  It’s not technically your job to figure out how to get to the communities that will want to see the film, but if you can give your producer a starting point, it may help you get your script optioned.

    3.    Learn to write a treatment

If I were to give any advice to an aspiring screenwriter, it would be to spend a few years doing coverage for a studio or production company.  You need to understand what happens once your script is submitted, and how to work that process so you have the best possible chance of success.  You’ll also make a lot of contacts.  However, there may be an issue in accidentally emulating someone else’s script a few years later, so it’s best if you’re not writing during this time so you can minimize that risk.

One of the most important things you need to understand is what a good treatment and coverage package is if you want to sell your script.   Not only will it help you get the opportunity to pitch to producers, it's likely that you’ll be able to pitch the producers better.   How?

Writing a treatment is essentially refining your story from 90 pages to 5 pages, to 3 pages, to 1 page to a paragraph, to a single sentence.  Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to develop the pitch for your movie in a more effective way, since you’ll know every view and length of it.  Turning a script into a treatment teaches you what’s important about your story.  Where and how does it resonate?  By understanding these key issues, you’ll be able to not only a better treatment and pitch but perhaps also a better script.

    4.    Don’t just watch movies, read screenplays

It’s important for all filmmakers to watch movies, cinematographers watch films for the cinematography, and learn to understand what they did to get the shot.  Directors study how cast performed in different scenes, and how that speaks to the director’s style. They often have to delve for what they can find online, or reverse engineer it to try to learn how their idols did it.  

Screenwriters should definitely watch films, but also read scripts.  If you can see what the script has turned into, you’ll be better able to communicate what you see for the script in your head.

    5.    FORMATTING MATTERS

A script is equal parts creativity and logistical document.  It serves as a blueprint for the movie, as such, there are structural guidelines screenwriters must abide by.   Producer’s don’t just say they want it formatted a particular way because they’re picky, they do it because it’s important for setting up the logistics of the film.

Anyone who went to film school SHOULD know this, but I’m amazed how many people don’t.  Even simple things like changing the location if someone walks out into a hallway often get missed.  I could drone on about this, but we’ve covered this thoroughly in another blog post so you can just read it there.   

    6.    Be willing to sell a script or two 

If you want to direct your first feature as the first one you wrote, you’re in for a long and difficult road.  However, if you’re willing to part with a script, you may gain some valuable contacts, experience and potentially some financial benefit that would enable you to make the film you want to direct.

If you just can’t give up this one because it’s your baby, then perhaps write a different one to sell, or write something it’s easier for you to produce yourself.  Perhaps write a web series, a killer short, or anything to help raise your profile.   

    7.    Learn to write with a budget in mind

It’s hard to shoot a film with sweeping landscapes and spaceships for $200k.  Instead, think about a shack in the woods that has some creepy alien outside.  If you don’t want to make it overly cliche, make the alien peaceful and just looking for their dog.  Or make a Bigfoot movie with a modified gorilla suit as the Sasquatch.  

Further, if you only have around $250k to make your movie, you may want to write scripts that could hit the sag diversity in casting incentives, so you can make your money go farther.  It’s shockingly easy.  Just have 50% of the cast be NOT white males between 18 and 60.  You can have 49% of the key cast be white males, but not anyone else.  

Thanks for reading!  I hope this blog helps you, but I’m pretty sure our software could help you more.  What does it do?  Just read our fancy new banner.   

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