Monday, 20 July 2015

David Thompson Explains How to Produce Movies

David Thompson at BAFTA
BAFTA recently held a series of lectures and masterclasses on film production, welcoming members of the public to hear industry professionals give lectures on all aspects of the business.  One of the best presentations was a talk by David Thompson, formerly head of films and single drama at BBC, and a producer with a clutch of BAFTAs and Golden Globes on his shelf. Most importantly, he has over 100 screen credits, including Billy Elliot and Mandela. Here at Bucks we recommend that all our students attend industry events like this whenever possible. You never know who you will meet, and what you will learn about the way the industry actually works.

In fact, even if you have no interest in the production of film, it’s still fascinating to hear someone at the top of their game talk about what they do. Thompson was so clearly in command of his material that I could have sat there and listed to him for hours – his stories alone were worth the price of admission.

Getting into the business
Thompson first talked about how he got into the business, and later on discussed what it takes to be a successful producer in a notoriously fickle industry.  He personally got started by entering a young playwright competition, when he was just fifteen years old, a student at Charterhouse School. The play was called “The Box”, and it actually got performed - after much editing.  The first important lesson he learned about producing was the importance of “great planning” – a vital skill to acquire early. He started off in documentaries but soon left for dramas - because he found documentaries “too manipulative”.

The Relationship Between Producer and Director
Being a producer is "a creative job"; a producer can and should have a "dialogue with the director". Not all directors welcome creative input, but the best, argued Thompson, will always listen to what a good producer has to say.  The relationship between producer and director is crucial; if it breaks down, things can go horribly wrong. In the end though, what a producer really does is to “Let the kite fly”.

Survival in a tough business
You need a thick skin in this business. After all, your projects will sometimes get shitty reviews. Even after many years, this can be "very difficult". But nonetheless you "need to try". Getting used to criticism and learning to take it is just part of the game.

Films to watch
Throughout his talk Thompson recommended a number of films to see - great films, often neglected or overlooked. He mentioned "The Firm" with Gary Oldman - all about football hooligans, and a unique insight into a different world.  Also The Road,  Transparent, and the film about the Wannsee Conference - “The Conspiracy”.

Working with first-time directors
A member of the audience asked Thompson - would he work with first-time directors? – would he take the risk? Yes, he replied, but with caution. He would want to see "at least a short film", or a teaser/trailer for the project - some evidence that the director knows his craft. After all, the director has to know enough to "get through the shooting day". But, he added, "you have to take risks" in this business.

The Development Process
Thompson described his approach to developing new projects as very “scattergun”, ie not focused on one or two pet projects.  Why such a broad approach? Vecause he wants to "try lots of stuff" because "you never know what’s going to fly".  And, of course, it is incredibly hard to get new projects off the ground. The writers "that everyone wants" are “always busy”.  And don't think that it's any easier in TV - it isn't. With one exception: TV is easier “if you can get a long-running series” into production. And with regard to raising finance, single film projects are “very hard to raise money on”.

And, he said, expect to make mistakes. He personally has made many - everyone does. As he put it: "anyone who commissions films makes mistakes". He personally "passed up Gosford Park". Why do people make mistakes? because it can be hard to imagine the final result. You need imagination, and sometimes you need to see the project through other people's eyes.

How do Producers get started?
Thompson's advice to producers was this: "have lots of skills". You have to learn "from the ground up". Try starting out by working as a production co-ordinator. You have to "know what happens on a film set". And you "must have development experience" because you will have to help to create things, new projects - and understand how this is done. Today the business is busier than ever - "there is a lot more activity", but there is also a lot more competition. He advised newcomers to "learn a range of skills". Perhaps "even a law degree – so you can do the finance and the contracts". In the end, though, there is a sort of magic to being a good producer. Some producers “just have it”, and "others don’t". Training may not be enough.

How do you sell your movie idea?
How do you sell your project? Well, you go to a sales company and you get them to put up money up front, based on the pre-sales they can make to various territories. Don't forget that the big studios will always manipulate the numbers. For example, Billy Elliot made $100 worldwide - but it took many years to turn a profit, because of studio accounting.

Financing movies is usually a “desperate business” of piecing together "bits and pieces" of finance around the world, a kind of "patchwork of finance, a tax credit here, a bit of private equity there". It’s a “bloody minefield” to navigate it. You need foreign sales advances. It helps it you can get BBC or Film 4 to take a stake, or Pathe - they are very good. They like true stories or semi-true stories - whcih can be "easier to market".

Most importantly, investors (and everyone else) have got to feel as if the project “is a moving train”. After all, the movie business "is a bullshit business". People are lying all the time. When people say “We’ve got a lot of interest from Leo DiCaprio”, it really means “we’ve sent it to Di Caprio's agent but he hasn’t read it.” Remember that there are always "new equity players coming into the business". Someone must be making money!

How do you get your project made? You need "an amazing idea". Then, "make a great teaser". You also need "force of will and persuasion". Also, "some casting would be good". And a "great script can make a lot of doors open". You have "got to start with a script".

Try to be upbeat
Too many British films, argued Thompson, are in the “miserabilist” tradition - depressing stories that no-one wants to see. Why make these sorts of films? Well, "people got lazy". Audiences want to feel “up” when they leave the theatre - give them something to give them a bit of a lift.

Embrace co-productions
If someone offers to invest and take a stake, don’t worry about “relinquishing control”. After all, if you find a co-producer they are now your partner on a project - this is a good thing. But try to find a partnership of "like-minded people" - ie people whose input you value. After all., you need “every brain” you can find to make your project really good.

Family life
It’s "very hard" to balance work and family. The movie and TV business is "very all-consuming". It is "very hard to have a balance", and this can be "very threatening to family life".

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