What I learned during UCLA’s Professional Program in Producing
Two weeks ago, I finished an amazing program, the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s Professional Program in producing. My 50+ classmates and I were met with a fairly rigorous schedule: 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., four nights a week, for 10 weeks. Personally, I didn’t go to film school, unlike quite a few of my classmates. This IS my film school. So I was pretty grateful to learn as much as possible, despite the fact that I was exhausted half the time.
At the end of 10 weeks, my UCLA two-subject notebook is now filled, cover to cover, with notes, lecture quotes, budgets, handouts, lists, diagrams, and reminders. I cannot fully encapsulate the things I learned — – it was a good amount of information — but here are the things that stick out to me, looking back.
1. Read. A lot.
Many of the producers and creative executives said that when they were starting out, they were reading upwards of 1,500 scripts annually. That’s how they learned how to tell a story well. That’s how they learned what scripts to take to higher-ups, and once they became full-fledged producers, that’s how they learned which scripts are good, which writers to hire later on, and who is complete hype.
2. There’s a reason many showbiz marriages end.
Yeah, on top of all the reading, meetings, shooting, pitching, selling, and phone calls, people try to have spouses and families. One producer was going on about how much she travels and works and then mentioned that she has a baby. You could hear the collective jaw drop around the room. Also, she looks like she’s never even been close to a child, let alone pregnant in the past year, so good on her. Still, though, it seemed that having a husband or wife is incredibly difficult, unless you marry someone who also works in the industry (check!). And kids? HA — I can’t even imagine having children before the age of 35 at this point, but people (somehow) do it. Guess I’ll just have to find out how (later. WAYYYY later).
3. Nothing in television is standard.
We had about four showrunners and a television producer/former executive come in to tell us how things work. All of their experiences were vast and varied. One said pilot presentations were a good idea, and another said they are a horrible idea. Some shows have their writers heavily involved in producing, and others don’t. Some shows take a week to write, others take two weeks. Some people got into the business through representation, a writer’s program, a film school connection, or through working in theater. They all had different stories about how they get a manager or agent. So, the one thing I gleaned was to make your own path, do what you’re best at, and keep your eyes on your goal. Right now, my goal is that I want to write for Awkward — just putting that out in the universe.
4. Ideas are currency.
Writers and producers need an arsenal of ideas, and content, and material. Currently, I’m in the process of building mine. At this point, admittedly, I mostly only have ideas. To be frank, I think most of my ideas are quite strong, and some of them have even made it to the depths of the outline stage, moving onto the writing stage. For a seasoned writer, this may be all I’d need, but I’m a nobody, so I have to prove myself, and actually write all these things out. But that’s OK, because I’m a writer and thats what we do: write. For producers, scripts and options are currency. A great connection with a brilliant budding writer could lead you to having the rights to the hottest Black List-able film of 2012, which would add tons to your street cred.
5. Ideas are not sacred.
At the same time, people get ideas every day. And because we live in a zeitgeisty world, there are probably five other writers or producers or executives out there with the same brilliant, unique idea as yours, who are developing them. That’s why Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached can come out in the same year. Just don’t steal. It’s incredibly apparent when people steal stuff.
6. Don’t be an asshole.
People hire their friends. Shoot, I know that if someone were to miraculously hand me a development deal right now, I know exactly the people I would hire in a heartbeat (and I’m married to one of them). And I can confirm that none of those on my shortlist people are assholes.
7. Make good stuff.
An agent or a manager isn’t going to want to represent you if your material is a cheap attempt at a script. A producer is not going to want your script if it’s pandering, or poorly written, or full of plot holes. A studio or distributor is not going to want to buy your film if it’s a piece of garbage. Audiences won’t see your film if it’s horribly bad. If you don’t have the talent, then don’t play the game, quite frankly.
8. Be passionate
The only way you can make excellent things is to be passionate about them. Of course you can be on the staff of a really stupid TV show, but you still have to find a way to find the passion, and let it show through your work. Pitches are better when there is emotion involved, I think — when you can feel the excitement emanating off of someone with a hot project, or an amazing idea. People can sense when something’s been half-assed.
9. Old people don’t matter.
Well, that’s a bit harsh, but I’ve gathered that movies are not made for people in their forties and older. As unfortunate as that is, it’s for a reason — people between the ages of 35 to 55 are largely raising children and they’re busy with actual careers and lives. They aren’t the people filling the seats at the theaters, so studios don’t bother making a lot of movies that will largely appeal to them. On the other hand, I don’t understand why more TV doesn’t try to target older viewers. They’re home, and they need something passive and less brainless that the 72nd season of Law & Order: SVU (which, admittedly, I’d still watch).
10. This industry is changing like crazy.
The scary thing about all of this is that no one quite knows where the industry is headed. I mean, lots of the instructors had an inkling. As far as movies are concerned, we’re basically buying time with 3D before a trip to the cinema costs the same as a trip to a Broadway play — movie theaters will be a once-in-a-while kind of thing, especially in the U.S. Already, people only go to the theater 2.5 times a year on average; it makes me feel like a wasteful jerk, since I probably go to the movies about 15 times a year, if not more. More people are staying at home and streaming their movies from Netflix, renting from Redbox, or illegally downloading movies. The rate of decline for DVD sales is pretty rapid, too. So, the stakes are higher when it comes to getting a box office return on a film’s release. That’s why mainstream movies SUCKED this summer — no studios wanted to, nor could afford to take any big risks. And unfortunately, there wasn’t a ton of focus on television, even though we are in the golden age of television at present. I think it’s clear when we compare the quality of television now to that of programming 15 years ago, in the height of sitcom mania, but there’s not as many people watching traditionally. So the idea is that networks have to figure out standardized way of quantifying viewers, and then figure out how to properly market to those viewers.
Hollywood is all about your liver.
Seriously. My classmates (and I, apparently) can drink. I don’t think I’ve been to so many bars in one summer of my life. Chateau Marmont, for goodness sakes! Come on! What other course of study includes swanky Hollywood bars as part of the extracurriculars? It’s all about who you know — who cares if I have to get to know you over a couple of glasses of wine?