Here we highlight some amazing screenwriting and producing wisdom from Gail Lyon — acclaimed producer of Gattaca, Erin Brockovich, and the upcoming Destination Wedding — through the lens of the TSL Summit. Watch the full interview for free on the weekend of Sept. 22 and 23 only.
We’ve pulled some of her best nuggets of advice and perspective and elaborate on how those points can be best applied to your own screenwriting or producing journey.
1. Being a Prolific Reader of All Things Can Open Doors
Gail was asked if she had always wanted to be a producer. She explains that the position came to her after working in the news sector. She was a prolific reader of books and her career took a turn away from the news industry and into narrative film and television when she accepted a position as a reader for a production company.
“Having been a big reader my whole life actually paid off because I have a lot of interest and familiarity with story, story structure, and that sort of thing. And then I had to sort of retool it to fit the paradigm of movies and television and the world of entertainment,” she shared.
For screenwriters, being a script reader for a studio, agency, management company, or production company is the best education available — better than any film school, course, or screenwriting book combined.
You learn what to do, what not to do, the likes and dislikes of industry insiders, and so much more.
For anyone looking to break into producing or development, being a script reader is often the entry-level position. If you find that your screenwriting aspirations are eclipsed by the want and need to produce and develop, this type of experience can open many doors for you.
But it’s not just about coming in and reading scripts. You have to have an understanding of story, story structure, and characterization. While it’s outstanding to read screenplays and watch movies, being a prolific reader of novels, novellas, and short story collections will help hone your ability to break down stories as you need when you’re working as a script reader.
2. The Many Dynamics to Being a Producer
When asked to clarify what a producer actually does, Gail pointed out that there are many levels of the job. Some producers see a project come to life within a year while most projects can linger in development for multiple years before finally being filmed. Some projects are built from an idea while others are developed when a script is acquired.
There are two types of producing as well. The development phase is the creative stage where the job entails shepherding the idea or intellectual property into a screenplay through multiple drafts. The physical production phase is the stage where the job shifts to handling the day-to-day needs and wants of the production itself as the film is being shot.
The producer’s role in both development and production is very hands on. Much like the eventual director, you are tasked with getting the script to where it needs to be, attaching the proper talent to make the film come to life, and putting out multiple fires every day.
3. The Different Between Producing as a Studio Executive and Independent Producer
Gail has worked both in the independent and studio executive-level producing roles. The difference between the two is fairly simple.
The studio executive-level producer is a macro position, which oversees the big picture. “We’re looking for a comedy. We’re looking for something that is emotional and touches people. It’s big picture architecture,” Gail offered as an example.
The independent producer role is different — and note that this doesn’t refer specifically to independent features. It covers studio projects as well. “[It’s a] micro-minutia job. Every detail counts.” It involves the individual making of a picture.
Both roles are very different, and if you want to become a producer, you need to know and understand that there are many levels to consider.
4. It’s More Than If the Script Is Good
Most screenwriters need to realize that having a great script isn’t enough. You have to market it to the right people, and the timing has to fall in line with the big picture.
Gail mentions that the studio needs to consider how to market a feature, if they can make their money back, etc. These are frustrating elements to the screenwriter, but you can’t escape them because, in the end, movies are a business. They need to turn a profit.
So if you’re script has won major screenwriting contests but hasn’t made it to the big screen yet, don’t fret. Understand that you also have to write screenplays that studios and production companies can profit from. Sure, that small and quirky dramedy may see the light of day, but you’re bettering your odds if you find a way to write a hybrid of what you want to write and what studios will want to release.
5. How Does a Producer Find Content?
It’s different for every producer. Some producers stick to a certain genre or collection of genres. Others go with their gut.
“My criteria is ‘Do I like it and can it break through the clutter.’ If I’m thinking about something that I talked about with a friend or read in a newspaper article or whatever else… if I’m thinking about it two or three days later… it upset me or made me laugh or was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard… if it breaks through the clutter and I’m thinking about it, pay attention. Because that means it has something in it,” Gail explains.
If you want to be a producer, finding projects becomes an art form. It’s not always about stumbling onto a fantastic script. Often, it’s about getting out there and reading books, articles, news headlines, social media feed, etc. It’s about looking for those stories that break through the clutter and stick with you.
As a screenwriter, you want to choose projects that stand out. If you’re chasing a trend and writing your version of the latest big movie or iconic classic, you’ll often find yourself lost within that clutter.
What is going to make your script stand out?
6. Write Something Ten Degrees From a Popular Theme
“Think about what you’re writing for. Open up your aperture of possibilities and then look at the medium and say ‘What’s getting made in this medium?’ And then how can I offer a variation on a theme. Which [means] if somebody is making this style of thing, you’re probably not going to have much luck as a new writer doing the exact same thing — but find something that ten degrees off. Not a hundred degrees off, because that’s just harder to sell, but find something that a variation of a theme… the style of things that they are making. And offer up something in the bandwidth that’s a little bit different.”
Gail makes an amazing point here. Both audiences and Hollywood love something familiar because it’s safe. When we go to a Marvel movie or the latest Fast and Furious, we know we’re in for a rollercoaster ride. And when we board that rollercoaster, yes, we know the twists, turns, drops, and loops — but they somehow still thrill us.
But audiences and Hollywood also need something different. If you’ve been on the same ride too many times, you begin to feel the need to search for something better — or at least different. And that’s where this “ten degrees off” comes into play.
Instead of a cruise ship sinking into the ocean as passengers struggle to survive (Titanic), what if it’s a space cruise ship hit by a meteor? That’s maybe five degrees off. What could take that concept an additional five degrees off of Titanic?
Give audiences and Hollywood something familiar, but something different — the perfect hybrid.
The TSL Summit features masterclasses, deep-dive interviews and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, TV showrunners, producers, managers, agents, studio executives and leading educators — all in one place. You can learn directly from the industry’s best about the craft and business of screenwriting and filmmaking.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies