Teaching producers is a contact sport

Book Excerpt

Lawrence Turman is director of the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California. This excerpt is from his new book, “So You Want to Be a Producer.”

Anything that can be learned can be taught: painting, typing, cooking, playing the piano and, indeed, writing, directing and producing. So yes, producing can be taught. I teach it with conviction and pride, as chair/director of the Peter Stark Producing Program. I began by defining my own, and thus the program’s credo:

A producer is the person who causes a film to be made. A good producer causes it to be made well. The Peter Stark Producing Program believes that a producer is a creative originator of films, an entrepreneurial self-starter who is often first to recognize ideas that have merit creatively and/or commercially. We believe these criteria also apply to the studio executive, and that together the two must have passion, a sensitive nose for story and audience, plus the organizational ability and practical smarts to put together a project, and guide it to and through the marketplace. The Peter Stark Program’s goal is to give our students the practical skills and knowledge by which they can accomplish their personal goals as filmmakers, with integrity to their own values and artistic dreams.

The word savvy is my touchstone for designing the curriculum to be as practical as a trade school’s while constantly exhorting the students to “aim for the stars.” I give equal weight to the business side and the creative side; both are absolutely necessary in making a film. On the business side, in the first semester the students take a course that provides an economic overview of how the movie business works, a course that deals with how every department functions at a major studio and a course that details the world of independent film.

It may sound pretentious, but what I believe I really teach are values. Film is the conduit, the medium — not the message. I try to imbue my students with a strong desire to search out meaningful themes on pertinent, life-affirming subjects, to be true to and trust their own values, and to harness and hone them within the commercial film and television world; to value their hearts as much as their brains; and to be aware of the larger world, which can only enhance their chosen field and more importantly, their own lives.

There can be meaningful work outside of the commercial mainstream. I encourage my students to pursue their dreams and to not be afraid of trying to inspire, to lead, to exalt. I passionately believe in the transforming power and beauty of art. Life is more important but, happily, art and life can be conjoined. How you live your life is more important than what you do in your life.

In every field there are great practitioners who did not have formal instruction. The legendary producers Selznick, Zanuck, Spiegel, et al., never went to school to study the art of moviemaking, yet produced great films. Nor did Thalberg awardee and three-time Academy Award-winning producer Saul Zaentz have formal training. And neither do you have to. If you’re extremely motivated and can get a toehold, you can get on-the-job training and experience, as I did.

So is there an advantage to being taught producing in a formal academic environment, in film school? You bet, especially in Hollywood and, to a slightly lesser degree, in New York, for the contacts and proximity to the action and players. The prolific Roger Corman, who has produced literally hundreds of films, told me, to my surprise, “Film school today is mandatory.” I do not totally agree, but who am I to argue with a legend? By the way, Roger himself holds an engineering degree from Stanford.

While at USC film school, Suzanne Todd produced a short student film directed by Jay Roach. Was the movie “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” an enormous hit? Yes — so much so that it led to two successful sequels. Jay Roach directed all three. The producer of all three was Suzanne Todd (with her sister and partner Jennifer). How do you think that happened?

Essentially, two things can’t be taught: creativity and character. Both happen to be critical in the producing process. Character gets you on the playing field. Creativity is the ineffable thing that enables someone to score a touchdown or hit a home run. When I talk about character, I don’t mean it in a moral, ethical sense. I’m talking about personality. Personality is evident in someone who gets knocked down and immediately picks himself up, as opposed to someone who gets a rejection or two and loses confidence in the project he chose in the first place. Maybe I should use the word backbone instead of character.

Character, who a person is, is formed early on. Creativity is innate, although surely it can be nurtured. The classic Greeks illustrated character by differentiating between the “choleric” and the “sanguine.” Two people walking down the road encounter a huge rock blocking the way. The choleric one says, “Son of a bitch!” and kicks the rock. The sanguine one smiles. “Ah, a rock,” he says, and walks around it. Producers need a little of each quality.

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