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WHY PRODUCERS MUST STUDY SCREENWRITING

Without a solid understanding of screenplay structure a producer has no way of knowing whether his screenplay is good or bad.

Successful Hollywood producers have known this for decades, but many newer producers I speak to around the world do not.

Producers MUST study and understand screenwriting!

Without a solid understanding of screenplay structure a producer cannot evaluate a screenplay in order to determine if it will succeed with their audience. And they cannot effectively assist their screenwriter in rewriting it. All they can do is share their “gut reaction”.

Gut reaction is great if you’re a seasoned professional. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures during the Golden Age of Hollywood, used to have a butt reaction. If he squirmed in his seat he knew the picture was a flop. But unless you’ve taught your butt to lie down and roll over along with sit I wouldn’t count on it to tell you which screenplays are worth putting time and money behind.

A producer cannot rely on creative instinct to evaluate, fix and improve a screenplay.

Fully understanding screenplay structure and content isn’t just about “good writing”, whatever that means. It’s about understanding what constitutes a well structured story, including the precise interrelationship of theme, character and plot.

Your gut cannot tell you that theme drives the character through the plot. You have to learn this, and know how it works. If these three elements are not in the right order and balanced correctly the story simply will not work.

It’s not enough for a producer to know the definitions of inciting incident, turning point, midpoint, subplot, crisis, climax, etc. Just because someone knows the definitions of cortex, hippocampus and thalamus doesn’t qualify them to perform brain surgery. A producer must know more than all the pieces, he has to know how the pieces fit together, how one affects the others, how to adjust and fine tune them like a conductor does with the various instruments of an orchestra to produce a moving symphony.

Virtually every time a producer sends me a screenplay to doctor they tell me it’s in great shape and just needs a dialogue or comedy punch-up. And yet a quick analysis reveals it to be so flawed as to require a total rewrite. How could they be so blind? Because they haven’t a clue what a good screenplay really is.

Some producers may think that they don’t need to know the details of theme, character and plot structure if they hire a professional screenwriter. But even the best writers occasionally miss the mark and write poor scripts. So producers need to know screenwriting in order to hire a good writer in the first place. A producer cannot properly read a script sample if she doesn't understand what she’s reading.

There is no shortcut to learning screenplay structure. You can’t get it from one book. But it doesn’t take a two-year graduate course either. A good understanding of the process can be acquired by studying the best screening books. The following books should do the job. Click on them to learn more.

Some people will tell you McKee or Field is the only way to go. Others will insist all you need to know are the 12 stages of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Still others are sold on Truby’s 22 steps. From my experience there isn’t one book that has it all. I studied all of them and assimilated the most workable information until everything gelled into a certainty of understanding that allowed me to write and evaluate scripts.  

In addition to the above books I also highly recommend Mitchell German's Plot Control Mega Course. It's less expensive than Robert McKee's lecture and in my opinion far more effective.

You will be amazed what happens when you read a screenplay after gaining a good understanding of screenplay structure. You’ll spot the misplaced plot points, the flawed character arcs, the missing subplots and the wasteful dialogue. You’ll gain certainty of what’s right and wrong with a script and how to fix it. And best of all you will no longer have to rely on your gut—or butt.

©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved