Making a List and Checking it Twice

By Epiphany James

“Many of us have great ideas and very few of us ever execute on them, and so” Ted Hope opens his masterclass, “the question becomes how do you get it done?” Ted knows a thing or two about getting it done. In his career spanning 35+ years, he has produced over 70 films (25 Oscar nominations and 6 wins), has been a studio executive on over 60 films (19 Oscar nominations and 5 wins), was Co-Head of Movies at Amazon Studios, and is currently the CEO of a start-up streamer, post-production facility, two websites, and two think tanks.

The masterclass, hosted by Woodstock Film Festival, was presented as a 90-minute session entitled Producing 101: The Producing Methods Needed to Make Your Film Happen and to Make it Great, but what follows is a two-and-a-half-hour deep dive into the mind of a man who has analyzed our industry with Holmesian precision. Organizing his findings into lists (one 5-point list references a 32-point list, references a 52-point list, and so on) we begin to see the interwoven web, like clues on a pinboard trying to solve the great producing mystery– “how do we fail better?” In case you missed it, here’s a recap. 

Foundational to Ted’s other lists are what he calls the five eternal rules of The Producer’s Code. He makes the case, “It is more than about scale and budget, it’s also about meaning.” With so many varying labels for the Producer role; whether it’s an executive producer, line producer, associate producer, or any other number of titles, to him, this list cuts to the core of what must always define the role.

Key Takeaways:

Producing is about lifting good material into great material and good leaders into great ones. Can you develop a process for bringing the great out every single time? Can you build a coalition behind your film, giving each one the impact it deserves? Going further on the point of impact, remember that a film is more than a deliverable, it’s an experience. It is the producer’s role to create the safest, fairest, just, innovative, and fun experience possible while rewarding collaborators in a manner consistent with their contribution, risk, and commitment. Lastly, try to build a better ecosystem each time for those to follow. Never settle for the one we have.

Building on The Producer’s Code, Hope goes on to share his 52-point list breaking down the steps to getting a film “in the room” with executives and how to make it the best story in the process. Broken into categories, the central themes and patterns of these action steps point to this important reality: producers must be just as invested in the process of filmmaking as they are in the result of having the film in exhibition.

Key Takeaways:

Dream big. Interrogate everything. Examine your industry, the world, yourself, the systems at play, and through it all maintain a sense of wonder and love for the world and the people around you.

Think long-term. Be aware of barriers in your pathway and structure your process for the long haul. Making films takes endurance, persistence, and unwavering love and respect for the film industry. Your best work is 10-20 yrs out so ask yourself now, “What do I need to do to feel better about the world, my industry, and the place I play within it to see myself doing this 10 years from now?”

Find inspiring ideas and the correct collaborators to bring them to life. You are a truffle pig. You have to root around and be ruthless to find the quality material buried in tons of dirt. Executives are trained to say “no” so develop the script until you believe it’s ready and then develop it some more. Get feedback from non-industry friends and revise accordingly. Talk through themes. Talk through characters. Examine how they are existing in the world. 

Make lists. Define and maintain the project’s various thematic elements. Think through all of the possible audience segments for this film. Create a style map by defining and pinning how you would like to capture the emotions and themes visually. Maintain a to-do notebook with references, quotes, cast ideas, crew ideas, financing hit list, and so on. Make note of recent comp movies and how you would like executives to think about your project in terms of these comps. Curate an ongoing bank of references and inspirations from all mediums including books, music, and other movies.

Know your upcoming logistical concerns. Draft potential locations needed along with a description of each for scouting. Do the same process for characters to assist in casting. Draft a logline and revise it over and over. Draft 3 synopsis: 1 paragraph, ½ page, and 1 page. Ruthlessly spell-check the script and tolerate no errors. This demonstrates your love and respect for the project, the process, and the industry in all that you do.

Know your upcoming financial realities. Make the project feel inevitable. Can you start to put together a marketing strategy? Start to think of the business of this film as part of the story. Consider whether financing via something other than traditional models is viable/worthwhile to consider. Will you need ramp funding? If so, raise the money and know when you’re going to need it. Figure out what you’re willing to give away to acquire it and know where you can go to get it. Preliminary budget and schedule: make one for the dream scenario, one that reflects market reality, and one representing the minimum viable product.

Know your upcoming legal requirements. Determine the preferred legal and business structure for the project and when to form the LLC. Evaluate the project’s legal chain of title and what needs to be in place and when. Do semi-annual check-ins with leading financiers to evaluate present mandates; alternatively, check-in with agents or fellow producers. Read “the trades.”

Create momentum and get it in the room. It takes money, but be aware of how important it is to have a high-quality lookbook and an effective sizzle reel. These are your position tools that provide executives with a clear vision for the film. Evaluate prior submission lists to see if any projects may sound similar and how your project may need to be best repositioned to stand out. Develop a presentation pitch to introduce the project to the industry when at the height of momentum. Do you have covering agents? Update the script title page with a recent date and include your contact information. No one likes a stale project. Submit, submit, submit and maintain an outgoing list of where you submitted to. Check-in without being annoying. Get feedback and adjust the plan accordingly. Fail better. Try again.

As he took questions from the audience, Ted continued to reference his list for a good pitch. Already 30 minutes over the allotted time, he generously went back into presenting in order to break down his guide to an excellent pitch for us. A surprising tip he shared was, “Watch videos that show you the various “tells” in poker.” A “tell” is when a poker player shows a change in behavior or demeanor that can serve as a clue for other players as to how good their hand is. In the context of pitching, Ted goes on to explain how understanding tells will help you navigate a room of potentially straight-faced executives, allowing you to gauge whether they are leaning into what you’re sharing, or if you should speed it up to the next section to try and win them over there. 

Key Takeaways:

Be personable when you arrive and aim to connect with them on some relatable theme or point. Show respect for those in the room by doing your due diligence and researching them. Know what they’re looking for. A pitch is not the time to be reading, it’s time to tell them a damn good story. Know before you enter the room what you want to get out of the pitch. Consider how you can make your pitch just as original as the story you are sharing. Enjoy what you’re doing and pitch with passion. Anticipate their questions and prepare answers in advance. Pay attention to their body language and adjust accordingly. Have your follow-up prepared in advance. You are creating a long-term relationship. Leave them something positive to remember you by. They should feel a return on investment for spending time in that room with you. If they learn something they later repeat, they will remember you every time they do. 

At the end of it all, this rapid-fire masterclass managed to cover 79 points and referenced 32 more (you can read Ted’s 32 Qualities of a Better Film here).

It’s perhaps worth noting here that as an able-bodied attendee with an easy workaround for my neurodiversity, it was a struggle to keep up with the pace and fully glean all the knowledge being shared. Accessibility was an issue with this masterclass. With an absence of closed captioning, visual descriptors of what was on screen, or even a recording provided to paid attendees as a reference, the incredible content being shared felt locked behind a gate, accessible only to the abled majority. In 2022 with accessibility tools easily acquired, especially for organizations of Woodstock Film Festival’s size, the dis-ease felt unnecessary.

After the masterclass ended, messy notes in hand, the full breadth of what was just shared set in. A university professor could take the outline of this one workshop and break it into a semester-long producing course syllabus. It seems the efforts that Hope has invested in systematizing the process of “lifting the good material into great” has paid off, and for those in the room able to glean everything shared, they get to reap the full benefits.

Ted’s memoir, Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions, can be bought wherever books are sold. You can check out his website Hope for Film.