STEVEN J. BERGER: The Five Tenets of Courting a Producer

By Steven J. Berger

Dear Producer recently received a request from a reader who was looking for advice on how to best connect with the right producer joking, “There’s no Tinder for producers that I’m aware of!” To tackle this topic, we reached out to Steven J. Berger, the executive producer behind the much anticipated Amazon show, LORENA, a four-part documentary series about the notorious case of spouses Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, with executive producer Jordan Peele. Breaking down what he feels are the top tenets of finding the right partner, Steven also reached out to a few of his fellow producers for their advice. 

Steven Berger CroppedFor a writer/director, the idea of finding the right producer can seem like such a daunting, Sisyphean task. This is a relationship that is so much greater than a work-for-hire or a casual collaboration. This is a partnership in the truest sense – a marriage. One where you will have each other’s backs to the end. You’ll likely disagree at times, but ultimately, it’s all about aligning over one thing what’s best for “the baby.”

Here are my five tenets on how to focus your efforts and increase your chances at an effective courtship:

 

1.     When reaching out to potential producers, make an effort to figure out if you have a mutual contact who can make an introduction on your behalf. This can easily be done by sifting through credits on IMDBPro (a must have resource for anyone trying to get a project off the ground). A personal introduction is always going to carry so much more weight than sending a blind email. Every producer wakes up in the morning thinking they are going to be 100% proactive then immediately turn 100% reactive when we wake up to a million emails. We have to prioritize what we respond to, and it always starts with our immediate trusted circle, and those who we are referred to by them.

2.     Make sure that your first contact with a potential producer is a truly personal one. We are going to be looking for your personality and passion to come through in your email to understand what kind of person is courting us. If you appear to have an ego in your email, no thanks. If you seem to be demanding, no thanks. If you seem to be really passionate and sincere, when can we meet? Sending a query letter or what is clearly a broad email that went to 1,000 other producers is never going to get our attention. People love being flattered every now and again – let a producer know that you loved their previous film or show and tell us why you were inspired to reach out. Don’t be the person who leaves the stock family photo in the new picture frame – make it personal.

3.     Producers are not ATMs. I’m often approached with projects that already have a handful of producers attached and asked if I can come on board just to raise the money, as if that is some simple task. I don’t know a single independent producer who wants to be involved in a project only to raise money. Producers want to be involved from the beginning to help shape a project from the ground up to ensure it is set up for success. While producers have logistical brains, we are also creative beings just like you.

4.     Be open. The great news about being the director is that you get to take credit for the success, regardless of where a good idea comes from. No one ever watches a movie and thinks, ‘I love this director because they’re always right.’ If at first meeting, we sense you are not truly open to collaboration or constructive challenging to get to the best result, it’s a red flag for what’s to come down the road and we will most likely turn and walk the other way.

5.     Be fair. You found the producer you’ve been looking for! And they want to partner with you! Fantastic! But then talk of fees and backend come up and you feel you deserve more because you’re the writer/director. You’ll understand this after you make your film, but your producer will work for much longer than you will and when you’re off writing your next script, your producer will be managing festivals, (hopefully) selling the film, dealing with delivering your film to a distributor, updating your financiers, handling accounting and taxes… the list goes on and on. Producers give up so much of themselves to help you make your dream a reality and not in just in their own time and knowledge, but also in pulling their resources and favors in order to make it all happen. The thing that keeps us going is potential. The potential for a breakout movie, the potential for sharing in the success of that film, financially and otherwise, and the potential for future collaborations. Remember that 100% of zero is still zero and you need to be fair in negotiating with the person who will be the biggest champion of your film.

So now that you’re armed with the dos and don’ts, put yourself out there and go find yourself a producer! And if you’re still a little unsure, here are a few more tips from my fellow producers…

 

MYNETTE LOUIE, President, Gamechanger Films

Before approaching producers, remember to do your research on them! If your project is micro-budget, you should probably skip the folks who haven’t produced a micro-budget film in the last five years. If the producer has recently gotten a new full-time job as a studio executive, an agent, or the like, she’s probably not looking for new projects to produce right now. (Ditto producers who have left the biz… many of us do!) If you’re looking for a producer to help you develop your script, attach cast, and find financing, make sure he/she actually has that experience, or at least the smarts and hunger to learn all that stuff on the job.

Don’t unnecessarily weigh down your project with multiple producers from the outset. Like directing, producing is an art, and too many cooks do spoil the broth. Don’t attach producer deadweight, because it’s hard to un-attach. Get your lead producer on board first, then decide together whether it’s worth attaching additional producers. 

 

GABRIELLE NADIG, Producer, Beachside Films

Do your homework before reaching out to me blindly. Look at my IMDB page, Google my previous films and watch them (search on Gowatchit.com). Try to have something to say about my previous work that makes you think that I will be a good fit for your project. Do not send me the script in the fist email. I will not read it. Please just introduce yourself, send some information on your past experiences, and tell me about your new project. I’ll get back to you if it’s something that sounds interesting to me. Ideally if possible, try to find someone else to introduce you to me. A direct connection will be at the top of my list of people to get back to.

 

BERT KERN, Producer, Whitewater Films

Be strategic. Know why you would send your project to a certain producer. For example, is there something he or she has produced that you feel has a correlation to your project? Highlight a producer’s projects and talk about why you feel your film would be an asset to them, not just about how they can help you.

Put yourself in a place to make  connections. Continue to work – make shorts – get your projects into festivals; attend those festivals and engage with people. Producers will connect with you if you have told a good story. Even if you don’t get your film into a festival – attend anyway – you are going to be at a place with likeminded people; there is a chance you meet someone who can be helpful.

 

Steven Berger is an Executive Producer on LORENA, a limited documentary series for Amazon Studios with Jordan Peele and has produced numerous independent films such as INHERITANCE and SLASH, both which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. Steven also produced THE FEELS, a comedy starring Constance Wu from the hit television show FRESH OFF THE BOAT, the Black List script, THE PRETTY ONE, starring Zoe Kazan and Jake Johnson, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was distributed by Sony Pictures, ECHOES OF WAR, starring James Badge Dale and Maika Monroe, and winner of the Grand Jury Award at the Dallas Film Festival, and the short film SPOONFUL, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Steven began working in the industry in post-production and has worked on over two dozen films and television shows over 10 years, including SPIDERMAN 2, THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, and THE INCREDIBLES.

Born in Hawaii, Steven is a graduate of the American Film Institute and is the Producer in Residence at Film Independent in Los Angeles.