Putting creative producers at the centre of the picture

Fifty odd delegates from thirty-six film schools in twenty countries are arriving in Edinburgh this evening for Producing Creative Producers – two days of discussion and debate about the training of creative producers, the much overlooked but absolutely essential catalysts (and often originators) of the film and television that reaches our screens.  Whereas the role and significance of writers and directors is accepted and fairly well understood, the people who are often the first to recognize the value of an idea, a story or a talent, rarely receive the attention or accolades afforded to the perceived authors of film.  Yet without a Puttnam, a Weinstein or a (Andrew) MacDonald many if not most of the best and most successful films simply wouldn’t have got made.

Regular visitor to Scotland Producer and co-founder (with Ken Loach) of Sixteen Films, Rebecca O’Brien will kick off proceedings with a keynote on ‘Producing in the 21st Century – challenges for producers and for film schools’, acknowledging that the producer’s role doesn’t stand still either and new business models, technologies and markets demand new approaches alongside the established.

For film industries like Scotland’s and for film schools everywhere the question of whether, and if so how best, creative producers can be nurtured, trained and supported is crucial to the future health of cinema and television whether your uppermost concern is cultural or commercial.  For the key skill of a creative producer is precisely that of navigating the line between creative risk and commercial savvy.

Launched in 2004 the first postgraduate programme at Screen Academy Scotland, our one-year MA Screen Project Development, was also the first in the UK to focus entirely on the creative and business skills producers need to take a good idea or an existing property (e.g. book) to the point where it is an irresistible screen proposal, capable of attracting finance and reaching an audience.  In a fairly radical move the programme set aside the no less important but still separate skills of line producing and production management.  Why?  Because no matter how many great line producers or production managers we have, it’s the number and the level of skill of the producers who put the scripts and talent together with the money which determines what gets made.  Many great ‘producers’ working in , for example, TV, couldn’t develop a script or pitch a project to a financier if their life depended on it.  Equally many creative and entrepreneurial  producers couldn’t manage a shoot if their life depended on it.  The important difference is that the latter (once they’ve raised the finance) can (budget permitting!)  hire the expertise of the former, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

So the question members of GEECT (the European chapter of global film schools association CILECT) will be pondering this week is how to cultivate the creative producer in a context where it’s very difficult to replicate the structures of the real world.  The missing elements range from the absence of a real financing/commissioning/distribution structure to the fact that to be effective a producer really needs to have significantly more experience than the writer or director for the latter to benefit from the former’s involvement in everything from script editing to casting.

For some people it’s not worth film schools even trying – on this account producers can only learn ‘on the job’ and film schools should stick to teaching the basics – like copyright and the rudiments of film financing and the hands-on skills of (line) production. For others the skills and insights needed to work with a writer, to frame a pitch or package story, talent and other elements can be taught, or at least learned through ‘as close as you can get’ simulations.  Some schools have gone the whole hog and spun out a production company of their own to provide real feature production opportunities, garnering finance from TV and other sources along the way.  Several schools have launched graduate development programmes like our own ENGAGE or the London Film School led Low Budget Film Forum .

These questions and models have prompted this week’s Producing Creative Producers symposium so we’ll return later in March with a report on just how creative the delegates got …


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