From a Producer’s Perspective: How to Give and Take Notes

You’ve toiled. It’s been months of work but you’ve finally reached that amazingly satisfying moment when you get to type THE END on the last page of your screenplay. 

You take a breath, have a drink and, for a brief moment, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. Then doubt begins to creep in. Is this even any good? Was it a total waste of time? Does it have a future? And you realize… “Oh, man. I’m going to have to share this with other people.”

Once your script gets out into the wild, that’s where everyone’s favorite process begins… notes! 

David Kaufmann goes even deeper in his book, The Producer’s Brain. Get it on Amazon now.

The process of giving and taking notes is not always fun, but as they say, writing is rewriting and getting outside perspectives to improve your characters and story arc is essential in creating a story that HAS to be told. There are plenty of clichés about the pain involved in giving and taking notes. As the old joke goes: 

“How many studio executives does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

… “Does it have to be a light bulb?”

All kidding aside, people do not always see eye to eye on what a script needs to work and the truth is that there is not usually one right answer. As I discussed in a previous blog about budget, genre, and distribution, producers are often thinking about marketability in addition to craft, which can sometimes create tension with writers. I think this is especially true when writers feel forced to implement notes that they don’t necessarily agree with. 

In my blog post about making your own luck, I wrote about the collaborative nature of this business and the power of good partnerships. If you want your notes to accomplish what they should, to vastly improve the narrative and heighten the story through outside perspectives, this is imperative. So how should both sides approach this process? 

As a producer, I try to follow three simple rules when providing feedback to writers: 

  • Be Kind
  • Be Thoughtful
  • Start a Conversation

Kindness is essential and is sometimes lacking in this business. Writing a script is more often than not a process of baring one’s soul. It’s painful when feedback is overly negative. Even if a script needs a lot of work, it is important to bring emotional intelligence into the process and ensure that your notes are honest but also encouraging and uplifting. If there is belief in the overall idea, there’s only one way to reach the finish line… keep going. It’s a lot easier to keep up momentum with positive vibes, so I can’t reiterate enough… be kind. 

Be thoughtful. Focus on the positive as well as the negative. If there are things in a script that aren’t working, think about a few good suggestions as to how to change them. Show the writer that you’ve spent the time to digest their work and take it seriously. Try to hone in on the themes that the writer is attempting to address and think about ways to heighten them. 

Once you’ve taken the time to come up with some thoughtful ideas, make sure that you present them in a way that starts a conversation. Your notes should not be commandments sent down from on high; this is where problems occur. Try to create an open dialogue approached by both sides without ego. At the end of the day, your notes should be the start of a brainstorming session. The best ideas usually come through discussion and not from any one side. That’s always been the case for my collaborations. 

Lastly, as you work through this process, start with the macro and work towards the micro. If there are structural issues, focus on those first. Don’t comment on a line of dialogue on page 26 if you need to fix the whole first act… that comes later. As the script gets closer to completion, then you can hone in on really small fixes to polish it off. 

As the recipient of notes:

  • Keep an Open Mind
  • Understand Your Producer’s Process

Often times while writing you are so close to the story that you don’t see things that are missing. I think this is especially true in the case of character. Many of your characters are so fully formed in your mind that you don’t realize you haven’t explained things that you know about them on the page. Good notes can help with this. Be open-minded and try not to dig your heels in just because you are used to something reading a certain way, a little experimentation never hurt anyone.

As important as it is for a producer to be thoughtful about the writer’s feelings, it’s also key that writers understand their producer’s process. It may seem easy for your producer to just forward a script along, but it is important to understand how hard it is to build relationships to the point where one can get content read by decision makers or financiers. 

A producer is only as good as their taste and the last script that they championed. This is a lot of the reason that producers push notes to the point of perfection. When you send a script out you only get one shot. It’s integral to put your best foot forward, otherwise, all of your time and effort will be for naught. If you don’t believe in it 100%, keep working. 

The process of giving and taking notes is not always fun, but when approached by both sides with mutual respect and shared long term goals, it can lead your project to heights that you never thought possible. 

In the next blog, I’ll write more about the producer’s process and what happens once someone decides they’d like to take your script to market. 

David Kaufmann is an independent film and television producer living in Los Angeles. He began his career as an NBC Page at Saturday Night Live. He spent over nine years handling film and television licensing and development at Major League Baseball where he helped create critically acclaimed films like Moneyball and 42. He has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Richmond and holds an MBA from NYU Stern with a focus on the media business and creative producing. He is an active member of the Producers Guild of America. For more on David, please visit his IMDB or LinkedIn.

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