NTERVIEW: Producer J. Todd Harris on Working with Producers and Building a Successful Screenwriting Career
“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to makes speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
~Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Crafting an amazing story often happens in the isolated bubble of a writer’s cave. But at some point, a writer needs to embrace collaboration, step out of their cave and find someone who believes in not only their screenplay, but also in their talent. If you’re lucky, that champion is a producer.
Meet J. Todd Harris, veteran producer of dozens of films, including The Kids Are All Right and Bottle Shock. Always wanting to take our readers behind the Hollywood scenes, I asked Harris to share his insights on breaking into screenwriting, working with producers, landing representation, and staying in the game.
Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeanne V. Bowerman: With all the artistic opportunities to choose from, why producing?
Todd Harris: I was an actor in high school, a little bit in college at Stanford. When I was in college I wanted to do a production of Hair, probably because I wanted to be in it. Then, I realized if I didn’t go get the rights and raise the money, the show would never get done.
As I was producing the show, I realized everybody else was rehearsing, getting naked and getting high, while I was selling tickets in White Plaza. But I guess that was my own high. I realized I liked putting on a show and have ever since.
Producing also meshed well with a relatively fearless nature about asking for money, going to people for favors, and getting people charged up about the overall cause. Being part of a greater whole I’ve found gets people engaged.
So, once I started doing that in college, I produced a few more plays, a film festival, and concerts. Since there was no film program to speak of at Stanford, I did a lot of student theater. That led me to my first job, which was running a theater company in Palo Alto—a repertory theater company called TheatreWorks (today it’s TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley). It was 1981, and I was 22-years-old. I’d just graduated from college, and I was suddenly doing eight shows a year. Because the company never had a manager before, it didn’t take a magician to make things look better than before there was a manager. But I had a blast and—frankly—loved coming to work every day.
I was selling subscriptions, the company budget was expanding, and we were getting more people to attend. In three years, the company went from a yearly budget of $90,000 to $300,000, and we went from around 900 subscribers to 3500 subscribers. In the 30 years since I’ve left, it’s become a $7 or $8 million-dollar company. They have 10,000 subscribers. It’s become one of the biggest theater companies on the West Coast. In retrospect, those were three little years in the growth of the company, but huge years in my personal growth.
So that’s producing, but there has to be some something to produce, which is why I love writers because producing is basically busy work compared to the creative work of writing.
When you’re a writer, you have to face the blank page. You can multitask by working on other things you’re writing, but at the end of the day, it’s just you and the page, you and the screen. So, as a producer, you’re able to put some energy into a project and move on. If one project isn’t giving you results, you’ve got three, five, 10, or in my case, 20 other things you could focus on. But writers have to make the one thing work to have any sense of satisfaction or completion.
JVB: Obviously, you’ve worked with many writers, playwrights, and screenwriters. What should a screenwriter or a playwright know about working with a producer, in terms of managing their expectations when they’re pitching them?
Todd Harris: I think the first overwhelming reality that has become more and more pronounced is that everyone has a short attention span.
Harris: If you can’t get their interest before you’re in the room, even conceptually, you may have a problem. They shouldn’t be hearing you if they’re not interested conceptually. When you get them in the room, if you can’t get them interested in 30 to 60 seconds with a basic concept, you may never get traction. The intro, the key art, the concept, and where this lives in the commercial world is more important than ever.
Imagine going in and trying to pitch Fargo, if you were the Coen brothers. People would say “What?” Imagine, Chris Nolan pitching Inception. But thank god for auteurs who get to write whatever the hell they want.
JVB: I saw Inception twice, and I still ask, “What?” (laughs)
Harris: Exactly. But, when you’re a newer screenwriter, you really have to be able to grab people by the lapels and get them to see the concept and understand exactly who the movie is for, and it all has to happen early on in the pitch. Then, you can get into the details.
That’s the reason I’m so focused on books and the titles. Branded titles that you can pull from books, and plays, and games and other things. Because people understand them; there’s an existing familiarity with pre-existing titles. If I say I’m pitching Dance Dance Revolution, an arcade game that our company has optioned, people are immediately interested and ask, “Oh my god, what’s it gonna be?” When I’m telling them I’m doing Soul Train on Broadway, that’s all you need to say. I don’t need to pitch them. Eventually, I need to say what’s the theme, what kind of music, but they understand the concept based on the title and the era.
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Harris: If you look at Hollywood and Broadway, about eight out of ten movies or shows are based on existing (branded) IP [intellectual property]—Crazy Rich Asians, Hamilton, Harry Potter, Lego, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, every Marvel movie ever. Even other Tony winners like Kinky Boots and The Band’s Visit are based on independent films. Intellectual property kicks the door down for you. It’s a little dispiriting from a pure invention point of view, because you don’t get to experience the same creative breakthroughs like The Descendants or Sideways or Fargo, Raising Arizona, or Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. Now, almost everything is based on something. And writers have to acknowledge how the marketplace has changed.
JVB: It also speaks to how important the basic idea of your story is. If it’s an original idea, not IP, then it better be pretty damn amazing and grab you by the throat. You might not want to be writing about something that may only matter to you. Sure, your personal story might be interesting to you and some people you know, but is anyone else going to care?
Harris: Right, right. It really does need to distinguish itself—in a hurry—yes.
“When you get them in the room, if you can’t get them interested in 30 to 60 seconds with a basic concept, you may never get traction. The intro, the key art, the concept, and where this lives in the commercial world is more important than ever.”
JVB: Let’s talk about taking notes—specifically from a producer. Would you recommend writers think like a producer when writing their script? Or, just write with reckless abandon and then worry about the cost, or whatever, after they’ve grabbed a producer’s attention.
Harris: You can’t write without paying some attention to budget. But, a lot of times our advice to the writers is, “Write the best version of this you can. Try not to write a $200-million-dollar script, but write the best version of it you can.” Because what you have to do is get people excited about it. The read is the first sale. That said, I’m out with a pitch right now that people think is going to cost $100 million dollars, and I’m trying to tell them we can do it for $60 million, so cost is always a factor.
But I also think it depends on whether you’re writing for yourself on spec and you just want to write something great, or if you’re writing an assignment. If someone is writing on assignment, we need an outline. Too often, we’ve been burned by letting writers jolly off on their own after giving us the broad strokes only to be disappointed when a draft off the mark comes in.
I want an outline, I want a beat sheet. I just hired someone to adapt a book. He gave me a 50-page “scriptment,” and this is an experienced writer-director. When I read it, I felt like I just saw a movie, except for the dialogue. I said, “This is fantastic.” I really appreciated it.
I gave him a few minor notes, and now they’re going to send me a script. I’m not saying he has to do that. But, I really want a pitch or a treatment, whether that’s three pages or 20 pages, to make me feel like I’ve just experienced the movie. And, I want a pitch, whether it’s five minutes, or 25 minutes, to make me feel like I’ve experienced the movie.
What I don’t want is any crazy surprises when I read that script or hear the pitch in front of a studio exec.
JVB: I’ve always maintained that it’s critical for screenwriters to get beyond their art and understand how the business side of this industry works.
Harris: I have taught producing at Chapman and Syracuse and I’ve also taught one-day producing workshops. Whether you’re a writer, director, or producer, I think students have taken away a lot of practical knowledge about how to go from page to screen and the processes and challenges that are involved. People don’t think about rights acquisition, contracts, hiring writers, attracting directors, working with agents and managers, raising money, using tax credits, hiring a staff, choosing a location, finding and getting distribution, marketing and all the paw prints that get put on a movie along the way.
JVB: I like to know how things work. Even if you write a short film, crowdfund, get a crew from the local film school, and shoot it on an iPhone, it helps writers understand how the bigger picture works. I’m sure writers can learn from your class, even if they don’t want to produce.
Harris: I definitely feel the more writers have insight into what producers do, directors do, and to the entire filmmaking process, the better. When you take my seminar, you come away from it with a much greater appreciation for the process, the market and all the realities that go into rendering a movie.
To write something just because, like you said, it makes you happy… You know what? You’re right, Jeanne, it may have limited appeal to the rest of the world. I look back at projects I championed early in my producing career, and I scratch my head and say, “Whoa. What was I thinking?” But, when I was young and naïve, I didn’t really understand. Now, 30 years have passed and it’s finally sunk in—you write for an audience.
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JVB: You have to keep us posted when you have another class. Are they only in L.A.?
Harris: I’ve taught it in Boston, Atlanta, Philly, Seattle and other locations, usually college campuses. I haven’t taught it in L.A. in a long time. But, it’s the kind of thing I would love to do, two or three times a year, in a place where I’ve never been. Sometimes people from out of town have a greater appreciation of what they’re hearing, because they’re not learning it anywhere else. I probably should offer it online, I’m just—
JVB: Too busy.
Harris: I am, right now. But I could give a rocking three, to four, five-hour version of this, and take everybody from “I want to be a producer,” to “What does a DVD box look like.” Or, “How am I going to get it to Netflix streaming?” Because, there are about 100 steps in between those two things.
“I definitely feel the more writers have insight into what producers do, directors do, and to the entire filmmaking process, the better.”
JVB: That would be fantastic! Okay, so here’s another question. Since you like to work a lot with IP, do you have advice to screenwriters about how to obtain it?
Harris: First of all, look at stuff in the public domain—stuff from about 100 years ago. That’s the way to do it. If it’s a famous book, it’s going to be expensive to get.
The key is to have access to the publishing business so you can get tipped off to something exciting that’s coming out. Or steered toward an older book that may have been overlooked.
So, if you can find that overlooked book, or you can find that piece of IP that people just forgot about, or that was optioned but never happened, that can give you a leg up. Do you know how many projects Warner Bros. has optioned and eventually lost the rights to, or given up on even after they spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars on development? You know how long Harry Potter sat on the shelf at Warner Bros.? A long time.
JVB: Amazing. When I got Slavery by Another Name, which you read the Limited Series treatment for, I just totally lied to the author, and told him I was coming down to Atlanta on business, and I wanted to talk to him. The book had just made the New York Times Best Seller list, and I knew I had to act fast. Truth is, I had no business in Atlanta. But, I flew down and met him, and then spent six months following him around the East Coast whenever he was at a speaking engagement. I listened to his audience, of what made them gasp, what made them cry. The author hadn’t said yes to me, but he also hadn’t said no. He really had no interest in working with an unknown writer. He thought Oprah was going to call him. Luckily for me, Oprah never called. But, I was still there. All the time. I was sending him notes on character backstory and crafting an outline. He ended up loving my vision. I made it impossible for him to say no.
Harris: That’s a lesson.
JVB: While I was adapting it, it won the Pulitzer Prize.
Harris: Oh my god.
JVB: So, I’m always telling people, it doesn’t hurt to ask. The worst they can do is say, “No.” Nobody ever died from hearing, “No.” If you want it, just ask.
Harris: Believe me, I hear “no” so many times a week versus “yes.” It’s staggering.
JVB: Let’s talk a little bit about that—about staying in the game.
Harris: I do think it’s important to vet your ideas with people you trust. Even if it’s in the incubational stage, because it takes months to write a screenplay. You’d hate to write a screenplay only to find out that conceptually, it was dead in the water before you started it. That’s brutal. It helps to have multiple properties that you’re working on. But it’s a lot to ask, to write three things at a time.
If you could be writing shorter fiction, or writing shorter non-fiction, so you can get the occasional “yes.” I’m not saying it’s easier, but maybe it’s a little bit easier. The interesting thing about features is, there are no rules in the feature world. So, you could write it and say, “Okay, we’re going to make a $10-million-dollar movie. Oh, nobody wants to make it for $10 million dollars? How about we make it for $2 million dollars? Okay, how about this actor? Or, how about I get that director? Or, how about I get this, that, or the other thing?”
It’s very different from TV where it seems to be more of a business, and if it works, great, and if not, let it go.
“…what you have to do is get people excited about it. The read is the first sale.”
JVB: What about getting representation? Sometimes being with the wrong agent or manager is worse than having none at all.
Harris: I often hear the lament, “Oh, why won’t someone sign me?” The reality is, people sign people they think are going to make them money soon. People are going to sign people whose work they’ve read or seen and have some credibility. Again, it’s all about credibility, as I feel the entire film producing process is. Often a warm introduction is key. I’ve helped some student Academy Award and Nicholl Screenplay Competition finalists land representation, which makes me feel good.
JVB: Who you know matters… but you also have to have the writing chops to earn the introduction.
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JVB: I always ask as the last interview question, if you could go back in time and talk to your 18-year-old self, what advice would you give him?
Harris I would say to read more great literature. As a producer, as a director, as a writer, understand the fundamentals of good stories.
Whether it’s The Hero’s Journey, or Save the Cat!, or Elements of Style. Being a good writer and understanding what makes good writing will serve you well in your career. I wish I was better versed on movies from the early days. I wish I’d seen more John Ford movies, more Billy Wilder movies, more Frank Capra movies.
Frankly, if I were going into the business today, I would go into TV because that’s where there is so much opportunity. It took me so long to understand what made Hollywood tick. When you’re young, and you’re coming up in L.A., and if you don’t know what you want to do, and you think you want to be a producer or an agent or manager, go work at CAA, ICM, William Morris, or UTA for a couple of years. Boy, you will learn so much about the business. Maybe what you don’t like about it, but you’ll learn about it. And, some of the best producers ever, came out of the agencies.
So, that’s really it. I wish I was better versed in American and world literature, better versed in film history, and I wish I had been forced to be a better writer early. I think I’m a pretty good writer now, but what I write mostly are business letters and business plans. And emails. I can write a killer email, you know?
Follow J. Todd Harris on Facebook at J. Todd Harris – On Producing