Producer Adam Leipzig knows a thing or two about dealing with studio decision makers after having been one himself. A former Disney executive, Leipzig supervised a handful of popular films, including Dead Poets Society and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. “I have a secret to tell you about the gatekeepers,” says Leipzig. “They’re just like us. They’re just like you and me. At their core they want to be artists too. They have to say ‘no’ most of the time [and] most of the time they have to pass, but secretly, deeply they want to say ‘yes.’”
Let’s face it. Being in a room with studio executives can be tough. But when you get the chance to sit with a gatekeeper, the best thing to do is open up. “Make no mistake, that unless you are prepared to share the secrets that you are afraid of sharing, nobody has to listen to what you have to say,” advises Leipzig. “In order to be artists, we need to be in our studios, in our private rooms, on our laptops, in our coffee shops and in our private personal space. [This way] we can be in that safe, protective space so that we can make our work. That’s the place where we can be free enough and vulnerable enough to share what we have to share.” You need to open up to the gatekeepers about your project like you would when you are alone. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and throw everything out on the table.
So how should an aspiring filmmaker talk to a gatekeeper? Rambling on about your characters and plot can make you look like a talking head. Instead, Leipzig suggests that you show passion for the story you’re selling. “There is this moment where you have to move from this very inward and focused place, where you have worked inside yourself in this vulnerable place, and open the door and step outside and turn yourself inside-out so you can talk to them,” he says. “And you have to begin to think like them. You have to begin to think like your audience. You have to think like your buyer.” To do this, you’ll need to prove that you have an audience in the first place. The studio executives need to know that there will be an audience for your film so that he or she can say “yes.”
“The people who run studios right now are bored,” Leipzig reports. “They are bored with sequels. They are bored with remakes. They are bored with doing things that they have been doing for the past three or four years.” 2012 was the year of the $100 million independent movie, as Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained and Life of Pi were all $100 million indie movies that were partially funded by studios. To get a studio executive to say yes to a project, you have to speak their language. You have to present the evidence by specifically naming other projects that are similar to the movie you want to make. That is the truth test.
“Whether they are movies, TV shows, webisodes, books or seminars, anything it is we wish to offer, if we can’t find five [projects] in the past five years that are in some way similar, we need to go back into our rooms and rethink because the audience will not be there to greet us,” says Leipzig. “And then we have to be really strict with ourselves and focus on quality. The biggest enemy of all of us is the willingness to except mediocrity. It’s our willingness not to be tough on ourselves and call things out. To look at something that is ugly and unattractive and say, ‘hey, that’s ugly and unattractive.’ If you follow those steps, if you accept that challenge, if you focus on quality, call out your own evidence, turn yourself inside-out, listen to your audience and know who your audience is before you go in, then when you walk into the room of the gatekeepers, the gates open wide for you. You need to valiant poetic warriors in your quest of honor.”