How to Be a ‘Real’ Producer: Know Your Audience and ‘Fight for Your Life’

TheGrill 2019: “Prove the model, prove the IP, prove the value, and then you fight for your life,” producer Nina Yang Bongiovi says 

Last Updated: June 6, 2019 @ 12:47 PM

Anyone can get their hands on intellectual property and negotiate deals, but to be a “real” producer in today’s industry you have to do more than just be a broker, the professionals at TheGrill’s producers roundtable said.

“There are producers who put together deals, but they’re pure brokers. They get the producer title because they own the IP, but they’re not going to do the development for it or they’re not going to do physical production,” Nina Yang Bongiovi, the producer of films like “Sorry to Bother You,” “Dope” and “Fruitvale Station,” said Wednesday at TheGrill. “Today, to be a real producer, you have to have a skill set to be able to rise, to be able to package these deals, and talent knows that.”

Bongiovi led the producers roundtable, presented by Delta Airlines, that included industry veterans like producer Ashok Amritraj, Gersh’s Jay Cohen, CreativeFuture CEO Ruth Vitale and Propagate Content co-CEO Howard Owens, among others chiming in as part of the open discussion.

For Bongiovi, one key to being a successful producer is to focus on a fundamental question: “Who is the audience for your project?”

She explained that there’s a difference between “Asian Americans” and “Asians,” and just because a project is developed as “Asian American” does not mean that Asian Americans will actually come out and support it — or that it will play with Asian audiences overseas.

And she expressed frustration that she continues to have to face old stereotypes, as when she heard that the indie “Sorry to Bother You” might have limited international appeal despite the fact that star Tessa Thompson had Marvel films like “Thor: Ragnarok” on her résumé. “Every film we’ve done, we’ve invested in the idea, prove the model, prove the IP, prove the value, and then you fight for your life,” Bongiovi said.

Part of the struggle is that the goal posts have moved dramatically in identifying and mobilizing an audience. There is a whole middle ground of movies — what Vitale called “George Clooney movies,” like “Michael Clayton” and “Good Night and Good Luck” — that have basically disappeared from the marketplace.

Cohen also lamented the loss of “‘tweeners,” his term for films that drift between quadrants and don’t have one clear niche.

“You’ve gotta have at least one quadrant that you can hit really hard,” Amritraj said. “You need to tick every box today to get your movie made.”

Knowing your audience, and how to pitch clearly their intentions, can be key to getting a project off the ground. “The people we’re most successful with are the ones who know exactly what they are. And if you can’t tell me what you are, how am I supposed to know what you are,” Cohen said. “When I’m going out to sell a product, whether it’s a TV show, a documentary or a podcast, if I don’t know what your passion is, I can’t sell it.”

Cohen suggested that producers consider finding a way to make actual IP first, then brand it from there. He recalled meeting with artists who had great ideas about YA stories and suggested that they first focus on developing the material as a comic book. Once that IP is out there and actually published, he said, he could work on selling a filmed version.

Bongiovi stressed that at the end of the day, it falls on the producer to make sure the script, the artist and messaging are all as strong as they can be.

“For us as producers, the No. 1 thing is, get your script right. Once you get your script right, if your filmmaker is strong enough, it could be a first-time filmmaker, that person will be able to attract talent,” Bongiovi said. “Where do they come from if you guys don’t have an opportunity to launch their career?”