=When it comes to evaluating Hollywood’s output, writers too often find themselves shaking their heads and muttering, “How the #*@#! did that movie get made?”

And you don’t even have to be a writer to ask the question. Peruse your local video store for a few minutes. Someone once thought it was a good idea to spend millions of dollars on a movie called The Stupids, starring Tom Arnold? Though that should be example enough, there are thousands more where that came from. So just what is it that producers look for? How do they decide which projects to greenlight? Where do they search for their scripts? It’s no secret that in screenwriter William Goldman’s town nobody knows anything (or at least they aren’t saying). But in this case, at least, the answers are available, surprising—and more encouraging than you might expect.

Jonathan Sanger, one of the most respected producers in the business, speaks from the vantage point of a long career and a venerable filmography. He attributes the success of The Elephant Man, his first acclaimed film, to luck. It was a project “blessed from the beginning.”

“Despite their hard noses, producers, too, depend on emotional responses to evaluate screenplays.”

How did Sanger come across the script? His babysitter asked if he would read her boyfriend Christopher DeVore’s screenplay. Sanger read it—all 200 pages—and came away moved. He says if he had not been so naive, he would have known he couldn’t find success with a black and white movie about a deformed man in the 1800s who dies at the end. But the story was compelling. It spurred Mel Brooks to find financing (without even being asked) and David Lynch to become the director. Lynch spent many hours working with the young writer to pare the script down to a manageable size—and a classic was born.

Since The Elephant Man, Sanger has worked on projects of all sizes, including such blockbusters as Mission Impossible II and Vanilla Sky. Now that he has forsaken big-budget studio fare and returned exclusively to independent production, he has to weigh many factors when considering a script. At their company, Grand Illusions, he and his development executive Sarah Black wade through hundreds of screenplays to find the right ones. They have no need to search film festival archives or ask to see final entries in screenwriting competitions because they receive a constant supply of material from agents, managers, writers and friends. But how do they decide which one is the right one?

“First,” he says, “I have to like it. The script has to move me or make me laugh or convince me it will be a worthwhile film. Of course, I like 18th-century Russian novelists who probably no one else likes, so the next question I have to ask myself is: Will anyone besides me like it?

“Now that I am completely independent, I have a much greater responsibility. I have investors who need a return on their money. A whole variety of factors come into play. Can the script be cast, or does it require three 85-year-old actors who are the only ones in the world? Who would be willing to direct it, and can that director attract the actors needed to make the film successful?”

In essence, Sanger says his first response is emotional—he asks himself whether he would want to see this movie. Story is, of course, extremely important, along with characters and dialogue. If he finds something he loves, he’ll try to find a way to get it made. With new technologies come more opportunities available for smaller budget productions—excellent films that may not appeal to broad audiences. Studios, he says, are always looking for particular genres, star vehicles and high concept movies, but there are many gaps the studios don’t fill. This gives greater opportunities for writers and producers.

“The script has to move me,” says producer Jonathan Sanger, who made his name with The Elephant Man (1980)—a script he found through his babysitter.

Clark Peterson, producer of Patty Jenkins’ provocative film Monster, understands those opportunities. Peterson didn’t find the script for Monster, but at a social event at the American Film Institute he did find Jenkins—a writer with a pitch and a passion. She told him about her unwritten project, and he encouraged her because he thought he could find financing for a movie of that genre. Many months later, when Jenkins returned with the script, Peterson found himself reformulating his approach to selecting projects. The story contained so much truth and emotion that he was no longer thinking about whether it would sell or how perfectly the script was written. The passion behind the story evoked a response that urged him to go forward.

Peterson still recognizes that a producer must be practical if he or she intends to get financing and attract an audience broader than best friends, sisters and pets.

“Since financing is an essential factor in getting a movie made, you have to find the balance between art and commerce. Most importantly, it comes down to a story worth telling. Sometimes the writing can be overlooked, but if the story isn’t there, then you don’t have a movie.”

Although Peterson regularly receives scripts from screenwriting competitions, he emphasizes the importance of personal contacts (even social ones) with writers and people working in the industry. He advises writers who come across a producer to make a really great pitch but not necessarily dump the script immediately. He says making an e-mail inquiry with a pitch of the idea can be really effective. Through the idea alone he can often decipher whether the project merits spending two years of his life.

Charles Bender, co-producer of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, says he goes back to his childhood for material. A long-time science fiction fan, he loved the novel Solaris written by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. While producing an extensive documentary in Europe, Bender decided to call Polish 411. Lem answered the phone and, after several conversations in a blend of German, English and Polish, Bender had an option.

After finding the material, he emphasizes the need to get it to the right parties. In the case of Solaris, that was James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and eventually 20th Century Fox. A friend was working in the same building with Lightstorm and delivered the materials for Bender. Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) came on board to write, direct, shoot and edit—and then George Clooney, Soderbergh’s partner in Section Eight, asked to be included.
Besides his childhood memories, Bender says his most fruitful source of projects is personal acquaintances, including good friends and even their lawyers. He has found no need to consult the agents and managers who are the usual source of scripts. Instead, he learns about projects he likes and begins the development process.

Dror Soref, co-producer of John McTiernan’s Basic, was formerly a story editor and coverage writer for a major studio. He says his current source of scripts is “from anywhere possible—people you know, writers, agents, other producers, pitch marts, awards ceremonies.” How does he select his material from the hundreds of works he reviews? He says, “I ask myself: Do I see a movie here? Would I want to see it? I must have the feeling that something stands out or has an edge and is not a pipeline project.”

How does he determine whether the writing is good? “If the writing isn’t good, you’ll be thrown out of the world of the story. If the writing is good, it can evoke the passion needed for a producer to pursue the project.” It’s no cliché that, at the end of the day, Soref believes “you have to have that passion to push through the obstacles.”

Producing is not a game for sissies, but despite their hard noses, producers, too, depend on emotional responses to evaluate screenplays. The surprising secret is that they’re willing to mine for material in the most unexpected places to find just the right diamond in the rough that will evoke such a response.

From contests to festivals to the babysitter’s boyfriend’s drawer, gems can be anywhere. Says Sanger, “It’s an exciting time for producers.” MM