This is the first in a series of posts that will define and highlight different job positions in the film industry.
We are starting this monthly series with the Producer job because a) it’s the focus of this whole website and b) it’s probably the job that the most people can’t really explain what the hell they do! The simple answer I often give is Producers make it all happen. Without a producer you really can’t get a project done. Have you ever tried to make a film without a producer? It doesn’t work. I guess I’m a little biased but I’ve watched directors try to direct and produce and it’s difficult, frustrating and not the optimal way to make a film. This is understandable because directing is already a full-on job and the position requires a different skillset from producing. It doesn’t mean that directors or writer/directors can’t or shouldn’t produce but in my experience there needs to be at least one person (could be more) on an independent project is a producer who focuses solely on the producing in order to get it made. BTW, in television, showrunners do the writing and the producing duties but this post is focused on independent projects, not television series.
So what specifically does a producer do?
I always like to refer to the Producers Guild of America’s (PGA) Code of Credits for a solid definition of producer duties. This page outlines the duties for Producer of a Theatrical Motion Picture and there are pages for other formats like television series, television long-form, non-fiction television and new media. Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA) created another good list of definitions in their document titled the Crediting Guidelines for Documentary Producers.
Screen credit inflation or credit horse trading happens more often in the producer credits than any other department and I think it is important to abide by the mantra “you do the work, you get the credit.” It’s simple, straightforward and fair.
The general areas of responsibility that fall under the producer role include development/financing, pre-production, production and post-production/marketing. Within those areas, there are many other jobs, obligations and duties. Depending on the size of the budget and the scope of the project, there will be several producers. There may be executive producer(s), producer(s), co-producer(s), line producer, and associate producer(s). And on the production staff, there would be a unit production manager (UPM), production coordinator and, of course, production assistants. We will cover each of these job positions in upcoming posts in this series.
Here’s a brief overview of the various periods with corresponding areas of responsibility:
Development is the period when the creative materials are acquired, created and revised and the creative team is put together for the project. Jobs include undertaking research, optioning underlying materials, attaching/hiring the screenwriter(s), director, other producer types (like executive producer) and key cast. Putting together key creatives and cast is considered packaging which may be a part of this process. During this period, the producer(s) give creative notes to help the script and/or treatment evolve to a producible and fundable version. Based on the script, the producer creates a realistic budget and schedule – or hires a line producer to create them – before pitching the project to acquire funding/financing.
Pitching involves creating pitch documents that include some or all of these: script and/or treatment, budget, schedule, look book, pitch deck, a list of attached talent (crew and cast), a trailer and video materials. When a producer and/or director and/or screenwriter pitch a project it often happens in-person so the narrative and the key elements of the project can be explained to a development person or a funder/investor in an effort to procure financing to go into production.
Financing is the process whereby the producing team takes the project to potential funders (investors, donors, broadcasters, distributors) to obtain partial or full financing and sales agreements for the project. Producing staged reading(s) with actors for financiers to elicit feedback and funding may be included during this period. Finally, the producer works with an entertainment attorney to negotiate, vet and sign proper financing and hiring agreements.
Pre-production begins once the production team starts paid work for prepping the film and lasts until the day principal photography (first day of filming) commences. During this time the producer duties (which may be shared with the line producer) include researching and finalizing the hiring of the key creative team of director, screenwriter(s), cinematographer, assistant director, production designer, costume designer, line producer, unit production manager, editor, other heads of department (HODs) and cast. Before finalizing any of these hires, the producer will consult with the director for their notes or approval. Depending on the size of the budget/production, the producer may be doing more of the line producing daily duties – or not.
The line producer consults with the producer(s), director and HODs to research and hire the crew to fill out each department. Putting together a strong crew (“crewing up”) is one of the most important tasks during this period. It’s essential to do your due diligence and create a team that reflects the shared values of mutual respect for all, diversity (including race, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation and disability), and applicable past work experience. Often the HODs give recommendations for hires based on their own criteria and it is important to consider those suggestions as well.
The producer and line producer oversee the budget and schedule which get locked during this period. Both (depending on the size of the project) manage tasks which include procuring insurance, purchasing and renting equipment, costumes, production design and stages, overseeing and finalizing location agreements, tech scouting, workflow and camera tests and setting up the edit room.
Casting happens during pre-production for any talent that hasn’t already been attached to the project and focuses on finding the best possible actor for each role. The casting director consults closely with the director and the producer about the creative mandates for each character so they can finalize the casting breakdowns. The producer may attend casting sessions and/or view any casting tapes, give notes on preferences before the final casting decisions are made. Once offers to actors are accepted, the producer negotiates the deal points for any actors that require them before signing the deals.
Throughout pre-production, if executive producers, financiers or a completion bond company need to weigh in/approve certain hires, the producer will facilitate that process in a timely manner.
Production begins on the first day of principal photography and ends on the last day. During production, the producer’s role revolves around the daily focus that each shoot day requires. The producer is available for creative discussions/decisions and problem solving which are the daily currency of the production period. Depending on the size of the budget/production, the producer may be tied to more of the line producing duties or not.
Producers focus on “making the day” (staying on schedule without any unplanned overtime) and monitor the daily “hot costs” report (daily budget updates) to make sure the production is staying on track and doesn’t veer off course that could cause a negative impact in delivering the film on time and under budget.
Post Production begins while in pre-production when the work flow for the project is tested, revised and finalized. Work flow begins with how the film’s materials are acquired or captured, what camera(s) are used, what tech specs are codified and how the editorial process will run. The director, producer, cinematographer, editor, post production supervisor, assistant editor and the finishing crew should all be consulted before the work flow is locked. This detailed process is key to avoid any problems that might cost time and money in post production.
Editorial describes the process of breaking down the acquired footage, organizing it, editing and re-editing and re-editing before finally locking picture. The editorial process is driven and coordinated by the post production supervisor who works with the assistant editor and editor during editorial, finishing and delivery. The post supervisor works with the producer to schedule the various cuts – string-out, rough cut, fine cut and locked picture – to keep the project on track and to coordinate the sharing of each cut with director, producer(s) and other executives for notes-giving in a secure and timely way.
Finishing includes all of the steps necessary to complete audio editing, audio mix, color correction, digital intermediate creation, and mastering. Once picture is locked, these processes are scheduled – some separately and some concurrently.
Deliverables is the list of tech and paperwork elements required by any exhibitor, network, streaming channel or distributor in order to screen, stream and broadcast your film properly, legally and technologically correct. When a sales contract is negotiated and signed by the producer, a deliverables list will be part of that agreement.
Distribution is the process of screening your film publicly via every mode available technologically, including but not limited to – DVD, VOD, streaming, online, network, theatrical, domestic, international, educational, airline, etc.
Sales are licenses or other ways (see above) to publicly view your project for a specific market(s), time period and usage. Sales agents are often used to represent the film to buyers to facilitate and maximize the gross revenues of the film.
Marketing pertains to the process for letting people know about your film by targeting various audiences through advertising and publicity. Marketing materials can include a press kit, poster, trailer, behind-the-scenes video, merchandise, swag, website, Facebook page, etc.
Publicity refers to how a film is announced so audiences know about it. Communication tools include filmmaker and talent on-camera television and radio interviews, film reviews, film premiere red carpet photos and videos, podcasts, events, Q&As (virtual and in-person), etc.
Wow – that is a lot of things to do, lead, oversee, manage, coordinate and create on any project as a producer! But as I said at the top, a producer is working with other producers, EPs, co-producers, post production supervisor, production staff and the rest of cast and crew. You can’t do everything and you will always need to bring on a team of other talented individuals (based on the specific project, scope and budget) to make the project happen in the best way possible.