Whether you are a writer, director, or actor you probably have wondered at one point or another exactly what is a film producer? It’s a mysterious job. In fact, it’s one of those impressive sounding jobs where very few people really know what it is but know it’s important. If you’ve ever watched the movie Swingers you might remember Vince Vaughn telling women he’s a producer so that he could avoid the question actors get which is always “have I seen you in anything?”
Film Producers win the Best Picture Oscar
Clearly producers are an integral part of the movie-making process because the people who get the Oscar statuette for best picture are the producers. Oscar actually has a very strict set of guidelines on who gets the best picture Oscar. They limit it to no more than 3 people (unless one of those three is an established producing team with a history of working togehter) and the rules state that you must have a “producer” or “produced by” credit on the film.
So….What is a Film Producer and what do they do?
The short answer is really anything that needs to be done. Producers’ roles have changed over the years and still change on a regular basis. There are also producers who only do a few of the jobs a producer can do and others who kind of do everything (often referred to as hands on producers). Why don’t we take a minute to go over each aspect of pre-production, production and post-production that a producer can be involved with so we can get a clear idea of the scope of the job. But first…
Co-Producer, Executive Producer, Associate Producer, and Producer oh my…
There are many different credits a producer can get. In general, executive producers are financiers or people who connected you with financers. Occasionally an actor will get an executive producer credit just because – this is called a vanity credit. If an actor has a certain amount of clout and they feel like them being attached the project is the reason the movie got financed they can basically demand an executive producer credit (which is also referred to as an EP credit).
Co-Producers are a little harder to nail down but they usually have to do with keeping track of finances and running the actual production. Working on a movie set involves a lot of accounting and paperwork. You are dealing with unions and guilds and labor laws in addition to making sure that money is leaking anywhere on set. It’s not a hard and fast rule but that’s generally who gets the co-producer credit.
Associate Producers can really be anything. It can be a Producer who worked on the project early on but had to drop out to work on another show, it could be a gift credit that someone gives to a writer or a member of the crew or hell even their girlfriend. It’s the most meaningless producer credit available – but hey it’s still a credit on the film and it’s still more substantial than a special thanks or caterer credit on a film so it’s nothing to sneeze at.
The Producer or Produced by credit is reserved for someone who really championed the film in some way or another. Usually this person is involved in the movie for a long time and has a big vested interest in the project’s success. So what are the things a producer can do?
Producers have been finding financing since the invention of the term. They can finance the movie themselves, raise it from private investors, get bank loans against sales projections or commitments from distributors, they can have relationships with the studios and pitch ideas to the studio to get financed, they can rob banks and launder money through a movie (I’m just kidding – robbing banks won’t get you enough to make a movie unless you’re pulling off a DeNiro “Heat” style job).
Producers know that at some point the film is going to need money and usually a lot of it for it to go from script to movie and they will either raise the money themselves or have connections to people or entities that can raise the money.
Own the Rights to Material (through options or purchasing)
Sometimes producers actually own the rights to source material that the script is based on. This is how Producer Robert Evans got his start as a producer. He bought the rights to a popular novel and sold the idea of turning it into a film to the movie studio. They wanted to make the film so badly he started demanding that he get a 3 picture deal with an office on the lot and other stipulations…which brings us to the next role a producer has:
Not all producers are great negotiators, but all the good ones are. Your producer should be able to know how much he or she can hire crew for, get locations for, how much catering should cost, etc. Your producer should know when they’re getting screwed and when they’re getting a good deal on something. This includes negotiating rates for actors as buying screenplays as well so know that if a producer is offering to buy your script or option it, they’re probably low-balling you. That being said there is no shortage of people who want to become screenwriters so their low-ball offer might be their final offer because they know very well they can get another script for that price if they keep looking.
Have Relationships with Studios and Distributors
We touched on this earlier but it’s valuable enough that it’s worth going into a bit of detail. Producers in the studio world live and die by their relationships to studio executives, financiers, and sales agents, and distributors. They’re the ones who can convince a company to buy a script, fund a movie, or buy a movie once it’s completed if it was made outside of the studio system. They usually have worked their way up from the mailroom at an agency or working on some smaller independent projects or even acting as an assistant to producer, director or big actor.
They usually have years if not decades in the business by the time they’re known as a producer and even though they can go years without making movies, they can also pop-up with an Oscar nomination out of nowhere. Those relationships they have can pay off at any minute if the timing is right and they have a story someone is in the market to make.
Managing production is not just left to co-producers. On my first movie my producer, Rob, kind of oversaw everything. When the crew said they needed porta-poties cause they didn’t want to use the restroom in front of the actors he did his research, found a good deal and rented the things. When there was a dog barking like mad in the middle of a take, Rob ran over to the neighbors house to shut the dog up. When catering was late, Rob got on the phone and chewed out someone to hurry up with the food.
Whatever comes up, a producer makes sure that it gets taken care of and taken care of well. They often delegate certain tasks to assistants and PA’s but they’re kind of the COO on set and make sure things run smoothly.
Can Attach Above the Line Talent
Producers sometimes leverage their relationships with writers, actors and directors to attach them to project they’re trying to get off the ground. In the independent world this can be hugely valuable. Sometimes a first time writer/director will have a really rough time getting anyone at an agency to trust him – but if a producer who’s made a few movies makes an offer for an actor they take the offer much more seriously. As soon as you attach one name actor to a project attaching other names becomes infinitely easier because the project instantly gets legitimacy.
It’s not exclusive to actors, as I’ve mentioned, they can attach a director to a pet project that an actor has been trying to get off the ground or even attach a writer to adapt a novel or life-rights of someone to add prestige to a project. Certain writers and directors are so admired in Hollywood that attaching them to a project is basically a greenlight on a film (mostly just directors but as a writer I can dream, right?).
In the Independent World
Producers are crucial to the success and failure of a project in both the independent and studio worlds but in the independent world it’s kind of the wild west. There are movies that are made independently without a real producer and there are producers who shepard a project from concept through post-production and are more intimately involved in a movie than the writer, director or any of the cast or crew.
If you are a director looking for a producer you should be very specific with what it is that you’re looking for in a producer. If you need help financing (good luck), you should specify that when you meet producers. If you need help managing production or attaching name actors or even just finding locations and tying up loose ends – the more specific you are the better chance you’re going to have at working with the type of producer that you need.
If you’re looking for a producer just to raise money you should know that you’ll almost never going to find one. That’s like saying you’re looking for a winning lottery ticket that someone dropped on the floor. Producers who already have money or can raise money easily will not be looking for your script 99.99999% of the time. If they have access to funding that easily they can literally call up the biggest agencies and ask for the to send over scripts that are a little old and willing to be let go for scale and they’ll get a package of 100 scripts delivered to them via courier in a matter of hours.
I don’t say this to discourage anyone out there but I do want you to be realistic about what a producer can do for you. A producer will definitely work with you to createa a business plan and pitch to people YOU may know to try to get money but if they’re going to their own contacts to raise money they’ll probably be looking to buy you out altogether.
Things to Keep in Mind
The role of a producer is one that varies not just from budget to budget, but from person to person. Whether it’s managing production, building relationships, or developing material, producers come in all shapes and sizes. As an independent filmmaker you should really be trying to find someone who fills a gap for your movie so be sure to ask them about their previous films, and what they did on those to see if they’d be a good fit for your movie.