December 26, 2018

10 Line Producer Tips That Will Get You On Time and Under Budget

The creative team is ready to go. Now you need a line producer. 

What does a line producer do? If you've been on a set before, you probably have some idea. 

But unless you've done the job yourself, there is a lot to learn about what this person does to make creative dreams a reality.

The line producer is the one who's managing and overseeing every little detail. It's not a creative role, typically. It's all about project management. This is the person who hires most of the "below the line" talent and craftspeople. A great line producer makes the budget and makes sure the project doesn't go over. 

Productions can't exist without certain critical tasks being completed and completed well. 

This brings many projects to a major problem:

What if you can't hire someone seasoned to handle those tasks? What if you need to wear multiple hats and take the more DIY approach? What if you just want to make sure the person you hire is doing everything correctly?

These are critical questions for anyone creating video content. Today we're going to give you the answers.

This post will also lay out 10 steps that can help you cover all that ground a line producer has to. By the end, you'll have a greater understanding of how the job is done.

So let's find out how the sausage is made!

What does a line producer do?

In the broadest sense, this is the person on a production who manages the budget as well as the daily physical activities on a shoot. The role is semi-interchangeable with the unit production manager, or UPM. The difference in titles often has to do with union membership. 

A line producer needs to have access to a lot of data. That's why before we go any further, I'll link you to our resources page with every filmmaking form you'll ever need in 99 free templates. If you get NOTHING else from this post, at least I'll know you got that. It will serve you well. 

Now that we have that stuff out of the way, let's move on to the next big question...

Why should you listen to me?

I've been a producer, executive producer, line producer, production manager, and production coordinator on feature films, television, and branded content. I've had a lot of different types of line producer jobs. 

There are people out there who've managed more productions than myself and if you can get advice from them, add that to the mix. But since you're here, you can trust that I'm pretty equipped to give you some valuable, experience-based answers on how this job is done. 

One thing I know for sure is that understanding this set of responsibilities can help you no matter what role you have on set. Even if it's just so you know why you get a "no" when you ask for a crane. It's not just because someone is being difficult. 

Directors should worry about the creative. Cinematographers should worry about image quality. Everyone has a job to do. 

However, the more you know about how the whole thing works from a management perspective, the better you'll be at doing your job within the constraints. 

Here is one thing we all know to be true: on production, there is never enough time and never enough money. This brings us to our 10 steps. 

1. Line producers know their resources

I look at physical production as being war. It's a war raged against reality. 

Why? 

Because reality will try every way it can to stop you from creating your fictional reality, and that's the creative at the core of the production. 

There is a sense sometimes on a set that Murphy's Law is having its way with us. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong. This is because what we're trying to do swim upstream from everything else. If you wanna read more about some high profile sets that faced disaster, we wrote them up as well

Think about it: You want to stop traffic so you can create fake traffic. Everyone in the world is just trying to get to work. You're telling them to hit pause on real life so you can make a fake version.

Even if you limit your entire production to one "location" and it's your living room, what happens when a plane flies overhead and ruins sound? To modify the Jeff Goldblum quote, "Life... gets in the way."

It's not a "woe is me and my production" sort of thing. It's actually the natural order of things. YOU are disrupting it with your production. Taking this attitude will help you anticipate problems. It will help you get goodwill from the world around you. It will help you achieve your goal. 

You have TWO resources at your disposal in the battle against reality. You already know what they are.

Time and money. 

You've heard the cliche that time is money, and that's true. You need both and you'll need more of both than you have. 

The key for you is to know precisely how much you have of each and to maximize each second and each cent. They are precious. They are the only way this thing happens. 

Before the first USC thesis short film I ever produced, I asked a senior producer with a handful of feature credits for advice. He said one thing: 

"Know the budget. Know it by heart, inside and out."

That's the best advice you could get. A production lives and dies by it's budget. It's the key to the kingdom. Which takes us to our next step.

2. knowing the budget 

A lot of different tasks can ultimately fall to you, but the budget is the big one. Often at least one film producer's job is  to make a budget. If the budget exists in some early form when you come on, then the job will be to remake it and adjust it. Constantly. 

Budgeting is a major responsibility. Say you just finished writing your short film and you plan to direct it. You have to raise some money first. 

Well, put on your 'UPM"(unit production manager) hat because you'll need to make some kind of budget to even know how much to ask for. 

At the same time, if you hire a UPM to make that preliminary budget for you, you'll want to check their work. Did they just add numbers for departments without doing any research? How did they arrive at certain numbers? Did they break down shooting days first or the number of people on set?

This is why knowing some of the basics about budgeting are so critical to anyone creating video content. We've got you covered. 

Here are 12 indispensable tips for budgeting your indie feature, and they apply to other sized projects as well. 

Here is how you can avoid the top five budgeting mistakes, according to Colin Brown

And here are the harsh realities of producing a $1 million (and below) feature film.

Start practicing by making budgets for free with sonnyboo's free budget template. Get a sense of what real budgets look like of all scales and scopes. Ask producer friends. 

Know budgets inside and out. 

A lot of casting happens above the line. It may be part of how funding was secured in the first place.

3. Line producers hire everyone else 

This role has a big hand in hiring the rest of the crew, particularly the below the line crew. 

Remember, this person handles things below the line. Some line producers also handle casting or forms an LLC.

On a smaller project perhaps, but not on the larger standard productions. A lot of casting happens above the line. It may be part of how funding was secured in the first place. Check out our post on how to raise money for a film with international pre-sales.

You might hire and/or help bring in a casting director, and they will likely cast other roles with lead producers. But any good producer brings to the table their "rolodex."

Since nobody uses or likely even knows what a rolodex is anymore, just think of it as a contact list. How many good gaffers do you know? You might want the DP to bring in their guy or girl first, but if they aren't able to for whatever reason, who has to find one? 

Producers.

So a good tool? Build up that contact list.

Even if you aren't a producer by trade, you want to know people who can do every job on set. You also might want to know how to do every job on set yourself. And if you hang around No Film School long enough, you will. 

There are a lot of online resources to find hires. You can use indeed or production hub

I'd recommend against some of the others, especially Craigslist. I could tell some rough stories but that's probably for a different post...

Scheduling follows a script breakdown which allows you to parse out every element that will eventually make its way to the screen.

4. Scheduling 

This is often the domain of a 1st assistant director and their department. But often a UPM or line producer is involved as well. Scheduling is where your time and money resources collide into either a beautiful harmony of a nightmarish hellscape. Usually both.

You'll have to put your department leaders heads together to make this work. How long do we have the star for and which days co-mingle with location availability, the price of gear rentals, and...a whole lot of other things. 

Don't try and go it alone here. Take all the factors into account and then make a hierarchy. If Tom Hanks is the lead in the movie, his schedule might be the most important thing. 

Maybe not...you'd have to ask someone who's produced a Tom Hanks movie. I'm not that person. But you get the idea. 

Scheduling follows a script breakdown which allows you to parse out every element that will eventually make its way to the screen. Locations you need, how many days you need them, same for talent, etc. 

This is where you might consider resources like Synconset. You can use tools like Movie Magic for your scheduling and budgeting needs as well. 

The schedule and the budget are the maps that lay out the usage of your two most important resources: money and time. 

The budget is REALLY important. It's really in every single step.

5. Revise the budget

No, it's not cheating to make two of the ten steps about the budget. 

The budget is REALLY important. It's really in every single step.

You made a preliminary budget, but once you have a schedule in place, you have ideas about other needs. Maybe you found ways to save (Ha!) but you probably found more ways to spend (sorry!)

So now what? Revise that budget. Now is when you want to really get close to your budget, to where you can do some math in your head about it on set when trouble arises. 

Are you Star Trek fan? 

Okay good. Me too. Knowing the budget really well is where you'll have to come in with stuff like "well, if we sublimate the main deflector array and reroute the power to the flux capacitor then...you know what... we might just be able to afford it..." 

If you don't know what I"m talking about, knowing the budget backward and forwards makes you a production wizard. You can quickly assess what choices you have and what type of domino effect a choice will lead to. 

The director might really want something you can't afford, so what changes can you make to get it and what does that affect...You have to be able to lay it all out clearly. If you don't, you'll end up granting the director his or her wish, but then having lost them something else they didn't realize they'd lose. Most important of all is NOT that you'd be blamed, but that the project would suffer.

Which is just to say that things are going to change faster and faster once things get humming along, so revise now and be ready to revise again in the heat of the moment. 

Sometimes you can practice revising the budget in advance by thinking, "Hmmm, if disaster strikes on a day and it pours and we can't shoot any of this stuff, and we need to add a full day to the end of the shoot...do I have enough money in contingency for that?" 

These are called war games. Prepare for every outcome. You'll still be surprised by what hits you. That's the fun of it, right?

Right...? 

Arriving somewhere with the truck and nowhere to park it is not ideal. 

6. Locations, locations, locations 

Locations SHOULD get their own department. But that doesn't mean they will. 

If they don't, your producer responsibilities may extend out to locations. As a quick aside, that's true about a lot of things. They often have their own department. If they don't, a  producer will have to figure it out. 

People often wonder what does a producer do? Sometimes nothing. Sometimes everything. 

It can be very expensive to permit a location, but it's a wise move. Even if you think your shoot has a small footprint, it only takes one angry person with some extra time on their hands to shut things down. You don't want to be fast-talking your way out of those situations with cops in order to make sure everything gets in the can. Trust me, I've had to do it. 

When you get locations, be sure to consider parking. Consider where you'll stage gear. Consider if you have a truck and how it will get there. Where will holding be? What about the trailers? 

Arriving somewhere with the truck and nowhere to park it is not ideal. 

Plan in advance and go legit. Pull permits, get insurance, engage with a lawyer. All of these things should be no-brainers, but sadly they are not. It doesn't just lead to productions being halted, it can lead to legal trouble you don't want. 

We romanticize the idea of the run and gun, and people get away with it. But if you think your shoot might get in the way of normal life, you want to dot your Is and cross your Ts. Protect yourself and your creative vision. 

Permit locations. 

Insurance policies have deductibles. So when some of the gear rips or breaks because of a mistake from a PA who isn't being paid well enough to care, if it's under the deductible, you want to have enough contingency built into the budget to deal with it.

7. Getting ready to roll; equipment, insurance, paperwork

You're closing in one Day 1 of ___. That means it's time to get your affairs in order. You'll need to do a tech scout with the keys from each department, and you'll get some last minute needs from people there. 

"Oh, looks like we can't get the dolly in here. Cancel that rental and instead get a Steadicam." That type of thing. 

Before you can rent anything, you need insurance. Get a good policy and make sure you're well covered. See about having a lawyer help review the policy. Get errors and omissions insurance too. If the film ends up with distribution, errors and omissions is a must. 

Insurance policies have deductibles. So when some of the gear rips or breaks because of a mistake from a PA who isn't being paid well enough to care, if it's under the deductible, you want to have enough contingency built into the budget to deal with it. Things always break. 

Compile work packets for everyone on the crew. That means deal memos, time cards for SAG (if you're working with union talent), releases etc. Organize all your paperwork clearly. 

Make your call sheets! Or make sure the AD department is making them. Here is a super simple, clean, and FREE industry standard call sheet template you can use for all of your productions. Be sure to keep the data on your call sheets and contact lists private and for the crew only. Check and double check who they go out to. 

True story: I was sent the call sheets and some scripts for the final episodes of Breaking Bad by accident once. I didn't read them or leak them, but you can believe that the producers on the series were FURIOUS that the production department made that mistake. 

Most of the time, the present isn't of concern to a producer on set. It's tomorrow you have to worry about. 

8. Shooting and trouble shooting

Once production is off and to the races, you have to focus on two things: what is going wrong currently and what might go wrong tomorrow. 

This means that if there isn't a fire to put out in the moment, you're planning against potential fires tomorrow. Most of the time, the present isn't of concern to a producer on set. It's tomorrow you have to worry about. 

The call sheet is a biggie. A 2nd AD or 2nd 2nd AD will spend much of the day prepping the call sheet for tomorrow. Some producers may have a big role in this as well. 

There may also be factors to adjust for. Can you save a little money by returning something you 'wrapped on' and picking up something that's only being used for the next shoot day? Can you coordinate with rental houses and PAs/Runners to make that happen? 

Another task on a small project is to collect every receipt from everyone and track every expense in real time. If you have production coordinators, they will likely do this as well, but the smaller the "show," the more a producer will have to do themselves. 

And trust me, it doesn't hurt to cut your teeth on those types of projects. You might be the producer of a short, and you might be tasked with all of this and more. It'll be good for you in the long run.

Well... it'll probably shave a few years of your lifespan, but it'll be good for your career in the long run. 

The best part of the shoot for the producers is that sometimes, for a second or two at a time, things seem to be going smoothly and according to plan, so you can just sit back and enjoy it. 

But like I said, that's usually only for a second or two. 

A good line producer will consider money for post-production untouchable and will handoff a nice clean production book to the post team.

9. Post production hand-off

A line producer might only be on a project for production. Which is to say that once you wrap the shoot, there will be a handoff between the line producer and the post-production supervisor, which is the line producer for the final stage. 

Something to be wary of is a producer who doesn't leave a ton of money in the budget for post-production. This could be because they don't have to deal with that. That would, of course, be a good way not to get hired again but people always find ways to surprise you. 

You should consider money for post-production untouchable and handoff a nice clean production book to the post team, plus be available for any questions about how costs went down when it comes time to do end of year bookkeeping, etc. 

You want to make sure you can close the book on production and everything adds up. 

As for that book...

I had an indie feature that went to festivals and secured distribution. When it came time to make that deal however, we were missing stuff, namely contracts with our leads. We had records of all our SAG info but we didn't have the actual contracts. 

10. It's a wrap... book.

When it's all finished, there will be a movie, or TV show, or piece of video content that exists somewhere, maybe on the internet, maybe on streaming platforms, maybe in theaters. 

But there will also be a wrap book. And those two things are the end results of all the hard work and money. One is the product and one is the record of how it all happened. 

I cannot stress enough the importance of that record, aka the wrap book. It may live in a filing cabinet collecting dust for eternity or just on Dropbox or Google Drive. In any case, it's where anyone will turn if and when things are needed. 

Say your movie plays at a festival and someone there likes it (a distributor, for example) and they want to distribute your movie. That's amazing news!

They're going to need a lot of stuff from you first. If the line producer did his/her job, a lot of what they need will be in the wrap book.

I had an indie feature that went to festivals and secured distribution. When it came time to make that deal however, we were missing stuff, namely contracts with our leads. We had records of all our SAG info but we didn't have the actual contracts. 

A number of people had to screw up for this to happen, but the assumption had been that the executives who negotiated the deals with the stars would hold onto those contracts. 

Not only did they not hold onto the contracts, but they never had them signed in the first place. They just agreed to the terms/deals with agents and lawyers via email. 

Not only that, but the star of the project had become a legit star in his own right by the time the feature had distribution. Luckily, I had a good personal relationship with him, and he got his team to work with us to retroactively sign the contracts and the deal went through. 

I was lucky. It just as easily could have prevented the movie from seeing the light of day. 

I leave you with that. What does a line producer do? 

They should be the person who keeps the devil in the details in check. The person who sweats the small stuff so that the production can happen. If your writer and director's wildest dreams come true and the movie gets distribution, some tiny stumbling block doesn't stop it from going through. 

Get a good line producer or be a good line producer. Otherwise, all that work could end up being for nothing.      

Your Comment

3 Comments

Great article, George! Easily one of the most useful, comprehensive pieces I've read on this site in a long time.

December 26, 2018 at 8:18PM

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Rob Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker Freedom
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The line producer job description is clearly define to us. https://www.techirons.com/

December 29, 2018 at 5:56AM

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Great article. Well worth anyone new or experienced having a read. Thankfully I knew/agree/practice the above, but it cemented my knowledge even further. ; ) Well done and very generous of you to share.

December 31, 2018 at 11:20AM

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bobbybray
Producer (commercials, videos, corporate, online, films)
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