The most important person on set is sometimes never on set at all. Let's unravel the truth behind entertainment's single most important person.
What does a producer do? Why are there so many different types? These are questions even people within parts of the entertainment industry ask without clear answers.
Different people provide different answers to these questions, and the crazy part is they're usually all somewhat correct.
Because one of the trickiest things about the credit is that it encompasses the entire life cycle of a project.
Today we're going to answer the question in the most authoritative manner possible. And we're doing it for a very specific reason.
Behind the vagaries of the role is every step between concept and completed project. And this becomes extremely valuable to any filmmaker at any level because if you can truly understand the role... then you have the keys to unlocking the entire process.
Because while you may consider yourself a writer, director, actor, cinematographer, or something else... to make a movie you'll need at least sometimes put on a producer's hat.
How? Why? Well... we'll get into all that.
What is a Producer?
They develop, manage, oversee, and deliver a project. A film producer does everything from own the rights to the intellectual property to negotiating above the line salaries, to creating a budget and signing below the line craftspeople. They could have all these responsibilities or just a fraction of one of them. It's a general title that encompasses the entire life cycle of a project.
Oh and keep in mind Television is a very different thing then film. So we'll be sure to cover both.
To truly know what they did on a specific project you'd have to be involved in the project, or you'd have to ask them personally. A project could have 5 producers listed in the credits or more, and beyond a variance in title, nothing else to really tell you who did what.
So where does that leave us?
It means we have to define the role in a general sense and then drill down to the specific tasks along the way. As we go through we'll be creating a road map for any project. This is what a producer does, but at the same time, it's what you need to do every time you create a project.
The producer role on a feature film is often seen as 'being the boss', but in some ways, it's better to think of them as the person who has to pick up the slack wherever that may be.
Yes, there are always producers in a position of power who loom over the production and don't get their hands dirty. But on the smaller scale projects, these are harder to find.
They should be nurturing a project as it goes from an idea in a brain to an image blasted out of a projector.
First one in, last one out.
Think about it. A director likely will move on after picture is locked. Sometimes sooner. A writer? Probably moves on during the shoot. If not long before.
There is a reason a producer (or 100 of them) accepts the Best Picture Oscar. The producer is the one who's been with the movie the whole time.
The producer is like the Mandalorian is to the baby Yoda. Protector of something fragile yet powerful.
Of course, we're talking about the ideal producer/project relationship. There are a lot of ways this can go sideways. But for now, let's focus on how it should be. How we all wish it was.
Great producers protect good ideas and help them grow into amazing movies.
Let's look at some examples.
Who is a producer?
One of the most important producers of all time is Irving Thalberg. They named an award after him.
Thalberg was a whiz-kid producer at MGM in the early 1930s, he died young, but not before helping define the feature film format as it still exists to this day, making MGM the biggest baddest studio on the block.
Thalberg developed projects, attached the right writers, directors, and stars and helped oversee what would become the system for doing all that. He created the blueprint in many ways.
As the studio system eventually collapsed, producers become something more like freelancers. Sometimes working within the structure of a deal at a studio, sometimes under their own production company or banner. Who are some of the most important producers of all time?
Walt Disney. George Lucas. Steven Speilberg. Oprah Winfrey.
You might think of these four people as things other than 'producer', but whatever else they did (host talk shows, draw mice, pew-pew) they parlayed success into epic careers as producers. That means they put their name, their companies, and their stamp on countless projects that would thrive. These are media executives. Empire builders.
A few of them also won the award named after Thalberg.
This kind of producer is a far cry from say, a line producer on a micro-budget feature. But that just goes to show you... producing is a big tent to fit a lot under and more than any other role the producer is the prime mover behind a project.
Yeah, auteur theory is fun and directors are often credited as the "creative genius", but the producer is also a filmmaker, and perhaps the most important one to the process.
Without a producer nothing gets off the ground, nothing gets in the can, and nothing gets in front of an audience.
Stars often become producers themselves in order to have some control over their projects. Kirk Douglas was an early example of this. His son Michael Douglas would also later make his mark as a producer on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest before he made his mark as a star in his own right.
Writers become producers in similar instances, as do directors. The incomparable Billy Wilder was a triple threat: writing, directing, and producing his films. Wilder is also a Thalberg award winner.
There are many ways multitalented folks wear the producer hat. From Brian Grazer to Tyler Perry... examples are everywhere.
So now that we know how important a producer is, let's get back to the main question,
What does a film producer do?
There are five major stages to the life of a film, a producer is the key factor in all five. We will go through some of the steps within each, but first here are the main five.
Development, pre-production, production, post production, and release.
Some producers do not work in all five stages, some work at a macro-level for all of them. And a lot of this depends on the scale of the project.
Think about the role of producing not just one feature through all these stages, but many in various stages that take place within the same 'cinematic universe'.
Either way, a great filmmaker has to understand all five phases, and as you'll see a truly great filmmaker is often also a great producer.
Let's get into each stage.
Everything starts with the D-word. Development. I know that "development hell" is something we all worry about, but all projects come from production companies that get scripts submitted to them. Interns or assistants read those scripts, write coverage, and if they're good, they go up the ladder to producers.
Producers then meet with the writers and try to find places to sell those scripts, as well as try to attach other talents like directors and actors to sweeten the deal. Sometimes they buy or option the idea and have other writers take a crack at it.
Sometimes producers option intellectual property or get it from the public domain. Then they try to find writers or directors who can help push that project forward.
Once you have a producer on board, and they get the other people, hopefully, the project gets set up at a studio.
People will talk about how 'story is everything' and 'ideas are king.' But there are a lot of ideas and stories out there. They're not all good.
What really separates the great producers from the rest is their ability to SEE the good in the idea. Or the angle of the idea that works. To see the good idea potential in the sea of ideas with problems.
But why is this stage called 'development'?
Because an idea alone isn't worth much. Even if it's the best idea anyone ever had.
You'll hear a lot of seasoned people say that they don't worry too much about a great idea they have being stolen because developing it is the biggest challenge anyway.
This is so often the case. A great idea is like a single brick when you're trying to build a house. You'll need a lot of good ideas along the way.
Writers and producers
Producers and writers have a long checkered past. But they need each other. They can't stop fighting but they can't exist without one another's help.
Sometimes an idea starts with a producer and he or she needs the writer to take it farther downfield. Sometimes a writer has a great idea and they need the producer to identify what's wrong with it or attach names to help it mature and grow.
Another thing a producer can do during this stage of the process is secure funding for a project. This can often be in the form of investments from... you guessed it... other producers. Those are typically 'Executive Producers' and if you fund the film yourself as a producer, you may also choose that title.
Producers have relationships and maintain them. So they should be able to find film financiers and start to bundle, or package a project.
If they have the creative in hand (in this case we use 'creative' to refer to the script) then the next piece they need is money.
If the producer doesn't have money or relationships with interested financiers the next stage is to attach something that can help to that end...
Attaching a director and stars
Like it or not, people decide to go to movies based largely on who is in the movie. This is also why studios, executives, producers, and financial backers all want to know the same thing.
Some directors have enough cache that they can help in this area as well. But not the same way a name can.
But the days where you need a name that opens a movie worldwide are long gone. There are names that can just help you with a streaming release, or international release. All of this is part of a release strategy, and even though the release is the last phase or stage, a great producer is thinking about it at this first stage as well.
The producer is the one person who will be involved at every step of the way.
So think about it this way. It might make sense for the writer/director to balk at casting a formerly famous action star in her family drama. But the producer can say to her "Look, this star will help us secure funding because we know he is still very popular over seas."
A producer needs two things to be good at attaching directors and actors. One is relationships. The other is instincts.
The relationships are necessary for obvious reasons. You need to literally be able to reach out to someone. You need to know their agent, or manager, or lawyer if you don't know them personally. This is why people talk about networking. It's not just about making people like you at a party.
Networking for a producer is just knowing everyone so you can reach out if you have a good project. You are connecting pieces.
Instincts come into play because a good producer needs to be able to make a solid recommendation. If that aging action star is an absolutely awful choice for the family drama, then it's a bad suggestion. It won't really help the movie if it doesn't work within the context of the movie on some level.
This is why the producer is also a filmmaker on a creative level. Producers with bad instincts are all over the place. Producers with good instincts are extremely valuable and will rise to the top.
But don't be mistaken. Instincts aren't in your DNA. You build them by being knowledgable about what works and what doesn't. But seeing what's out there content-wise, understanding the marketplace, identifying trends, and talent and making good matches.
It comes from watching, but it also comes from trial and error.
Once you have interested parties above the line you start to make deals. That means contract negotiations. Some producers are lawyers, sometimes they need to bring some in.
A good producer will make sure everything is in writing. As famed mogul and producer Jack Warner once said, "A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on."
Pre-production for a producer comes down to a lot of work like this. Because someone on the producer team will be making a budget. The producers at a higher level may start with a rough outline based on the general number.
Making a budget
But a line producer will step in and really nail down the details, meaning every last nickel and dime. Truly, every cent and every second will count no matter what the scale. If there is one stage to truly emphasize when it comes to producing it's the budget.
The next step is bringing in the rest of the team, this will be below the line craftspeople. Get a sense of how all the film crew positions on set co-mingle and work together so you can make the best decisions.
For example, some departments will hire their own team, and it's best to give them the room to do so.
What you can afford rate wise, and for kit fees, all will have been determined in the budget-making stage.
Scheduling a shoot
Once you start to have your whole team in place, a producer will work with an AD department to build a shooting schedule. This will also be dictated by some bigger picture realities. The availability of stars, desires of the director, requirements of the script, and locations.
Scouting locations and securing them is a huge step in the preproduction process as well, and once you find good ones you'll have to determine if they fit into the bigger plan schedule-wise.
Forms, templates, and paperwork
At least one of the producers of a film, and sometimes quite a few of them, have to do a lot of paperwork. This means being extremely organized, and getting out in front of issues.
Our page devoted to templates and forms any filmmaker needs has a few of the ones you'll definitely want to grab if you're working in the micro-budget DIY side of things.
But if you're working on a larger project, the companies involved will likely have some of the forms necessary already.
Once your property is filming, the producer manages egos and expectations on set. There are lots of stories about tumultuous problems on set, from needing script doctors to directors freaking out, or being fired, the producer has to handle all this and more.
Life on set
On set a producer could have a range of responsibilities or all of them. Every department head needs to report to someone. Even the director.
If there is an issue with locations it'll kick up the chain until it reaches a producer. It could stop at the locations department, or it could end up in the line producer's and UPM's (unit production manager) laps.
On a big production, only the very big things should ever get all the way to a producer. On a small set, literally everything will be on the producer. They might even make up the majority of certain departments.
Producers provide support for the creative endeavor. They create safe and legal circumstances within which the artists and craftspeople can get to work.
Adjustments and changes
Producers don't stop thinking about tomorrow. If things are calm in the present, the future must be attended to. If things are chaotic in the present, the future must be attended to. Sometimes the best way to mount a production is to arrange for things day by day.
The world dictates that things change, so producers will be the ones to try and protect the project and the vision from the consequences of those changes.
It could rain on a day with an exterior scheduled. What is the back-up plan?
An actor could have a sudden issue. What is the solution, or recourse?
Changes will be forced upon production. Producers adjust, and the best way to do that effectively is to...
Master the art of compromise
There is an ongoing war waged between dollars, seconds, and creative goals. These things don't all play well together. They have to find compromises that work.
Now that first part is easy. Anyone can find a compromise. The second part is hard and it requires some special skills and experience.
Compromises that work... in what sense?
The goal should always be to finish the best movie possible. Right?
Or should it? What if you do something illegal to get there and it haunts you later and you can't release the movie?
The producer has to weigh potential outcomes when weighing in on problems. Does the director want to get a shot that the DP thinks is too dangerous with the camera?
Factors must be weighed. Producers must be the protector of the creative vision here even more so than a director is.
Because the director might risk something big for something small. The producer should be the one who curbs them and says "you want this and you can get it. But you want this and here is why I'm ruling against it."
What happens when a director weilds producer power?
Sometimes great things. Sometimes... utter chaos.
You can take your pick of on set catastrophes and bloated budget nightmares and point the finger in many directions. Director was out of control. Producer was out of control. Nobody was minding the store.
Make no mistake about it; people can die on movie sets. Producers are supposed to be able to balance everything and make the right decision. Prioritize and more importantly RE-prioritize as the days go on, and the shoots extend.
While in post, the producer helps the editors by watching cuts and providing notes, they keep the post team on schedule, and on budget.
Sometimes there is a special producer doing this, a kind of post-production line producer called a
The idea of this producer is that they are going to be the key go-between on matters of the process specific to this final phase. Just as we had the DP and Gaffer on set we now have the Editor and the VFX department. Or sound design. It goes on and on.
A common mistake filmmakers make early on is treating Post-production like it's just one department handled by one or two people.
It's a second movie being made, a second production really. Even if you're working with very little money, you'd be making a HUGE error to assume post will be cheap or easy. Everything that went into getting the best images you could capture on set should go into finishing them in post. And adding the best sound possible.
Cutting picture is just one piece of the editing process. It involves assistant editing work, as well as rough cuts, fine cuts and many rounds of notes.
Sound and Score
The job is never done. Even when the show is on the air or the movie is in theaters, the producer keeps an eye on the numbers. They make sure the marketing team is doing everything correctly and that the talent are happy with the public perception of the film. They also monitor meltdowns and now, with social media, reactions in real-time.
Can it be fixed?
What is it worth it to fix?
Sales agents, Festivals, Distribution, and deals
Film and television is an expansive industry. Things need to be produced, and we're looking for producers to do it. But there are lots of different kinds of producers based on what each sector needs on the day-to-day. Let's go over some definitions of individual producer titles and see what they do.
The executive producer oversees all the other producers on the production. Many times, people are given an executive producer title on a film or show and are more hands-off. They're often the bigger names like your Spielbergs who are there more in name than anything. They usually help with the budget or just securing the financing for the project. When I was the EP on Shovel Buddies, I was super involved, but I was also the writer. So, I gave notes on which directors and cast I liked and talked about script changes to save budget.
When people use the general term "Producer," they're talking about the person who oversees every aspect of the filmmaking or television process. This person manages deadlines, egos, network executives, talent, and keeps the ship sailing.
Line producers are unsung heroes. They create the budget for the film or TV show. They also might manage the staff and daily challenges of production on a film or television show - sort of like a unit production manager.
Often called development producer, the supervising producer helps shepherd the project from idea to spec screenplay, through rewrites, to a shooting script. They also often become the executive producer or work in tandem with them to make sure the other producers get the project going.
The co-producer is the title for someone on the team of producers that help push the project forward. It can apply generally to anyone in this list.
The coordinating producer helps all the teams of producers on a particular project. For example, they'll wrangle the supervising producers to make sure development and the script are going well.
Associate producers, or AP's as they call us on set, coordinate the producer's life on set. They'll assist in scheduling, table reads, and the delivery and assembly of notes and ideas.
How this is different.
A consulting producer is basically the writer for a live or reality TV program. They contribute the words the host says in and out of segments, different joke lines, and help with the overall tone and feel of the show.
Segment producers handle the segments of a talk show or reality TV show. They produce things like "Carpool Karaoke" and "Conan Plays Video Games." They specifically work on new segments for each show and make sure they go smoothly.
A field producer leaves the studio and goes on location to help produce the segments or anything that happens outside of the studio or soundstage.
How do I become a producer?
How do you become a producer in film and television? There are many different pathways, but most people start off working as an assistant at an agency, management company, or production company. As an assistant, you get to see how movies and television shows come to life. It's an education in the way Hollywood works.
Eventually, you'd want to rise up the ranks and get yourself at a production company so you can work in development. That's where the ideas come in and where producers start the hard work. They have to pick a slate of projects they want to chase.
As you assist the producer, make your intentions of advancing well-known. That way, hopefully, they'll mentor you and get you your first credits.
Can you become a producer without being an assistant?
The short answer is 'yes.' You can be appointed as one on a movie or TV show if you pay for it. Or if the idea is yours and you help attached talent to get it made, you're a producer. As you've read, there are so many different kinds of producers that your best way in the door is seeing which kind makes the most sense for you, and trying to get a job working near them or for them to see if it still excites you.
My opinion is that the best way to get your dream job in the film industry is to start off with any job in the film industry. So knock on doors, try to get into the mailroom, and work your way up.
Or be a millionaire with a ton of seed money ready to invest in films or TV shows.
With the Academy limit on having only three producers on stage, should we have different categories for financial producers and creative producers?
Click the link to read the discussion.