“What Do You Do Again?” is Stareable’s new weekly column profiling the different film production roles. Spoiler alert: a gaffer isn’t Samwise Gamgee, and it’s considered rude if you’re openly disappointed about this. What roles should we profile next? Let me know in the comments!
This week, we’re talking about producers! You know, the Springtime for Hitler kind.
What does a producer do? Lightning round:
Executive Producers are either the people with the cash, the people who found the cash, or the people who created and have the most logistical responsibility on the project as a whole.
Producers are the people who steer the production from start to finish, dealing mostly in behind-the-scenes logistics
Associate producers are either members of the production who went above and beyond their original roles without necessarily having ultimate responsibility over the project, or are people who got the credit as a thank you but might not have been involved in the production directly.
Line producers are hired specifically to oversee the budget.
Producers are just the cash cows and don’t really do anything. In fairness, especially on larger projects, there are producers who just provide funds, and producers who are given their title as a “thank you.” However, the truth is that producers are the people who organize the production from start to finish, guiding the various teams and departments towards a unified goal. They coordinate paperwork, aid in hiring and casting, scout and negotiate locations, and a myriad of other tasks.
According to Alex LeMay (@Alex_LeMay), an Executive Producer and Director for large digital studios like Youtube Red, Maker and Go90, “As an executive producer I am what is known as a show runner. A showrunner is a hands-on producer who is responsible for both the business aspects of the show (hiring, firing, budget) as well as making sure the final creative project fits in with the business goals of the studio I am working with.”
Producing isn’t a creative role. While it’s true that producers spend more time with logistics than anyone else on a project, that doesn’t make their jobs less creative. In fact, producers often have to be more creative, as no production is smooth sailing and producers are generally in charge of problem solving in a pinch.
Chelsey Saatkamp (@chelsaat), producer for Apple Juice Productions (The Cate Morland Chronicles, Lilly Evans and the Eleventh Hour), agrees, saying “It's important the producer is involved in the creative process from the beginning, to lend advice/show what can actually become reality.” The producers might be the more pragmatic voices in these conversations, but making a $200 scene into a $20 scene without losing quality or sacrificing story is inarguably creative.
The producer isn’t on set. This is a half misconception, because depending on the type of producer and the type of production, a producer might not ever visit set. However, especially on indie productions, having the producer on set is often really helpful. Observing production informs future decisions and scheduling, and having a logistics person available IRL can solve on-set problems more quickly and efficiently.
The producer’s job is to say “no.” It’s easy to assume that a person in a logistics role is trying to undermine the genius creatives behind a project by demanding they stick to a budget, but that’s short-sighted. Of course, I’m sure there are producers out there who aren’t flexible about money, but in general, a producer is an equal partner in this project, and it’s their job to preserve as much of the original concept as possible while also still being able to pay everyone.
Being inflexible. Sometimes, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees when you’re the one in charge of tracking and managing the budget, but never forget that, as a producer, you’re making art. When you see a script with more than two locations to be shot on a shoestring budget, it’s easy to say “rewrite it to be easier to shoot,” but easy isn’t always the best option. Producing is scary, money is scary, filmmaking is scary, but never say “no” when you can say “let’s make this work!” You’d be surprised how often impossible things reveal themselves to be possible. This is where a producer’s creativity comes into play.
Placing blame. There’s a great talk about producing by Stephen Follows, a UK-based producer and writer, that I highly recommend you check out, and one of my favorite segments of it is the difference between fault and responsibility. More often than not, production problems are not your fault, but they are your responsibility, because you’re the producer and it’s your job to oversee the completion of the project. In Follow’s own words, “what do you want, sympathy?” Don’t place blame- fix the problem and move on.
Emphasizing winning over problem solving. Since everything is your responsibility and you hold the purse strings, you will also often be the winner of arguments. You know more about the project than probably anyone else, you know the budget and time and personnel constraints, and you are the bad guy 95% of the time. However, good decisions are not about you, they’re about the project, so when you’re arguing with someone else on the project, you’re not trying to win, you’re trying to fix a problem. No one cares about your ego, or that you were right, or that they should have been listening to you the whole time, and the best way to do your job and to gain the respect of the cast and crew is to compromise and collaborate instead of handing down rulings and “I told you so”s.
How can I learn to be a producer?
The Stephen Follows video I mentioned above is a great place to start, and I personally plan on rewatching it every few days to remind myself of the finer points.
Unlike directing, producing isn’t really something you can observe, because from the outside, it’s mostly making calls and replying to emails. The best way to learn producing, that in mind, is to do it yourself, starting small and working your way up to bigger and more intense projects. Be warned: if you don’t like talking to strangers, asking for money, or being the most organized person in the room, producing probably isn’t for you.
Producing is one of the most thankless, overlooked, and unforgiving jobs on a project, and, unsurprisingly, is one of the most important. So be nice to producers, and remember to thank them, because they’re often the biggest reason you have a finished film product.