Most people have a basic understanding of the jobs within the entertainment industry. Some are obvious: everyone knows what an actor or a camera operator does. You probably have a general idea of what a screenwriter's or a director's job entails. But even though "producer" is a familiar title, what a producer actually does on a TV show or a film production is a bit mysterious.
Film Producer Vs. TV Producer
Why "What Does a Producer Do?" is Hard to Answer
The Producer's Role in a Film Production
Types of Producers
What Skills Do You Need to Be a Producer?
How to Become a Producer
Film Producer vs. TV Producer
A producer is a producer: same title, same responsibilities, regardless of whether the production is a network TV show or a film… right? Nope. In both film and TV, the person who produces the show or film is the boss, but there are some big differences between the producer's role (and title) depending on the setting.
Even though TV shows have producers, and there are people who fulfill the same job responsibilities on shows and movies, TV production is a different thing. TV producer roles may be divided out differently, and the titles don't necessarily mean the same thing. There are enough differences and nuances between a movie producer and a television producer that we talk about the job of a TV "producer" equivalent — known as a showrunner and credited as an executive producer — in another article.
Why "What Does a Producer Do?" is Hard to Answer
In this article, I'm going to clear up some of the mystery around what a producer does. But first, why don't most people know what a producer does? Seems like it should be a simple question to answer.
A "producer credit" can mean something specific, or not mean much at all. The title is a little generic and not inherently descriptive the same way "stunt coordinator" or "production designer" are. Because it's more elastic, it can act like sort of a catch-all for people looking for a credit because they did something having to do with getting the movie made. (You can't very well ask for a screenwriter credit, for example, if you weren't involved in the screenplay development.)
Some producers are more lax in giving out this credit to people with tangential involvement in getting the film made, like providing a filming location for free or being vaguely involved in getting an actor hired. I don't work that way. In my films, this credit is a serious thing. I've given an associate producer credit to someone who introduced me (a producer) to a director, basically getting me a job. Sometimes associate producer or co-producer, or a "produced by" credit is given to a person who plays a pivotal role in getting the movie made.
In order to know what a producer credit means on a given production, you need a little insight into that specific production. There isn't a single standard definition that applies for all situations.
There are a lot of different types of producers. An executive producer and a line producer have different job responsibilities. Other producers include: associate producer, segment producer, assistant producer, coordinating producer, consulting producer, supervising producer, and the list goes on. Just like jobs in any other industry, many of these jobs aren't known outside of the film industry.
The producer will function differently in different settings. As we already discussed, film producers on independent feature films will play a different role and have different responsibilities than TV producers (showrunners) working on TV shows. (In the industry, everybody says "showrunner," even though "executive producer" is the title in the credits.)
The Producer's Role in a Film Production
Here's a simple way to understand what a film producer does. Think of the film as a startup business, and the producer is the CEO. The CEO is generally not involved in the daily duties of every other person, like writing the script, running the camera, editing, etc. But she might be more involved in certain aspects depending on her expertise and style, especially in a smaller production where the budget is small and she has a lot at stake. The producer could also wear multiple hats; in my films, I've written, directed and produced with my brother.
The producer makes the movie happen. The producer has the idea for the story and maybe some creative vision, raises funding, hires the actors, director and film crew, oversees editing and post-production, negotiates the sale with distributors—runs the project from start to finish. The director is the creative vehicle for the film, but the producer is the driver. When it comes time to accept an Academy Award for Best Picture, the producer accepts the award.
The producer assembles the entire creative team, or at bigger production companies, hires the people who build their own teams. Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm is not personally hiring a prop master or the boom operators for the next Star Wars film, but I hand-pick people for each of these roles for my films. Depending on management style, the producer may drop in on the set or give input during editing, or may never be on the set during filming.
The producer is the one who gets things done and shepherds the project through the production process, from inception through negotiating the sale to a distributor.
During pre-production, before the movie is shot, the producer is focused on a handful of things.
Raising money: It could take months or even years to raise money to fund your film, depending on who you know, how good you are and how convincing your project is to an investor.
Hiring the entire production team: These are the people who will be involved in the production of the film. Before they start working, the producer is collecting their information, working with an entertainment attorney to get contracts drafted for every person and getting everyone set up on payroll.
Hand-picking and hiring certain personnel for safety reasons: A producer might take a more hands-on role in hiring stunt coordinators, stunt riggers and stunt doubles (if the film calls for this type of work) so the production isn’t exposed to unnecessary risk.
Engaging with the handful of people working during pre-production: The first assistant is hired to schedule out the movie for shooting. The casting director gets the script out to talent. The director (if the producer isn't also directing) starts doing prep work for production. The producer isn't doing these things but may be involved in discussions.
Getting production insurance set up for the production: This is liability insurance that can cover things like injuries, damaged equipment and much more. Production insurance protects the producer in all stages of production and will vary depending on the individual movie.
Identifying and securing locations for filming: Depending on the size of the production, the producer may be more involved or less involved in this. Either way, there will be some work involved in figuring out where the film is going to be shot.
Many producers I know don't even go on set during the production phase. There are other production personnel who run the movie set during this phase. It wouldn't be unusual for a film producer to never be on set during filming. Producers will show up on set if it's necessary to facilitate and/or supervise. In my experience, it's usually to resolve issues.
The producer negotiates fees with a post-production house and visual effects people. In post, the film is brought into compliance with various standards (color standard, luminance standard, decibel standard) so it can be sold to a distributor. The day-in, day-out work of this phase is a lot of project management: getting a scene in for VFX, then getting it back to the post-production team.
Once the film is completed, the producer works with a sales agent to get the film sold to a distributor.
Types of Producers
As we've discussed, there are many types of other producers. At their core, producers oversee what needs to get done and ensure it does get done: they are managers. Here are job descriptions of the main types for a feature film:
Executive Producer: Job Description
In the independent film world, an executive producer's role is typically as a financial investor in the project. I give this credit to equity partners. The executive producer may be involved in some creative decisions or in helping develop the film (in addition to investing financially), but this isn't always the case. It varies depending on the production. When I sell a film to a distributor (such as Amazon Prime, A24 or Netflix) I discuss the distributor offers with the executive producers.
Co-Producer: Job Description
A co-producer is almost the rank of producer. This credit would be given to someone who's like the producer's right hand, and plays a critical supporting role to the producer's job of getting the film made. A co-producer may handle a lot of logistics and physical aspects of work on the set. For What Lies Below, my co-producer tracked down a specific car that was required for a scene. He sourced a crane for a complicated shoot, and coordinated getting everything transported from Manhattan to upstate New York for filming. These are tasks that could have fallen to the first assistant director or unit production manager, but they had their hands full and he stepped in. He also coordinated a lot of post production.
Associate Producer: Job Description
An associate producer is often someone who plays an important role in getting the film made, but isn't necessarily hands-on with the production. An AP may make a connection between the producer and a director. In reality, this is often regarded as a meaningless credit. Just about anyone can receive an associate producer credit on a film. For example, if you were the person who introduced the producer or director to a certain actor and that actor signs onto the film, you can ask for an associate producer credit.
Line Producer: Job Description
A line producer reviews or creates a budget and production schedule for a film production. The role of a line producer is similar to an accountant, going over each line item and ensuring everything is budgeted correctly, down to the last detail.
Other Types of Producers
There are many variations of producers (especially on big film studio productions), all of which are related to moving the film forward somehow, just not necessarily in ways that would be apparent to someone outside the film industry. Co-executive producers, co-producers, supervising producers and VFX producers are just a few of the other producer titles you’ll find on a big studio production. Television production also has its own types of producers, which don't directly translate to film. Some examples include coordinating producer, consulting producer or segment producer.
What Skills Do You Need to Be a Producer?
The most critical skill a good producer must have would likely catch the average film student off guard: you have to be good with managing money.
Film schools assume you have money and then teach the middle part of the film-making process; they don't teach what happens before or after you make a film, or how to make money as a film producer. Successful producers excel at management, logistics and business operations.
I tell my students that 20% of what I do is creativity and 80% is playing poker. Thinking like an entrepreneur, pitching for investors, reading people: these are the soft skills you need in order to raise money to finance your films. In the real world after film school, there is no production center for you to borrow a camera, and people don't work for free like your classmates did. If you want to make movies, you need money, and your poker skills will play an important role in getting it.
Raising money: The reality is that every big studio doesn't immediately call new film school grads and offer them jobs. Producers have to raise funding for their movies, which involves pitching to private investors, much like an entrepreneur. Among other things, a savvy investor will want to hear your business plan. They'll want to know why you want to make a movie as opposed to doing something else, and why you want to make this movie in this genre, and what you're projecting the ROI will be. Most importantly, investors want to know how quickly you'll make the movie and when they'll start seeing a return.
Negotiating contracts: Students come out of film school without knowing what a contract looks like, which is a problem because everyone involved in the production process will have a contract. As the producer, I hire everybody, negotiate everybody's pay and put them on payroll (and hire the payroll company). I'm in touch with the union representatives to make sure I follow all the guild rules when I'm running my production. In order to succeed, you need to be comfortable with contracts and have a good entertainment lawyer.
Reading people: The production team will make or break the film. Hire the wrong people and the production will bleed money due to incompetence, not filming enough pages in a given day and getting off schedule. At best, the producer will make no money, and at worst, the project may fail altogether. The producer is left writing checks to the investor until the debt is settled.
Reading the market/industry: Successful producers understand they're making a product that needs to compete in the market and generate return on the money invested to make the film. Most film schools fail to teach the commercial side, that the filmmaking process is not exclusively about the art and story. Independent film producers are aware that when their movie is coming out, so are many other films. The competition for the audience's time and money is stiff.
How to Become a Producer
So, how do you do it? Unlike other roles, there is no real career path to becoming a producer. If you want to be a producer, go to film school and start producing. The nature of the job is to be self-directed and entrepreneurial. When those traits are paired with a passion for the film industry, producers produce — it's in their DNA. You don't start off bringing people coffee and work your way up a ladder, because:
The experience of other roles doesn't translate: I have yet to hear of someone who worked their way up to being a producer by doing every job other than producing. Here's the problem with working other jobs with the intention of becoming a producer or a director. You gain experience and excel at the job you're doing. Nobody is going to come along and say, "I saw you did a great job as first assistant director on that movie; you should be the director on this other movie." They'll say, "Come be the first AD on my film."
Film schools don't do a great job teaching it: The fact is, most film schools don't educate students on how to be a producer. I went to USC, and I have friends who went to Chapman, AFI and NYU. We all graduated with the skills to make a movie. It's easy to create an academic environment where a student can learn to direct or edit or write. It's nearly impossible to create an academic environment where a student can learn to be a producer. How do you replicate situations where you teach real world skills like assessing whether someone's previous work experience is a fit for your production, or negotiating terms for the licensing of the film and its release, or a discussion with an actor's manager to convince them to do the film?
There's no substitute for real-world experience: That last situation actually happened. One of the lead actresses and her representation were concerned about how visual effects were going to look in certain scenes of What Lies Below, and I had to explain why her concerns were unfounded. Every reason I gave was something a film student couldn't say.
First, I'd done this before and knew it would work.
Second, I had friends in VFX who had worked on huge TV shows like Titans, Supergirl and The Flash who would be involved in making it look good.
Third, I had a great working relationship with the post house, which had made a lot of money off my last film.
This is the essence of what a producer does: handle production logistics and negotiate (for talent, for crew, for prices), and it doesn't translate to the classroom.
There are some things that can and should be taught in a classroom, like pitching to investors. Here at Biola, we do that; in the entertainment producing concentration of our B.A. in Cinema and Media Arts, our students pitch to current Hollywood film executives and get feedback. Student projects have even been purchased for development. But the vast majority of what a producer does can't be taught in school because it depends on real life experience. You learn by doing.
The most challenging thing a film student will ever do is getting the first movie made. If you do it wrong, you will never get a second chance, because a lot of money and trust will have been lost. How do you convince anyone else to invest in your project if you have only one failed project to your name? But going for it, even if you're starting with a short film on a shoestring budget, that's how you become a producer.