Director is obvious. Cinematographer too. But what exactly does a Producer do? Let’s see if we can answer that.
As is often the case in independent feature films, I wore several hats on Bokeh. When on set, I was a Background Player (tourist photographer), Unit Still Photographer and Documentary Videographer. I even have a few frames in the film as a Second Unit Camera Operator, responsible for VFX plates and some shots in/under water. But, my primary roles were Producer and Line Producer/UPM.
What is a Producer?
Producer is a title which is often misunderstood. We will start by clarifying the various applications of the title. As you read, please keep in mind the following caveats. First, it is not uncommon for people to wear one or more Producer hats on a film. Second, the following definitions are as close as one can come to a standard, but every set and every production company may apply the titles differently.
The Executive Producer is primarily responsible for financing the production. The title is often assigned to the primary investors in the film, but may also apply to the Producer who was primarily responsible for pitching the project to a studio and raising the funds to have the film made. Once a film is funded, the Executive Producer often manages budgets, contracts and other the business aspects of the film.
Producers are the senior management of the film. Each Producer has a significant role in executing the film. Think of Producers as the “C” suite executives of the film, each with a different area of operational responsibility or expertise. Generally, Producers collaborate with one another and coordinate as needed where their responsibilities crossover. In most cases, the Line Producer facilitates communication amongst the Producers and Co-Producers, rather than “supervising” them. This was certainly the case on Bokeh.
The Line Producer is primarily responsible for coordinating the execution the film. This generally includes hiring and/or managing the various crew positions that do not report to the Director and Cinematographer. Other responsibilities include scheduling various production services (e.g. catering, transportation, equipment rentals), managing expectations and relationships with the various vendors and ensuring that the shooting budget conforms as closely as possible to the planned production budget. Line Producer is the title assigned this role by the Producers Guild of America. The same role is called Unit Production Manager (UPM) by the Directors Guild of America.
Co-Producers are key production partners to the film. Often, the Co-Producers are local production companies brought in to help the parent production company find locations and source local talent. Co-Producers can also be the “right hands” of the various Producers.
On a large production, Associate Producers might be assigned broad responsibility for coordinating specific areas of a production (e.g. Catering, Craft Services, Transportation) which might change vendors and services as the shooting schedule and locations change. For some productions, Associate Producer might be a title given to people who provided important support to the filmmakers, but did not directly have a hand in making the film. In the case of Bokeh, we reserved “Associate Producer” as a title for key Kickstarter backers.
The role of Production Assistant (PA) is often seen simply as the person who fetches coffee for the crew among other menial tasks. While that is often true, PAs are hired to be another set of hands/eyes/ears for the production. Most PAs are exploring production as a career and working in this role gives them an opportunity to be on set, learn the expectations of set life and gain experience working on a film.
With this in mind, the title of Production Assistant (PA) can be an important career stepping stone or “throw-away” job. It really depends on the individual given the title. If a PA shows hustle, interest, and aptitude, smart filmmakers will take them under their wing, help them figure out which career for which they are best suited and set them on that path. In contrast, PAs who do not stand out in a positive way are seldom called back.
Putting It All Together
The list above provides a general hierarchy of the Producing team on a film. Often times, an individual will occupy one or more Producer role on a film. And, there are several other Producer designations not covered in this post (e.g. Segment Producer, Post Producer) but those are all variations on this theme, usually with a very specific subset of responsibilities.
At every level, however, Producers have one driving objective: “Get stuff done.” Most other roles on a film crew have very specific areas of expertise (e.g. Camera Operator, Makeup Artist, Costume Designer). It is the role of the Producer to understand the needs of all of the specialists and to make sure those needs are met.
Ideally, all of those needs are anticipated in pre-production and waiting for the specialists when they arrive on set. However, to paraphrase Helmuth von Moltke “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. In this case, the “enemy” is the myriad of things not accounted for in the original production plan including forgotten equipment, inclement weather or injured or sick cast and crew; all of which can derail a shooting schedule if not addressed quickly.
When problems pop up, and they will, it is the role of the Producer to respond to the crisis, find the solution and keep the production moving forward. A Producer needs to be able to think on their feet; after only four hours of sleep and before their first cup of coffee.
How Does This Apply To Me?
At this point, you may be saying “This is all very interesting, but I do not see how this applies to me.”
I would argue that professional or amateur; shooter of still or motion you are, first and foremost, a Producer.
Whenever you pull out your camera, you are setting out to produce something. You bought the camera, lenses and the film or memory card; you are the Executive Producer. You have put together a plan and a budget that will allow you to execute the image you have in mind; you are a Line Producer. When you get yourself coffee, you are your own PA.
If you do not think of yourself as a Producer, perhaps you should. On the surface, the role might not seem as sexy as being behind the camera. But, in my experience, the lessons learned as a Producer might open your eyes to possibilities you may be missing by only having your eye on the viewfinder.
Image Credits: Kat Gatti, © 2014.