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Producer

Guiding the film from inception until long after its release, it starts and ends with the producer.

My First Job in Film: What is the role of a film producer?

What is a producer?

The role of a producer can be excessively stressful; reserved for the few who can cope with the pressure of potentially remortgaging their family home to pay for the grade. Producers are managers, collaborators, enablers and problem solvers who can be adaptable and flexible to the needs of a production. They find the story/script, acquire funding for the project, attach talent, drive the project through principal photography, post-production, and find the right people to help steer the film to its ultimate destination - the audience. Unlike any other participant the producer is attached to the film many years after it has been exploited over each media outlet, the job is ceaseless and all consuming - which is ultimately why producers are born and not made.   

Producers are always on the lookout for a story, one that can translate well cinematically and have all the ingredients to give the audience what they want, be it comedy, action, adventure or romance. Ultimately the story has to resonate with the producer too as they will be the main driving forces behind the project, if they lose momentum, it can mean curtains for any production. The concept for a film is conceived in many ways, an original concept from the producer, an original idea from a director, an article, novel, play or comic. The producer will find a screenwriter (or work with a director/writer) and collaborate with them to develop the idea into a script. The other option is for a producer to option a script, which means they take out a legal contract to acquire the rights to an existing screenplay for development. While the producer has the option agreement in place the screenwriter cannot sell the script to another party, the producer has the option of retaining the script to continue with development or release it when the terms of the contract have expired.

The research and development stage or ‘development hell’ as it’s known, can take any length of time - John Carter holding the record for 79 years in development. If a screenplay is worth it, and the producer fanatical enough, eventually the right cast and the right director will find their way into the production. Funding for development will be necessary as the producer will need to pay for script writing services, legal fees, travel, publicity and marketing, location scouting, entertainments, general overheads, schedule and budget creation (if it needs to be outsourced).

This can be extremely costly so the production company will have two options; to meet the cost of development themselves as external funding can compromise the producer at a later date, or seek external funding from an external source such as the BFI, Film 4 or BBC Films.  

Once development funding is in place, a screenwriter is hired to work with the producer developing the story. Producers may decide to bring other writers on board at a later date, but initially, the screenwriter is brought in for two drafts and what is known as the ‘polish’, meaning a working draft to include in the pitch. Once the producer has a script, they will begin to attach above the line talent such as directors and actors and go to the film markets to find funding for a film. If a director is connected to the project they can come on board to make any amendments to the script before the pitch package is pulled together.  

WHAT IS THE PITCH PACKAGE FOR A FILM?

Putting together the pitch for investors can be one of the most challenging aspects of the producer's role, a film financing company can be brought into the mix if needed, and the services of a sales company (who will sell the film to foreign distributors). A pitch package can consist of:

  • A treatment of the script, which can be anywhere from a page to a more detailed ten-page document.

  • A copy of the rights to the story, all options and acquisitions agreements.

  • An investment proposal, clearly laying out the terms and conditions of the investment.

  • Comparable box office returns on films of a similar genre or tone.

  • Market research on current trends, with emphasis on work that has just gone into production.

  • Talent attached to the project. The director, screenwriter and cast are the primary selling points if they hold weight within the industry or are 'up and coming'.  If they have not committed contractually a letter of interest from all parties is a good indicator to investors that securing the talent is possible. Any crew agreements that are set.

  • A copy of the budget. Strategies for funding and distribution, with any evidence of commitments or interest.

  • Revenue projections.

  • Any examples of press coverage the company have managed to generate, which would include any marketing materials they have commissioned such as posters.

While seeking funding, a co-production is often considered. Many independent films from the UK are made in conjunction with other European production companies. Far from meaning joint control of a project the division of labour is often applied, one company will work on securing the finance for the project, while the other works on securing the talent and developing the script. A co-pro has other added benefits as production can take advantage of extra tax incentives if the co-producer is based outside the UK. Finance is a delicate business, investing in a feature film is a high-risk activity, so production companies may decide to seek investment for multiple films rather than the one, spreading out the risk and increasing their chances for profit. This is also a way to gain funding for a film that previously held no interest for investors or distributors.

In some cases projects can be in development for years; 2, 4,10 you name it. Projects get knocked back and shelved at varying stages of their existence only to be brought back a few years later. A project's lifespan is highly dependent on the producer or production company who want to push it forward. Sadly many scripts don't make it into the development stage, many films in development never make it into production, and films that have been shot and edited fail to find a distribution deal. The business of film is precarious, to say the least. 

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE PRODUCER DURING PRODUCTION?

During principle photography, the producer can be found on set overseeing/supporting the cast and crew, in the production office keeping on top of logistics (liaising with the studio if a studio production), or both. They are present when the dailies/rushes are reviewed and are a sounding board for the director both on and off the set. Along with the ADs, the producer will be doing their fair share of troubleshooting, this may involve actors, crew, technical difficulties that result in additional kit hire, other spends or any last-minute changes to the script. As producers are across every aspect of production, they can provide reassurance in times of stress, and if the production isn't running as it should their voice can be heard loud and clear.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE PRODUCER DURING POST-PRODUCTION?

Post-production delivers the producer another set of challenges as they get closer to a delivery date. However, before delivery the film needs to be edited, credits need to cross checked, VFX applied, executive producers need to be consulted, a musical score composed and post-production sound (ADR, foley, SFX) is combined to create the final film. If working on an indie film where the shoot strayed over budget, the producer could well be looking for additional funding to finish the film, probably taking multiple paracetamols to quash a stress headache that follows them around. They arrange preview screenings which can mean re-editing the film to reach a version that everyone agrees upon.  

HOW DOES THE PRODUCER GET THEIR FILM TO THE AUDIENCE?

If pre-sales have been agreed before to principal photography, the producer will liaise with the domestic distribution companies. The sales companies will hold the film until the international distribution companies have paid the remaining balance on the Minimum Guarantee. If a distribution deal is yet to be struck producers will need to unveil their films at festivals with the aim of generating traction through screenings, press coverage and word of mouth. A festival can be make or break for many independent films. In 2015 Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, starring newly Oscar-anointed Matthew McConaughey, bombed at Cannes. Subsequently distributors Roadside and Lionsgate back peddled their way out of their deal. Festivals can be hard work for producers; it may seem all lunches and late suppers, but they work tirelessly to secure the best possible slots for screenings and generate as many meetings as possible to find the best possible deal for their film.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PRODUCER?

  • Producer: Some producers work in a partnership, some work alone. The primary producer(s) are responsible for the production from development right through to achieve.  They can either run an established production company or work for a studio or independent film company.  

  • Executive producer: Execs are studio heads, owners of the production company or anyone involved in finance or for investment in the film. They can oversee multiple films at the same time. It's also a credit that can attach an A-list name to a project to help with finance, even though they may have very little to do with the film.

  • Co-executive producer: Studio executives and distributors who have made finance commitments to the project are credited as execs.

  • Co-producer: The term co-producer can refer to a few types of producer. The co-producer credit that goes to a line producer, an investor or the screenwriter whose script was optioned. It can also refer to the producers attached to another production company if the film is a co-production. On a feature the co-producer is the one working closely with the executive producer on matters of finance, on large productions, the co-producer will be involved in the day to day running of the production.

  • Associate Producer: Associate producers can be delegated work from the producer and work over all three stages of production, or they can be based mainly at the production company overseeing several productions at the same time. Associate producer is also the credit given to backers of the film who have made a significant financial investment.

  • Assistant Producer: Works with the associate producer over the course of the production.

  • Line Producer: Not to be confused with the UPM (unit production manager), the line producer is responsible for creating the budget.

  • UPM: The UPM will be allocating monies from the budget, they are also in charge of overseeing the spend of monies. They hire the crew and deal with equipment rental, work with the 1st AD on the schedule, run the production office and manage crew logistics along with the 1st AD.

How do i become a producer?

Ultimately, and akin to much of the film industry, there is no set path to becoming a producer. Should you wish to consider this career you should know the role will require you to walk the fine line between the creative and financial, you will need a good handle on both. These two aspects of the producer's job can be split between a producing duo, such as the Weinstein brothers or Tim Bevan and Eric Felner for example. One-half is managing the budget and finance, the other working with the writer, director and actors.

Producers hail from a variety of backgrounds, some people have done their time in the production office, some have gone via the  role of producer’s assistant at a production company. Some producers have worked in other areas of the industry, such as distribution or film sales/finance. Whatever the background if you bring contacts to the table then half the battle is won. Producers need to have connections to have their phone calls taken, meetings arranged and ultimately deals secured. While working on film sets can offer a solid grounding in the production process, your business acumen will need to be developing alongside your passion for cinema. You will need to know what a great story looks like and have a good grasp on cinematic trends and the markets. Most importantly the thought of involving yourself completely within the world of the film industry should fill you with joy; you should be prepared to give yourself over to it.

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