Movie Producer  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotIt's a common question: What does a producer do?

Independent movie producer Mark Moran says even those in the industry are often unclear what exactly a producer does. Part of the reason is that a producer's job is mostly behind the scenes. Producers are the hidden puppet masters.

"In the purest sense, the producer is the first person on a movie and the last person off a movie -- the one who basically says, 'This should be a film and I'm going to work for the next several years to do what it takes to make it happen,' including hiring a director, hiring stars, finding money, getting a budget done, all that stuff," says Moran.

There are various kinds of producers. The physical production is generally done by a line producer. Moran, who is based in Los Angeles, was recently the line producer for a film called Pretty Bird starring Paul Giamatti.

Line producer is more of a job title than a credit. The line producer is the person who takes the script and breaks it down to figure out exactly how many days it will take to shoot it, how many people will be needed, what it's going to cost, what they'll pay for every piece of equipment and person. The line producer uses those figures to create a budget and cash flow.

Other producing titles are sort of a ranking system, just like the military. At the top you have a full producer who just gets a straight "producer" credit. The people who have a little less to do with making the film are executive producers, a little bit below that you have co-producers, and then below that you have associate producers.

These distinctions can get a bit blurry, however.

"Traditionally, for motion pictures, an executive producer is involved with raising the money, whereas the full producer develops the project, but the truth is, the final credits sometimes have more to do with politics than the actual jobs done," says Moran.

"The producer might be the person who read the script initially and said this would be a great movie and started putting together the package and said, 'You know what, I can get this song, this star, and then I'll take it to get funding, whether it's a studio or a private equity fund,'" he explains.

"A producer might be the person with the idea in the first place, saying, 'You know, we should have a movie about Nelson Mandela,' and he went out and hired a writer, or he read a book and said, 'I should hire someone to adapt this.'"

One reason that so few people understand what a producer does is the fact that much of the work, such as selecting and developing a script, hiring the director, and raising the financing, all occur before the film actually starts to get made. It's when everyone else's job begins that the producer's job is mostly done. Also, many of producer's tasks are hard to define.

"If your job is, 'I'm just going to keep calling people until I raise enough money,' it becomes very unclear," says Moran. "Does that take 50 calls or does that take 500 calls? You never know if the next one is going to greenlight [approve] your movie or if you're going to be making calls for two more years."

Having an idea for a movie is the first step of a producer's work. But the key to success is persistence -- not only to get things done, but also to stick to your goals.

For one thing, it's not easy to get by on very little money while your friends are going on to establish themselves in careers that pay well.

"It's being able to figure out how to live with very little money for a long time," says Moran. "You look around and everyone else is on a much more predictable track, and they're already making money right after they finish school or graduate school, whereas in film, because it's perceived as a glamorous and fun job, you're competing with so many people who... are willing to work for free."

Moran was 26 when he was interning. He knew people in their mid-30s who were also interning. They'd already had careers and wanted to switch into the film industry. Because of simple supply and demand, with so many people wanting to get into the business, starting salaries are very low. Not only are people willing to work for free, some new producers have the financial means to invest a million dollars of their own money to get a film made.

If you're going to work in the film industry as a producer or in any capacity, you have to have a high tolerance for uncertainty. It's feast or famine. Months can go by without any paid work or even any sense of progress.

Documentary production is the main focus of Lola Davidson, an independent movie producer. Davidson earned an undergraduate degree in film production in the spring of 2006. She says it's important to get into film production for the right reasons.

"The reason I got into it was a love of storytelling and a love of being creative and being able to bring something creative together with a team of people," she says.

Davidson also loves the feeling of exploring and educating that documentary production gives her. "If there's that sort of passion, then I'd say they're in it for the right reasons," she says.

What would be a wrong reason to get into film production? Money. Davidson has never forgotten what she once heard another filmmaker say: "You don't become a filmmaker to make money -- that's why you become an accountant."

Davidson says becoming a filmmaker is a lifestyle choice. It's important to consider whether you'll be comfortable scraping by while your friends are off building careers and making lots of money. Some people earn in a week what you'll take three months to earn with a film project.

In general, anyone working on a movie, whether it's the director or one of the producers, is paid a weekly fee, says Moran. In some cases that's turned into a flat deal. It's often a percentage of the budget. All of the producers on the movie might make five percent of the budget, so if it's a $100 million film that's $5 million that would go to all of the different producers. There are floors and caps, though, to keep the salaries within a reasonable range.

"The truth is, it's very rare that you get a film like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Blair Witch Project," says Moran. "It's very rare that you have an independent film that makes billions of dollars."

Producers who manage to get projects off the ground on a regular basis make a decent living, says Moran. He says they can earn anywhere from $50,000 to $400,000 per film.

"If you actually average it out, year in and year out, if you're one of these really top ones... you're probably making anywhere from several hundred thousand a year on up," says Moran. "I think it's very rare that you have someone making more than a million dollars a year. I certainly have never come close to that, and certainly the people who are more at my level in a good year might make $100,000."

The film industry is primarily based in New York and Los Angeles. If you want to be the type of producer who creates projects, you probably want to end up in one of those cities, says Moran. Los Angeles is definitely the hub of feature film production. However, those who are starting out can get their foot in the door in many different locations.

"There's production everywhere, so if a person wanted to be on the crew of a movie... I think they could certainly get started for a couple of years in a number of different cities," says Moran. He lists locations such as San Francisco, Austin, North Carolina, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal as hotbeds of movie production.

A lot of independent producers teach at universities and colleges to supplement their income. Many producers also work in various production roles within the film industry. "You find a lot of producers as production managers," says Davidson.

At a Glance

  • You'll have to be persistent to raise enough money to make a movie
  • Networking is an important skill
  • Job opportunities can be unpredictable