In the holy trinity of film creation there are three key roles: the writer, the director and the producer. The first two are pretty self explanatory, the writer puts it on paper, the director directs and creates the world of the story, but what exactly does the producer do? The answer is, literally everything else! Producers are responsible for finding the right people, the right places, and enough money to make a project happen. They’re responsible for every aspect of the logistics of creating a project from start to finish including crewing, locations, legals, casting, safety, catering, funding, financing (which are different things by the by), marketing, promotion, distribution, and reimbursement.
If that all sounds like a lot of work, it is because it is! But producing is also incredibly rewarding, more than any other single role, as a producer you are the key part of brining a story from the page to the world, in addition to that, producing is about bringing the right people together and giving them every opportunity to make something great. Producing is about being one step ahead of what the project needs, and being able to pivot on a dime, get on the phone and convince someone to do you a favour when everything hits the fan.
Quick Note: A great teacher said to me once, the process of working out ‘how much?’ is production management. Working out ‘why’ and ‘how’ you will make the projects is producing.
Disclaimer: Before we jump into how to become a producer, you need to know that there are many different types of producers, and lots of different roles within the production team that all have their own nuances. As you can see from my list above there are so many different jobs that all fall under that of the producer so it makes sense to divide them up. There can be confusion and overlap here but it’s good to have an understanding so you can work out where you’d best fit! Importantly this list is for film and TV producers, theatre is a little different! The following is in hierarchy order too just as a little FYI.
Types of Producers
The EP is someone who has put money into the project, has mentored key roles in the project, or has offered assistance to the creation of the project in such a major way that they have been gifted a credit on the project. They supervise the producers in their performance, usually they bring money to the project. They can also be a credit in title card as opposed to position. I.e. someone who helped out in a massive way but didn’t actually work on the job. Generally speaking there are two types: one that raises finances or secures distribution for a project, or one that contributes creative elements like writer, creator, or star of the show.
Involved with all phases of production from pre to shoot to post to many years after! The producer has control over choices regarding talent onscreen and behind the camera, and does the negotiating on documents and agreements. Is the peak of the tentpole when it comes to responsibility, legally and ethically on a film or TV project. Generally speaking, the role is split into two sides: creative producers who are focussed on story, interpersonal relationships, developing ideas and related activities. And line producers: who are focussed on balancing budgets, legals, negotiations etc. Depending on an individual person’s background and how they have found their way into production, most producers will tend more one way or the other. Some truly magical humans have equal ability on both sides of this ledger.
Can mean two or more functioning producers, less power than a producer. Operating at a level between line producer and producer above associate producer. Will be directed by the producer towards specific areas to take responsibility for. Producing is a massive job and many hands make light work!
A line producer manages the budget and is not a creative role. They understand every line of the budget. If you have ever seen a full size production budget, they are gigantic documents that can put the fear of god in the average human. Line producers navigate budgets with ease, they negotiate for things like the camera hire, the art dept etc. A great line producer allows the producers to focus on the creative working with the actors, working with the writers, the director and so on.
This role is about supervising more than one producer, and is usually filled by experienced producers who are brought on a project to ensure things run correctly. On big productions, or those with many moving parts like reality shows or news productions, they are absolutely essential. They are an oversight position.
Segment producrs will produce an individual segment under the umbrella of the supervising producer. This role is found most commonly in news or reality tv. See also, story producer, interview producer, challenge producer, food producer, guest producer, comedy producer, digital producer and so on. These roles are getting more and more common with the boom in reality TV and are a great stepping stone in commercial film and television production to move up the ladder.
An associate producer performs one or more producer functions delegated to them by the producer under the supervision of the producer.
A showrunner was created to identify the producer who holds the ultimate management and creative authority for the program. Typically they are also the creator of the show. In film the director has creative control of the program. In TV the showrunner outranks the episodic directors to ensure continuity across episodes.
Not technically a part of the production team, the production manager will work with a line producer to ensure the budget is on track. They can help hire crew and write risk assessments or organise for risk assessments to be carried out. On set, they can liaise with unit to ensure the cast and crew are looked after, manage the onsite production co-ordinators and runners and are the producers eyes and ears if the producer is not on set.
Works underneath the Production Manager to run the production office; they organise equipment, supplies and staff. They coordinate travel, accommodation, work permits and visas for cast and crew. They also distribute shooting schedules, crew and cast lists, scripts and script revisions on smaller productions, they can also be runners.
As the title suggests, runners run around and get stuff! If you have a driver’s licence and want to get involved in production, this is the role you start in! Everything from cast from the airport, to coffee runs, to vital supplies, or dropping hard drives off to post production, runners are vital to any film production!
How Do I Become A Producer?
The best way to get your start as a producer, is to produce! Firstly, see if you can get a job on a production as a runner. Being a runner is a lot of fun; you get to be on set and see how the sausage gets made so to speak, but most importantly you get to make connections! The thing that gets projects made is people. If you want to be a producer, the best thing you can have is a wide range of great, talented people in your network who trust you and want to work with you! All of the crew roles, from DOP to soundie to art department to production design to MUHA to VFX are all vital and the best way to secure them for your project is to have worked with them before, done a good job and get them to work on your next one!
Case Study: Actor/Produce Makes a Short
Two years ago, I mentioned to a dear friend of mine who just happens to be a writer/director that I wanted to learn how to be a producer so I could start to make my own projects, and (obviously) cast myself. My friend immediately said he needed an extra pair of hands on his upcoming short and what was I doing in November? Next thing I knew, I was paired with two experienced producers who had been working together for a long time working as an associate producer for free, on my friend’s short film. We had an absolutely microscopic budget, a great script, and a target to have it out in time for submissions festivals later in the year.
Upon examining the script, I saw that we needed 4 locations: an apartment, an alleyway, a cafe and a warehouse or similar space. We needed three main cast members, a bunch of extras, and a small crew consisting of: Cinematographer, 1st Assistant Camera, Soundie, Production Designer and assists, Hair and Makeup, Gaffer and a 1st AD. We estimated that we could shoot everything we needed over a weekend and we would have to get everyone to do it for free as our budget was too microscopic to pay anyone. One producer took legals and crewing, annother took casting and locations, and I was tasked with finding the cafe location and helping out where needed.
The first problem was solved by our director who offered up his apartment as our first location, the alleyway, the warehouse and the cafe all proved a little trickier. Eventually I convinced the bloke who ran the cafe down the road (himself a former actor) to let us use his cafe for free! My senior producer’s girlfriend’s dad had recently been elected Mayor of a Sydney suburb and let us use some abandoned squash courts, also for free. For the alleyway, we looked for an alleyway close to another shoot location, that had cheap rates for shooting, booked it for as small a period as possible and got away with a low impact licence.
When it came to the cast and crew, we used our personal relationships to get people on board. We cast our friends, who happened to be incredibly talented and wonderful actors in their own rights. We used our experience and personal relationships to bring on all of the crew for free or reduced rates, with the promise that as soon as we had good paying work for a commercial client or otherwise, those same crew members would get first dibs! We had a really hard time finding a production designer, and ended up doing a Facebook callout, where we got someone who is now a close friend and colleague.
The shoot days got on us faster than we expected, and, largely, went incredibly well. Our cast was great, the crew was fantastic and overall it went really well! Of course some things went wrong: we ran late, we didn’t have the keys to certain locations, we ran out of key materials. But as the problems appeared, we in the production team stepped up to fill gaps! I held microphones, helped rig a giant flag over the side of the abandoned squash court, spray painted setss and got put up against the wall with a bag over my head as an extra. Below me looking glamorous on set.
After we wrapped shooting, we took the cast and crew to the pub for pizza and beer to thank them for all their hard work and immediately started looking around for festivals to enter it into. The edit, colour grade, and sound mix all took time but in the end we ended up with a fantastic film called Revolt. Currently it is still on the festival circuit, but when it goes live on the internet I will post a link below!
The same team of producers has brought me back on seven different projects since as an associate producer, production manager, and eventually producer! I am really proud to work alongside such fantastically creative people bringing stories and content into the world. Working with your friends and occasionally getting paid for it is a great way to live as a creative!
But How Do I Do That?
So here’s the first thing: you need a script. That is the first and most important step. Either write it yourself or if you know that isn’t your strong suit, find a writer, a friend preferably or buy someone lunch until they become your friend and get them to knock out a few pages! Keep the story small and manageable. A few locations, small cast and, most importantly, great writing! As the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd. So make sure the script is a winner. Once you have a great script, then you need a director, someone you have worked with before who is a big fan of yours; they need to be hungry for creative work and happy to work for free, with you on this project and maybe more! They need to be bloody good and easy to work with.
Now we have a script and a director, it is time to get help. Ask around for another producer, the director might know someone they have worked with in the past or you might know someone from a previous gig. If not, put an ad up in a Facebook group for your local top notch film school and see if you can get a student on to help you out!
All of a sudden the trinity of writer, director and producer is filled and you can look to secure locations, get filming permits, bring crew on board and plot a timeline to shoot! Remember: ask for help! There are a lot of ins and outs to producing, it doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but having people around you who really know their stuff means you are less likely to make big mistakes and ensure the safety and security of your project.
Key Producing Lessons Everyone Should Know!
- Cost: It is going to cost more than you think. Every time. Make sure you have some contingency money in the budget however small it is, to deal with the unexpected!
- Sound: Always. Always. Always get a sound engineer on board. You need a soundie and they are always in demand. More likely than not you will have to pay them. Just do it. If your film has a bad sound, it doesn’t matter how pretty it is it will not go anywhere! Hire a soundie and be prepared to pay them no matter the budget!
- Post takes forever: Editing is hard and editors are always busy. Post production is going to cost more and take more time than you think. Budget extra!
- Many hands make light work: If you can’t pay people dollars, get them extra hands, sure it’s more mouths to feed but it means people have to work less hard!
- Feed everyone. All the time! Film crews run on their stomachs. If people are hungry they are grumpy. If morale goes down the project can grind to a halt. Get people coffee, get snacks, ensure the catering is as delicious as possible, cater to dietaries. Your film will always be better for catering!!
- Government is slow and a pain in the backside: Councils applications are essential. Trust me – you can’t afford the fines. But they also need time and money to process so get organised early and get those permits in!
- Be good to people!!!!! Pay people if you can, if you can’t be honest about it. Transparency. Communication, honesty and politeness are absolutely vital to being a good producer. If you want people to work with you in the future, you have to do right by them. If you mislead people, manipulate them or screw them around – word will circulate and you will find yourself struggling to make work very quickly.
- Enjoy the chaos: Things will go wrong. That’s the nature of the beast! So be flexible, stay calm and use the resources you have to make it work. People are the best resource of all, experienced people especially so use those networks!
So there you have it! A guide to producing for film! Once you have some films under your belt, you can take those skills into the super fast paced world of TV! Theatre producing is its own beast and we will be writing an article on that very soon as well so stay tuned! Get out there and give it a go! There are a lot of great courses at schools and universities on how to be a producer so make sure you check those out too! Good luck!