This is perhaps one of the most confounding questions a layman can ask of a film professional. And ironically, it’s because there are many easy answers to this query – way too many answers, in fact. When you see the title of “producer” on a film credit, it’s almost impossible to know exactly what those folks do. Even when one of the many tags appear alongside that one word – Associate Producer, Line Producer, Executive, and on and on – the job isn’t always so easy to define, and can represent highly specialized roles, as well as those “wearing many hats” gigs.
But there is one way that we can (mostly) separate producer positions from everyone else working on a film project. They are the people providing the necessary infrastructure, resources, and logistics for all of the craftsfolk to do their creative thing. So, if you’re not directly involved with the creative process – everything from running electrical wires to painting sets to acting and directing – then you’re almost definitely in the production staff. That means handling money, schedules, contracts, personnel, and all of the other less glamorous – but absolutely essential – tasks which a film project requires.
And this begins even before a film has even been envisioned. When working within a studio system, producers may be tasked with finding projects to bring to the table, nurturing relationships with writers, directors, other producers, and other creatives who might just have that next big idea. This can extend to entities working in other mediums, such as book writers, comic book creators, and other IP rights holders whose works have potential for licensing as movies. But a really good producer needs to extend those relationships much further into everything from investors and celebrities, to key personnel such as cinematographers, casting agents, and costume designers.
What is a producer? Producers are the support system for the artists, the people who connect patrons to vision, who offer structure to the chaos of filmmaking, the folks who keep the whole machine running smoothly and efficiently so the drivers can conduct the movie from imagination to tangible reality. In the best scenarios, they truly are the adults in the room, giving the dreamers a safe place to play and weave their magic. And yet, to truly understand their roles, we should take a closer look at some of these titles and specialties to more fully unravel that nebulous question. Never forget: in the end, any project can name producers in any way they feel like, but below are some “rules of thumb” most film pros will understand.
Well, we have to start somewhere, right? Generally, when you see this title without a qualifier in the credits of a film, it almost always has a lot to do with the physical aspects of getting a project done. This means making sure that all of the needs for sets, locations, equipment, props, costumes, etc. are identified, secured, and assured to be where they need to be when they need to be there. These people will also be keeping a close eye on the budget, often having a role in breaking a budget down or even securing funds in some way. But there can also be a creative aspect to the title. For example, a writer who worked on the screenplay, but not enough to earn a “writer” credit by the Writer’s Guild, may garner the title. Producers may also jump into the writing process, directing the progress of a screenplay. Would changing the ending to a more Hollywood-friendly happy conclusion help attract investors? Should the language be toned down for a PG-13 rating? Should the lead be female instead of male? The producer may insert themselves into the process in order to appease many non-artistic demands. This can go so far as directing the director – which has generated legendary conflicts in behind-the-scenes history. Often times, the producer serves the interest of a project’s patron first, and if they’re coming from a studio point of view, directors may be powerless to shape a vision. More often than not, though, the producer serves as a balance between the artistic and financial goals of the film. There have been memorable instances where producers push back on studios, championing the director or maybe an actor as well. It’s management between a rock and a hard place. A talented producer can be a project’s greatest asset.
Most of the time, when we think of Executive Producers, we think of money. Inside of the studio system, this means being the person who pushes to release funds to a promising project. But the title is often awarded to investors themselves, especially on independent films. Sometimes they are little more than “money magnets”. You might notice famous actors and directors getting this credit in many movies. What’s their role? If they are famous enough or vastly influential, just having their name on the project could attract funding from both inside and outside of traditional studio models. Commanding high-level relationships like this can make or break a budget in many smaller films. On bigger ones, a lead actor or perhaps A-List director will garner this extra title for this very reason. Beyond money, they could attract additional talent, get professionals to work at a discount and so on. In a more “official” role, the EP will handle contracts, run many of the upper echelon business matters, and other macro view functions, whereas other producers get into the details of moving money around. Not every film has this role named in the credits. That’s a function of the fluidity of defining producer jobs, but also serves as an indicator of whether or not there’s any one or more “big gun” behind the financing of the project. One more perk the role can offer: an extra paycheck for the A-Listers attaching themselves to the film.
Somebody needs to do the dirty work, and boy, is a Line Producer’s job stressful. This is the person at the nexus of production personnel, especially “below the line”, or staff that does not include department heads or top talent (i.e., directors, cinematographers, actors, etc.). These are the day-to-day folks who have to be sure people, locations, and equipment are all going to be where they are supposed to be every minute of the production. While the producer has gotten all the resources together, the line producer handles the daily logistics during the life of the project. They must create schedules, coordinate staff and ensure that any gaps are filled. One of the grips calls in sick at 4:00 AM with a call time of 5:00 AM? Get on the phone and find somebody to get in there. Did the generator truck get into an accident on the way to set? Start calling around to find a replacement. Of course, planning meticulously and having backup resources at the ready is key in this position. A seasoned line producer will already have alternatives in their contacts ready to go. Bear in mind, even problem-free, getting all the moving parts in a film to execute their functions in harmony doesn’t happen with magic. These are dedicated, disciplined, and committed people who don’t get a lot of sleep and usually don’t get enough of the love they have more than earned. But they really deserve both, and to be well-remembered, too.
Well, this one may be the most nebulous of all. When is a producer not as much of a producer as other producers? Maybe when they are designated as Associate Producers. Yes, of course they fulfil crucial functions, many of which are listed all around this article, but just not quite as much of them. Were they in on the logistics below the line producer? Maybe they helped give the script some great lines or an extra act. Or perhaps the producer decided to delegate many of their own tasks to the associate producer. It’s a title whose overall value has been unfairly diminished over time, but remains important to recognize. When gaps in the producer roles appear, one or two or five associate producers can be placed to fill them. However, there are occurrences where recognition for some role which really doesn’t fall under the traditional production umbrella gets bestowed the title as an honorary award. Nevertheless, every little bit counts in the epic and unwieldly process of filmmaking, and when the job isn’t big enough to get that top billing, this is a nifty way to acknowledge the smaller but crucial contributions to the producer duties.
What happens when a production has many different locations, schedules, or other logistical challenges which a producer cannot always meet? There may be some segments of the filming which will have to be handled by someone else. Think of a James Bond film. There might be five different locations around the world, some in difficult circumstances such as polar regions, underwater, or in a cave system somewhere. There could be specialties involved such as technical needs or extreme conditions requiring a narrower set of skills. In cases like this, the project may be turned over to a Segment Producer, someone experienced in the scenarios required by the vision. But segment producers may have to work inside of different mediums altogether. Is there an animated sequence in the middle of a live action film? You may need a segment producer with that background. How about a whole scene which takes place in a television production studio? You’d better have someone on board who knows that world to make sure it’s replicated accurately. And then a segment producer might just be the person doing normal production duties because the main producer got sick for a week or wasn’t able to pull together local needs in a foreign location. More rarely, in the case of re-shoots falling outside of the original schedule, the original producers may already be booked on other projects, requiring someone else to take up the reins. Here again, we must recognize the moments where a junior member of the production team steps in to close a gap for the project.
As the name signifies, this will be the person running the show after the film is in the can. And you better believe there is still lots and lots of work to be done. On the picture side, there is the editing, the special visual effects (if any), color timing, and other key functions. Just as when filming is in progress, this requires a small army of craftsmen to achieve and requires a great deal of coordination. All of the budgetary concerns are naturally still in play as well, but often at the end of the line, and many times, funds need to be watched more strictly. Schedules need to be created and met in order to fulfill timelines for the festival circuit, test screenings, and eventual release. The work print of the film needs to be finished first before any of the thousand and one bits of polishing can happen, and that process alone can take weeks.
On the sound side of things, there are the obvious elements of sound editing which have to occur, such as mixing tracks, creating Foleys, and so on. This often means a larger set of artists need to be handled than on the picture side (unless you get seriously into CGI; that can turn into hundreds of people on staff and would require a whole other article to discuss). The most prominent will have to do with the creation of the soundtrack. Composers and orchestras require studio time and of course, a work print of the film to do their things. That’s a lot of people and space to manage, just as grueling as filming on location. On top of our musical friends, actors almost invariably return to the production at this point as well to do what’s called Additional Dialogue Replacement (ADR). ADR refers to any dialogue which was not properly captured on set. This all needs to be rerecorded by the cast members in a sound booth watching a work print and, if their faces are on screen, doing their best to sync up to their own lips. Of course, any dialogue NOT part of set pieces will be required, too, such as narration or voices that were never on camera in the first place (unseen extras, on-screen radio announcers, people on the other end of a phone conversation, etc.). In some ways, the post producer can lean on a less haphazard structure as many of the unknowns facing lensing days are not in play. But as the whole process winds down, investors are eager to get to the part where they make a profit on the project. This can add a special kind of pressure to the role which a line producer, for example, might not experience as keenly. Again, it’s a special kind of gig that requires a special recognition.
These examples don’t even begin to cover the many cogs in the production mechanism. There’s a reason credits in a film can seem endless, and these folks are the people who make it all happen, in the practical sense. The structure the production team provides allows the artists and craftsmen on the creative end the peace of mind and physical ability to bring the product into realization. So the next time someone asks you what a producer does, you can pretty much tell them, a little bit of everything that you don’t really get to see on the screen. Except of course, NOTHING would be on the screen if they weren’t there in the first place!
Argentinean-born New Yorker Miguel Cima is a veteran of the film, television, and music industries. An accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comic book creator, Miguel's movie, Dig Comics, won Best Documentary at the San Diego Comic Con and was selected for Cannes. He has worked for Warner Bros. Records, Dreamworks, MTV, and more. Currently, Miguel creates content for multiple platforms and media. His formal education came from New York University, where he earned a BFA in film. World traveler, culture junkie and major foodie, he is happily unmarried to the same gal since the mid 2000s, devoted to his family & friends, and slavishly serves his true masters - two dogs and a cat.