What Does A Producer Do?
A “How-To Guide” for those interested in making things happen.
Having worked in various kinds of production in NYC and now out in LA for over a decade, I’ve often been asked what defines a producer. It seems to somehow be the most all-encompassing and yet often misunderstood role.
The short version? A producer is someone that gets “it” done, whatever the “it” may be.
“A producer is the person I’d ask to check out a strange noise in the basement.”
This doesn’t mean a producer is a shallow task-master. Far from it. No, a producer is the person that I would pick to get on the line if there was a hostage situation. They would also be the person I’d ask to come with me to check out a strange noise in the basement.
If that still doesn’t help explain the job, here’s a breakdown I’ve sent candidates when they ask me what it is a producer does. It’s more of a how-to guide but it seems to help answer at least the “how” if not the “what.”
Personally? I think the “how” is a much more valuable question to be asking, anyway.
The Six How’s of Production:
1. Always be making contacts:
Part of your role as a producer is being a problem solver — this means knowing how to build a crew and knowing how to get the right people for each specific project. Especially in NYC working in photography and video I took meetings every week with both established and up-and-coming talent as often as I could. If I felt they were a good match for a certain DP or CD I would usually push to have them meet as well. It’s a great low-pressure way to start to understand how to vet talent.
2. Know the jargon and get as technically knowledgable as you can:
As a producer you sort of need to know how everyone does their job because YOU are the expert on how to create a process for how the production will run. I read about new cameras for fun. I also read message boards about the latest releases for the programs my team or other professionals are using.
Do I know how to use each of these? Not completely but I can better understand a potential problem or complication before it comes up with every bit of knowledge or insight I gain. And the extra bonus? You will gain more respect if your crew knows they can talk to you without having to start from page 1 of “steps for prepping for print;” “how video editing works,” etc.
3. Money isn’t always the only way to solve a problem:
Every production — be it 10K or 10M — feels like it never has enough money or time. That’s part of the fun. You’re an advocate for the artists and the production and sometimes these aren’t always aligned (like when an artist thinks she needs a certain piece of equipment to do the job, or a client is making a request that is out of scope because no, you can’t budget for actual tigers).
The better informed you are of the process (be it print, live-action, animation, location permitting, web development, digital photography, event design, or how to rent exotic animals, etc) the better you will be at coming up with creative solutions that don’t involve throwing more money at it. This starts with laying a plan from the beginning. Which leads me to:
4. Budgeting + Timeline:
You know what? Creating a budget break-down and timeline takes time, but it’s totally worth it. Production always follows the budget (usually defined by the client, EP, or AM) since there is SUCH a wide variety of how to do something. There is no such thing as “the price of a poster.” There IS such a thing as the price of x number of posters, in x number of time, on x kind of paper with x kind of printing, etc, etc.
A large part of the job is getting info — or if you don’t have it making an educated guess (called a “critical assumption” in some circles) — so that you can gather estimates from different vendors based on a rough production timeline. And ALWAYS tell your vendors at least 2 days earlier than you need something — you’ll inevitably need that time.
Once I had this breakdown I would usually review with the CD/AM (if at a small agency) so they knew what we could do within those numbers (and what we’d have to shift if they wanted certain things at a higher price point than others) and how I had planned those milestones to work.
5. The real meaning of people person:
Sometimes you need to charm, sometimes you need to push. The most important thing? Never be reactionary. Inevitably a CD/DP/DIT/Stylist will come and tell you she can’t possibly do the work in the constraints and the world is going to end on this project. Projects are tough and its easy for everyone to get overwhelmed. This happens but there’s rarely not options open.
“Personally, anytime there is a moment of panic on a production, I’m reminded that Indiana Jones was really just a teacher with a can-do attitude.
I’ve talked to other producers and this is the moment you need to reach deep and project the Zen outwards. As cheesy as it is, perception is often reality when it comes to problems on-set. People look to you to gauge how things are running. Think about what you are projecting back to them in your reactions. Personally, anytime there is a moment of panic on a production, I’m reminded that Indiana Jones was really just a teacher with a can-do attitude. That’s the kind of confidence I always want to project back to a worried crew.
The truth? There really is no “smooth” production but there is the way you get it back on track and running where it needs to go. Keep your calm and cool while the walls are on fire, and well, you’ve won half the battle! Also — it would be good if you were dialing the fire department and distracting the client by engaging your AM while you are practicing this steely calm. In fact, having advocates is probably your best secret weapon.
Look for these same qualities in your crew. You want creative problem-solvers. I have a prop stylist who found us custom purple chairs on budget from a Russian-speaking man in the middle of New Jersey wilderness. They weren’t the EXACT thing the client had asked for, but they gave us a great additional option to present. Most people would have given up or told me it just wasn’t an option but she wanted bring possible solutions and was creative in knowing that even if it wasn’t exactly what was asked, it was a solution (rather than a dead-end) that she was providing.
6. Production is always working outwards:
Because a large part of my job was running castings, making talent recommendations (with an informed understanding of skill level), reviewing and editing scripts, and reviewing the feasibility of incoming projects, the main difference between project management and producer is probably management versatility.
You can probably PM more projects than you can produce because production deals with more of the early parts of a proposal and the management of hard expendables. Hard expendables mean more questions and things to manage and more ways to fall off budget much easier. In a traditional film setting there is usually an entire production department (with people like line producers and UPM’s) to help manage all the tasks. At smaller agencies, this gets condensed and along with the time you have to give a project finished.
The truth is that there is no magic bullet for learning how to produce. Every production is unique and you’re always building off the skills you’ve learned.
Just remember to always keep listening, learning and asking yourself, “What would a history professor do in this situation?” And you’ll be fine.
(Okay. I will concede Indiana Jones was officially an archaeology professor, not history.)
The Complete Film Production Handbook: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/024081150X/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Producing Animation: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240815351/ref=wms_ohs_product?ie=UTF8&psc=1
A Guide to Graphic Print Production: http://www.amazon.com/A-Guide-Graphic-Print-Production/dp/0470907924/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392407180&sr=8-1&keywords=print+production
Compositing Visual Effects: Essentials for the Aspiring Artist: http://www.amazon.com/Compositing-Visual-Effects-Essentials-Aspiring/dp/0240817818/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top
Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage: http://www.amazon.com/Blogs-Wikipedia-Second-Life-Beyond/dp/0820488666