Explainer: what does a film producer do?

The producer’s work does not finish with the film’s theatrical release. garryknight

If you step back from the perceived glamour of the feature-film industry for a moment and look at it through dispassionate eyes it becomes obvious it’s really about creating a new product and taking it to market. Like any product, it starts with an idea and someone to champion it. In the film industry, that person is the producer.

The producer’s relationship with the idea, if it achieves the levels of success they are banking everything on, will most likely last a lifetime even though for the consumer it will come and go within the blink of an eye.

Inspiring commitment

It could be argued that the most important part of a producer’s job is to inspire people to commit either creative endeavour or fistfuls of cash to a product that has a high rate of market failure and, for the end user, only exists in a darkened room for a couple of hours.

While advantageous to have a working knowledge of most aspects of the filmmaking process, producers generally employ various experts in their fields, such as accountants, lawyers, production managers, directors of photography, who in turn assemble their own team.

Budget is a determining factor in how much work the producer can contract out.

A micro-budget film might see a producer doing everything from raising the money to organising meals, while a film with a larger budget will enable the producer to step back from the minutiae of the production process and focus on the bigger picture.

From script to screen

Typically, the development phase is the longest and can take many years with no guarantee of the project ever seeing the dark of a cinema. After purchasing the right to develop the source material, the producer will work with the writer to develop the screenplay.

Film producer Harvey Weinstein. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

As the script advances, a director will be brought on board who will, invariably, have input into the further development of the screenplay. Together, the creative team will establish the best way to turn a hundred pages of A4 paper into a film.

To give the project the best chance in the marketplace, the producer will seek to attach at least one high-profile actor who satisfies the creative needs of the story as well as the expectations of the many and varied potential investors who are seeking to mitigate their risk.

The producer must balance the needs of each party with the overall vision for the project; it is not uncommon for the creative and financial needs to be at odds with each other.

Securing finance and delivering

Financing a film is a delicate balancing act that draws on a producer’s entrepreneurial skills.

Investors range from international distributors to local television broadcasters to private individuals. All have expectations. What satisfies one investor may not be in the best interests of another. It’s a house of cards that can fall over at any moment.

If an actor’s schedule on another project changes and consequently makes them unavailable for the producer’s film, it is probable that some investors will pull out. How far this sets the producer back depends on the hole in the budget that this leaves. Stressfully, this can happen at any time up until production and even beyond.

Most productions will employ a line-producer whose job it is to keep track of the day-to-day spending and to revise the shooting schedule as challenges arise. But large-scale budget and schedule blow-outs are the responsibility of the producer as is the overarching job of ensuring that the delivered product does not deviate significantly from what was promised to investors.

A major failing here can mean the difference between a theatrical release and a straight-to-DVD release or, worse, no release at all.

Audience, distribution and future platforms

As the project enters the final phase before completion – post-production – the producer’s attention again turns toward the audience and distributors.

While not as common in Australia as in the US, test screenings provide an opportunity for the producer to gauge a sample reaction to the film. The outcome of those screenings is significant. It can determine the publicity and advertising spend that the distributors allocate, the release strategy and the general level of support and enthusiasm from distributors and exhibitors.

YAZMDG, CC BY

The producer’s work does not finish with the film’s theatrical release. Box-office performance is a major predictor of the film’s longevity.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) was adapted for the stage 12 years after its initial release, and the reality television show, I Will Survive, aired some 18 years later. Contract negotiations, residuals, revenue and emerging platforms and formats have the potential to keep the producer of a successful feature film busy for decades to come.

The producer’s support team

On most of these large-scale creative and economic undertakings there are usually several types of producers performing a variety of functions – executive producers, associate producers, co-producers and line producers. All work to support the producer in different ways, but none would have a role at all without the producer having backed a good idea.

The ability to recognise a good idea is much less tangible than, for example, drawing up a budget or a schedule and, while the latter can be out-sourced, the former is the very foundation of a producer’s business. Without a nose for it, and the ability to inspire the right people, it’s pointless knowing whether a studio or location shoot is preferable.

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