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Guide to being a movie producer

How to be a movie producerSo, you want to become a film producer? Well, you’d better be prepared; this is arguably one of the toughest jobs in the industry. Yet the rewards for successfully producing a movie can be fantastically fulfilling and worth the months (or more likely years) of hard graft you commit to a project. Here we run through some of the most important skills needed in order to produce a film, and make your way towards a career as a movie producer.

First off, what does a movie producer actually do?

Gary Kurtz, the producer of the Star Wars films Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, described how a producer’s job “is to actually make the film happen. To assist the director in whatever is necessary, to shield them from having to deal with anything aside from having to work with the performers when they’re shooting”[1].

This is arguably an apt assessment of the role of a film producer – the person who deals with logistics, management and all things organizational. Often it’s seen that the director is the one with the “creative vision” whilst the producer is the one that makes it all happen.

Depending on a size of a production, the producer will have different roles. For a large film, there may be several different departments that help assist the producer in their role. However, for indie films, often the producer will oversee and be the main port of call for almost every aspect of the project. This includes the following:

  • Development: securing a script, rights and financing.
  • Pre-production: organizing sets and locations, as well as hiring cast and crew.
  • Production: overseeing shoots and managing the production team.
  • Post-production: overseeing editing, marketing and distribution.

Now that you have a basic idea of the work required, here are some tips on how to make your way to becoming a producer…

1) Gain practical experience:

It’s not necessary to go to film school in order to be a successful producer, many of the best in the business came to production through different routes – including runners, actors and business people.

David Paulsen (producer, writer, director for the 1980s soap opera Dallas); recommends: "First, find your passion project […] Maybe just a small picture, just a short to start yourself with. Get it made, get it in the can. And you will learn so much that way. You'll learn how to shoot. You'll learn what not to shoot next time. You'll learn how to edit it and what mistakes you will have made for sure doing that. And then move on to the next one.”[2]

The experience you can gain making your own film can be a crucial test to prove to yourself that you have the necessary skills to cope with the vast demands faced in the role of producer. That’s not to say that a film school education won’t help you but practical experience, on your own terms and under your own management, is the first step.

2) Ensure you are passionate about your project:

As part of gaining practical experience, one of the first things you as a producer will need to undertake is to find a script that you love and are passionate about (you are going to be pouring your heart and soul into the project for a significant amount of time), if you are not 100% convinced by the film then you’re unlikely to be successful in the next part of the production process.

Nina Jacobsen, producer for The Hunger Games once said: “As a producer, I can’t borrow the passion. It has to be mine. As a result, I only end up working on things that I really love."[3]

3) Try to find funding

Securing funding sources is another key role for a movie producer. This is where the focus on commercial success also comes into play. Not only must you be passionate about your project, a producer must also try to find a balance between love for the film and fiscal responsibility. Though passion for your film can come in very useful when selling - your enthusiasm can help convince financiers – it can also prove problematic, as it is crucial to separate yourself sometimes from your emotions in order to keep the film on track, to schedule and on budget.

Independent producer Sal Irizarry highlights this difficult balance between commercial success and creative vision when he states that: “Though my primary responsibility on set is to support the director, I have a responsibility to my investors to finish the movie on time, on budget and to get it out for the world to see.”[4]

4) Networking and people skills

Independent film producer Tim Dennison argues: “The movie business is so about people– and your relationship with them. The old adage is true in some cases, it’s not ‘what you know’, but ‘who you know’.”[5]

Being a producer is regularly dependent upon excellent communication and people skills. As the ‘manager’ of a film production, the producer not only has to keep cast and crew on side and in line, they also have to deal with financiers, distributors, agents, actors and most of all… the director. As a producer, you have to keep all of these people happy, which is often impossible, so an ability to think on your feet, manage other people’s expectations and emotions is crucial.

5) Success will keep you in the job

One of the toughest things about the film industry, and the role of producer particularly, is that your job is strongly dependent upon commercial success. If your film loses money by going over budget and not recouping costs at the box office or through sales, then you’re going to find yourself in trouble.

The role of a producer is to manage a film, keep it on track, and ensure it makes money. If you fail to do this first time around, it’s not going to land you another film very quickly. Producers are dependent on their reputations as well as their relationships within the industry to help them get jobs, so if you can get through the making of a film and break-even or make a profit, then you are in good stead to move on to the next project.

Yet, this is not to say that all successful producers have had perfect track records, far from it. If things do go wrong and you end up with a production that’s in the red, it’s still possible to continue on as a producer, as long as you can identify your past mistakes and learn from them.


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