What a producer really does by Chris Jones

The producer is the business head of the film, the person who assembles all the pieces of the jigsaw, be they the script, actors, cash, director… And a good producer is also a creative person who may not know how to ‘do it’, but knows ‘what needs to be done and why…'


The producer will run the business of the film. Whenever a problem appears, it will more than likely work its way to the producer, who will then have to fix it. After their first film, most producers say ‘if I’d known what I know now, I would have never done it’. Still, take comfort in the fact that they tend to go and do it all over again. The job of a producer on a low budget film is more like that of a production manager.

 

It’s all about organisation and getting the most out of every penny. One of the key skills a producer needs is the ability to negotiate the very best out of every situation. Some people are extremely skilled at this and can seem to pull off the most incredible deals. There are a number of tricks that you can use to get what you want. ’

 

A good producer is also an artist. Not a frustrated director, but a kind of business minded reflection of the director. They know what a great movie is and they will strive for it. They will always have the best interests of the movie at heart (and not their ego), they are pragmatic and at best, can work with the director to make the most of this opportunity (opposed to in conflict, and that also means that the conflict doesn’t come from the director too).

 

A thankless task
Producing a low budget film is a thankless task. You have no money. You have no real creative control. You’re inexperienced, so you make lots of mistakes that eat into your non-existent budget. Most cast and crew distrust you at best, and at worst, downright hate you! And to add insult to injury, no matter how hard you work on the film, no matter how much of your creative influence is embodied in the film, no matter whether you mortgaged your grandmother to pay for it, the director will get ALL the glory. Get used to it. No-one knows or cares who the producer is and people perceive the director as the entire creator of the work. If you want to drown your sorrows in a drink over this, go to your local bar and you’ll probably find the writer there too, having had the same treatment. The director is god, everyone else made coffee (except the camera person and actors). At least that’s the way 99.9% of the world will view it.

 

So why do it? It’s a good question. The truth is, I’m not sure. Yes, a low budget film can be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but more often than not, it isn’t quite that. The experience can be invaluable, but so can the life changing experience you would no doubt get from a car wreck. I guess it comes down to this. You just really want to do it and the challenge alone is sufficient fuel for the journey and the respect and acknowledgement of your very close peers who know ‘the truth’ will give you the measure of glory that you will be ‘cheated out of’. And without doubt, there is a heady sense of achievement from attending the premiere for your movie, or the opening night of your theatrical release, or by renting it from your local video shop, and by finally ringing round all your friends to tell them that your movie is on TV next week.

 

But what really is the job?
The producer is the most powerful person in the film crew. They are the business and management head of the production. Whatever the problem, the buck will stop with the producer. Ultimately, they are the people who have the power to sign cheques, and hire or fire. But there’s so much more to it, most of which is downright unpleasant, except for the pathologically optimistic career motivated ‘I want to be a producer’ types. Fundamentally, producing can often be about as far away from filmmaking as you could possibly get whilst remaining theoretically within a film crew. You never get to hang out where the action is at, or ever get near to a camera or actors. The producer’s primary tool is a telephone, not a camera.

 

Throughout the whole process, from conception to completion, a producer will regularly say ‘no we can’t afford that, think of a new way of doing it but differently.’ The most skilled low budget producers will work with the creative team to find the very best way to tell the story with the limited resources available.

 

The blueprint
Let’s assume for the purpose of this chapter that there is a filmmaking team that is a producer and a director, and together they are the writers. The director is perhaps the more talented writer, the producer being good at creative broad strokes and criticism. Nonetheless, together they are considerably stronger together than they would be alone (a fact that can often be forgotten). When it all goes horribly wrong and someone has to do the dirty work, probably YOU… YOU will feel like quitting because YOU feel you are doing much more than your partner(s). Will you be better off alone?

 

No, you won’t I fear. Stick it out. Keep the peace. Build bridges.

 

Whilst the director is working on the screenplay, the producer will no doubt be juggling a number of balls... they’ll be seeking money from investors, looking at the feasibility of basing the production in certain locations, figuring out how to attack massive production problems, working on a budget so that they can better figure out the best way to squeeze as much as they can from the money that they expect to become available, supporting the director with script development meetings, and of course, manning the office so that to the outside world, their little film company could appear like a major player of tomorrow. There’ll be months of this kind of preparatory work before the screenplay is ready to be shown to anyone else.

 

Think on
So much of producing is just good old common sense. Look at the script. How are you going to do it? Can you do it? Make calls and see if what appears to be impossible is actually possible. Ask other filmmakers about their problems. Ask professionals for advice and help. If you make the right approach (polite and flattering) you will almost always get good free advice.

 

Purse strings tight
Money. You never have enough of it. Not even on big budget movies. Having said that, working with a normal budget would afford the producer the luxury of being able to buy themselves out of most problems. On a low budget, you do not have that luxury, so must avoid costly mistakes wherever possible. This is obviously a bit of a problem because you are inexperienced and will therefore make simple mistakes. Add to that the fact that what you are doing in the first place, working outside of the system and in an unorthodox manner, is a direct invitation to unforeseen problems. Still, you have to get through it. Just think ahead. Always consider ‘what will happen if…’

 

It will be the producer’s job to keep a tight grip on the financial reins. Wherever possible, you should seek to avoid payment of anything (bills etc.) until after the shoot. Whatever your budget, I would lie about it and claim it is less. Everyone involved will base their calculations on your budget - what they think they or their equipment is worth, or how much budget their department should have. Understand that you will run out of money and that not all debts will stop you dead in your tracks. It’s not a popular thing to say, but if push comes to shove, you want to be paying the people who stand in the way of completing your film and pay in second position the people who are just complaining that they have not been paid but can’t do anything about it. This is financial crisis management. It will happen. Please don’t send me angry emails about this. I am not suggesting it as a cunning way to do crafty business, it is an observation of what will probably happen and the best way to deal with it for all concerned.

 

Do it all or delegate?
There are two kinds of producers. Those who choose to take the weight of the production on their own personal shoulders, and there are those who choose to delegate.

 

Those who choose to do everything may have been forced to do so because there is no one to help or they simply don’t trust anyone else to do the job properly. The advantage of this is that the producer will have intimate knowledge of all aspects of production, and if anything goes wrong, they can’t really blame it on anyone else. The downside is that this producer can quickly become exhausted through sheer overwork, and more importantly, they get drawn into dealing with the mundane and relatively trivial production problems that occur daily.

 

On the other hand, whilst focusing on the bigger picture (things like casting and script) the producer who delegates can run the risk of things not getting done as efficiently and cost effectively as if they did it themselves, as not everyone in the production team may be as dedicated, tenacious or as experienced. However, if you do have a top rate production team who are organised and resourceful, it’s a smart move to delegate as much as possible of the ‘crap’ that lands on a producers desk. This frees the producer to step back and manage the production from a more objective viewpoint and not to stretch them to the point of exhaustion. This is the approach that I took on the last film I made, ‘Urban Ghost Story’. I had a team of three people who I could implicitly trust and I delegated absolutely everything I could to these guys. Consequently, I was freed to contribute creatively to the production.

 

Decision making
A curious thing happens when you make a movie. Occasionally, small groups of actors and crew amass around you, each with absolutely ‘essential and pressing’ questions. Whilst they do need an answer, most of the time these are unimportant questions that could be dealt with by assistants or empowered production staff. Wherever possible, ask people to seek answers elsewhere and come to the producer as a last resort. There will of course be occasions when you are forced to make difficult choices to which there are simply no right or wrongs, or worse still, you just don’t know! So when the production designer screams at you, ‘I need a decision is it blue or green?’, you will have to answer.

 

This dilemma is one of the most horrific things you’ll have to deal with. It’s one of the reasons why you must have an intimate knowledge of the screenplay, of the director’s approach and intentions, of the casting, the schedule, the production team’s problems, locations etc. It’s really no use blaming other people for your lack of knowledge in these areas. You are the producer! Leadership and power come at a very high price. You need to know everything about everything, which means you will probably get less sleep than anyone. Only with this kind of omnipotent knowledge will you be empowered to make the best decisions quickly. Michael Winner has a great saying about filmmaking, ‘the hardest thing about making a film is staying awake for three months’.

 

Choose people wisely
Whoever you choose for your cast and crew, ask yourself ‘would I be happy going on holiday with these people?’ If the answer is no, find some other people. You’re looking for a happy team who will work long hours without complaint and endure dreadful conditions without losing it. The biggest problem is always about being valued and personal ego. The director of photography on many low budget films is regularly the source of headaches. They often have inflated egos and perceive themselves to be more important than the rest of the crew. If it’s a tough shoot, this arrogance and inflexibility is going to result in at best, tension, at worst, complete breakdown. Of course, attitude problems and ego are not limited to or necessarily present in the camera department and can sometimes spring up in the strangest of places. Value each and every crew member equally.

 

Therapist on set
During the shoot tensions will run high. It’s not surprising as everyone is asked to do the impossible on an almost hourly basis. On the whole, most battles will be lost. Each crew members vision, including the directors, will rarely (if ever) be fully realised. This can create the impression that nothing is ever going right. That isn’t necessarily the case as even on big films, the director rarely gets what they want. The question is more often, ‘did I get what I need’, or putting it another way, ‘can I get away with what I’ve got?’

 

This constant failure on set can get spirits down, and when the pressure increases, so the sparks can fly. During the shoot, some cast and crew members will crack. If the producer sees this happening, they should get that person off set and calmed down. More often than not, a group hug and a chat along the lines of ‘I know you’re doing the impossible, I know it hasn’t gone to plan, but we’re all in this together, I wouldn’t have anyone else doing your job. I know that you will do your best, which is good enough for all of us. There, there, there’, the crew member cries on your shoulder, they calm down, and you send them back to the front line.

 

Don’t PANIC!
Other people on the cast and crew will have good reason to panic. Almost anything conceivable could screw up and cause all manner of headaches, which combined with extraordinary pressure, exhaustion and dreadful working conditions could easily lead to panic or a flair up on set. Whatever happens, the producer (and for that matter the director too), should never lose it. This is not a multi-million dollar film where you can stomp your feet and throw your weight around. If you do, next morning, you’ll find yourself a couple of actors and crew members short. The cast and crew, much like troops in battle, must always feel that the people at the top are completely in charge and know exactly what they are doing. And like the military, if you feel the need to complain, moan or blow off steam, do not do this with any cast or crew member, ‘always complain upwards in the chain of command’. Call a friend or relative and moan to them. The editor can also be a good confidante and therapist for the director and producer as they are not directly involved in the on-set manufacturing process. You may well get used to eating your lunch sat in front of an Avid, watching yesterday’s rushes, but really you are having a whinge about… ‘blah blah blah…’

 

Second director
One of the most valuable things the producer can bring to the project is that of a second level of creative veneer. The producer is not a direct ‘creative’ but is one of the only crew members who will have a ‘higher’ view of everything.

 

Assuming the producer hasn’t been sucked into dealing with the day to day trivia of production, they should be hanging out on set, checking rushes, speaking to actors when the director isn’t talking to them, encouraging other creative crew members and wherever possible, clarifying and refining stuff. An eagle eyed producer is likely to spot a fundamental story telling mistake that is esoteric in nature. For example, in the last feature I produced, a character turned up on set wearing a costume that I felt was inappropriate. It wasn’t a big problem but it did have a fairly major impact on the characterisation. No-one else saw this as a problem and it would have gone unnoticed had I not raised my concerns (remember I was not in the forest so could see the wood). When we all looked closely at ‘the problem’, everyone agreed that it was a not quite right and it was quickly dealt with. Remember, this stuff is rarely ‘black and white’ and mostly about ideas in the grey area of interpretation and vision, etc.

 

If the director isn’t available for off-set creative consultation (because they’re on set working their arse off), then the creative producer can step into the role of secondary director. Not all producers are comfortable with this as some people are simply motivated by the organisation and business end of filmmaking. Personally (at this level) I feel that many roles, while still distinct, tend to merge. The producer may end up doing a bit of directing, the director will certainly do some producing, the editor may record sound for a day, everyone is to some degree interchangeable. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer the term ‘filmmaker’ than labelling myself as director, producer, editor, visual effects supervisor, writer etc. (all of which I, and many other low budget filmmakers I know, have been paid to professionally do).

 

Stroking the luvvies
One very important job that a producer can perform is that of ego massage for the cast. Some actors require a quite staggering amount of attention. The producer, being one of the only crew members without a specific minute by minute, hour by hour job can help here. A quick drink, chat in the cutting room or late night dinner with an actor can turn around a difficult problem. One thing that I am a great advocate of (that many other filmmakers shy away from) is that of showing the cast and crew portions of the edited film as we go. We all understand the fundamentals of filmmaking but there is no greater motivator than to show people the individual shots cut together with a few sound effects and music to create the illusion of a movie. There is genuine magic here. Any actor who has had doubts because of the apparent ‘incompetence’ that they may have experienced during the shoot, will be charmed by this magical illusion. On rare occasions, actors who are particularly worried about their appearance or are overly self-critical will not enjoy these screenings and it’s best to keep them out.

 

Of course, the director will be the biggest problem when showing the cast and crew the clips (as they will feel very exposed). It’s up to the producer to convince the director that even though they may feel uncomfortable, it’s going to result in a more motivated and excited cast and crew.

 

Overload danger
A big problem for both the producer and the director is that of losing direction and focus through a kind of overload, be it organisational, financial or creative. This is one of the reasons why in the real world, films are often shot in slightly more sensible hours and sometimes only five days a week. There is no real answer to this problem aside from rest and relaxation (which you can’t have!) or by delegating. On every film I have made so far, whether I or my business partner, Genevieve, was directing, there would be a time when overload was hit and the director’s reigns were temporarily handed over to someone else for a morning or afternoon (whilst batteries were recharged by lying down in a dark room and listening to some music). I guess the trick is to realise when you are in overload and immediately stop and delegate rather than flap around like a headless chicken, which will help no one or the project.

 

Accounts nightmare
In the weeks running up to the shoot and during the shoot itself, there will be no time to prepare your accounts for a VAT quarter. You’ll know in advance when your VAT return is due and can plan your shoot to miss it, or you may be able to convince the VAT office that you will be unable to do your return on time. Whatever happens, do not plan to do your accounts during the shoot, as it simply will not happen.

 

Inevitable re-writes
When the shit hits the fan on set, the creative producer can perform a very important job. Typically, some kind of disaster on set could force a re-write. It could be caused by dropping behind schedule and four pages of script need to be condensed to a half page, or something just didn’t play out in front of the camera as it was expected to when it was written etc. Whatever the problem, a re-write will be needed. The creative producer who has had their finger in all the pies - script, schedule, casting, editing, etc. - will be the best person to either perform this re-write or oversee it with the writer. Remember, you won’t have much time, perhaps even only an hour over lunch before it is re-shot or integrated into the schedule. It’s a quickening moment when you realise that all those months (perhaps years) of poring over your screenplay are now going to be subject to a slash and burn followed by a brutal quick-fix. This is why you must know everything intimately - characters, character motivations, character histories, as well as actor availability, scheduling clashes, etc.

 

In the cutting room
Each morning, the editor digitises and begins assembly of the previous day’s material. This is a terrific opportunity for the producer to spend a little time examining the footage to see where improvements can be made - be it in photography, sound, production design, acting, direction and of course the all important coverage (are there enough shots?). If problems arise, the producer should have the creative ability to work with the editor to find the best way to quickly, efficiently and most importantly appropriately (from a creative perspective) fix problems. Often, these sessions will result in a shot-list that will be given to the director, or the producer will act as a second unit director and do these shots independently (assuming they are minor shots).

 

The producer acting as second unit director is an excellent idea (assuming the producer has managed to delegate the majority of the mundane production issues and has an understanding of the filmmaking process). Lunchtimes are an ideal time to catch up as the main unit will not be using the equipment. As long as the director can grab either a bold camera assistant or a camera operator, one or two quick shots can often be knocked off. There will always be resistance to this, especially from the AD department and the lighting camera person. However, you are fighting a battle of coverage and you have equipment, locations and actors at your disposal. If it can be done, it should be done.

 

After the shoot
Most real problems start after the shoot. You’ve run out of money. You owe too much money. The shoot went badly and you will need extra shoots for which there is no money. Nightmare. Now is the time to cut a promo and start seeking more cash, starting with all your existing investors who you can tempt into parting with a bit more. There are no tricks or quick fixes, you just have to get through it. This is a very tough time for the producer. Get on the phone and keep talking, it’s the best way to convince people that there are no serious problems.

 

Premiere
After the film is completed, the producer will probably organise a premiere. Many low budget filmmakers fob their cast and crew off with a special screening, often on a Sunday morning, at a central London cinema. Personally, I believe everyone has worked so long and hard to make the movie that a glitzy premiere is in order. Yes I know you have run out of budget, but this is a one time only deal, and I look at it as something like a wedding where friends, family, cast and crew can all dress up in posh frocks and DJ’s, have some drinks and generally applaud each other. Saturday night at BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, has so far been my preferred venue. Yes it’s expensive but I have always found someone who has been able to help me with the bill.

 

More than anyone, you the filmmaker deserve this moment of glory. So find a venue, get some booze, rent the posh clobber and wallow in the glory of what you have achieved, even if it is only for one evening. Remember, you have a lot of work ahead of you in sales and distribution, so enjoy and remember this moment.