Legally Speaking, It Depends – Producers

As writers, you will eventually meet and need to deal with Producers. (You may even become one yourself.) Just who are these people, what are their responsibilities, how much power do they really wield, and how should you treat them and be treated by them? The answer to those questions, as with nearly everything else dealt with in these columns, is “It depends…”

Producers can come in many different shapes and sizes, many levels of power and notoriety. Telling producersthe big wigs from the wanna-bes and the pretenders from the powerful takes practice, a little knowledge and observation. Titles and how they are defined and interpreted vary substantially. A particular producer’s responsibilities and prestige are not always apparent on first blush. Getting and maintaining a clear understanding of just who is positioned where in the production hierarchy will help settle the confusion that often accompanies a writer’s dealings with producers of all ilk.

What’s in a name? (Not much)

In most instances a title used in this industry clearly identifies the job of the person holding it. The Camera Operator operates the camera. Make-up people are in charge of make-up. The prop master controls the props. But there are some titles that defy easy application. That’s a case with the title producer and all its variations. In one sense a producer produces. But what does producing really mean? There are nearly as many applicable definitions as there are people claiming the title.

The word “producer” or some variant appears in a huge diversity of forms in the industry, most of which have some association with a production job that could be at least loosely tied to what we could call “producing.” They range from the straight forward to hopelessly vague and touch on every base in-between. A wholly inadequate list starts with just plain Producers, Executive Producers, Assistant Producers, Associate Producers, Co-Producers, Line Producers, Unit Producers, Production Coordinators, Assistant to the Producers, and on and on.

What follows is an attempt, not to clarify, but to illuminate where the convolutions and confusions often fester.

Bi-polar Executive Producer

Let’s start with one of the big ones: Executive Producer. By nearly all accounts, an executive producer, or EP, has considerable power. Put what actual power that is varies from set to set and EP to EP. It also varies with the final form of the production.

Generally, an Executive Producer is someone who brings their pre-existing power or prestige to a production.

They may be attached to attract money, talent or marketing cache or a combination of any of these or something else pivotal to the success of the venture. Their name as EP on the project gets attention and in exchange for that attention the executive producer receives a proportional amount of the say so in the running of things.

The actual power of each EP will vary with what they bring to the party, their particular predilections and negotiation skills for their contracts. Some EPs have a remote, hands off approach; others want a micromanagement structure. Some only concentrate on the money issues; others only concentrate on the creative efforts. Every EP is unique. Often film EPs have many projects going on at the same time and split their attentions accordingly.

Adding to the convolutions of the title, you have to be aware of its different application between the feature film and television industries. While a movie EP might be a studio head and seldom deal with the day to day dealings of the project, a television executive producer is the head honcho in charge on the set. At least one of a TV series’ executive producers goes by the special term Showrunner and is involved hands-on with the day to day decisions about all aspects of the production of the series. That’s more like the job of the next title role we’ll look at.

Just Producer

Maybe surprisingly, the title that usually has the most authority for a film through its life is also the plainest variety. The simple title of “Producer” without accoutrements holds the most sway.

Generally, a Producer is the decision maker, the person responsible and most in control of a single film’s fate. The one who by most indicators “produces” the film.

It might be historical, since you had to first have a producer title before you could have something tacked onto it. It might be a carry over from theater, since the producer of a stage production is the biggest wig in that venue. Or it might be literal, since a movie doesn’t come into existence (get produced) without a producer. That may be hard to hear, but, think about it.

The writer creates a script that is just words on a page until a producer takes an interest and starts the production ball rolling. A producer is the one that has to figure out how to acquire the necessary financing for the picture and oversee the paying of the bills along the way. (This is often where the EPs start being attracted to the fray.) A producer is the one who hires the director who applies her vision to the script, guides the actors (at least hired by, if not actively pushed by the producer) and brings the creative elements together. While the director concentrates on her job, the film is still being handled by the producer to navigate the other aspects of production, distribution and eventually success of the film. A producer (at least one, often there are many) has lots of help, but, when it comes down to it a film wouldn’t exist without the producer bringing the people to the party and making sure the fridge is stocked and the liquids flow (at least metaphorically, and sometimes when necessary, literally).

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka AMPAS, more commonly known as the Oscars people) recognizes this level of responsibility. In its rules of who can be nominated for what, only those with the title of Producer (and only up to the top three most involved) can be named in the nomination and accept the award for best film.

As you can imagine it is a big job and that’s why there are often more than one producer sharing relatively equally the load. But these producers also have many helpers along the way that take on producer-adjacent titling for their part in helping out.

Associate vs. Assistant vs. Co-Producer

Technically, if a job actually assists in the “producing” of bits necessary for the end product, that job is in the producer realm and can be legitimately titled as such. Here’s where the waters get muddied quickly. Although adding an adjective to the title producer should be a clarifier in refining the role being served, because of the egos and processes currently in vogue in our industry, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are three main sub-titles that vie for most confused in application.

Contrary to common English language expectation, the title Co-Producer doesn’t actually usually mean “also a producer.” If the person’s role is equivalent to a producer, the actual singular term Producer is used again. A Co-Producer’s job usually consists of a subset of a producer’s responsibilities. Usually a co-producer’s role is integral but not required. The duties could be performed by the producer if time, budget or interests dictated.

Similarly, Assistant Producer is often given to someone who could be thought of as a Producer in training. Not given full producer authority without oversight, but, is expected to act as a producer in many capacities.

The title Associate Producer can be similar to these other two in job description, but, more often than not is given to someone who is only associated with the production in some manner. Often an Associate Producer title is granted as a benefit in contract negotiations. A film often can be executed without any or with a dozen associate producers without affecting the end result of the project.

All the rest

There are also a lot of titles in the industry that, although they have “producer” or something similar in them, their relation to production varies considerably. There are very producer or producer like titles that are directly related, like Line Producer – kind of the on-set producer’s eyes and ears – or the Unit Production Manager – who deals with scheduling and logistics production duties. Then there are others that sound producer-y and are no less integral to the production, but, have no producer powers or responsibilities like Production Coordinator or Assistant to the Producer. There are many more examples which often lead to more confusion.

Title, Schmitle

Now that I have offended just about everyone who has ever held any of these titles, let me clarify – notice the language I used above. Words like “usually” and “often” appear quite a lot. It is important to remember that actual job responsibilities or power is never set by a title alone. This industry thrives on contractual structure and only in the individual contracts will you be able to know exactly the explicit responsibilities and obligations each person has. You could have an Executive Producer who has no power to tell the director anything or even visit the set. On the other hand you could have an Assistant Producer who is empowered to halt a production when an actor isn’t delivering an acceptable performance. It all is a matter of what real power or restrictions are in place.

So what’s someone to do who is fresh on the scene? If you’ve only got people’s titles to go on, you have to be careful. Assumptions are dangerous. You can start with the general understanding of what a title is expected to mean, but, pay attention. How that person acts and how others react to them is telling. And when you are in doubt ask someone whom you know has enough authority to know the truth. By all means be respectful, but, also don’t be gullible or goaded just because someone has a title. Figure it out.

Also realize that not everyone who has the same producer title is doing the same job, either.

That’s Not My Job! (Well, what is?)

Because of the complexity of modern movie making, there are many aspects of a producer’s job that can benefit from being split among specialists. In fact, there is a movement to be more particular with the different aspects of producer titles, parsing out the tasks among the divisions.

Financial, Development, Production, Distribution &/or Marketing

There are Financial Producers who maintain expertise in the ever changing techniques for raising money; Development Producers or Executives who are very adept at prepping and polishing projects and packaging them to give the best shot at making a success; Production Producers who are best at running a project through a strict schedule, on budget, on time and on goal; and Distribution and/or Marketing Producers who are emerging as talented guides through the morass of finding an audience for the work through the ever changing markets and media reaching the consumer.

Producer’s Guild of America

In an attempt to corral the sort of wild west, anything goes as a producer vibe, the Producer’s Guild of America has started to attempt to calm the chaos and put definitions in place that are more reliable. They still have a long way to go to be successful in their aims, but, you can see some of their successes in the credits of some modern films. If you see “p.g.a.” after a particular producer’s name you’ll know they’ve abided by the Guild’s parameters to justify this Producers Mark and you’ll know a little better what role they probably played in that production.

Errata

All of the above is wrong. At least in certain instances. I’m sure there will be many who have alternative definitions of the above titles, or additions or alterations to those I’ve stated. That’s to be expected. A Producer’s job is never done, nor is it ever truly defined. You can either get frustrated by it or inspired. Your choice. And that’s one of the many reasons this industry is fun. (Keep telling yourself that.)

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So You Want to Be a Producer by Lawrence Turman

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