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In the popular imagination, though movie producers act like big shots, they’re merely fast-talking con men, like Max Bialystock, the crooked Broadway impresario of Mel Brooks’s The Producers. To classic-era screenwriters, producers are treated in their biographies as greedy capitalists and script-butchering philistines. To film directors, who screenwriters generally regard as their sworn mortal enemies, producers are generally treated as meddling, movie-altering oafs disguised as white-shoe country clubbers.
Real-life producers laugh this off, but they do resent it. And they’re used to it. Being a producer is a real job and a hard one, whether you’re on the money end of it, the production end of it, or both.
A producer is the prime organizer of a film project. It’s a two-headed eagle of a job with different skill sets for each side of it: getting the money and spending it efficiently. Many producers are entrepreneurs who do both. They originate a project, often well before a director is even hired, and work with a writer or a team of writers to present a script that can win a production deal from a studio. These deals are complex and sometimes involve securing outside money as well, from a bank or an individual. Locking those deals in, and making them stick throughout the long period of production, is a specialized, full-time business skill all by itself. Some producers are valued strictly for that expertise.
Financing a feature film usually means setting up its distribution in advance, and getting worldwide interest means casting, giving foreign markets the stars they want to see. Getting the money is one thing, continually reassuring the people who lent you the money is another. Keeping them off the backs of the director and cast is a normal part of the job, as is keeping up a steady patter of confidence about the quality of the work in progress.
Physical production is a different part of the job, calling for a logistics specialist and process workflow expert. This kind of producer is often called a “line producer”. Someone who knows how many hours a day you can work a crew without legal repercussions; someone who knows helicopter rental companies with the special stabilizing gear and camera mounts to make movies; someone who knows how many electricians are actually needed, and how many of them have to be transported up the side of a mountain, housed and fed on location.
Like a construction project or a military campaign, you need continually updated alternatives because you can’t be in control of everything, especially the weather. Keeping the crew on that set costs $2 million a day; what if it rains all week? Or say you’re supposed to have 100 extras costumed and ready as 19th-century townspeople, but only 25 show up. Do you give up on the shooting day, or persuade the director to improvise a way to use a smaller crowd? The star has an iron-clad “stop date”, and now it’s only four days away. Is the director pushing hard enough to get the star’s most essential moments done no matter what?
Suppose you choose to save money with a smaller, less cumbersome crew. Bravo! But if you do, will you be the one who gets blamed if there’s some kind of technical hang-up and there’s no one on set who can deal with it instantly? And If you get blamed, will the studio back you up, or will they crumble like a wet paper bag and fire you, the supposed “boss” of the production? Unless you own the film yourself, they can do that.
Series TV is a different world than feature films, even though the job titles are the same, just as “Captain” usually conveys a different level of power in the Navy than it does in the Army. In the movies, the director is like a football coach—the boss, the leader in charge. In series television, the director is more like a baseball batting coach—a respected pro who helps the stars do their jobs better, but a hired hand, not an authority figure. The show’s writer outranks him, and ambitious TV writers seek to become writer/producers—“show runners”—rather than directors. BTW, Rob Long wrote the best book on this general subject of why producer/directors are the emperors of film, while writer/producers are the ruling gods of television.
The challenges of production for a comedy half-hour series filmed entirely on the studio lot are obviously different than those of a standalone feature film on location. It’s less like training for the Olympics and more like a daily commute from the suburbs, with the possibility of a sane home and family life. But it does have some challenges of its own. You’re not turning out 120 minutes of finished entertainment for your year’s main work, but 484 minutes. You’ll have to thrash things out with a dozen writers over the season, and handle talent relations with two dozen guest stars. Plus you may need to do the show before a live audience. You generally don’t have to do any of that when you make feature films.
(BTW, “Film” is mostly just a traditional description of what’s nearly always a digital process now. “Feature” is defined here not as a theatrical-vs.-streaming question, but as a simple format issue, intuitive in any medium: does it tell a complete story in somewhere between 80 and 180 or so minutes? Does it look and feel like a movie?)
One reason that the title “producer” may not always have gold standard-like value is job title inflation that, while sometimes comical in Hollywood, is by no means confined to it. “Assistant Producer” is legit; there’s a lot to do every day, sometimes in varied locations, and direct assistants to the big boss are often needed at each site.
“Associate Producer” isn’t much different, but it often subtly implies a degree of specialization. They have some personal authority over a specific area, like special effects or talent relations. Unfortunately, it’s also become a well-meaning perk to a non-producer who really put in time and effort and is felt to deserve a little ego boost that’ll look good on the resume. Like money’s gold standard, a little bit of constant minor job title debasing here and there starts to add up to less value for an often-deserved distinction. Too bad.
But the really vague, crazy job title is the biggest one of all, Executive Producer. It sounds like the boss of everybody, right? Sometimes it is. Clint Eastwood is not a mere employee of his film company. Jerry Bruckheimer knows something about producing Pirates of the Caribbean. If Tom Cruise thinks he ought to do a skydive scene one more time, no one is going to stop him.
Much of the time it means something more like, “He got the Kuwaiti Emir to put up the final $30 million”, or “He bought the book first, and he wouldn’t sell his rights to anyone unless they gave him a meaningless Exec Prod credit”. This is how Brian Kelly, the dad on Flipper, would end up being officially credited as one of the producers of Blade Runner, without ever so much as stepping on the set.
This is also how longtime cinematic schlock merchants, Si Raab and Max Litinoff, were able to dictate high placement as executive producers in the credits of A Clockwork Orange, although they had nothing to do with the actual film. Their sole “contribution” was having bought the rights to Anthony Burgess’ unknown new novel for about $600. They thought they could turn it into a showcase for the Rolling Stones. Raab and Litinoff’s title “card” came up third in the credits, as contractually required. But Stanley Kubrick pulled one of the driest of all inside gags. For the first and (to our knowledge) only time in film history, the fourth card, immediately following, was for the hairdresser. “Hair Styles by LEONARDS of London,” it said in bold colors, in 1971 a none-too-subtle sign of how little respect Kubrick actually had for his unwanted so-called “executive producers”, Si and Max.
Here’s a historical side note that’s a fading sore spot for producers and writers: “les politique des auteurs”, more commonly known here as “the auteur theory”. It’s an intellectual attitude and set of ideas about films that came out of France in the late Fifties. It declares that most of the time, the director is really the main creator of a film, not the writers or the producers. This wasn’t a crazy idea, and at the time it was a useful idea, though not a new one. Frank Capra’s great screenwriter, Robert Riskin, once sarcastically handed him 120 pages of blank paper. “Here, give this the ‘Capra Touch’”. The auteur policy wasn’t completely a theory. Prestige movies in particular had become ponderously, pompously literary by the postwar Fifties and a revival of screen basics was overdue. The Boomer directors provided it.
Think back to a nighttime scene in Jaws, 46 years ago this summer. A couple of men have finally sunk a harpoon into the killer shark tormenting the tourist town of Amity. They tied the rope to the old wooden pier so it won’t get away. But the (still unseen) shark is so strong that the end of the pier snaps right off and is towed rapidly to sea. The two fishermen, gloating only a moment ago, are now frantically thrashing in the ocean, their arms and legs visible underwater, and by now we know what that means. The end of the dock that’s being rapidly dragged away ominously slows to a stop, and we know why. Then, it begins to start coming back to shore, slowly and then faster as the audience is shouting with excitement. Author Peter Benchley didn’t create that timeless moment; Steven Spielberg, the director did. The so-called auteur theory emboldened a generation of directors, some to be geniuses, some to be dullards, some to be egomaniacs, and of course, some to be all three. It may not have been a golden age of timeless dialog, but it enabled some of the most kinetic, visually exciting movies of all time.
As ‘80s-‘90s film budgets got pushed into the upper stratosphere, though, and after a few well-publicized excesses, studios took a much firmer daily watch over their high-risk investments. Even on independent film productions, Baby Boomer producers began to regain more control over Generation X directors. A tacit balance of power was restored. Today the X-ers are the business bosses in the producers’ offices, and the Millennials are the skinny, surly artist-rebels with sunglasses sitting in canvas folding chairs with their names on the backs, making the creative decisions on the set.Published in