The job of a film producer is vast, and it can vary from project to project. Sometimes, a producer is a role in name more than anything else; other times, they are on-set daily and working closely with the director to ensure they have everything available—and within budget—to achieve their vision. For those interested in pursuing a career as a producer, here’s everything you need to know about getting started.
The producer gets a project off the ground and oversees it, from the creative process to distribution and release. For example, during production, producers can function as the boss on set, making sure prior decisions are carried out and helping avoid costly mistakes. When a shoot wraps, the producer moves into postproduction, overseeing everything from the initial rough cut to the final. They also oversee test screenings and any changes that need to be made as a result. With a finished product in hand, the producer then turns to marketing the film.
On smaller projects, the producer’s role is roughly the same, though on very low-budget productions, they may serve as a hybrid producer-director-editor. “The basic elements remain the same, whether the budget is large or small,” says producer Bonnie Curtis (“The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “The Chumscrubber”). “On a studio project, there is a political element…. You have to spend quite a bit of your time communicating with the studio about every element of your film, [and] there is an approval process tied to that. Independent film is exactly that—independent of those approvals. With independent film, the stress comes from the financing.”
Producers on Film vs. TV vs. Theater
On almost any professional production, there is a line producer to oversee the budget. There’s also typically a creative producer, whether the budget is $10,000 or $250 million. The television hierarchy is similar, with an important distinction: Instead of creative producers, there are showrunners. The showrunner is the individual who created the television show—typically a writer—and they take on those creative responsibilities: the location, the day’s script, which scenes are shot, who acts, and more.
On TV, the writer-showrunner is the boss; on a film set, the director is the boss. The reason for this? If a significant problem arises, the showrunner can often write their way out, whereas on a film set, the producer might need to turn to a writer to ask them to come up with a solution. The television production process is so fast-paced and high-volume that it’s important for the writer to be in charge; they’re the one who will end up fixing problems both on set and in postproduction.
Theater, on the other hand, is more similar to film in the sense that there are both financial producers (who receive “producer” billing after investing funds in the production) and creative producers (who discover the material and put together the show). There are also essentially line producers—but in theater, they’re billed as production managers. Much like in film, theater producers champion a project, hire the director, and cast and create a strategy for rolling out the show and, often, its path to Broadway. And much like in television, the writer plays a major role—the producer, director, and actors can’t touch a word of the material unless it’s approved and executed by the playwright.
Another responsibility of theatrical producers? They’re the captain of the ship when it comes to managing a number of personalities like investors, co-producers, directors, choreographers, and writers. This can include deciding to cancel a show due to weather, increase ticket prices due to demand, or recast a role. After all, when you’re producing live theater, anything can happen.
A holistic understanding of filmmaking and how projects are actually made is crucial to being a good producer. A basic awareness of every single department and what they do is also a requirement. The No. 1 skill a producer should have, though, is organization: if you can’t account for every dollar spent and every dollar remaining, you’re doomed before you’ve even begun.
Producers should also be very comfortable with people, because they are the person to whom actors, writers, crew members, and financiers are all going to come with their problems. If they are not able to quell their concerns, it could throw a wrench into the entire production. Ultimately, while there are higher education programs like at the New School and the Hartt School that teach arts administration and management—a great background for working as a producer—“the one and only way to become a movie producer is to produce movies. Plain and simple,” says producer-screenwriter Ken Miyamoto. “You have to be a real mover and shaker. You have to be a true salesman or saleswoman. You have to exude confidence and power.”
There are a number of film production jobs that fall under the “producer” umbrella. Apart from the general producer described above, the other main types of producers are:
- Associate producer: As the title suggests, the associate producer is basically the associate of the main producer and works below the line and under them. As the assistant director (AD) is to the director, so is the associate producer to the producer; they don’t necessarily make the big decisions, but they are there to assist the people that do. Like producers themselves, they are involved at both the creative and practical levels of making a movie. This is a great position to jumpstart a producing career and gain experience.
- Co-producer: Co-producers are often brought on to be responsible for a particular area of production, since it’s difficult for one person to coordinate among so many departments. This is especially the case in “postproduction-centric” projects, where many shots require coordination with the postproduction or visual effects departments
- Creative producer: The role of the creative producer is to help bring the creative elements of the film to reality. This usually translates to hiring the right director and creative team (writer, cinematographer, actors), making sure rewrites are handled correctly, and the interpretation of studio and director notes. In that sense, creative producers are the bridge between the creative team and the operational team—they need to be equal parts creative and practical, a problem-solver who doesn’t shy away from bold ideas.
- Executive producer: The executive producer is responsible for finding and securing financing for a film, whether through external means or by funding it themselves. An executive producer is responsible for communication between the producers who oversee production and the people who have provided financing for the project. In short, they're responsible for making sure there's enough money to to complete the film.
- Line producer: Line producers manage the project's budget and oversee operation and logistical aspects throughout the process, serving as a go-between for above-the-line and below-the-line positions. Line producers are typically hired during the pre-production process by the producer and executive producer.
- Postproduction producer: The role of the postproduction producer (bigger projects often have more than one) is the most different from that of the regular producer. They are not involved in the preproduction or production process at all, and are solely on hand during the editing process. They should be skilled video editors and very well-versed in sound, as well as any sort of visual effects that a project might require.
There's no single way to become a producer. Some enter the industry by interning at a successful production company, some work on a smaller piece that later takes off, and some begin as actors, filmmakers, or writers. Since the producer ultimately oversees every department on a set, it’s important that they have first-hand experience of what it’s like to work within those crews, across departments, and at multiple levels.
Here are three popular ways to get your foot in the door:
- Starting out as a production assistant can lead to a larger job on the crew, from which you can work your way up to production coordinator, 2nd AD, 1st AD, production manager, or line producer.
- Starting out as an associate or segment producer on TV or low-budget productions is a good way to gain experience handling the day-to-day duties of principal photography or having autonomy over a certain part of the script, respectively. Many producers also start as assistants or interns at production companies. These types of positions offer a look at the inner workings of production, distribution, and publicity—all skills you need to have in spades as a producer.
- Another route is to enter the industry via postproduction as an editor. Since a large part of a producer’s job happens in post with the editor, establishing yourself as a solid editor will not only prove you have the skills producers need to bring a project across the finish line, it’s also a great way to network.
Regardless of your approach, you should work toward learning everything you can about the business and building your professional network in a genuine way. Listen, observe, and absorb; and know that you have something to learn from everyone, no matter what their position or title.
“No matter your position, you almost always need to do the job you want before you get it,” advises Jennifer Coté (“Eyewitness”). “[Take] on any tasks that need doing within the next job [you] aspire toward.” In short, the best thing you can do to get ahead as a producer is network, be good at every job you do, and, perhaps most crucially, be someone other people enjoy being around and working with. It’s a cliché for a reason: In Hollywood, it’s all about who you know.
What if I want to become a specific kind of producer?
Beyond that, how you choose to start out on the path to becoming a producer also depends on what kind of producer you want to be:
- Film producers are self-starters who often make their own opportunities. As such, “film producer jobs” aren’t as common as, say, camera operator jobs. However, for more specialized producing jobs like the associate and postproduction roles, you can get hired by production and media companies. Most of the time, these producer jobs will be on a freelance basis and will last only a finite amount of time until the completion of the project (or the completion of the phase of the project for which you were needed). However, these companies will often rehire the same people for many different projects if they do a good job the first time around!
- If you’re leaning toward solely the physical numbers side of producing (like handling the budgets and financing), the best education could start with an on-set production assistant role. You’ll need to prove yourself and learn to work with all the different departments before getting promoted. The top job for this type of producing would be line producer or production manager.
- If your sights are set on being a creative producer, then going to film or theater school can be an enormous help when it comes to a macro understanding of how all the departments work. Plus, you’ll have a higher likelihood of access to internships, which can help you determine the kind of producing that suits you best. After graduating college, it’s a good idea to follow in many successful producers’ footsteps by first learning everything you can from an esteemed producer you admire before setting out on your own. Aim to work as their reader, production assistant, or runner.
- If you’re looking to produce theater, you can even start putting on your own small shows and concerts at local venues, since you’ll learn lessons about managing people and time that are directly applicable to the industry.
The number of producers as well as their exact responsibilities will shift, but feature films, short films, indie films, animated films, and big-budget studios films all have at least one producer working on them. But producers are not limited to just film.
- Television, the most prolific medium these days, has producers, too—tons of them, in fact. Most TV series have at least five producers above the line and sometimes many more.
- Theater productions are also in need of producers, though the job may differ somewhat between stage and screen.
- Though they’re somewhat bygone in this streaming age, web series have producers, too.
- Other visual and aural mediums also have producers, including music videos and podcasts.
Producers are everywhere because projects don’t happen without them. In other words, there is no shortage of work to be done for producers in this day and age.
Producers can make anywhere from $63,000 to $750,000 a year—and producers who work on big-budget studio films can make much, much more, particularly if they work on more than one project each year.
As with any production job, a producer’s earnings are based on a variety of factors, including experience, location, scope, and a project’s budget. A 2017 report from the Hollywood Reporter found that top-earning producers can make millions of dollars per film, while the average studio producer makes around $750,000 per film and first-time studio producers earn about $250,000 per film, though these figures are dependent on an individual producer’s compensation structure.
While those numbers are undoubtedly appealing, it’s important to note that these kinds of earnings are not the norm across the industry, and definitely not the case for those who are just starting out, most likely in the low-budget, indie, or digital media space. According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, film and video producers earn an average of $84,770 annually, and TV producers average $63,620 per year.
Producers are not unionized, though they can choose to be members of the Producers Guild of America (PGA), a professional association. Since the PGA is not a union, it “does not have an industry-wide Minimum Basic Agreement at this time, so pay rates are subject to negotiation in one’s Personal Service Contract.”
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!