Unit production manager is one of those jobs seen on a call sheet or in the end credits of a project that is absolutely crucial to the overall production, but whose role few people really understand—until now. Here, we break down exactly what a unit production manager is, what they do, and more importantly, how you can become one.
Hired by the producer, but reporting to and assisting the line producer, the unit production manager (UPM) ensures the overall plan for a project’s budget is executed on a day-to-day basis. If a shoot wraps on time and within its allotted budget, that’s partially due to a unit production manager who knows how to properly prepare a shooting schedule, manage resources, and negotiate deals for crew, location, and equipment. The UPM is a crucial administrative player when it comes to the “business” aspect of show business.
Although this may sound similar to the line producer’s job, the UPM is generally more hands-on and present on set. The unit production manager ensures that everything that goes into shooting runs smoothly without a hitch. Line producers are more focused on the “big picture” and logistics of the budget and schedule. Basically, the line producer makes the plans and the UPM executes them. On some smaller productions, it’s common for these positions to be consolidated to one person.
While their main tasks vary depending on the project, the unit production manager is in charge of breaking down the script into its financial requirements and ensuring those requirements are met. The duties that go into that process include:
- Preparing an initial shooting schedule based on the technical and creative elements needed to make each scene happen
- Crafting a budget based on the logistics of the director’s vision
- Hiring the below-the-line crew and craftspeople
- Overseeing the location scouting to ensure all negotiations, releases, and final decisions make sense for the budget
- Organizing transportation and any necessary housing
- Signing off on all of the financial decisions and funds going to various departments as the needs of the shoot change
- Monitoring the entire day’s work so they can write up detailed production reports
Unit production manager Heidi McGowen (“Black-ish,” “Silicon Valley”) says she’s the one “who hires the crew...all the different technicians [and] craftsmen, who actually work on the television show and put it together, so camera operators, artists, makeup artists...prop people...there are many, many divisions...and I am the person who hires them.
“I also manage our operating budget [and] I allocate where that money goes to and which departments. I have a lot of people who help me do that,” she says. “I also help the assistant directors manage our sets, so when the actors come in to work, we give them a schedule of what we’re going to shoot, and I help the assistant directors, the directors—it’s a whole team of people—I help them make decisions about what it is we’re actually going to do.”
On smaller productions, the role of the unit production manager may be folded into the producer umbrella. But they are distinctly different roles, and larger-budget productions that have enough resources to have both, will. In short, unit production managers tend to the less glamorous parts of producing a project, including administrative or managerial tasks. The unit production manager is less involved in the creative side of producing and more involved in the logistical side.
As of January 2023, the average annual salary for a unit production manager is $64,865 a year, according to Salary.com. The range falls between $52,188 and $88,288. Like most production jobs, your salary depends on factors such as experience, how often you work, and the size of the projects you oversee.
Unionized unit production managers are represented by the Directors Guild of America, which provides members with set rate minimums and benefits. If you join the union as a unit production manager, here is the minimum amount you’ll make:
- Weekly salary (studio): $6,212
- Weekly salary (location): $8,698
- Daily salary (studio): $1,553
- Daily salary (location): $2,175
- Weekly salary (studio): $6,031
- Weekly salary (location): $8,445
- Daily salary (studio): $1,508
- Daily salary (location): $2,111
- Weekly salary (studio): $5,476
- Weekly salary (location): $7,666
- Daily salary (studio): $1,369
- Daily salary (location): $1,916
There is no formal degree that will automatically get you a job as a unit production manager. However, if you choose to attend school, a degree in business, finance, accounting, or statistics will help you as much if not more than a film degree. Being a logistical, organized person is mandatory to becoming a unit production manager, as is the ability to juggle finances, contracts, and paperwork. You must be excellent with numbers; successful production managers can look at the budget and accurately break down how much is needed for every aspect of the production.
Communication skills are key, as well—UPMs liaison with a large number of people in each department at once, dealing with different personalities, moving them around, and getting everybody from point A to point B.
Like all jobs in the entertainment industry, you will need set experience to become a unit production manager. Seek out local student projects, low-budget shoots, and short films in need of entry-level positions like production assistants. Being on a set gives you invaluable insight into how a set is run.
Almost every unit production manager starts out as a production assistant—through that job, you learn the ins and outs of each and every department and establish a rapport with crew members. Following the PA position, the most common track to becoming a production manager is:
- Key production assistant, then:
- Second assistant director, then:
- First assistant director, then:
- Line producer, then:
- Production coordinator
It should be noted that, while this is the usual track, it’s not the be-all and end-all.
For McGowen, her standing as a successful and sought-after unit production manager came about through simple curiosity and asking lots of questions. She was an intern at CNN, pursuing the field of journalism with her sights initially set on becoming a hard news reporter. During a drive home from work at an ABC affiliate in Atlanta, she chatted with a production assistant who was blocking a street for the filming of a movie, which “planted a seed” in her head.
“I started taking classes at the community college [in Atlanta] and learned more about film production,” she says. “Eventually, through one of the classes, I met a production manager...and I asked her if I could interview her. I went and talked to her and asked her a bunch of questions about what it was that she did and what her job was, and she recommended me to a production coordinator to work as a production assistant. So I ended up quitting my job at ABC and working on a movie.”
That gig led to more and more PA jobs on more and more movies. “As I went through that process, I learned that there were people that were in the DGA,” she says. “I pursued that. I got into the DGA and became a 2nd AD. I worked on a variety of projects—television, multi-camera film—I did just about anything and everything you can think of, and from that, I became a 1st AD very briefly because I had learned about production managers and producers and I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I would like to try.’ ”