Are you passionate about film and television but you don’t necessarily want to write or direct? Interested in both the creative and the business sides of this industry? If you’re not scared by organisation and logistics and you have a flair for spotting new talent then producing might well be the right career choice for you. Here’s our guide to the top job on most film and TV sets.
You’d think there would be a straightforward answer, but the word producer is an umbrella term that can involve lots of different roles depending on whether you’re working in film or TV, and within those, depending on genre. It’s further complicated by the fact that many employers have started using the term producer as a kind of catch-all term to describe a vaguely creative job where something vaguely creative gets produced.
That aside, the producer is essentially the driving force behind a production. They’re at the centre of the finances, the logistics, and sometimes the creative impetus of a film or TV show. They often come in at the start, spotting a great script, optioning or buying it, developing it, and then hiring the creatives who’ll bring it to life. They’ll be there right to the end, guiding their cinematic or televisual baby from development to production, to post-production, to distribution, to publicity, and then to release. As the famed film producer Dino De Laurentiis once said: “If no producer, no movie.”
In television, the producer role can be even more creative than in film, where the role often entails concentrating on getting the funding together and fighting logistical fires. For example, in TV, writers are also often producers and are often known as showrunners. It’s a trend that started in the US and is now increasingly common on this side of the pond. In factual television genres, the producer can be the main creative – writing the script, filming the script, and having creative control over almost everything except the money and financing, which is farmed off to a production manager.
Fundamentally, what links the role of producer in both film and TV is that they call the shots, hire and fire, and make the key decisions. They’re also the ones looking stressed out most of the time. British film producer Alison Owen says a producer needs to be a “a jack of all trades – you need to be able to understand the creative, business, practical and legal complexities involved in making a film. Producing suits people like me who weren't necessarily born with one outstanding skill, but are quite good at lots of things.”
When it comes to the hierarchy of a film, the producer is pretty much at the top of the tree. They’ve put the film together and have hired the key talent. When things go wrong, it’s the producer you’ll be answering to, and who will ultimately take the blame. A producer is primarily a leader and they lead from the front, initiating the project and following it through. They’re usually in charge of the money – getting it in the first place and keeping the budget on track when the director decides she really, really needs that twentieth explosion for her artistic vision.
The producer has final approval on production costs and sources the financing from investors, distributors, and studios. Film producers often have a business background because they need to be across the numbers and how to deal with banks, financiers and accountants. As the production gets underway, they’ll delegate some of the logistics to another, less senior producer – the line producer – who’ll deal with the day-to-day running of the set, troubleshooting and keeping everyone happy and on budget. They do the everyday nuts and bolts so the producer doesn’t have to.
The producers ultimately have the final say on most of the nitty-gritty aspects of a production, as well as a legal responsibility regarding on-set health and safety for the crew. Once the film is in the can, they’re then responsible for shepherding the film through editing and post-production, and onto screens. First one in, last one out – that’s why film producers can often be occupied with one project for years on end.
All that logistical stuff doesn’t mean they’re not creative – it’s just not their only or main responsibility. They don’t direct, write, or edit, but they do recognise those talents in others, which is a talent in itself. Many film producers will nurture writers and creatives early on, looking for new talent. The producer needs to be able to spot a project that will make a good film and hopefully make some money too – and that is definitely a skill. They’ve also got to understand the creative process and be able to facilitate it, so being able to talk to creatives in a way they understand helps.
As mentioned earlier, a television producer is usually a creative role. As budgets are often smaller than in film, the producer has more hats to wear and roles to perform. There are TV producers who deal mainly with money and logistics, but that role is usually performed by the production management department.
On the whole, UK TV producers are much more hands-on creatively, leading in that area alongside dealing with getting the production on air. They’ll be on set, in the edit, and can even get their hands dirty tinkering with scripts. They are the first port-of-call when there’s a problem, and being a problem-solver is an important part of their skill set.
“You’ve got to push, push, push, and never take no for an answer – unless you want to take no for an answer. I would lie down in the middle of the road to get a show commissioned.”
The non-writing creative TV producer is also common in British television, working alongside the writer to make the show the best it can be. Producer of The Crown Andy Harries told BAFTA that this very British role of “creative producer” had to be explained to American execs who weren’t familiar with the concept.
The more familiar job title of showrunner, which is used now on both sides of the Atlantic, is often a writer who also acts as a producer. British showrunners include Steven Moffat (Doctor Who), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe).
In high-end TV drama, the producer role can be similar to that of a film producer, while also remaining creative. Essentially, the more money there is to play with, the more the producer has to concentrate on playing with it well.
Firstly, think about what type of producer you want to be and where your strengths lie. Part of that is being honest with yourself – are you happy dealing with spreadsheets all the time? Do you like talking to people? How happy are you dealing with the business community? Are you all over the detail, or more a big-picture type of person? Think about your personal strengths and go from there, or even ask a trusted friend what they think your best qualities are. However you choose to get clarity, it’s a good idea to evaluate yourself truthfully. As TV producer Jane Featherstone told BAFTA: “I couldn’t write very well, I couldn’t direct, but I could be a good creative conduit, which is what I think producers are”
People like to know that you know what you’re talking about, and one of the best ways to do that is to work your way up on a set. Experience will earn you the respect of people working on any production. If you want to be a leader, which essentially is one of the jobs of a producer, then it’s important to know the different departments and what they do.
Finding work in films: It’s great when producers really understand the filmmaking process, and that means getting a job as a runner or a trainee. Why not try the Screenskills trainee finder scheme for tips, or peruse BAFTA’s very informative website, or spend a few minutes looking at the BFI’s site? Ask friends or friends-of-friends about possible ins – you’ll be surprised to find your uncle Stan is actually the friend of the woman who provides sandwiches to film sets. Be creative in your thinking and if you’re passionate and determined, eventually you’ll find a way in.
“I couldn’t direct, but I could be a good creative conduit, which is what I think producers are.”
You can email individual film production companies and ask about junior roles or work experience. Be polite but insistent, and be ready to make lots of tea without complaint. It’s unlikely you’ll walk straight into a producer role but you might become a runner and then a production assistant, and then assistant producer, and then who knows? Build up your portfolio of experience and crucially, develop your contacts. A lot of work in the film and TV industry comes from word-of-mouth, so be nice to people – it will work in your favour in the long run.
Finding work in TV: Take a look at websites from individual broadcasters who make the kind of television you’d like to make. The BBC jobsite and ITV jobsite are good places to start, but take a look at The Unit List, TV Watercooler, and Talent Manager for jobs and advice as well. It’s also worth taking checking social media – Facebook has some great job groups such as People Looking for Runners. Yes, we know you don’t want to be a runner – you want to be a producer, but you’d be surprised by how many producers and executive producers started by making tea, and how much that experience is valued in the industry.
Making your own work: Alternatively, there’s always the DIY approach. If you have a project you want to produce then make your first decision as a producer and hire yourself. Keep your eyes open for projects you’d like to work up into production and nurture relationships with aspiring writers and directors whose stuff you like. Immerse yourself in film and TV so you can hone what you do and don’t like. You’ll need passion for what you’re working on as producing takes real time and commitment.
Producer of Netflix’s The Crown Andy Harries told BAFTA there is a simple knack to producing: “You’ve got to push, push, push, and never take no for an answer – unless you want to take no for an answer. I would lie down in the middle of the road to get a show commissioned.”
One of a producer’s most essential skills is being able to spot talent. Whether it’s a director whose student film you loved or a painter who you think has a cinematic eye, it’s important that you know what you like and can go with your gut. You are an enabler of talent so go forth and enable.
Top TV producer Sally Woodward Gentle describes how she came across Phoebe Waller-Bridge was when she was still a relatively unknown stage writer: “I read Fleabag the script – and it was before Fleabag the TV series or anything – and I just loved the fact that she loved television and she had ambition for it. She was wild and funny. I do think she could turn her hand to almost anything.” Woodward Gentle spotted Waller-Bridge’s talent, nurtured it, and then gave her the job of developing Killing Eve.
British film producer Alison Owen has similar tales about finding writers or talent she liked, and then committing to them. For her first big hit Hear My Song, she hired an untested director Peter Chelsom because she believed in his talent. She told Screenskills: “I went to see a screening of short films one day and a Peter Chelsom short, Treacle, was playing. I thought it was a fantastic film, so I rang his agent – who I’d got to know – to ask what he was working on. He said Chelsom had a script he wanted to make. So, to show I was serious and not flaky, I sent a bike around to pick up the script, read it in an hour-and-a-half and got straight back to the agent. I raised the money for the film in under six months.”
Producer Andy Harries agrees about the importance of instincts, telling BAFTA: “When I have followed my instincts, 99% of the time it’s worked out for the best. When I don’t follow my instincts I’ve always regretted it. So now, if I read something or hear something and think wow, we go for it straight away.”
Harries references noticing The Crown’s Peter Morgan before he’d found his voice: “When you meet writers and you’re a producer looking for a partnership, and you find a writer you believe in, even if it’s at an early stage, you should really work with that and see if you can take them to the next level.”
Being able to network and have relationships is an important part of being a successful producer – not just with people in film and TV, but also with agents, writers, and publishers. Get yourself out and about, attend film festivals, talk to filmmakers, go and see theatre big and small. Develop relationships with film school students – go see their films, go to drama school showcases, where agents also flock. Be polite, complimentary, and above all, enthusiastic.
Try to find new talent before they become the talent, and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s hot, contemporary, and bankable. You never know where the next great script or big talent is going to come from and you have to be ready to grab it with both hands.
Lastly, we get that networking can be a difficult concept to master, especially if you’re not particularly outgoing. So, why not call it something different – chatting to people with similar interests, or making new friends? Yes, it can be daunting, so why not send an email first to break the ice? Your network is just the people you’ve met or know – nothing scary about that. Chat to everyone you meet about the project you’re passionate about and you never know – they might come to share the passion.
Essentially, the producer in both TV and film is a cheerleader for the production. They lead and drive the team from the front. Passion and enthusiasm are key – when everyone else looks dead on their feet, you have to be the one to keep morale up. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and dedication so you want good people around you, and you want to be the kind of upbeat, go-getting person that talent wants to work with. You’re a producer now – so go for it.