Coffee Chats: What Does a Producer Do?


The word producer gets tossed around a lot in the film industry.  Often synonymous with the “person or persons who had a large role in making the movie happen.” But what exactly does a producer do?

Speaking strictly in terms of independent film, a producer can earn that title in many ways.  A producer is usually one of the first team members a writer or director will seek out.  Assuming the producer is not also the writer and/or director, which is entirely possible.  In this scenario, let’s assume they aren’t.  The writer/director may be looking for a strong and well-connected, “team-lead” so to speak.  Someone, who has the communication and organizational skills to really get the ball rolling, to get the movie from script to screen.  Enter producer #1.

This type of producer may either be proficient in many areas, or a total mensch in one vital area.  They may be strong in dealing with union contracts, city permits, and cast and crew agreements.  They may have a roll-a-dex filled with pre-existing relationships with casting directors, agents, managers, and above the line production crew. They may come with referrals to catering companies, equipment companies, FX companies and post-production super-heroes.  With the click of an email, this producer solves problems and fills holes.   They may or may not be on set in a day to day fashion, but believe you me, they know what’s happening on set.

If this type of “producer-ing” calls to you, you’ll want to be someone who nourishes your relationships, keep detailed notes on the people and companies you encounter, and keep up-to-date on the industry news, trends, and changes that may affect your next film project.

Now, it could be that the writer and/or director is looking for someone to be their right hand in a different sort of way.  Someone who’s a part of their brainstorming sessions, and other important stage of pre-production and production.   Enter producer #2.

This type of producer differs in that most of their work is “on the ground,” so to speak, rather than say on the computer.  This producer is sitting in on casting sessions, going with you on location scouts, maybe even sitting in on table reads, rehearsals and fittings.   Now, this is not to say that producer #2 doesn’t have some of the same strengths and connections as producer #1, they might, but there’s just a little bit of a different vibe here with this on-the-ground producer.

And then there’s the producer who’s writing the checks.  This is what most people think of when they think producer.  Almost always credited as the executive producer.  The executive producer is often either someone with great interest to the subject matter, someone who’s name brings enormous leverage, or an investor or corporate sponsor, who has contributed a large sum of money to make the film happen.   They may or may not be on set during production, and they may or may not be involved at all in any other aspect of the film.

Of course, there are different levels of these producers, and one may find a list of credits for associate producers, and co-producers as well. This typically correlates to the involvement and the responsibilities that the producer took on, to earn that title.

So, how do producers get paid?

It’s usually one of two ways.  Either what’s called a “producer’s fee” and/or percentage points. This is something that you as a producer will have to negotiate for yourself and is also relevant to how deeply you are involved in the production.

A producer for hire, will typically be a freelance independent contractor, who has no claim on the film, other than an agreed upon producer fee.  Typically, I’ve seen this as a lump sum but it’s not unheard of to negotiate a weekly fee.   In this scenario, you’ve been hired by the production company (which may consist of other producers, the director, and/or writer), you’ve negotiated a fee and outlined your duties.

A producer with percentage points, is most likely someone who’s contributions, contacts, connections, or star-power has contributed significantly to film production.  This producer has negotiated with the production company, a certain amount of percentage points or “shares of the pie” she/he owns.  Based on several factors, often triggered by investments paid and distribution deals, this type of producer will begin seeing payment alongside anyone else who shares a piece of the pie.  This producer may have also gotten a producer fee for specific duties along the way but is now (hopefully) collecting from the pie.

If you’re looking into a career as a producer, this is just a snippet of information available to assist you in figuring out what type of producer you are and what sort of producing your strengths and interest lie in.  The ins and outs of producing for television can be quite different.

My best advice would be to just get out there and start doing it.  Shadow people who are already doing it, join forces with teams who need your skillsets thereby combining not only your strengths but your networks too. And most importantly, always start off any business relationship with a signed agreement/contract outlining what both parties’ expectations are, assigned and perceived duties are, and what the agreed upon compensation is.

As you can see, being a producer is often about sharing your network and resources, pulling in favors, and making magic happen, which can sometimes be harder to quantify than other positions where the finished work is tangible. Protect yourself with a contract, even the best of friends can find themselves at odds, without clear guidelines and clear job expectations.

*for a great comprehensive list of “Producer” titles for film and tv check out this blog post from “Producer credits and what they mean”.

Leah Cevoli offers one-on-one career strategy session on a variety of topics.  Sign up for your “Coffee Chat” with Leah here!