What producers do …the greatest film industry mystery revealed.
I do not get scared when watching horror movies. I sometimes laugh when watching adventures in space and other fantastical places on the screen. My friends who are not filmmakers get irritated with how quickly I roll my eyes at on-screen magic that fascinates them. They never understand why I spot random things that they do not or launch into an extended analysis of Tyler Perry movies, they declare Oscar-worthy.
That is because film school, ruined watching films forever for me. I can rarely switch off and just absorb the recreated reality because I remain more interested in the craft. Films become masterclasses in screenplay structure, directing actors, how to use music, camera work, design, and the list goes on. And whilst my non filmmaker friends could care less, they are brilliant at coming up with conspiracy theories on behalf of the characters and some rather intricate analysis.
But the one thing that renders them speechless is still the simple question, ‘What does a producer do’? Translation, they watch films I have produced, then after applauding every department they decide deserve to be applauded, often give me a side eye and ask,
‘so what did you do?’
On the first day of my MFA, the dean asked the same of my class.
‘What does a Producer do?’
It was an art college, so naturally, the answers were long-winded, philosophical, and included quotes from Orson Welles and words like juxtaposition and avant-garde. He listened, his smile getting wider with each answer, and simply responded when we were done.
‘A producer is anyone with a business card that says so.’
I wondered why no one told me that before I parted with my fees. Business cards, even if the luxe square option on Moo, were much cheaper but as he smirked, I realized it was sarcasm.
There is some truth to the fact that you can simply print a business card or update your online bio to read producer and announce you have projects in development. The same way you can apply for a job and lie on your CV or tag yourself in exotic locations on Instagram when you are in your living room. But in all of the above scenarios, this only works until someone finds out.
Given the social media show and tell plague we have going on, everyone wants to look impressive ‘for the optics.’ You can even add your film in development to IMDB. Fact. As a lot of projects never go past development or go past development but never get completed, or get completed but never seen, it is perfectly okay. Nothing wrong with that, until aspirants become everything wrong with people that simply aspire to be producers instead of doing the work that comes with it.
I partly blame, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo for allowing filmmakers to offer a ‘Producer credit’ as a perk in return for donations. Given that filmmakers take this advise but never offer Writer, Director or DOP credit as a perk, then you know that they also have no idea, what producers do. The resources to make a movie appear because the universe heard about their brilliance.
Joke aside, there was an interesting thread on Twitter earlier this week, as a producer vented about having to explain even to people in the industry what producers do. You can tell this was not her first time.
In the indie filmmaking world, most of us work alone or in small groups, so it can sometimes feel like you are the only one having to deal with the madness. But that great tool for galvanising people around a cause, Twitter, is getting in on the action of clarifying for those at the back, what producers do. And when Twitter decides something must be known, you know it is only a matter of time. Remember when they decided #metoo, #Timesup, #oscarsowhite #blacklivesmatter were gonna stick? Tick, tock.
The industry does tackle this in its own way, through unions, which to some extent separate the doers from the fakers. The minimum entry qualifications and joining fees, does mean, you kinda, sorta have to be doing the do, to get a membership. And starting out inevitably in the independent space to bolster credits and make enough money to afford to join and get protection, means you are more likely than not to spend your first few years in the wild west of abuse — low budget indie films.
Thanks to Hollywood’s glossy portrayal of itself, and former Presidents of the USA embarking on Producing as the next suitable career after leaving office, being a Producer is seen as cool. Less cool is the fact that some people genuinely believe abuse, bullying, and strife is a rite of passage.
It is why Harvey Weinstein’s reign lasted for as long as it did. I still remember how disgusted and disturbed I was when The Hollywood Reporter ran a feature in 2014, where former employees of Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin compared and laughed off their scars from working for these men. That article, titled Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin’s Former Underlings (and Now Power Insiders) Spill Stories, in a sane industry should have been about calling out those men for bad behaviour not beatifying people that survived.
I am not saying Weinstein should not be held accountable the way he has, but I am just as disgusted and disturbed that current headlines present him as an exception instead of acknowledging the complicity of the industry in normalizing bad behaviour. Emotional and mental abuse is just as bad as sexual abuse. People who speak up are told to suck it up or find themselves excluded by department heads and branded as troublemakers that ‘do not keep their head down and get on with it.’ Department heads often take their crew with them across jobs so if you want to get hired in the delicate world of freelancing, you better go with the flow. For the optics.
I was once assaulted (physically) by a male Producer with a business card that says so, whilst we were on an overseas trade mission. When I spoke up, my (female) producer at the time told me to ‘relax because the film commission is giving us money.’ I declined to relax about being assaulted. I declined to keep quiet about being assaulted. We no longer work together.
Film crews do not have Human Resources departments to run to. Each department is run by the lead executive or craftsperson, there to deliver a job, with whoever can get it right. Right meaning, within budget and on schedule.
Overall, the Line Producer and The Production Manager’s job is to deliver a film on budget and on schedule, not with the wellness of the staff in tact. If most of your crew are sectioned or end up in therapy after working with you, you can probably still get your film bonded. As long as you do not have a reputation for going over the agreed budget and scheduled time.
The medics on set are to provide bandages so crew can carry on or highlight anyone too sick to carry on and get the film made on time and within budget. Not fit for purpose? Not good for the optics.
But the same industry is now facilitating panels, to wonder out loud why the mental health of its people is so poor. A producer whose micro aggressions, I suffered to the point of therapy when I was in film school, is one of the leading ‘voices’ of mental health in film nowadays, probably getting grants and speaking fees for it too. Satire at its finest.
As a producer that happens to be a writer and director, I have experienced the ignorance from all sides. Writers who genuinely believe my role is to ‘go find the money.’ Directors, that regardless of how much you do to facilitate the project, still see a film as theirs. And only theirs. And festival programmers that encourage this thought pattern. Writer and director friends have shown me horrendous emails demanding that they pop up with a script, budget, and schedule and even raise money for the films from ‘producers.’
As a writer, I have had meetings with producers that expect a complete script with no investment in development or ask that the copyright of a spec script is signed over to their company for a token fee of £1, which does not even pay for the coffee I consume whilst I write. Then the mind games.
‘Well it will be your first credit as a screenwriter, so you need to comprise otherwise you might never get it made.’
Fortunately, I have always been difficult to impress. I am that person who says ‘no’, no matter what is dangled in front of my eyes, if it does not sit well with my spirit. But I also know that ability came about because I have a certain level of privilege. I can afford to say ‘no, not yet’ and work at my pace, with whomever I chose.
Like most British producers, I do not rely on filmmaking to make a living. There was a survey published earlier this year about how much money British producers do not make, with the words ‘shock’ in the headline. It was shocking to everyone except the average British producer.
Because producers, especially in the indie space, contrary to popular opinion, rarely have enough money to make the film they want to make let alone overindulge in the finer things in life as the various myths suggest. Those Producers are largely in movies, written by Writers from Hollywood. But what is true is that if you do not have another source of income, you shall not last. Those that last in the profession when they do make a film, have to sit and watch everyone else get congratulated except them, because no one knows what they did.
I am still trying to explain to friends of mine that the Oscar for Best Picture that went to Moonlight was not for Barry Jenkins but the Producers. Translation, the mistake with La La Land was a mistake, not an attempt to erase a black filmmaker in favour of a white one. It was an award given to the group of white producers behind La La Land, mistakenly and it was taken away and given to another group of white ones, responsible for Moonlight.
‘But it is Barry Jenkins’ film’ they always reply. I even showed them a close up of the card and the names of the winners on it. They simply wonder why his name was not on it — Barry Jenkins, that is. No big conspiracy, he was not a producer on the film.
Personally, I am still amused that Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, ran to the stage, took the mic, to give a thank you speech as the producers looked on. Imagine the #OscarsSoWhite brigade if one of the white producers had nudged him to move to the side so they can probably get one of the few moments, they will ever be recognized for putting the film together. They would have faced accusations of whitewashing. This, I mean, was being heralded as a moment for diversity. And with a film that was largely black for the part that the emotional public saw, who cares what the team behind the scenes looks like. Let it rest. For the optics.
Few realised that there was a black producer in the shortlist for Best Picture. Her name is Kimberley Steward. The film was Manchester By The Sea.
The focus was on Casey Affleck, but the film was the work of a black woman, who had produced her first feature and got an Oscar nomination. I do not know that many. That to me was a much greater win for diversity, because a large part of the racial diversity problem, is the lack of black producers. The large part of the gender diversity problem is the lack of female financiers. She is both. Not just optics.
The company behind Moonlight, Plan B, had won a few Oscars already and Oscar nominations for them were business as usual. But no one sees Producers, so no one saw Kimberley Steward, the same way, they did not see the Producers of Moonlight, despite them being on stage. Everyone saw the Director. They know what he did. And he was a black man. Great! Take that #oscarssowhite. Check out these optics! The only people in the business who probably get how this feels are casting directors. :)
All this to say, I too, despite doing this for over ten years, cannot tell you what a producer does in one succinct sentence. But I can tell you that in all the projects, that I am on as a producer, I have done all sorts. On one hand, the unpredictability is exciting but it can also drain you, to be in constant ‘do whatever it takes mode.’
Script development to the point of sometimes writing before production or in the edit, tick. Filming interviews in documentary or being the second camera, tick. Casting if there is no casting director, tick. Editing assemblies, cutting sizzle reels, tick. An endless filling out of forms to raise money, tick. Pitching, tick. Forgoing my fee so the film can get complete, tick.
Making coffee, tick. Fetching food, walking dogs tick. Photocopying, tick. Cleaning after everyone leaves without binning their rubbish so we do not lose the deposit, tick. Risk assessment, tick. Contracts, tick. Making sure everyone is paid and be where they need to be, tick.
Therapist, tick. Sometimes needing therapy, tick. Mediator, tick. A punching bag, tick. Working from dawn to beyond dawn, tick. Sleep is overrated. Watching other people update their bios and claim to be the producers whilst being AWOL every time, the producers need to do something, tick tick tick.
Whatever it takes to get the film done, is your job. Literally. And because each film is different, you have a new thing to get done in each film. 10 films later, I have a relatively good idea of what to expect. From myself and co-producers. And we cannot tell you what we do, but we know, the films get done.
Occasionally I have made mistakes and picked an incompatible producing partner and found myself doing the work of everyone. Earlier on in my career, I did what it took to get the film done and watch them strut about with business cards, claiming it as their work. Nowadays, the novelty has worn off. Experience means, it is easier to walk away, cut your losses and play the game of email ping pong that often ensues in the withdrawal process, until you are finally free from the business card producer brigade.
We have long been told that ‘Empty Vessels Make Most Noise’ and noisy do they get, when claiming their so called ‘producer credit’ whilst conveniently omitting that they have no idea what the films looks like, because, well they have not been anywhere near the production office in a while!
But I am also wondering out loud by way of this article, if producers that produce and ignore those with business cards only who go awol on projects, are contributing to keeping the Business Card industry going, instead of calling and stumping out bad practice, like the editor of that Hollywood Reporter article.
It started on Twitter, but I like it. Perhaps 2020 could be the start of our #Producersthatproduce or another hashtag. Because I too have long been keeping receipts.
For our optics.