Prior to the mid-’60s, the moviegoing public was fixated on one element of flimmaking: the stars. All attention was directed towards the people on the screen, those human chameleons acting heroic, romantic, tenific, or malefic.

In recent years the stars have faded. Sizable cults now worship the writer, the

director, the sinister effects specialists who create Freddy Krueger and drive

Arnold Schwarzenegger nuts on Mars.

Still hiding shyly behind these glamourhogs are the producers. And not just one

producer, but a whole herd. Executive producers. Line producers. Associate

producers. Co-producers.

Who are these people? What do they do?

The producer is the boss. The producer is in charge. The producer puts up the

money. Directors may act like the world revOlves around their buithoms, but even the

auteur serves at the pleasure of the producer.

The role of the producer starts with a creative vision. Most often, the producer

begins with an original idea, or an idea developed in a submitted or commissioned

script.

Big studio features sometimes travel from producer to producer in search of a

creator with just the right touch. Studios diddled with Batman for more than 10

years until Jon Peters and Peter Guber finally brought it to the screen.

Videomakers must often act as producer and director, or producer and

director and writer. I wrote, directed, and produced two feature-length horror films

before pulling back to “producer only” on my third film.

Low budgets and small cast and crew usually demand that the video producer sprout

additional limbs to fill empty sets of shoes. However, the first and foremost duty

of a producer is always to secure a completed screenplay and see it through to the

finish.

Meetings and Money

The producer’s role intensifies in preproduction, with the hiring of key

personnel to aid in the struggle. The director often comes first, hired to bring the

screenplay to visual life. This position is filled carefully. If the director screws

up and the production fails, it’s the producer’s fault for hiring the deadbeat in

the first place.

Before starting any production, regardless of size, you need a budget. As simple

as a few figures scribbled in a notebook, or as detailed as a computer-generated

accounting ledger, the budget will be dictated by your needs and monetary

resources.

Be generous with your budget, especially in areas which have a tendency to

escalate rapidly, like special effects. Make sure you’ve shopped for the best prices

on products and services.

Take your small figure and add another 10 percent. This will be your

“contingency” fund, in case you go over budget in a particular area or suffer an

unforeseen disaster.

At this stage there are plenty of meetings to attend, and a lot of decisions to

make. It can all be very bewildering. Don’t get lost. Attend to each decision one at

a time; carry through before confronting the next headache.

About now you’ll learn that producing, like all elements of feature videomaking,

is one part individual creativity and four parts dealing with other people. You’ll

butt heads with somebody at every point in the project. Keep cool:

Set an example for your employees.

With your budget in place you’ll finish hiring cast and crew. It’s your job to

find these people, confirm their competence, and keep them paid, well-fed, and

happy.

Feed The People

Good producers understand that a contented cast and crew will deliver superior

product. Happy workers also speak kindly of project and producer, greatly aiding

future productions.

Simple things like coffee and donuts in the morning and cold beer at wrap time

will work wonders. If your budget can’t support coffee and donuts-let alone beer-

it’s time to use your public relations skills.

Shooting outside of Hollywood enables your production to bring a little glamour

and glitter to the hinterlands. You should discover plenty of restaurants and stores

willing to supply free food and other goodies for a credit at the end of the

film.

Schmooze these people. Make them feel a part of the production. Blind them with

stars, then move in. I’ve glommed free or below-cost soft drinks, pizzas, bakery

products, and Kentucky whiskey.

Such foraging will endear you to your people. Their needs are paramount. A

mistreated or disgruntled cast and crew will spread the word to their cohorts and

compatriots; you’ll find yourself unable to hire anyone, for any amount of money.

Your reputation is like your credit rating:

once gone bad, it takes a lifetime to clean up.


Office Drone

You’ll spend a lot of time in the office, slaving over paperwork, working the

phone, trying to wrangle deal for all phases of the production.

If finances allow it, hire an extra hand. This “production manager” will keep

things rolling and go down to the deli for your sandwiches. Most production managers

are aspiring producers and would love to watch you in action, learning from your

mistakes. Production managers who work beyond the call of duty rate a credit as

“associate producer” or”co-producer.”

Some, producers hate going to the set and remain content with the ongoing hell in

the office. Others can’t stay away. The actual production phase of the film is the

most glamorous; this is where producers and directors are interviewed for

Entertainment Tonight.

To generate early interest, invite the press to watch your project in progress.

When release day comes, a follow-up story will encourage people to spend their money

your way.

On my first feature, we needed a humongous number of extras to portray the undead

taking over a city. We called one local newspaper, which printed a blurb a few days

later. Soon every TV station and newspaper within 50 miles was covering the project.

Thanks to this press coverage, we managed to round up more than 1500 extras.

Fire Power

Many producers brood about the set like high-strung hens. It’s hard to look over

people’s shoulders, and most won’t like it. But sometimes it’s necessary. It’s your

picture, your money, your reputation. And it’s your job to fire people who can’t cut

it.

Firing a member of your staff is hard regardless of occupation. No one likes to

be the bad guy. However, the feature video business is brutal and cruel, and it

won’t take long for a “fifth wheel” to ditch the whole project.

Before marching onto the set to fire someone, sit down alone and calmly assess

the situation. Ask yourself a few questions. Does the screw-up deserve another

chance? Was it just a bad day, a family problem, a poison donut? Or does the problem

seem headed for eternal recurrence? Could it possibly get even worse?

You should be especially cautious with very low-budget productions where you’re

carefully guiding a herd of inexperienced people through complex and unfamiliar

duties for little or no money. Screaming at these people will only give you a

headache and cause them to throw things. Patiently show them what they did wrong,

and hope it doesn’t happen again.

But what if it’s the director? Or camera operator? What then? Well, it’s your

show and your decision. Replacing a director threatens to halt production and throw

the cast and crew off kilter. It’s a tough call, but one that’s been made on

Gone With the Wind, Spartacus, Never Give an Inch, Peggy Sue Got Married,

and a number of other successful pictures.

If members of your cast or crew aren’t working towards the collective vision of

the project, they’re gone. That includes yourself.

Into the Bunker

Once you’ve made it to the last day of the shoot, it’s time for more worker

rewards.

The most common guerdon is the “wrap party.” This need not be elegant, decadent,

extravagant, or even expensive. Maybe you can arrange for the vendors who supplied

you products and services during production to join you… if they provide the

goodies.

Now the party’s over, and you’re almost alone again, bereft of cast and crew.

It’sjust you, the director, and editor, loins girded for post-production.

Here you have no one to answer to but yourself. The project will now begin to

look like what you initially dreamed it would be. Many producers live for

postproduction, because they’re more in control there than anywhere else.

You’ll soon discover you drastically underestimated your post-production budget.

You also spent more during preproduction and production than you’d planned. Don’t

despair. Overspending’s natural. It happens all the time in Hollywood. It’s a way of

life in Washington.

You must find the money needed for editing, sound recording/editing, and

miscellaneous lab work. Maybe your fullblown stereo mix will have to be nixed. Your

10-day mix session may have to be bumped down to five days. Either that or seek

additional funding, or tap your own salary.

Don’t cut too many corners. Editing, sound, and music are just as vital as the

actual shooting.


Ye Shall Be Released

Those who make it this far deserve backpats. Producing’s one of the toughest jobs

you’ll ever tackle. Few people have the will and stamina to see a production

through.

So your project’s complete. What now? Well, if it’s a feature-length video, start

shopping for a distributor. That ain’t easy. You’ll need to dig deep for yet more

cash, for crafting promotional materials and screening copies of the work for

potential buyers.

Once you’ve roped a distributor, the film goes into release, and as the money

trickles in you turn to your next project.

I started when I was 11, shooting Super-8mm shorts in my backyard. When I was 18

I secured fiancing for my first feature based on those backyard pictures.

You can do it too. Get a few friends together who want it as bad as you and go

for it. Once you graduate from the backyard, look for production companies in your

local area. Even production assistants who work on industrial videos will offer

useful knowledge. Watch others work; learn what’s right and wrong, difficult and

easy.

Finally, make sure you have fun. Producing can be a great experience. Keep your

chin up, and start kicking down those doors.

J.R. Bookwalter produced his first feature film, The Dead Next Door, at

the age of 18. He has since produced three additional features. Robot Ninja,

Skinned Alive, and Ghoul School.

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