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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.