Does The Producer Really Matter?
by Mandi Harrison
Steven Spielberg has made some of my absolute favorite movies, and whenever I would watch one, right after his name in the credits, the name Kathleen Kennedy would appear. EVERY movie. I always wondered who she was, and eventually I did some research. Kathleen Kennedy started as an assistant to a friend of Steven's, then he persuaded her to work for him, and eventually, she became his producer, working on some of the greatest films ever made. She has the second highest box office receipts, right behind Steven of course. Kathleen met her husband, Frank Marshall, who also produced Steven's work, and the three of them founded Amblin Entertainment, with Kathleen serving as president of the company until she and Frank started their own production company. She continued to work with Steven, as well as other notable directors, and was involved in the making of over 60 films. The directors of these films were able to concentrate on telling the story because she was behind the scenes, handling all the details.
It was always my dream to work in movies. I just never knew in what capacity. I didn't necessarily want to be in front of the camera; I'm a decent writer, maybe I could adapt something or possibly direct. I wasn't sure what to do.
Then I met Chris and we decided that we were going to make movies together. He told me that I was going to be his producer. And he was right; I was born to be a producer. We could be the next Spielberg and Kennedy.
I never fully understood what the producer did or why there were so many different types of producers until a few years ago. Each one has a unique role. The Executive Producer is like the CEO- they basically oversee the project, make sure that everyone is doing what they need to do. The EP helps get the funding; it's like they are co-signing a loan. That's why a lot of actors are executive producers- having a name attached to the project as EP reassures investors that if the actor is willing to put a stake in the movie, it must be a solid bet. A Line Producer handles the money. They make sure everything stays on budget and on schedule. A Producer is the person who sees the project through from development to release. They get everything set up, from hiring to contracts to money and making sure the director stays focused and happy.
By studying Kathleen and other producers, these are the some of the things that I've found you need to be a great producer:
Know Your Sh*t- Be Prepared
You don't want to caught off-guard at any point. If you aren't sure of what to do, the whole production is doomed. Will you need permits? Could there be any legal issues with the script? Do you have releases from the actors and crew? Having your research done ahead of time can save you the heartburn that comes later on.
Making an independent movie requires you to wear multiple hats, so having a filming schedule helps you to balance those hats. You have to know that script forward and backwards. Work with the director to come up with a plan for filming that is efficient and get the story done they way they see it.
There are a thousand little details to think about before you even begin to film and having the answers to them ahead of time saves you time and headaches later on.
This goes hand in hand with being prepared. Knowing where everything is, what's coming next helps keep everything moving smoothly and keeps you from forgetting things. This is honestly one of my favorite parts- putting together a production binder with each day's call sheets and script pages. Everything has to be documented on set, for continuity and to help with editing; having it all in a central location in a lifesaver.
The ability to share information in a clear, direct manner is a highly needed skill on set. The director is focused on the story, and getting the right shots. There has to be someone who will be the person to make sure that everyone knows what is going on and what is needed from them. Knowing how to talk to people, how best for them to hear what you are saying can save many issues from rising during filming....
... which leads into patience. There will be issues to come up, whether it's with equipment or people, but having patience helps keep morale up and keeps the issues from escalating.
Attention To Detail
If you are lucky, there will be a script supervisor on set, making sure that there is continuity in the filming, so there's not that "why is she wearing a blue shirt, when she was just wearing purple?" moment. But chance are, the producer might have to be that person. Even if you have a script supervisor, noticing what is going on around you and being about to look at all the little details that make up a movie can save you that "Do'h!" moment later on.
Know How To Delegate
If you are lucky enough to have crew members, utilize them. Let them know your expectations and then do follow-up. But you have to be willing and ready to step-in when needed.
You and the director are partners. You have the same goal- to make the best movie that you can. Being able to communicate and work together towards that goal is key for success. The director is responsible for telling the story and the producer is responsible for making sure that it gets done efficiently.
At the end of the day, you can have everything planned out, but things can and will change. Being able to and knowing when to flex and go with the moment will keep production from coming to a stand still.
I've developed these skills just through working and now I can put them to use as a producer. Through my own experiences and observations, I've found that there are two reasons that movies need producers.
First- someone has to handle the details. It's really difficult to have to handle the creative and the administrative part of filming by yourself. Something always suffers. Having someone to take that responsibility frees up the director to concentrate on filming. Chris amazes me every day with how creative and focused he is. I work to make sure everything is handled so he can focus on that. By knowing what the other is doing, we stay on the same page and everything runs smoother.
Second, it helps to have fresh eyes. When you have been staring at a screen for hours, you start to feel that you are missing something. Having a producer, someone who KNOWS the project, to help read through or work through the story helps the process. Taking a step back and looking at things from a different perspective can be very beneficial. Chris and I have developed a process over time and it works for us. I used to want to be involved in EVERYTHING. But that just slowed it down, because Chris writes better on his own. So I took a chill pill and let him do his thing. He'll write, then we'll brainstorm, he'll write some more and then we'll zhuzh it up. It works for us. I have a fresh perspective because I didn't know about the 30 versions before. And he can write how it works best for him.
Every film and situation is going to be different. But having a producer, someone who has these traits or skills, will only make the experience on set and the finished movie better. There are many producers that I have studied and admired, but Kathleen is still the person that I most look to for inspiration. I always ask myself WWKKD?