How Executive Producers Work


Sean "Puffy" Combs, shown here, produced Notorious BIG's posthumous CD.
Sean "Puffy" Combs, shown here, produced Notorious BIG's posthumous CD.
© Chris Polk/FilmMagic/Getty Images

When the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Born Again" album was released in 1999, a lot of the credit went to executive producer Sean "Puffy" Combs. B.I.G., after all, had been dead for almost three years, the victim of a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Combs created the rapper's third album by arranging some of his unheard rhymes and adding guest spots by well-known artists including Missy Elliott, Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg. In Combs' arrangements, B.I.G. starts off most of the tracks, and then the guest artist takes over [sources: Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra and Stephen Thomas Erlewine].

Music journalist Chris Charlesworth is credited as executive producer for re-released versions of The Who's albums because he suggested that the group produce a retrospective box set that led to several more. Charlesworth had never produced an album, but he wound up selecting additional tracks, writing text for liner booklets, working on cover concepts and shepherding the music production process [source: Richard James Burgess].

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In contrast, Peter Grant was credited as executive producer on every Led Zeppelin album, while he was actually the group's manager and didn't contribute to the song writing, arranging or producing.

As you can see from these examples, executive producers -- even working in the same area of the entertainment industry -- don't necessarily share the same responsibilities. They may have overall responsibility for nearly everything, handle a specific area of the project or have no greater responsibility than funding the project, providing support or lending their name to boost publicity and sales.

So what is an executive producer? How does a music producer differ from a motion picture producer or a television producer? And how does someone become an executive producer? Keep reading to find out.

Job Description of an Executive Producer

The Who's executive producer helped select the songs for their greatest hits compilation.
The Who's executive producer helped select the songs for their greatest hits compilation.
© Charles Gallay/Getty Images for MTV

What is an executive producer? As you've already seen, the term is difficult to define because the duties vary so much. Add to that the differences between a music producer, a motion picture producer or a television producer, and the definition gets even more complicated. We'll take a closer look at each of these types of executive producers in the pages to come, but first let's consider the job description of an executive producer more generally.

The simplest way of looking at it may be to say that an executive producer is the executive charged with producing the project, whether it's a film, an album or a TV series. That may mean taking charge of the entire project or providing some skill or resource that is absolutely vital to the project's success.

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For example, an executive producer can be a "suit," someone who watches where the money goes and keeps the project on track. Often executive producers work for the studio or the record label to make sure the company's investment pays off.

Or an executive producer can be a backer who bankrolls the majority of the project or puts up a partial share and then brings in investors to fund the rest.

An executive producer can roll up his sleeves and really get into the production process, as Puffy Combs did with "Born Again," or take on a vital part of the project, as Chris Charlesworth did for The Who. Particularly in the independent music or film industries, an executive producer can wind up doing virtually everything not handled by artists and crew.

An executive producer also can be a well-known producer or director who lends his name to a project to give it greater visibility. Steven Spielberg, George Clooney and others have been listed as executive producers for films for name's sake -- even without taking any active role in the production process.

And there's no reason why a motion picture or record album needs to have only one executive producer. Several producers often share the title on a film, reflecting their varied input. In the case of The Who's retro albums, Charlesworth shared producer credit with John Astley, an experienced music producer who did the remastering, and Bill Curbishley, the band's manager [source: Richard James Burgess].

Next, let's look at what an executive producer does in the motion picture industry.

Motion Picture Executive Producer

"Indiana Jones" executive producer George Lucas, right, poses with star Harrison Ford at a recent premiere.
"Indiana Jones" executive producer George Lucas, right, poses with star Harrison Ford at a recent premiere.
© Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

Because movie making is such a complicated process, the motion picture executive producer usually supervises and is assisted by others. Each of these lesser producers handles some aspect of production responsibilities. To get the full picture, let's look at the responsibilities of a hands-on producer who oversees the film, rather than a producer who simply provides financial backing or lends a name to the project.

A movie executive producer is often responsible to the studio for making sure a high-quality film is completed on time and on budget. The producer supervises the whole process from initial concept to distribution to theaters, while serving as liaison to the studio and managing the work of hundreds of individuals [source: Full Sail].

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During preproduction, the executive producer finds the material that will become the movie story, gets the script written and finds financing for the film. Working alone or with the studio, he also finds the director and cinematographer, assists in casting the lead actors and hires a production team, including crew and producers.

This is also the time to determine locations and budget, develop a shooting schedule as well as a detailed production plan.

During production, the executive producer monitors the production timetable and budget, keeps the movie on its original creative track and may offer creative suggestions to the director. The executive producer also keeps the studio informed about the progress of filming and acts as a liaison between the studio and the film's creative and technical staff.

During postproduction, the executive producer reviews the edited cut of the film and offers suggestions for revising the film before the final cut. He also works with a movie distributor to secure distribution and reviews the distributor's advertising campaign for the film [source: World Book].

For the most part, as you can see, the executive producer is involved more with the business than the art of filmmaking. That's not so true for an executive producer in the music industry.

Keep reading to find out how the role of a music producer differs from that of an executive producer in the film industry or a television producer.

Music Executive Producer

George Martin worked as executive producer on many of the Beatles' albums.
George Martin worked as executive producer on many of the Beatles' albums.
© Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

While a motion picture executive producer is mainly involved with the business side of the production process, a music producer is often much more involved in the creative process. In fact, Richard James Burgess, author of "The Art of Music Production," suggests that a music producer's role may be more like that of a movie director than a movie producer, with more control over the artist and his performance.

Burgess quotes George Martin, the Beatles' executive producer, as saying that a music producer is like a movie producer and director rolled into one: "A record producer is the designer -- not in the sense of creating the actual work itself, but he stages the show and presents it to the world. It's his taste that makes it what it is -- good or bad."

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And while movie executive producers are part of a large production team, record producers often work as individuals and run their own small labels. Unless they are executives for a large record label, they may focus mostly on the creative and leave the deal making to music agents.

But the financial aspects of production can't be ignored. Deanna Schwartz, who has her own record label, Revenge Records, points out that whenever she does a project for her label, she's the executive producer because she's paying the expenses. That, she says, means having the final say over when a project is finished, as well as a hand in choosing the session musicians and the engineer for the mix.

With a small label or as an independent producer, a music producer may handle many aspects of production, including song writing, orchestration, sound engineering and vocal arrangements. He also may approve liner content and cover art, as well as working on music distribution and marketing plans.

Producers also often decide when and where to record, select the musicians and technicians needed to make that happen and manage the production timetable and budget. But often the best role may be simply doing the least and helping the recording artist to fine-tune their performance. Schwartz notes that "every project needs objectivity, and it's hard to be impartial about your own music."

Go to the next page to learn about the different types of executive producers in the television industry.

Television Executive Producer

"The X-Files" executive producer Chris Carter poses on the show's studio set.
"The X-Files" executive producer Chris Carter poses on the show's studio set.
© Acey Harper/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

An executive producer in the television industry is someone who has to work quickly and make snap decisions in a fast-paced industry. While a motion picture producer or music producer may have months to complete a film or an album, a television producer working on a series has to complete a show every week or approximately 22 shows for a season.

Perhaps even more than in other entertainment industries, executive producer can have different meanings in television. The Producers Guild of America, the professional association for film and television producers, differentiates between executive producers for long-form television (TV movies) and television series. But individual networks and TV stations also have executive producers to handle news and other types of programming.

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The responsibilities of an executive producer for long-form television are similar to those for a feature film:

  • Preproduction -- Conceive of the underlying premise or select material; select the writer; secure rights and financing; select the creative team and principal cast; and approve the shooting script, schedule, locations and budget.
  • Production -- Supervise production operations, consult with the director, approve weekly cost reports and serve as liaison to the studio and financial backers.
  • Postproduction -- Work with the director and crew to prepare a first cut for the network or other financiers and then complete the final cut; work with the studio, network and any foreign distributor on marketing and distribution of the film.

Television series are often writer driven, but the executive producer has final responsibility for the creative and business aspects of producing the series and is responsible to the network or companies financing the series. The executive producer may also be the writer but with added duties, such as:

  • Preproduction -- Creating the concept, format and characters; supervising and participating in story and script meetings, approving all story lines; hiring series directors and casting series regulars; selecting key members of the production team; and supervising the budget and production schedule.
  • Production -- Monitoring budgets and schedules and working as liaison with the network and financial backers.
  • Postproduction -- Working with the network or production company on requirements such as final cuts, air dates and standards and practices; selecting or approving postproduction facilities and editors; viewing dailies and approving final cuts of each show; planning or approving publicity and promotional campaigns.

[source: Producers Guild of America]

Does executive producer sound like the right career for you? Keep reading to find out the training and experience you'll need for different entertainment industries.

Becoming an Executive Producer

Executive producers like Debra Marin Chase, shown here at the "Cheetah Girls" premiere, manage television, film and music productions.
Executive producers like Debra Marin Chase, shown here at the "Cheetah Girls" premiere, manage television, film and music productions.
© Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Starting at the top is almost impossible in any career -- and that's what you'd be doing if you started work in the film, music or television industry as an executive producer. As with any other career, you need the right experience and training to move up.

Some of the skills you need to acquire are the same for any type of executive producer. For example, you need to be able to manage the logistics, timetables and expenses of a project, as well as the creative talent, technical and production staff equipment, plus the equipment and materials involved.

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Of course, you're not likely to do all that yourself, but you'll need training in project management and hands-on experience in some of these areas. After all, if you're going to make sure other people are doing their jobs, you need to know those jobs. And if you're charged with managing the project budget and protecting a studio or record label's investments, you'll need a college degree in finance or a related field.

Each entertainment industry also calls for some specialized skills and training:

Motion picture producer -- Producing a movie would be impossible if you didn't understand how movies are made. Executive producers of films often focus on a particular filmmaking skill -- acting, writing, directing, editing or cinematography -- before becoming an executive producer. And they start small, usually first with a college degree and then working on low-level jobs in the industry. Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee both started producing and directing short films while they were in college.

Music producer -- Perhaps more than in film, an executive producer in the music industry needs a background as a writer or performer and solid knowledge of an instrument. But you also need to know the business, including the process and the equipment. That probably means getting a college degree with an emphasis on music production, music business or sound engineering. After that, it's a matter of starting at the bottom and working up. Many executive producers, like Puffy Combs or Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, began as performing musicians.

TV producer -- As with movies and music, being a television executive producer requires knowledge of the specific industry as well as an understanding of filmmaking or entertainment. Usually this starts with a college degree in communications or media, with specialization in broadcasting. After that, it's a matter of moving up through television or radio.

For example, Paula Apsell, an executive producer with the "Nova" ­science, television series, started out typing a Boston TV station's daily television logs. She moved to the station's radio affiliate and became a news producer before producing a few episodes for Nova and then joining the staff [source: PBS].

David Shore, executive producer of the TV show "House," was a lawyer who changed careers to write for TV. Before he created "House," he worked on many other shows, including writing episodes for "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice," and working as supervising producer on "Law & Order" [source: House].

As with any entertainment career, your success in moving up depends on your luck, contacts and persistence, as well as your talent, skill and experience. Networking can help you move up the ladder from assistant producer to associate producer, producer and finally executive producer.

For lots more information about executive producers and related topics, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • All Music Guide to Rock: The Definitive Guide to Rock, Pop and Soul." Bogdanov, Vladimir, Woodstra, Chris and Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. Backbeat Books, 2002, page 805. (http://books.google.com/books?id=1-pH4i3jXvAC&pg=PA805&dq=%22executive+producer%22+music&lr=&sig=ACfU3U0GgQ5GFkEjI_9_aIbqY3ffGSkGfA#PPA805,M1)
  • "The Art of Music Production." Burgess, Richard James. Omnibus Press, 2002, page 168-169. (http://books.google.com/books?id=9SjxQsqzdMQC&pg=PA168&;dq=%22executive+producer%22+music&sig=ACfU3U0Ar7NehK1ChVT32W_V2cOo6RLwJA#PPA168,M1)
  • "Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews with Top Film Producers." Prigge, Steven. McFarland, 2004, pages 99-100.
  • Producers Guild of America. (http://www.producersguild.org)
  • "The Real Deal: How to Get Signed to a Record Label." Schwartz, Deanna Daylle. Billboard Books, 2002, page 31. (http://books.google.com/books?id=pZfz0JP0XHIC&pg=PA51&dq=%22executive+producer%22+music&lr=&sig=ACfU3U0dyZGLlO59KVeXs1v9cSuB1xp1xA)