How Line Producers Work


Line producers may have to manage rain for shooting films. See more movie making pictures.
© Nick Gunderson/Riser/Getty Images

The problem was rats, too few rats. Director Werner Herzog envisioned thousands of them running through the streets of Delft and across a square for one scene of "Nosferatu" (1978). Delft was too tidy, and rat special effects would not be convincing. But the town's council had just spent a lot of money ridding the town sewers of rats and didn't want to see them return. The solution: An agreement to let the rats run -- and to take extraordinary precautions to keep them out of the sewers [source: Kawin].

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Another problem was rain, too much rain. When pouring rain spoiled the chance for scheduled sunny-day shooting, filming on "Avalon" (1990) headed for a different location. That meant moving the company, the equipment and the trucks. But on the way there, the line director got a call. The director and producer now wanted to shoot the scene in winter. They'd film in the rain and make it look like snow. The solution: The line producer turned everyone around, and they headed back [source: Crouch].

These are the situations that bedevil line producers. Whether they're finding room in the budget for rat wranglers or turning on a dime to meet unanticipated demands, line producers have a challenging career. They develop the initial production budget for a film, work to secure the crew and equipment needed and then oversee expenses and scheduling day to day to make sure the film says on time and on budget -- while handling any crises that may occur along the way [source: Producers Guild of America].

What exactly do line producers do? And what skills does a line director need? Let's start with a closer look at the line producer's responsibilities.

Responsibilities of a Line Producer

Line producers oversee all the financial details of a film's shooting script.
Line producers oversee all the financial details of a film's shooting script.
© William Howard/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The line itself is probably the place to start in thinking about the responsibilities of a line producer. The line in a film's production budget separates above the line expenses that are mostly fixed -- like story rights and negotiated salaries and per diems for writers, producers, directors and cast -- from below the line expenses -- location, scheduling and sets -- that need to be estimated, budgeted and kept reined in.

Line producers enter the filmmaking process during development and stay through the production process. The line producer is given the script and asked to estimate the below the line production expenses for the film. These can include everything from crew salaries and equipment rental to insurance to wardrobe to set design to location costs. The line producer also creates a filming schedule determining how long each scene will take to shoot to estimate each day's cost.

Based on those estimates, the line producer prepares a budget for the producers to show how much funding they will need. Once money is raised and a final budget prepared, the studio or other backers look to the line producer to keep production costs in line as the film moves through its shooting schedule [source: Skillset.org].

During pre-production, the line producer:

  • works with the director, production manager and department heads to prepare the final budget, shooting schedule and production dates
  • oversees hiring crew, finding equipment and suppliers, scouting locations and activities of various departments
  • provides vision to the director

While the film is in production, the line producer:

  • monitors the budget and production schedule, revising the schedule and controlling expenses to keep the film on time and within budget
  • answers to the studio and acts as a liaison between the crew and the producer
  • approves or denies additional expenses
  • may hire and fire crew
  • helps the director reach his artistic vision for the film
  • deals with on-location crises
  • oversees the wrap when shooting ends, sets are struck, and rental equipment is returned

[sources: Honthaner, Skillset]

The line producer's job is similar to that of the unit production manager, and sometimes that title is used instead for someone with basically the same responsibilities. But no matter what title a line producer uses, he usually is looking to move up to the opening title credit that comes with a job as assistant producer or producer.

That often happens. Frank Marshall, producer of the "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1982) and its three sequels, the "Back to the Future" trilogy, and the Bourne trilogy, started as an assistant to director Peter Bogdanovich before moving up to location manager, associate producer, line manager, producer and executive producer [source: Willamette Week].

If you'd like to know more about becoming a line producer, go to the next page to learn about the skills you'll need to succeed.

Skills Needed to Become a Line Producer

Line producers are responsible for selection locations such as the Miami setting for "Marley and Me."
Line producers are responsible for selection locations such as the Miami setting for "Marley and Me."
© Troy Rizzo/Getty Images

If you want to be a line producer, you'll need a fairly wide range of skills. It's probably worth noting, though, that those skills don't generally include creative input into the film process. If that's what you want, being a line producer may not be the right path for you, unless you can work your way up to producer.

What you do need for line producer skills is a combination of knowledge, experience and personality traits.

If you're going to take charge of film production -- and make sure the film stays within budget and on schedule, you need to understand the physical and technical processes of filmmaking. That includes basic knowledge of all the departments that you oversee, such as lighting, set design, wardrobe and sound. You also need to know how movies are made, who's responsible for what, and what outside resources, like equipment rental firms, you can use to get what you need.

Attending a two- or four-year school that offers film classes can give you a start on knowing the industry. But the rest of what you need to learn will come from experience, often starting with jobs that are low paying but can bring you into film production. Often line producers are production managers who have moved up from other jobs like assistant director, location manager or production assistant. And they may start in television, commercial or music video production rather than in films.

Beyond knowledge and experience in the movie making industry, you need expertise in finance. That includes in-depth knowledge of budget analysis, scheduling and project management.

Being a line producer is not for everyone. If you don't like managing finances, problem solving, risk taking and dealing with an unpredictable work environment, this is not for you. To succeed, you need:

  • strong problem-solving skills and the ability to make decisions quickly
  • flexibility to deal with unexpected changes
  • a calm approach during crisis management
  • the ability to balance the creative and practical in making decisions
  • diplomacy in handling requests for funds
  • negotiating skills with suppliers
  • the ability to work with many different types of people, commanding respect and providing encouragement
  • willingness to work 80 or 100 hours a week during the production phase

[sources: Skillset.org, Honthaner]

Beyond that, as with any movie job, your success will depend on your determination and networking skills combined with the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

For lots more information about line producers and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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