How Movie Producers Work


Eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes directed "Hell's Angels," which launched Jean Harlow's career. See more movie making pictures.
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He was a 22-year-old movie producer with a few films under his belt and a lot to learn. He wanted to make the greatest aviation film epic ever, so he bought 40 fighting planes for $500,000 and nearly bankrupted the family business. He wanted the right cloud formations in the background, so he delayed production for months.

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He interfered so much that the director quit -- and so did a second director. And when the pilots said a particular maneuver was too dangerous to attempt, he took over as stunt pilot and crashed. "Damn. We've just lost our meal ticket," one of the squadron leaders reportedly said, looking over at the wreckage.

But the pilot was wrong. "Hell's Angels" opened in 1930 to critical acclaim and made Jean Harlow a star. Billionaire Howard Hughes survived the crash and went on to produce more than 20 movies, including "The Front Page" (1931), the controversial "Scarface" (1932), and "The Outlaw" (1943) [source: Internet Movie Database].

Probably no other movie producers could claim such a flamboyant, early career in movie production, although others like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg began making amateur movies in high school. But one thing these film makers seem to share in common is perseverance [source: Britannica].

Movie producers can do everything from finding the idea and developing the script to working with the studio to market and distribute the film -- all to create the highest quality movie, delivered on time and within budget.

What is the early history of movie producers? What do movie producers do? And, what type of training do they need? Read on to find out.

The History of Movie Producers

Mark Sennett produced the Keystone Kops, which are mocked here by famous comedy duo Abbott & Costello.
Mark Sennett produced the Keystone Kops, which are mocked here by famous comedy duo Abbott & Costello.
© Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

From the beginning, movie producers have guided films from start to finish, and in doing so, they have left their mark on the motion picture industry. As casts, budgets and companies grew in the early 1900s, the role of the movie producer became more essential in bringing movies to market.

By the 1930s, movie production had grown into big business, controlled by studios that not only made and promoted the movies, but also distributed them and exhibited them in studio-owned theaters. A movie producer generally worked within the studio, taking on projects as assigned.

But in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the studios had established a monopoly and needed to relinquish control over the exhibition part of the industry. Independent distributors also came into being, giving independent film producers a way to bring their films to the public without going through the studios. Most movies today are made by independent producers, either for direct distribution or under contract for one of the remaining six major studios [source: World Book].

Throughout film history, movie producers have introduced innovations and styles that have shaped the movies we see today. Here are some film producer's contributions:

  • Mack Sennett created the Keystone Kops and slapstick comedy during the silent era. Sennett was known for comic timing, trick photography, clever editing and a satiric approach.
  • Cecil B. DeMille produced epics like "The Ten Commandments" (1923 and 1956) at Paramount Pictures that were known for their spectacular crowd scenes and sets.
  • Irving Thalberg helped MGM build its reputation for high-quality films. Although he produced 90 movies, including Marx Brothers movies, musicals and "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), he was too modest to allow his name to be listed in the films' credits.
  • David O. Selznick made films in the 1940s and 1950s that combined commercial success with high artistic quality. Among them were "Gone with the Wind" (1939), "Rebecca" (1940) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" (1945) and "The Third Man" (1949).
  • Walt Disney pioneered the animated film, created animated characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and released the first feature length cartoon, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" (1937).
  • Hal Wallis was skilled at finding the right director and actors for a screenplay. He had a part in producing more than 400 films from the 1920s to the 1970s, including "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957) and "Becket" (1964).
  • Steven Spielberg has created popular, suspenseful films like "Jaws" (1975), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) and "Jurassic Park" (1993) that rely on strong cinematography, music and special effects.
  • George Lucas combined a swashbuckler tale with science fiction and computerized special effects to create "Star Wars" (1977) and its sequels. His Lucasfilms, Ltd. production company is known for special effects.
  • Spike Lee has shed light on the African-American experience in sometimes controversial films like "School Daze" (1988) and "Jungle Fever" (1991) that he writes, directs, produces and edits himself.

These movie producers brought their own insight and particular talents to the movie production process. Despite their individuality, a lot of movie producer responsibilities are the same. Next, let's take a closer look at what a movie producer actually does.

Responsibilities of a Movie Producer

Writer Paul Haggis talks to producer Ed Zwick at the premier of their movie "Don't Move."
Writer Paul Haggis talks to producer Ed Zwick at the premier of their movie "Don't Move."
© Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

A movie producer is the person responsible for making sure an appealing, high-quality movie is produced on time and within budget. That means supervising and packaging the project from conception to distribution to theaters, while interfacing with the studio and managing the work of hundreds of individuals [source: Full Sail].

As you can see, movie producers do indeed have to wear many hats during movie production. Starting at the beginning of the process, here are some of the main producer responsibilities:

Preproduction

  • Find material from a book or script.
  • Get the script into good enough shape to attract a director (and studio, if this is not a studio-initiated production).
  • Secure financing for the film, if it is not being made for a studio.
  • Choose the director and other parts of the creative team.
  • Cast the actors, working with the director.
  • Determine locations and budget.
  • Decide on cinematographer and special effects.
  • Hire a production team including crew and producers.
  • Develop a shooting schedule.
  • Create a detailed plan of action for production.

Production

  • Offer creative suggestions to the director.
  • Handle problems with actors or creative staff.
  • Monitor production timetable and budget.
  • Review video dailies, the film shot each day.

Postproduction

  • Discuss order and selection of scenes with the director.
  • Review the fine cut of the film after it is edited.
  • In some cases, polish, revise and restructure the film to create the final cut.
  • Work with a distributor to secure distribution for the film. This may include showing the distributors the final cut of the film.
  • Review the distributor's advertising campaign for the film.

[sources: World Book and "Movie Moguls Speak: Interviews with Top Film Producers" by Steven Prigge, 2004]

You may be wondering where movie producers find the material or come up with a film concept. In some cases, actors, writers or editors approach producers with a completed script. In other cases, coincidence or serendipity has led to successful movies.

The animated feature "Bee Movie" (2007), for example, started with an offhand comment by comedian Jerry Seinfeld to producer Steven Spielberg during dinner. "Wouldn't it be funny if they made a movie about Bees and called it 'Bee Movie'?" Seinfeld mused. Spielberg liked the idea, and Seinfeld found himself with a deal and the need to write a movie to go with his title. That took two and a half years.

"Rocky" (1976) started with a casual comment from an actor. Producer Robert Chartoff arranged to meet Sylvester Stallone after seeing him act in the "The Lords of Flatbush." Stallone mentioned that he had an idea for a script about a boxer and asked Chartoff if he would read it. Six weeks later, the actor brought in the first draft of the script for the film that earned him an Oscar nomination for best writing and was followed by five sequels.

Obviously there's plenty to learn if you want to be a movie producer. Go to the next page to find out about the training you'd need.

Training for Movie Producers

Legendary producer David O. Selznick started his career as a script reader.
Legendary producer David O. Selznick started his career as a script reader.
© Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Technically, a movie producer doesn't need any training. But movie producers, other than Howard Hughes, rarely start at the top. As with any other business, if you're going to run it, you need to understand it. To meet producer responsibilities, you have to be familiar with all aspects of movie production and quite skilled at some of those aspects. And your contacts -- who you know -- can be important, too.

Plenty of film producers have honed their skills in acting, writing, directing or some other area of filmmaking before moving up to become a movie producer.

Here's how some famous film producers broke into the business:

  • Mac Sennett started as a theater actor before becoming an actor, script writer and director before starting the Keystone Company.
  • Irving Thalberg started as secretary to Universal Pictures' president. He moved up to studio manager before becoming head of production for MGM.
  • David O. Selznick learned first from his father, a silent film producer. He moved to Hollywood and worked his way up from script reader and assistant story editor to producer at MGM, Paramount and RKO.
  • Darryl Zanuck sold a film scenario to Irving Thalberg in 1923, joined Warner Bros. in 1924 as a writer for the "Rin Tin Tin" movies and, within three years, moved up to executive producer.
  • Walt Disney started studying cartooning before high school. He worked as a draftsman and inker in commercial art studios and made short animated advertising films with a partner before starting the Walt Disney Company and producing animated films.
  • Hal Wallis managed a movie theater before joining the publicity staff at Warner Bros. He moved to publicity, then chief of production and then executive producer for the studio before becoming an independent producer.
  • Steven Spielberg produced and directed short films in college that attracted the attention of Universal Pictures. He directed episodes for television shows and made-for-TV movies before directing movies and becoming an independent producer.
  • Spike Lee directed films and met his future co-producer, Monty Ross, at Morehouse College. He won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' student award with the master's thesis film he completed at New York University.

If you want to become a movie producer, you may want to start small like these experts did. Get some training in writing, editing, cinematography, animation or another area of movie making. Make your own amateur films. Produce something that showcases your skills, and then find a starter job in the industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics describes formal training as a great asset for anyone going into movie production and notes that colleges, technical schools and independent centers like the American Film Institute offer training programs for various areas of filmmaking. Some colleges and universities offer degrees with an emphasis on production management.

Here are the most important attributes for movie producers, according to the bureau:

  • Talent
  • Experience
  • Business acumen
  • Ability to deal with many different kinds of people under stress

Besides feature films, the motion picture industry produces films for specialized audiences such as documentaries and educational, business, industrial and government films. In addition, many businesses provide services to the industry, including editing, titling, computer graphics, animation and special effects. Working in any of these areas may be the start of a career as a movie producer [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics].

Not all movie producers have exactly the same jobs. Go to the next page to learn more about some of these jobs.

Types of Movie Producers

George Clooney chats with fellow producer Bob Weinstein. The pair produced "Far From Heaven," which was nominated for four academy awards.
George Clooney chats with fellow producer Bob Weinstein. The pair produced "Far From Heaven," which was nominated for four academy awards.
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If you've watched all the credits roll at the end of a movie, you know that a lot of different people were involved in producing and distributing that movie. If you read closely, you may have noticed that rather than listing a single movie producer, the credits named movie producers of several different types.

Movie production is such a complicated process that usually one producer, known as the executive producers, supervises and is assisted by others who take on part of the producer responsibilities. We've already discussed the role of the main producer. Here's more about the specific jobs of producers, taken from the Producers Guild of America, a trade association for film, television and new media producers.

Executive Producer -- Supervises one or more producers as they perform their duties for one or more films. The executive producer may represent the film studio and keep watch over the producer to make sure the movie is within budget and being made the way the studio wants. Or the title may be given as a symbolic gesture or to give a movie visibility. George Clooney, for example, was listed as executive producer for "Far from Heaven" (2002) to generate publicity, but didn't spend any time on the set, according to the film's producer Christine Vachon.

Associate Producer -- Handles certain aspects of production, as assigned by the producer. Usually the associate producer has worked through all three stages of the production, from preproduction to post-production. Sometimes the associate producer title is given as a courtesy title to a key backer of the film who does not have a major role in producing the film.

Assistant Producer -- Works on tasks assigned by the associate producer.

Co-Producer -- Shares producer responsibilities as a team or group with other producers. One producer may take on creative responsibilities while another handles business functions. Or one of the producers may be a major investor who is not directly involved in the movie production. Or a co-producer may have brought the script or the film's star to the production.

Supervising Producer -- Oversees one or more producers as they perform some or all of their duties. The supervising producer may take the place of an executive producer or work for the executive producer.

Coordinating Producer -- Coordinates the work of several producers to create a unified end result. Coordinating producers are valuable when a studio produces several related films, as with "Spiderman," or particularly when two related films are being produced at the same time, as with the two sequels to "The Pirates of the Caribbean."

Line Producer -- Handles the physical aspects of a movie's production and usually is not involved in decision-making regarding creative issues. This is the person who oversees the budget and day-to-day activities during filming. In addition to making sure the movie stays on budget and on target, the line producer handles any crises that may occur.

[source: Producers Guild of America]

To become a movie producer, you'll probably move up through some of these jobs. But expect stiff competition because jobs are limited at the major studios. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics sees the most opportunity in filmmaking jobs related to evolving technology, such as computer specialists, multimedia animators and for job seekers skilled in digital filming, editing and computer-generated imaging.

But film producers will always be needed. The bureau recommends small or independent filmmakers as providing the best prospects for beginners because they are likely to grow more quickly as digital technology cuts production costs [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics].

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

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