How Movie Producers Work

The History of Movie Producers

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.