Producing is the toughest job in the film industry, alongside directing and producing and all the others. No, filmmaking is not easy. Directors tend to get all the credit for the artistic integrity of the project. Actors will get all the attention. And producers? They’re easy to overlook, even though they are the ones who give the final speech of the night at the Academy Awards. A producer who knows their job will make all the difference on a project. The director may be steering the wheel and pointing to the horizon, guess who’s in the engines room? The producer, and the most successful ones know when a director needs them.
Betting on first-time directors
A director who is not established and is looking for a producer will have a hard time convincing anyone to take a gamble on them. That’s especially true in the studio system. In the world of independent film, you’ll need to prove yourself. The industry is, after all, terribly risk-adverse.
Before she became one of the most successful indie producers in the business, Christine Vachon was just someone who was willing to take a gamble. She and her business partner at Killer Films, Pamela Koffler, made a name for themselves when they decided to gamble on first-time directors such as Todd Haynes. In her own words: “I believe in first-time directors. They have a story in them that they have desperately wanted to tell for years.” Could it be that this is the only résumé a first-time director needs?
Running a tight ship
Producing an independent film is an arduous task. When you don’t have the marketing horsepower of Disney or any other international studio, breaking even is the best you can hope for. A master at running a tight ship and bringing it home is the emperor and godfather of American independent film: Roger Corman.
He established a solid business model in which he would make the most of whatever resources he was given and optimised anything he could muster. This way, Corman managed to produce tens and tens of films for very small budgets. He churned them out at an industrial pace and, in the process, gave their first break to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese.
Finding your audience
Producing means carrying out the project from beginning to end. That may make sense theoretically, that means finding funding as well as finding your audience. It’s generally a safe bet to think that the funds and the audience are in the same place. (Crowdfunding is just that: finding your audience, and engaging with them throughout the entire production process, not just in the end.) Rebecca O’Brien, Ken Loach’s longtime producer, figures this out a long time ago. The director believes that a big budget would compromise the aesthetic of the working class he is depicting, as he expressed when he picked up the Raindance Auteur Award.
Yet the small budgets still need to be found. It turns out that the French have long had a thing for socially-minded films in general. They have managed to overcome their natural aversion for the Brits and taken a liking to Ken Loach’s independent work. Therefore finding financiers there is a logical starting point and has proven to be successful.
Not relenting to outside pressure
Today, it seems inconceivable that Back to the Future films should bear any other name. However, the head of Universal was really worried. While Steven Spielberg, who produced the franchise that his protege Robert Zemeckis co-wrote and directed, enjoyed a good personal relationship with the head of Universal, Sid Sheinberg, the latter was worried about the title. So much so that he once sent a memo to Spielberg and Zemeckis suggesting that they change the title to Spaceman from Pluto, as a reference to the nuclear protection Marty wears.
Zemeckis was worried as he didn’t think the new title did as good a job at conveying the genre (or blend of multiple genres) the film belonged to. Spielberg decided to handle it himself and advised the director not to worry. In a gutsy move, the legendary filmmaker replied to the memo as though it had been a joke, saying “thank you for the humorous note, keep them coming”. Sheinberg was so embarrassed he never brought up a change of title ever again and Zemeckis achieved his vision. That move was equal parts sheer nerve and an outlandish level of confidence — something we should all aspire to.
Thinking outside the box
What makes the difference in a production is not always the budget. Granted, it helps. But a producer’s magic touch when we go beyond budget. The joy of filmmaking is that, whether you’re an independent producer on a £5,000 budget or a veteran on a studio budget, your will face constraints and have problems to solve. Being a Hollywood producer with incredible projects under his belt, Brian Grazer surely knows this all too well.
When producing Ron Howard’s How the Grinch stole Christmas, one of the challenges beyond managing a film that spread to eleven sets, was helping lead actor Jim Carrey. He was wearing extremely heavy makeup which impeded his work and which he compared to torture. Normally, the producer-director team would have had a sit down with their lead (and his agent) and talked him through it. But Carrey was beyond this, so it was time to go further. Being the Hollywood veteran with connection that he is, he simply called up the CIA, who sent his way someone who was a specialist of surviving torture. Even big fans of thinking outside the box could say that this was going too far, but it certainly did the job and Jim Carrey powered through till the end of production.
Producing is about people
Producing is about using the rational part of the brain that the director doesn’t use first and foremost. Therefore the best productions should be about a symbiotic relationship between a director and their producer. Raindance alumni Edgar Wright has been consistently working with Nira Park at Big Talk. That collaboration has recently culminated in the hit Baby Driver.
When asked what her job is about, Park doesn’t reply that it’s about logistics or budgetting first. It’s about variety of material, developing projects but mostly attention to people. She was known on the set of Shaun of the Dead as “the producer who knows the name of all of the 1111 zombies”. Perhaps it is hyperbolic, but being on a set where everyone feels valued by the captain is certainly a substantial addition to resources that no budget can buy.
What are you going to do about it?
There are a lot of skills a producer needs to develop. Why not consider these two Raindance producing classes:
Producers’ Foundation Certificate – five Tuesday nights with a collection of industry professionals delivering top-notch information.
Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking weekend masterclass with Elliot Grove
Both classes are available Live!Online! if you are unable to make our Central London venue.
Call us on 0207 930 3412 or email firstname.lastname@example.org