Understanding Above-the-Line Professions: the Producer


When you are writing an essay about a film, you will see many names associated with making the film. While all crew and cast members make invaluable contributions to the film, there are four key professions that are called Above-the-Line jobs; they include the producer, the director, the writer and the actor.

The term Above-the-Line refers to the jobs that come in at the top of the film budget. These are usually some of the most costly items in any film budget, especially in the actor category. I will address each profession and how it is relevant to your film knowledge in separate posts. In this post, I will be addressing the Producer.

If you are new to film studies, media studies or communication studies, you might have no idea what a producer actually does and that is fine. You should not feel inadequate. I did not honestly know what a producer did until I worked for one at the beginning of my career in the film industry.

If you ever work in film (in television producers tend to also be writers), you will find out the producer is the person who makes a film happen. What exactly does this mean? A lot of different things. First, the producer might have a script sent to him or her. This producer might hate the script and reject it, or, the producer might love the script. Usually reading the script falls to the producer’s assistant if it is a small production company. If it is a bigger company, that has a deal with a studio footing the bill, a development executive will probably read the script…after the assistant.

In an ideal world, a writer or director gets a script to a producer. The producer loves the script and says that he or she wants to produce it. Now, what does that mean, exactly? There are several steps to producing as you are discovering. Now that the producer has the script, a few things have to happen simultaneously. First, a director should be attached to the project. Preferably, a director who has a proven track record. Then one or two actors should be attached. The bigger the name, the better, usually; however, this could be a problem if the film is a low budget film and your actors expect a $5 million payday. That might need to be the entire budget of the project. At this point, there is usually a list of actors the producer creates and then the assistant sends out all the scripts. This can now be done via email. When I worked in the film business, we had to use messengers to physically run the scripts all over Los Angeles.

While agents are usually saying no to the script for the actors (you hear countless no’s in producing), someone (that would have been me) was creating a film budget so when the script went to studios and investors, they could have an idea of what the film was going to cost. The producer usually has to go to pitch meetings before the script and budgets get sent out. Or sometimes it is a lunch. Or drinks. It just depends. If the studio or investor might be interested, they will allow the producer to send the budget and the script to them. If any actors are attached, there is also a letter confirming this from the actor’s agent or manager.

Once the film gets financed (which is actually a very rare occurrence), the producer, depending on what kind of producer he or she is, might be very involved or might be simply a presence in case there is a problem on the set. The person who really produces a film once it has been financed is a person called the Line Producer. This person is always approved by the studio and the Completion Bond Company. This is like insurance; the bond company guarantees the amount of the budget will be available to the production company so the film can be shot and edited. Line Producers tend to have the studio’s back, not the producer’s back. This can lead to a lot of tension on a set. Some line producers are also producers. It can get very confusing unless you are actually working on a set and see the day-to-day actions of a Line Producer and a Producer. Many times in films credits, if a Line Producer has enough clout, he or she will negotiate for an Executive Producer credit.

Once the film is finished, a producer helps to hire a Post-Production Supervisor who works closely with the film’s editing team. This person helps to ensure the editing process goes smoothly and the film is done on time and on budget. At least, that is the hope. At this point in the process, the Producer is dealing with making sure the film will be done in time for its release date. And, hopefully, they are setting up their next film to be made.

What I haven’t mentioned is that producing is one of the most difficult jobs out there. You are a salesman or saleswoman, first and foremost. You are, after all, trying to get a studio or distribution outlet to hand you millions of dollars to make your project. You are also a great socializer. You must be good at hanging out with people, mostly actors, writers and directors, but the money people as well. You need to have access to a lot of money. It really does help if you come from a wealthy family and you have a trust fund because it could literally be years before your first project is financed.

Things have changed in producing and there are far more ways of producing smaller projects and showing them on YouTube or Vimeo, or any other showcase that allows for online streaming. You can raise money through crowd-funding if all the studios say no. But the bottom line is that to be a producer, you have to have the thickest skin and then have a thicker one. The word NO has to become a challenge to you, not a defeat. And finally, a producer has to be a dreamer, because if you are not a dreamer, it really is not the job for you.

So, if you are writing about a film producer, remember, they are the ones that put the project together (usually) and get it financed. They help oversee everything about the production but will defer to the line producer during filming unless it is an unnegotiable issue. And, in case you are wondering, they are the ones who receive the Oscar for Best Picture.

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