Who makes a movie?
Obviously, there are a lot of people involved, but who is ultimately responsible for delivering the piece of content for distribution? Whose career takes a hit if the theatrical gold never materializes? Or if the movie goes over budget? Who gets the blame if the movie sucks?
There are two key players responsible for the final product: the producer and the director. If you want to work or invest in film, you need to know how these players work together.
An old colleague once said, “You know we work in the dumbest business? Throughout prep, the producer holds a gun to the director’s head. He forces the director to keep costs down. He wants fewer shooting days and less spending. He wants to stick to the budget and schedule. And then on the first day of principal photography, he hands that loaded gun to the director to point it at his head.”
The producer finds and develops a piece of material. His goal is to deliver the film on time and on budget. If he hits those goals, he’ll get to work again. He determines how much money is needed and gets financing deals from private equity guys or studios. He finds a writer, director, and actors. In some cases, he cobbles loans together to close cash flow gaps or leverages tax incentives.
Some producers specialize in developing content. Others specialize in finance. Sometimes a producer works with the director to develop the project. Other times he hires a director and supplies him with finished material. It can run the gamut.There are two key players responsible for the final product: the producer and the director. Click To Tweet
The director’s goal is to turn a screenplay into a piece of content. He wants to make it big and fabulous and reach as many people as possible. He wants good reviews, awards, adulation from his peers, and – of course – a lead on his next job.
Does the director care about financial success? Of course. Directors whose films don’t make money tend not to make many movies. But he’s more than willing to go over budget and a little over schedule to make a great film.
The director runs the creative team. She manages all of the storytelling questions so the countless moving parts can actually create something. She oversees prep, principal, and post. She runs the set through his assistant directors.
The director has to manage all the little creative problems that arise, as well. He has to adjust shooting if the sun won’t cooperate. He has to make sure there’s enough footage for the editor. He coordinates actors and extras. He makes sure the wardrobes and sets are right.
I like to say that the director’s job is to build a wall. He uses the writer’s design. During prep, he assembles his team and tools. He makes bricks during principal and he assembles them during post. It’s an exhausting, time-consuming job. He can only make one successfull film at a time.
Brilliance Comes From Conflict
Do directors and producers clash? Almost always.
The producer wants to deliver a film that’s on budget (or even under budget) and on schedule. Sure, they want it to be a good movie, but that isn’t their job. The producer will push the director to shoot faster, hire fewer people, build smaller sets, make cheaper costumes, and reign in expenses wherever they can.
Directors are less concerned about money. They want to make the biggest, most fabulous film possible. They want the acclaim and awards that come from making a great movie. They don’t really care about cost.
As you can imagine, these goals are often at odds with one another. The director wants 500 extras, but the producer insists on using no more than 200. The producer wants to shoot a scene in one day, but the director thinks it will take two. They butt heads because they have different goals.
Part of the conflict comes from each person’s feeling of ownership of the project. The director and the producer both feel like the project is his “baby.” Writers get into the mix here, as well. Each person feels like the others are fucking up what could be a great film. And each person wants full credit for making it great. Unless it sucks, of course, then no one wants to take credit.
(Everyone always wants to take more credit than they deserve, but that’s an issue for another article.)
That said, in my experience, the movies with the most conflict between the producer and the director are the most brilliant. Conflict forces both sides to come up with interesting solutions. The producer finds better ways to spend money efficiently and the director finds ways to create his vision for less money. The result is usually a fantastic and inspired film that’s also a financial success. It seems counterintuitive, but great movies require a certain amount of conflict and stress.
Ultimately, filmmaking is a collaborative process. The final product is always better when people collaborate to create a singular vision. If one person gets their way all the time, the end result is usually shit.
This means the director and producer have to work together every day to align their ideas into a vision so everyone else working on the film can execute it. There are 11 or more departments who count on a cohesive vision, after all. So yeah, there’s going to be a little conflict, but smart and experienced filmmakers don’t get stressed by it. They put their heads down and work together to figure out how to make a great film with the resources they have.
There’s always one director and a few assistant directors on a film. Their roles are pretty straightforward. But “producer” is an interchangeable, nebulous word that gets assigned to different people who all play different roles.
In most cases, a film has the top producer who finds a piece of material like a screenplay or outline. He finds a development deal for that material and puts a package together with a writer, director, and some actors, then receives the cash from his financiers. Next, he’ll bring on a line producer and/or a UPM who spends the money, sets parameters for how it’s going to be made, hires crew, builds infrastructure, etc. Those two or three people are the ones responsible for making the movie.
Beyond those producers, you sometimes have co-producers and associate producers. A popular actor or actress may have a producer on their team who requires a credit, even if they don’t know anything about making movies. Someone’s agent may require a producer credit because that’s part of their agreement with a client.
An actor might have a producing credit because the studio bribed them with it in lieu of better pay. However, there are some actors and actresses who are genuinely good at producer duties. Bradley Cooper, Clint Eastwood, and Salma Hayek are just a few popular actors who add a lot of value as producers.
Other producer credits are just gratuitous handouts to someone’s friend. Why does this happen? Because some people have leverage and can get them perks.
All in all, a single movie could have eight or nine producers. Some of them are key players in the production. Others just sit around the eating craft service, being a pain in the ass.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of what directors and producers do on a production. If you plan to work on a film crew, keep in mind that the director doesn’t make all of the decisions. The producer has a lot of authority. If you plan to invest in film, understand that the producer and director play specialized roles and each have their own goals. Make sure you understand how both players fit into the puzzle and whether together they will create quality content that’s also financially successful.