By Saskia Wilson-Brown, September 27th, 2010

This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.

DEFINING THE ROLE OF A PRODUCER

Producing is one of those jobs that has seeped into our collective unconscious while simultaneously lacking any by-the-book definition. Everyone who hasn’t done it yet thinks they know exactly what it means. Then, one day, they find themselves staring blankly at an email containing the germ of an idea expressed through incoherent but promising snatches of a story. “Hey you should produce this”, someone says, and the expectation is set. They are to, you know, ‘make it happen’.

But what exactly they’re meant to ‘make happen’ next is just not all that clear. They see the finished product in their mind’s eye, they feel the enthusiasm of what partners they already have, but the progression from now to premiere is a muddy gray area of questions: What is a producer responsible for, exactly? What is their primary function? How much creative say do they have? At which point do they need to start raising money? What documents do they need? Should they start an LLC for the project right away? Do they need a PMD? What about co-production? How do they get distribution? And what the hell is the difference between a ‘creative producer’ and a regular producer, anyways? The list of questions goes on and on and on, and it goes without saying that this process is incredibly intimidating when it’s your first or second project and you only have a cursory understanding of what producers are meant to do, in the first place.

To help define how to begin a project, and to begin attacking these questions, I’ve found it helpful, thus, to define the role. To better do this, I’ve gone out and asked a few producers I admire for their insight on their job. First up is Katie Holly of Blinder Films in Dublin Ireland, most recently producer of the indie darling One Hundred Mornings (dir. by Conor Horgan).

Katie Holly, Blinder Films

1. What in your experience are the producer’s primary responsibilities with regards to a project?

This can be a hard one to answer as so often the primary role can vary, depending on the nature of the project and the needs of the film and the director.

But above all in my view the job of the producer is to bring coherence, and have clarity which is communicated to the whole creative team, financiers, and other partners such as sales agents etc about what the film is, and frequently, how best to market/sell it.

The producer has an overview on all aspects of the film, from the script, to the finance, schedule, casting, crewing up, and all across the post production process and they need to ensure that the needs of project are being met all across the board, albeit also on  budget and on schedule.  On a practical level they also raise the finance, negotiate agreements and handle the legal process of closing finance in conjunction with their lawyer. They work closely with the line producer, production accountant and first assistant director to ensure that the budget and schedule are not only achievable but being properly managed, as well as keeping a creative eye on the project, via the writer and director.  During prep, production and post they are also the person responsible for handling any issues as they arise across all departments.

2. How does the producer relate to the creative process (for instance, in film direction)?

Again this can vary as there are different types of producers out  there. Coming from a background in script development and story editing as a producer I’m extremely focussed on the creative side of the process, not in terms of the actual direction of the film which I would leave entirely in the hands of a trusted director (who the producer would generally hire). Very often  producers  can be the originator of a feature idea that they then seek to place  a writer or  writer/director team on. Other times a script or idea might be  pitched which the producer undertakes to develop and produce.

Again, I would say that the producers responsibility is to bring  coherence – now  that I’m pretty busy on production I tend to spend less time with the writers and directors actually working out the story (though I still love this and on certain projects it’s crucial that I’m a part of that process).

But often not being ‘in the room’ so to speak can work well: When a draft is delivered you have a certain ‘distance’ and are able to critically engage in a way that you might be less enabled to if you were part of the process of why certain character or story choices were made.  On every treatment and draft that is delivered,  I would read a number of times, give detailed written notes and do meetings before we all  collectively agree on an approach for the next pass.  But as I said the level of creative input can vary hugely – on One Hundred Mornings, I didn’t collaborate with Conor during the scripting process, though during prep and even during the shoot we developed a very good dynamic in terms of doing rewrites, merging or cutting scenes as required by our demanding schedule.  On my next feature, SENSATION, which recently premiered in Toronto, I came on board from treatment stage and worked closely with Tom all through the process.  On The Savage Eye, the scripted comedy show we currently have in production, during prep I spent the majority of time in the writers room, as that’s what that particular show demands.

In terms of film direction – that I would absolutely leave in the  hands of the director. Of course you will have had discussions about the creative approach  during development and prep so there is clarity and agreement on how the film  will be handled, and casting would generally be done in collaboration. Beyond that it’s the directors gig.

I would [also] of course watch rushes and discuss them with the  director and the editor during the shoot [staying] very involved in the editing from rough cut  onwards. You would give the director space to work on a first cut, and from there on give detailed notes and do meetings until the shape of the  film emerges and is agreed on by all.

3. How has a producer’s role changed with the advent of new media/new crowd-sourcing or social media technologies?

One advantageous thing with new media and technologies is that there are very cost effective ways of actually getting a film made and there are also many fast and cheap ways to find and build your audience. Simply put it’s certainly easier now to make a feature film (albeit a micro budget one) than it was back in the days when film was your only option…

This also creates a challenge however in that there are so many more films getting made the market is incredibly crowded and distribution is extremely difficult to secure.

As a result the producer’s role on a film has extended far beyond the traditional model of handing it over to a distributor and sales agent and letting them take it from there.  This has both advantages and drawbacks – you keep control of your films rights, or assign them for much shorter terms, and you, the filmmaker, are part of the process of selling and releasing the film.  On the downside this process can take a very long time, and on a film that was made for a very low budget it can be hard to make ends meet or get back to your primary job of producing.

We’re still very much in a time of flux and I am hopeful that in the next five years new models of distribution will have emerged that will allow producers of low budget films to recoup their costs, (provided the films are good, of course!).  New festivals that share revenue with the filmmakers are a recent interesting proposition as are recent experiments to use your festival premiere as a release – capitalising on the attention the festival affords you to sell DVDS, from VOD and also book other theatrical dates.

In Ireland we don’t really have things like Kickstarter and Indiegogo up and running yet but I’m also really excited about those kinds of crowd sourcing tools and have no doubt they will also continue to mushroom over the coming years.

Further posts detailing the role of the independent producer are forthcoming, to be followed by a whole lot of nuts and bolts about what it takes to produce a film.

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Posted in creative collaboration production journal

Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.

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COMMENTS

  • fantastic post Saskia.

  • Saskia

    Thanks Mark-- would love to ask you a few questions when i get to the transmedia campaign part.

  • Well, on a site like this you are going to find many more experts than me, but I will gladly help where I can.

  • Most of us are producers without even realizing it. Great post.

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