If you look at my IMDB, I’ve produced twenty-two film projects. Out of those, I wrote and directed nine of them (watch some of my faves 1440 and Counting, Neighbor and Killer Couch). Which means I supported, funded and/or partnered in some way to see the thirteen other film projects (like Hey Dad and The Scarlet Thread) produced to completion. I have to be honest, that feels great, but it came with a lot of work, learning and maybe a tinge of regret (things I could have done better).
Therefore, I have a lot of opinions and ideas about this topic of film producing to inspire you to jump in as prepared as you can be. Before you continue reading, know that these are my opinions. Feel free to push back, I can handle it (see # 6 below). And I reserve the right to change my mind and add to the list as I grow and evolve.
You can ask ten different producers and some would probably agree on many of my nine but there would be just as many others who might disagree (I.E. not everyone cares about people being kind, see # 5 below) if they can get the job done. Just read a lot of the entertainment industry trades filled with horror stories of so-called brilliant producers who are horrible abusers, manipulators or down right mean. (The more this is called out the more this is changing…hopefully…little by little).
So here’s my top nine qualities every producer should have. Or another way to look at it is: the best practices of a rockstar producer. These are what I strive to do myself and what I expect from my producer team. This isn’t exhaustive but some of the most important traits I look for in my film collaborators. Keep in mind, I am an indie producer so all these come from that perspective. (It would be a little different if you were hired by a studio Disney/Marvel or Warner Brothers).
I occasionally throw in a pop-culture reference to give us something to aspire to. I hope these are helpful to aspiring and emerging producers as well as inspiring to those who are already at work on sets!
Producers produce! Everybody wants to know what in the world a producer actually does. They do it all sometimes. They make and support the vision of the film on every level. Sometimes they hire the director, sometimes (in my case) they also write the film but most times not. Producers support the director and the director’s vision every step of the way. Sometimes they creatively influence the story, the script, the casting and sometimes they are getting lunch for the crew, helping with wardrobe or picking up garbage. One of my favorite filmmaking mottos is under-promise and over-deliver (the worst is when we “over promise and under-deliver” AKA “all talk and no action.”). Ultimately, producers are responsible for making the movie. And if you are so lucky to ever make it to the Academy Awards, guess who holds the winning Oscar trophy if your film wins Best Picture? The Producers! Because producers make the movie. It’s a big role and requires a huge amount of passion, responsibility, perseverance, ambition and an attitude of humble collaborative teamwork. I recently talked with Richard Linklater’s producer Mike Blizzard in THIS CLIP he had some great stuff to say. After you watch, Keep reading!
Producers are team leaders AND team players. In my mind, producers need to be both team leaders and team players. They organize the team and the team’s details. They need to be kind, friendly and possess a hardworking attitude of cooperation and collaboration with the ability to multitask and get the job done from beginning to end. Have you seen Parks and Rec? It’s one of my all-time favorite shows. Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope. If you know, you know. Leslie loves her job at the Pawnee Parks and Rec department and everyone knows she loves it and she’s good at it (and incredibly organized. She loves her binders. Producers, can you feel this?). Everyone (mostly) loves her because she works hard and loves her work. She sets the bar high for her team and is really good at valuing them (Galentine’s day and birthdays!). And because of this, producers need to set a standard of inclusion. There is no tolerance for racism, sexual harassment, homophobia, or any disrespectful treatment of any group of people, our teammates, clients, vendors, volunteers, and/or audience members.
Producers need to be fundraisers. Now, this isn’t always the case in studio films, but in my indie work, you can’t be a producer or a filmmaker if you can’t raise money. Yes, I said it. If a producer can’t/won’t raise money on a project then we need to find another role on the show. It might be better suited to have someone in the role of production coordinator or production manager. A true producer raises/gets or gives/contributes money. As I prep for my next feature, I am making a goal that each of the producers raise/give/get a certain percent of the budget for the project. When a producer is literally invested in a project, they spend the money wiser in my opinion. So Mr./Ms./Mx. producer if you want to get paid to produce, then find a way to pay yourself. I’m not saying you’re gonna get rich, in fact if you’re not willing to work for free to get experience or if making money is your only reason for getting into the film business, you might want to find another job. It’s not gonna pay great starting off, and possibly for years. So get creative. (You might make more money working in fast food).
Producers need to be problem solvers and quick thinkers. One of my favorite shows was Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal. The character of Olivia Pope was a badass political fixer. She got the job done when things went awry in D.C.. And I think producers need to be like Olivia, without all the conniving, backstabbing and lying. A producer keeps the crew accountable for their work. Producers hire/fire crew and keep the set safe confronting any obstacle/challenges to protect the film, director and actors. A producer makes no excuses, apologizes and takes responsibility for mistakes and keeps the film moving forward. A good producer squashes toxicity when it surfaces and helps all cast and crew find agreeable middle ground that can honor the film, its director and vision. P.S. There is no tolerance for ghosting on a project. Rock star producers are all in and are the film’s secret sauce.
Storytime: While we were on set for my first feature film, Last Chance Charlene, we had a limited time in a cemetery. The scene required dancing, (choreographed by one of the other producers on the film, Keren, also doing double duty) and our actor, Allison, had to do it all on a broken toe. It was grueling. It was June and it was hot. I had brought an umbrella to help provide shade and since we only had a small crew that day, there was no one else but me to hold the umbrella. If I’m honest, I wish I had some extra production help so that I could have focused on getting what I wanted from the scene. But I realized, holding the umbrella, was exactly that: helping us get what we needed. Sometimes, we have to do whatever it takes, think quickly and solve the problems ourselves (sans complaining and humbleness is a key to success in this area).
I think the best producers are trustworthy, honest and friendly people. Producers set a standard of excellence, respect and responsibility on set (and might I suggest they add a little bit of fun?). I don’t want producers who are tainted, toxic or skeptical. Making a movie takes a miracle and if you don’t have a little magical optimism and outrageous kindness mingled with a little delusion it might just not happen. Producers need to believe in the project and believe the best in all of the creative collaborations. If this isn’t there, you’ve got big problems. When challenges arise, seek to listen. Avoid gossip and spreading negativity about cast and crew. Is there anyone more hope-filled who speaks the truth than Buddy the elf? On my sets, be like buddy, tights and eating spaghetti with syrup welcomed but not necessary. I like a little dance party on camera and behind, too. Just be careful with your toes. If you’re not here to have fun as we work hard living out our dreams making movies, than why are you here?
Producers need to be amazing communicators. A good producer knows how to talk to a director, cast and all kinds of crew members. A producer communicates clearly, efficiently and responds quickly (by email and text or carrier pigeon) to all crew, actors, donors, vendors, etc. A good producer gets to the point, doesn’t beat around the bush and doesn’t waste time. Need I say more? Nope.
A producer should be an ambitious self starter. This relates a bit to number 1 on my list but a producer doesn’t wait around. If you are waiting around for someone to make you a producer, you might be waiting awhile. Get off your butt and make it happen. A good producer initiates in the development of the film, pre-production through post-production. A great producer works with writers and directors championing collaboration. If you don’t know how to make a film or how to get a film off the ground–either learn by reading, watching YouTube or shadowing another producer. If this doesn’t sound fun– producing might not be for you. It’s a lot of work, sometimes exhausting and thankless, but if you like to bring ideas to life and are energized by getting projects launched and (over) achieving big goals, producing is for you. Reese Witherspoon’s character Tracy Flick in “Election,” is a great example of this ambitious quality, minus the negative antagonistic tendencies. (Election sequel coming soon. Who’s excited?).
Producers need to be realistic. I know, I know. In number five above, I said producers need to be delusionally optimistic, yes, they do. But we need some honest to goodness realism because you can’t bring your director’s dreams and ideas to life without real practical work on the ground. You feel me? So, a producer must be a little emo and goth like Wednesday Addams. (Have you seen this show on Netflix? Gosh, I loved it). In her teen gothic way, Wednesday is stoic and matter of fact..and like it or not, a producer has to call it like it is sometimes. If the project doesn’t have enough money to rent a crane, shoot in Italy or hire an animal wrangler/ lion tamer, you have to either get that money (see #3) or make concessions and compromise. Get a selfie stick, film in an Italian restaurant and use your grandma’s cat. Too many of us filmmakers dream too big (yes, I said it) and end up making and doing nothing. Don’t be like that. I like living with my head in the clouds but you gotta touch grass and actually roll cameras (and it can be your cell phone, just make something).
A producer needs to be committed from beginning to end of the film process. Actors, caterers,and gaffers get to clock out and move on (in a sense) when the film wraps… but not the producers. Producers shepherd the film to its completion through editing, coloring, sound, film festivals, press and distribution deliverables. Producers stick with it 24/7 like on call nurses! We producers also need to champion the film, the director, and the actors like our jobs depend on it (because it does)! Good producers get hired again for this reason. When I direct a movie, it’s one of the best feelings to know my producers have my back and care about me and the story as much as I do. So pick your stories, pick your crew and pick your projects well. They are like our children and we have to raise them up (sometimes push out of the nest) and send them out into this beautiful (sometimes cruel, let’s be honest) world.
I know this can be overwhelming. Making movies is a lot of work, but if you’re passionate enough, you’ll see it through. It’s like running a marathon. The winners are the ones who make it to the end and cross the finish line. I hope this list challenges and inspires you. I’m always looking for some brave, rockstar producers. If you think you embody the above and want to produce something together. DM me. Did I miss anything? What other pop culture characters should be on this list? Share your thoughts in the comments or find me on social media @tonygapastione.
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Tony Gapastione is a screenwriter/producer and director living in Redwood City, California. He founded and executive directs BraveMaker, a 501c3 nonprofit arts charity dedicated to educate, entertain and create community experiences around justice, diversity and inclusion. He and his wife Wendy have three daughters, one labradoodle and two guinea pigs...all of which end up in his movies in some way. His first feature film, "Last Chance Charlene" will be on VOD, February 2023. Connect with him on Instagram: @tonygapastione