Most people have no idea what film producers actually do. This is even true of some who work in the film business. To many, a producer is someone who only pumps in the money. I thought so too when I started working as an assistant director in 2004. I’d wonder, why is ‘that guy’ on set? I don’t see him actively contributing. So why is he here?
Being a producer is one of the most challenging jobs and also the most difficult to define. This possibly explains why most newcomers want to become directors and writers instead. Even at the most prestigious film schools in the world, there’s a lot more focus on courses based on directing, writing, acting and other artistic careers. But in recent times, there has been an increased appreciation for the role of a producer, more precisely a Creative Producer.
A Creative Producer typically works at a Film Studio. A Studio is a self-funded or investor-backed company that has the money to invest in films. The owner is the Studio Head/ Producer. A Studio has its own creative team, marketing team, distribution team & broadly works in two ways:
1. Developing & executing in-house content with creative producers who collaborate with writers, directors and a line production team.
2. Acquiring or funding content in collaboration with a Production House.
Although the role of a creative producer is more substantial in a Studio, it is possible for larger Production houses to have inhouse Creative Producers too. In the more boutique production facilities, a producer doubles up as a creative producer and sometimes development is also led by their directors.
The title of a Creative Producer itself presents irony. Can there even be a producer who has creative and artistic talent? And can someone with fiscal accountability be creative? The answer to both is, yes. A creative producer’s job demands what I would like to call the 5 I’s- initiative, identification, imagination, implementation and innovation.
Initiative stems from the burning desire to want to tell a story and purposefully chase it, much like a journalist. The source of the material could be varied. It could be a seed of an idea, a newspaper article, a book adaptation, or an already written synopsis or script that fuels the mind.
Identification is spotting stories that can become compelling narratives. For this you need to gauge the content as a viewer.
When it comes to news articles, it’s never as easy as reading something and saying, ‘hey this could make a good movie’. That one article leads to a lot more research, interviews, involvement of rights (if it’s based on a true story/person), and sometimes approvals from various authorities like the Indian Army, as was in the case of Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019).
A news article on How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran by Joshuah Bearman gave birth to the movie Argo (2012), and closer home, a news headline in 2006 ‘No one killed Jessica’ prompted a movie with the same title based on the death of aspiring model Jessica Lall. There are tons of others.
‘The book was better’ is a common reaction within people who have just watched the movie. It’s imperative to strike a balance when you adapt books for screen. What parts to leave out? What to change, and most importantly, what can the movie add?
Identifying content and then moving into a stage of ideation, research and discovery is like working an investigation – getting to the bottom of things till you put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
Imagination is when development begins. And then it doesn’t stop. Once you identify a story that’s worth committing to, you move on to assembling a team. The hiring of the director and the screenplay writer is always handled by the producer. To give every film its best shot, imagination is key. Recognizing talent and getting the right mix of people, testing and understanding their skill sets and personalities is crucial.
Although the content will be finally created by the writer and sometimes the director, a creative producer is always a part of the process. Someone with objectivity and attachment in equal parts.
Cinema is a blend of a creative art and commerce. A Creative Producer needs to balance both these worlds with practicality, precision and passion.
Implementation is the process of executing the creative vision of the film. A creative producer guides the crew towards an objective that becomes clear-cut as the work proceeds from an idea. A producer also has to make sure that films are made on time and within budget. There are many moving parts when you’re shooting a film and sometimes things don’t go as per plan.
Take a simple example. Production in collaboration with all departments plans a 50-day shoot and there’s an X budget allocated for that. On day 20, the lead actor falls ill, and you lose a day. Does this mean that you get an additional shooting day? In most cases, no. So you think of options – Is this scene and location interchangeable with another where this actor is not required? Can we save a day of shoot over the next 2 weeks to create one additional day that we’ve lost? The objective is to stay within the ‘X’ number that is your sandbox or else you will be over budget. If other approaches fail, you may have to add a day of shoot, but then you figure out other requirements that can be reduced over a period of time to balance the extra cost.
In most cases, directors are not equipped to take these calls and are okay with any decision as long as their vision stays uncompromised. This is exactly why you need an involved creative producer. A Line Producer will be able to make the cuts but may not salvage the director’s vision.
There are many days when all hell breaks loose. You need to have a solution-oriented approach to every problem and be an exceptional communicator. Indecisiveness is not acceptable as these are the times, the crew turns to you for answers. And you’ve got to have them!
Being a producer is one of the most challenging jobs and also the most difficult to define. This possibly explains why most newcomers want to become directors and writers instead.
Innovation can come in various forms. There is the literal implication which is using existing new technology and equipment. But there are other ways of allocating resources in the right manner especially when you have budget constraints (and most Indian films do).
Executing a film in a way that it looks a lot more expensive than it is. Finding a different country to shoot in, even if it’s not scripted, that meets your creative requirements but also offers value back as a rebate. Partnering with a VFX studio to get better deals and ensure their exclusive focus on the film in question. Interesting casting opportunities to reach out to a wider audience. Using professionals from other fields like physicists, scientists, architects, historians, gamers, etc to add value to your script. The list goes on. Sometimes, you even end up creating new equipment to support shooting efficiency.
I was an assistant director on Slumdog Millionaire in 2007 and I remember that a customized camera support and recording package had to be built to meet the unique demands of the shoot – the ingenious SI-2K camera. Slumdog was an independent film so there were cost constraints even then. The director did not want to take large, cumbersome 35mm cameras into the narrow slums, so they created a custom solution in the SI-2K digital camera. It included a gyro stabilizer for the base and instead of using the regular camera body, they used an Apple Mac book Pro notebook, running Windows XP, for the recorders, and built them into backpacks, to be worn discreetly (can look this up on detail online). To be able to do all of this, you need to have the producers support and enthusiasm to try new things and innovate.
Being creative is not an obligation for all producers. There are some who stay focused on the budget. The budget of a film determines whom to cast, how to approach it and eventually how to market and distribute it. There’s also a certain risk-analysis that a producer considers before greenlighting a film. Sometimes, the mathematics do not work out, but you believe in the content. That’s where you need to think of how to execute the film differently, making sure the vision is not compromised. The film may still not make complete commercial sense on paper. But those are the punts you take.
Eventually, the finished film is a collective endeavour and bears the signature of perhaps ten or twelve artists and technicians. But the strongest stamp will be that of the director. And a wise producer will encourage that. Most artistically and commercially successful movies have been led by a producer and a director who understand each other and have fought for the making the movie for the same reason. Cinema is a blend of a creative art and commerce. A Creative Producer needs to balance both these worlds with practicality, precision and passion.