When the best picture winner is announced at the Oscars, the statues will go to the film’s producers. Fundamentally, it’s the producers who got the film made.
But what does that even mean? It’s not hard to suss out what a director does — or a costume designer, or a screenwriter or an editor. But a producer? What does a producer actually do?
“I get this question all the time and I can answer it differently every time because every project is different,” said Robert Teitel, a longtime producer and Chicago native whose credits include the movies “Soul Food,” the “Barbershop” franchise and most recently “The Hate U Give.”
“I use a sports analogy,” he said. “The studio or whoever finances the movie is the team owner. The director is the coach. The star is your star athlete. And the producer is the general manager. If you use the Cubs as an example, I’m Theo Epstein. I put it all together, while staying in the background.”
According to the Producers Guild of America, “produced by” is the highest producing credit on a movie and it goes to the person (sometimes multiple people) most responsible for a film’s production, from soup to nuts.
Here’s what that entails:
- Conceiving the movie’s premise or securing the rights to a movie’s source material (a script or book to be adapted or someone’s life rights).
- Lining up initial financing.
- If there’s no script, hiring a screenwriter to bring the story to life and then working with that writer though a development process, which might mean bringing more writers on to the project.
- When the script is ready, hiring the creative team — which includes the director, cast and crew department heads.
- Once filming begins, supervising the day-to-day operations on set.
- And when the film is in post-production, working with the creative team on that end (editor, composer, visual effects supervisor), as well as people on the business side who are focused on marketing and distributing the movie.
That’s a lot to juggle.
“Either way, if I’ve conceptually come up with the idea or I found the material, I’m handing over the reins to the director because the director has to take charge,” said Teitel. “Theo Epstein isn’t telling Joe Maddon what plays to call or who to have pitch in the ninth inning. It’s the same for a producer.”
But wait. Directors are sometimes producers as well. At Teitel’s production company, State Street Pictures, his longtime collaborator and business partner George Tillman Jr. often produces and directs their projects, as was the case with “The Hate U Give.”
“If a director has a producer credit, it means they were more involved than just being a director — they were part of the whole process,” said Teitel.
“You can be a director-for-hire; some directors just come in when the movie is already cast and moving along. And some directors just want to stick to being a director — it’s hard enough to do what they do. But sometimes they contribute more than just being a director, they contribute as a producer.
"What you have to look at is, conceptually how did the project come in? Did that director write the script? Did that director put it together? Did that director find the material? Did that director find the studio? Or was that director hired later on in the process? Every movie’s different. And a lot of times directors are partners with a producer, like me and George — not on every movie, but a lot of movies.”
Let’s look at this year’s Oscar nominees. Of the eight films up for best picture, six include the film’s director as a producer: Spike Lee for “BlacKkKlansman,” Yorgos Lanthimos for “The Favourite,” Peter Farrelly for “Green Book,” Alfonso Cuaron for “Roma,” Bradley Cooper for “A Star Is Born” and Adam McKay for “Vice.”
The exceptions are “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Black Panther.”
The majority of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was directed by Bryan Singer, who was fired from the film for not showing up to set for days, in addition to the clashes he had with star Rami Malek and the crew. Singer has also been accused of multiple incidents of sexual assault, allegations of which are detailed in a recent story in the Atlantic.
In the case of “Black Panther,” director Ryan Coogler not having a producer credit is consistent with all of Marvel’s films — no director has a “produced by” credit. Kevin Feige, president of production for Marvel Studios, is the nominated producer for “Black Panther.”
So: “Produced by” (a.k.a. producer) is the key title to look for when it comes to determining who did the bulk of the work to get a movie made.
It gets even more confusing when you look at a movie’s end credits and see all kinds of other producer titles tumbling by — executive producer, co-producer, associate producer. The one you want to focus on for the Oscars is producer, which is actually a higher designation in film than executive producer. (It’s different for TV but that’s another story for another day.)
This is so confusing.
“It’s beyond confusing,” said Teitel. “When I say there’s no rhyme or reason, there is no rhyme or reason.”
Teitel also mentioned something called the Producer’s Mark, given out by the PGA that certifies which producers did the most on a movie. Per its website: “The Producers Guild believes that audiences deserve to know which producers, among an often-extensive list of credited individuals, performed a majority of the work.”
Here’s Teitel: “You could have four producers on the movie and only two with the mark, so as an outsider you’re able to look at that and say, ‘Those two with the mark contributed more than the other two.’”
To get the mark producers fill out a questionnaire that’s then put before a guild committee (Teitel said he has served on a few), which also takes into account input by members of the crew: “That happens on every movie where producers are asking for a mark.”
I asked the PGA if only those with a Producers Mark are eligible for an Oscar nomination. “Generally speaking, yes,” said a guild publicist, “although the Academy, of course, may make a different determination.”
How does the general public know who has been given a Producer’s Mark on a film? Typically a producer will include “the designation ‘p.g.a.’ behind their names in the credits for the film, and those credits usually also include the PGA’s logo.”
But there’s a but: The guild doesn’t enforce whether a Producer’s Mark actually appears in a movie’s credits. That means it’s possible that a producer “has the designation even if the average moviegoer does not see the Mark in the film’s credits.”
(According to Teitel, IMDb gets it right when it comes to job titles but it isn’t a great resource if you’re looking for who has a Producer’s Mark on any given film.)
Do producers have managers or agents?
“I have an agent,” said Teitel, “and sometimes they’re sending me material. Sometimes they’re negotiating my deal.”
Do producers get paid a salary?
“Yes. And you get a backend, depending on the type of film,” he said. “It just varies, whatever deal you negotiated. And obviously the more films and more success you have throughout the years, the better the deal. It’s like an athlete — if you perform well, your salary goes up.”
If a movie is an indie — meaning, not funded by or answerable to a studio — are producers basically negotiating their own salaries with themselves?
“Pretty much. Obviously you can’t take the lion’s share or you’re not going to make the movie you want. So it’s always tricky — like, how are you going to get it done and still earn a living?”
Teitel says he knew he wanted to make movies when was an undergrad at Columbia College Chicago (which is where he and Tillman first met), “but I didn’t know in what capacity. As time went on — pretty early, too — I felt like being a producer, that was my fit. Not writing or directing, but putting things together. Organizing. Having a creative opinion, which is a big part of what I do.”
There are people skills involved, as well. Knowing when to push, when to charm.
“It’s definitely that. Sometimes it’s a lot of babysitting, too. When it’s about getting the day done and shooting what you need, the director is the problem-solver on set. But the producer is the problem-solver on a global scale of things. Your job is to create an environment where the director can make the best movie possible.
“And it’s not just making sure you have enough money, but making sure you have the right people on board who are making the right decisions. Anything can go wrong on any day, it’s how you handle it. That’s the role of the producer.
“Sometimes if no one knows who you are on set or what you’re doing, that means things are going well and you’re pretty much doing your job.”