Chapter 1: Wait, What Does a Producer Do? 1 WAIT, WHAT DOES A PRODUCER DO?
Like many film producers, Siena Oberman lives in Los Angeles but works and sleeps wherever she is needed. In early December 2019, that was the vicinity of Gravesend, an old Italian neighborhood in South Brooklyn that was the setting for a low-budget movie she spent months building from scratch, a transgressive—albeit cameo-packed—mob drama titled The Birthday Cake.
Tackling her fourth film as a lead producer by age twenty-five, Oberman is definitely an outlier, roughly the same age as the assistants answering her hourly calls to the tax attorneys, movie-star agents, and private equity managers she needs to keep her project afloat. This particular project is a precarious one, a low-budget indie feature held aloft through foreign investment, tax credits, well-connected talent, and the tirelessness of Oberman, the wunderkind without whom none of it would have happened.
One blustery day toward the end of the shoot, filming has been going on for a couple of hours by the time Oberman arrives on set—a stolid Italianate house (rented out by the production) on a modest block, distinguishable now by the noisy generator on the winter-brown patch of front lawn. It’s almost 11 a.m. Oberman would have arrived earlier, but she was waylaid by a tense phone call closing the remaining financing. Slight, angular, and shockingly calm—considering the freezing temperature, the thousand stressors, and the caffeine coursing through her—she doesn’t look like the most powerful person on the production. In fact, she is and she isn’t.
There’s the talent. Val Kilmer, for example. There’s also Paul Sorvino, who’s been delayed after driving many hours into the city; even if he makes it later in the afternoon, the order of the shoot will have to be rearranged. There’s the writer/producer/actor team who first pitched the project, including rising star Shiloh Fernandez, musician Jimmy Giannopoulos (the film’s director), and filmmaker Raul Bermudez (a writer and producer), who called in enough favors to stud the cast with names that Oberman’s backers feel comfortable with (from Ashley Benson to Ewan McGregor). There are the international financiers—one whose money seems stuck in South America, or maybe the Isle of Man, without which Oberman can’t pay the crew.
These financiers are technically producers too; some have creative input, some only bring money or connections to actors. Money is power, and power will get you a producer credit on a movie. But in order to produce a movie in the sense defined in this book, you need to take responsibility. No matter how powerful you are, you need to be in charge. You need to cajole the financiers; fill out the tax-credit forms; remind the first-time feature director to get enough camera angles; scan the past week’s footage for continuity because it snowed; procure money for marketing materials; find a cozy spot in the basement for your financiers so they can watch the shoot on monitors without getting in the way.
These are the problems Oberman had this morning, before the Wi-Fi conked out, the fire alarm went off, the actors’ union delivered an ultimatum, a crew member’s temper flared over all the people on his set. When I asked Oberman, toward the end of the day, whether this was the typical way she allocated her time, she said there was no typical way. “For me the priority is: What’s the biggest emergency?”
IN STATE AND MAIN, David Mamet’s wicked satire about a Hollywood film production camped out on location in a small town, a director played by William H. Macy is told that the only horse in town is “booked.” “Tell the guy, get me the horse!” he says. “I’ll give him an associate producer credit.” Then he laughs, adding, “I’ll give the horse an associate producer credit!” A screenwriter who overhears him (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks a young assistant what an associate producer credit is. “It’s what you give to your secretary instead of a raise,” says the assistant.
It’s a funny scene and, for all its cynicism, a window onto what a producer does. It illustrates the kind of horse-trading (sorry) necessary to get a production off the ground, and it touches on a central paradox of the job: “Producer” is a credit everyone seems to want on a film, but because it applies so broadly, few filmgoers have any idea what a producer actually does.
“Most people outside of the movies just truly don’t understand what it means and make the assumption that it’s very finance-driven,” says one producer. “Which is pretty much not the case. There is a perversion of what the word means that also includes people who finance—which is a version of buying the credit without doing the work.” Or as Lynda Obst, a producer and the author of the industry memoir Hello, He Lied, told me, “It’s the only title anyone can just decide to join. But some of us have to stay and make the movie.”
There’s an old Hollywood joke: How many producers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Twelve: one to screw in the light bulb, eleven to take credit for it. Those eleven people may be movie stars taking a credit in exchange for a pay cut; family members cut in on a deal; celebrities lending their imprimatur; or, far more often, financial partners who have helped pay for and sell the movie but done little else.
This isn’t a book about the eleven who take credit; this is about the so-called creative producer, the one who does the work. If only it were as simple as screwing in a light bulb. The best way to figure out what it entails is to watch someone do it. Over the summer and fall of 2019, I followed three exceptional producers at different phases of their careers, watching how their jobs evolve hour to hour and day to day. In following all three and interviewing a wider array of people in Hollywood and independent film, I got a sense of how the job progresses from decade to decade of a producer’s life—and then, even more broadly, how the industry has changed over those decades, from the heyday of the studios to the reign of the streaming platforms.
Oberman, the twentysomething in charge of The Birthday Cake, isn’t exactly a typical up-and-comer, but she occupies the niches of a producer just making her bones. She works mostly on movies that cost less than $5 million and takes in fees in the five figures. She barely has time to sleep and, having fewer people to delegate to, must wear many more hats.
Higher up the chain is Fred Berger. Now thirty-nine, he’s one of two partners in Automatik, a young production company that’s pushing up into budgets as high as $100 million on films and TV streamers. Berger had his first big break as one of the lead producers on the prestige blockbuster La La Land, and since then he’s rapidly built up credits and experience. He’s a talented and confident negotiator with deep artistic bones, adept at handling bigger projects and egos, but still working his way up to permanent stability.
Finally, I spent time with Michael London, who at sixty-one has been through several transformations in the industry and his own career. He’s been an executive at a mainstream production company as well as a studio (Fox); a semi-independent studio-backed producer; a completely free agent riding the early-aughts indie boom to bring the world Thirteen and Sideways; and the head of a private equity–backed finance and production company. Now he’s independent again and doing far more TV than he ever imagined doing.
These three producers have a lot in common (they work on the more artistic “indie” side of the street—none have made a Marvel movie), but they’re also as different as any three people separated by age, temperament, and background. There’s a consistency in what they do and the traits that make them effective. They are strategically calm and very good at getting what they want, having mastered the art of figuring out what other people need. They can tell when a negotiator is serious and not just blowing smoke, but they also have the spark of defiant optimism it takes to convince themselves and others a long shot is worth taking (all movies start out as long shots). What they do isn’t easy, but it’s never dull. It’s a high-stakes emotional roller coaster whose ultimate goal is showing people a good time.
You’re probably still asking: What do they do? Explaining that requires breaking down the process of how a movie gets made. Like many businesses, it used to be both simpler and less interesting. In the days of the studio system, Warner Bros. or Paramount Pictures did everything. It had actors with seven-year contracts, in-house marketing teams and directors, and its own house producers based near the lot. A producer worked for Paramount, for example, and was responsible for developing the script, assembling the cast, shepherding a project through filming, and handling the marketing and release. These producers were either high-powered executives or their more hands-on minions, but in either case they were company men (and a few women). They did the management for the studio—the giant factory whose many workers banded together to bring films to fruition.
As studios became less monolithic, a more outsourced system developed. Producers were still in charge of finding and developing projects, but they became more independent. In the ’70s some directors set themselves up as production companies. As the actors gained more clout in the ’80s and ’90s they, too, set up production companies. One of the best teams of producers works at Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s production office. The studios, meanwhile, became acquirers and resource providers, in some cases literally providing soundstages and in others acquiring already-made movies. A company that doesn’t make movies at all but only acquires is a distributor; all the studios, TV networks, and streaming platforms buy material, but only some also help make it. (Networks and streamers often partner with studios, though many have studio arms of their own.)
Nowadays, a movie that starts with a producer can take one of two tracks. If the producer has a “first-look” deal with a studio or platform, she gets office overhead covered by the studio in return for taking any project she packages (gathering up talent, revising the script, roughing out the budget) to that studio first. If the studio refuses, she can take it elsewhere. If the producer manages to get any studio behind an unfilmed project, the deal is done; the producer gets her 5 percent of the budget (or some agreed flat fee) and becomes the hands-on manager of a company-owned film in progress.
The other route—independent filmmaking—is more complicated. This is the route that tends to generate those extra producer credits. A sample roster of producers is effectively an anatomy of how an independent movie got made: two managers of big-name actors who took a pay cut; the person who introduced the screenwriter to the director; a line producer who worked overtime to get a tax credit; two indie producers who managed the project; the author of the originating book; and maybe a horse wrangler for good measure. But the largest number of “producers” on a complicated project consists of financiers who floated the project so it could get made before a studio laid a hand on it.
In order to make an independent movie, the producer must cobble together financiers to pay up-front costs. These are investors, not benefactors. Their money is securely backed by the promise of foreign sales and bridge loans—sometimes even guaranteed by the sales arms of agencies that handle the distribution sales. Then, Lord willing, the movie gets made. In the event of a sale to a distributor, often at a film festival—sometimes in an auction after a major premiere at Sundance or Cannes—the investors get paid back first. They get paid again (as much as 20 percent) if the box office exceeds the budget. The producer is among the last to see that “back-end” money.
One way to figure out who a “creative producer” is on a project is to figure out which person or company doesn’t put in their own money. All they have is skill and connections; they don’t buy the light bulb, but they screw it in, day by day, and eventually make a good living from it.
Whatever path a film takes, the creative producer is the person who looks out for the project from start to finish. The studio might handle marketing, but it only has so much bandwidth to focus on each project; the producer is the one who makes sure her specific movie gets the care and push it deserves. The director (always) thinks he knows best, but the producer tells him when he’s letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
There’s an even easier way for a casual filmgoer to know who the real producer is. In 2012, after years of pushing back against credit creep, the Producers Guild of America instituted a “Producer’s Mark,” a simple “PGA” beside the names of a small handful of producers who have been able to certify that they fully managed the project. (In the end credits, look for, e.g., “Siena Oberman (pga).”)
Even with that settled, it’s still difficult to define the job’s parameters, because there’s no real professional certification behind it, no concrete set of skills or qualifying exam. It isn’t oriented toward a task but toward a project, which cannot exist—much less succeed—without the accomplishment of many smaller tasks (some of which, in larger production companies, become jobs of their own). You can think of it as not one job but a succession of them, or an overlapping web. Below is the most elemental rundown:
Lynda Obst will never forget what Peter Guber, whose movies include Rain Man and Gorillas in the Mist, once said to her: “?‘A producer is a dog with a script in its mouth.’?” Obst continues, “So how you become a good producer, that’s a different issue. But you can call yourself a producer if you have a script you can sell.”
Fred Berger was a young up-and-comer casting about for projects when he teamed up with producer Jordan Horowitz and Damien Chazelle, a young director with a crazy idea for a jazz dance musical doubling as a love letter to Los Angeles. Michael London was a not entirely satisfied junior Fox studio executive until he went independent, and eventually heard from a friend, Rex Pickett, who was working on a book he originally called Two Guys on Wine. Berger and London would probably have been successful without La La Land or Sideways, but they started out the way so many successful producers do—as dogs with good scripts in their mouths.
Once you’ve scouted the script, you’ll know whom to recruit to help get it made, because if you’re a good scout, you’ve also spotted talented actors, directors, rewriters, and cinematographers as a result of voracious movie-watching and connection-making, either at film festivals or your local theater. And you’ll know their agents, too.
This is where the canine analogy breaks down: No good producer is merely a retriever. A producer has probably read more scripts, and almost certainly gotten more made, than the screenwriter they’re working with. “Development” is another one of those words that sounds baffling to people outside the industry. It’s editing and gathering, making a project viable and strong. It’s easy to mock studios and producers for giving “notes”—meddling creatively, the cliché goes, to water down a story forged from the pure genius of the creator. In fact, notes can save a project before it even gets off the ground.
Scripts may fail to sell for many reasons, but none of them can get a green light without being coherent, well-defined, and written with an understanding of the practicalities of making the movie. A script needs a clear arc, plausible characters, a plot without holes, and a visual language that conveys information efficiently and elegantly. It needs to connect with an audience emotionally, of course—and a good scout wouldn’t champion one that didn’t. But practical elements must be conceived with the reality of filmmaking in mind. If a producer knows that no one in Hollywood would pay more than $20 million for a quirky sci-fi comedy, she’ll know that sixteen helicopter scenes and a CGI spaceship are just not going to work.
This is the flip side of development; once a movie has been shot, the producer makes sure that the director and editor’s cut of the movie or show has a viable path toward success with an audience. So the producer becomes, once again, the overseer. They will offer notes toward meeting certain audience expectations (genre elements, or an Oscar-worthy monologue). They will also hold test screenings with an eye to audience responses, and then deliver the news to the director about what gets high praise and what bored the focus group to tears. Most producers have “final cut” on a project, meaning the ultimate say over what ends up in the movie, but this tends to be a last resort. On TV shows the lead producer, or showrunner, is often the head writer and the lead editor in postproduction, while leaving the shooting to episode directors. The producer as defined here is different. On a film, he has less artistic input but more practical savvy, control, and, ultimately, responsibility.
Building up a circle of trusted friends and acquaintances is important in most professions, but absolutely essential to producing. Producers connect directors to writers, actors to scripts, and financiers to people who can vouch for their honesty. “I spent five years going to every film festival and networking event I could,” says Oberman—beginning when she was still in film school at the University of Southern California. “I realized that if you can bring an actor or money or a big director, if you could make certain connections, then you could get involved in projects by bringing value to them. That’s just the quickest way to get into producing.”
This is why many producers think it’s important to get an early start in the business, while you’re young and social. This is why an assistant job at a talent agency, while often grueling or even exploitative, is considered a path toward producing. Fielding calls from people across the industry—and learning, for your boss’s benefit, who’s important and what they can do—will pay off five or ten years later when you’re looking for a green light at Disney or a referral to a cinematographer.
Almost as important as knowing people is knowing things. Even the most casual catch-ups can become pretexts for the exchange of information. You have to find out which actors are unavailable for a role, which writers have exclusive deals at which studios, and which junior agents can get their bosses on the line immediately. Sometimes that knowledge serves a specific project you’re putting together, sometimes not. Information arrives strategically or serendipitously, but it’s often exchanged during social occasions or unrelated meetings. Information is power in Hollywood, and its exchange depends on a vast network of connections.
This function of the job covers more or less every stage of production. When a screenwriter or showrunner makes a pitch to executives or funders, the producer is always there—sometimes physically or on the phone, but also as a coach every step of the way. The producer knows which comparisons to make with other (successful) movies and which to soft-pedal or avoid (the bombs, of course). She knows how much information is enough and what’s too much, who would make the perfect director, or just the right name to toss off in order to put the funder at ease.
To get financiers on board, the independent producer will need to secure guarantees or down payments from foreign-film distributors interested in eventually buying the movie for their territories. This is what’s really happening at all those swanky film festivals that are ostensibly about premiering movies and building Oscar buzz. “Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto are not just film festivals—they’re markets,” says Berger, who along with his Automatik partner, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, had three buzzy films on the festival circuit in 2020. “Most of these projects are introduced at script stage, with director and cast—we hope to get them made, but the independent model depends on proving foreign sales estimates with concrete pre-sales.” Producers make the rounds of parties and ski chalets not only to have a good time but to sell their wares. Picture a bazaar with gorgeous views and open bars.
On the other end of a project, there’s marketing, which studios may handle—or rather outsource to companies that design trailers, billboards, and Oscar campaigns—but producers must ultimately push to its fullest potential. A good producer knows when a movie trailer isn’t working, or where certain billboards need to be, what festivals to submit to in order to ensure the best sale to a distributor, and ultimately what segments of the movie audience are most open to what the filmmaker has done. He also knows how to set reasonable expectations and make decisions accordingly. Perhaps a film has a better shot premiering at the Sundance Film Festival rather than Cannes. Perhaps a prestige picture’s buzz depends on a strong per-theater box-office number—meaning it should only premiere in a handful of theaters. Maybe it’s worth hitting up an investor for extra cash to keep a star happy, so she’ll be more enthusiastic at press junkets. From pitching studios to solving on-set conflicts all the way to strategizing the right release schedule, it’s all salesmanship in the end.
This skill is related to selling, but distinct. “Closing” deals, whether to secure an actor or a movie’s foreign-rights sales, requires paying very close attention to what’s in a contract and ensuring there won’t be any surprises down the line. Failing to close loopholes can result in disaster—as it did two years ago for Alexander Payne, the Sideways filmmaker who was just about to start filming a feature about a Norwegian writer on an American road trip. At the last minute, the writer himself, acclaimed author Karl Ove Knausgaard, changed his mind and pulled out of the project. When other producers heard about it, they blamed it not on Knausgaard or Payne but the producers, or someone who worked for them. “There’ll be people fired over that,” said one, “and they’ll never make another movie without a chain of title,” or full ownership of the project.
But dealmaking isn’t just closing a contract. As one talent manager said to me, “Deal negotiation is the easiest part of the producer’s job. Any dude can negotiate selling Porsches in the Valley.” No deal is complete until there’s a legal contract, but to get to that contract, many informal agreements must be made. An author may not normally have the power to pull out at the last minute, but an actor “attached” to a project normally does. Sometimes he doesn’t sign a contract until the morning of filming starts. Every “deal” up until that point is a matter of commitment, trust, and constant maintenance.
The road to a successful movie is paved with such small agreements, daily feints, and compromises that maximize a film’s potential without bruising egos. Berger recalls a recent meeting with a distributor ahead of a smaller film’s release—a movie he already knew “was not destined to be a huge hit.” He believed it needed a release date that didn’t compete with bigger films, and the distributor’s three potential dates felt problematic. He could have pressed the point in the blustery manner of the clichéd bloviating producer. Instead, he offered to pull back on publicity and travel expenses that the distributor had agreed to pay for.
“I’m not looking to extract a pound of flesh,” Berger says. “I want to make it even more favorable for them and we’ll work together for the best outcome for the film.” Within ten minutes, a fourth release date had magically opened up. Thanks to a calm approach and preparation, everyone got something. “We both had different agendas walking into that meeting and I was able to get them on board, but not without buy-in. That happens on a daily basis. It’s crucial to treat studios and financiers as partners. I win if they win. Most importantly, the film wins.”
As the cast and crew sign on and a movie or show moves closer to the shoot, the creative producer’s duties transition to hands-on management. It’s the part of the job that distinguishes producers temperamentally from other operators in the business. Anne Lai, who spent years nurturing talent through the Sundance Institute’s Producing Labs, says that “if there are common themes” among people who gravitate toward producing, “it’s like, ‘I was the person who put parties together. Or when the kids on the block played kickball, I would organize that.’ It’s someone who knows how to build teams.” A lot of the work toward a smooth film shoot is done in what’s called “prep,” short for preproduction. The team is finalized, including the people most directly in charge of the crew: the line producer, who oversees day-to-day expenses; the assistant director, who fine-tunes the schedule; and the director of photography (or cinematographer), who handles the individual shots.
Any manager has to balance delegation with direct involvement, and each producer does it differently. Oberman, a young producer on small-budget films that are always logistically touch-and-go, is on set 100 percent of the time. On a shoot of the HBO show The Leftovers, whose third season was shot in Australia, the team of lead producers made a few trips during three months of filming and were all there for the weeklong shoot on the final episode.
Whether on set or not, one truth always holds: the better planned the production is, the less the producer has to do. In Hello, He Lied, Lynda Obst lists the “Biggest Issues on an Easy (Well-Run) Show,” including “where to live,” “where to hold the wrap party,” and “what to wear.” A few pages later comes a parallel list of concerns on a hard show, including “Can we make the day?” (meaning get all the scheduled shots), “Will this movie ever wrap?” and “Will the plug be pulled?”
Management is where you can separate the true creative producer from the hangers-on. Any old horse wrangler can make a connection, and Hollywood is full of skilled dealmakers and information brokers, but only a producer can make a tricky film succeed by balancing all the competing pressures in the service of the film itself. Only the producer can reassure the star she’ll get the proper catering and time off, insulate the director from the penny-pinching of studio execs, talk the union out of pulling the plug on a production over a delayed payment.
“It’s the only job where you hire your boss,” Obst tells me, meaning the director. “And then you continue to be responsible to the studio.” Universal or Netflix may be paying the bills, but the producer is managing the production. In a sense she is managing both the boss who makes the project (the director) and the boss who pays for it (the studio)—and mediating between the two. “So the studio can always be incredibly nice to the director, while you interpret what they want to him in a more pleasing way,” says Obst. And it’s not just about mediating between the financier and the artist; it’s about being the only one who can speak up for the project itself.
Jordan Horowitz, Berger’s coproducer on La La Land, has recently devoted himself fully to independent production after trying a new tactic while prepping for industry meetings. “I remember making a chart of what everybody’s priorities were,” he says. “Actor, executive, whoever.” He was trying to figure out how to meet negotiators where they were—“to see how my priority could intersect with everyone’s priority… And it was so interesting to see that for the producer, it was the project. The project was never anyone else’s first priority.”
NOT ALL PRODUCERS DO all of these things all the time or equally well. Those eleven other producers have some hand in screwing in the light bulb. Some of them may even be creative producers taking a lighter role on a particular project—either because they don’t have the experience to lead a production or because this particular film is a side project helmed by an associate or friend. Oberman, for example, plans to find junior partners to take the reins of a movie with a $300,000 budget so that she can focus on leading bigger-budget films.
She’d consider taking an executive producer credit on that film. Executive producers, or EPs, aren’t always financiers. Sometimes they are literally executives—senior office workers at production companies. Other easy-to-confuse roles include associate producers, generally not horse handlers but junior producers assisting the boss. Often, members of a production team will switch off these roles, taking turns as lead producers. And of course, some producers only make deals; some only raise money; some only have creative input; some are really talent managers.
These byzantine arrangements can be learned and navigated with experience, but they make the whole profession seem deliberately opaque from the outside. Most professions, hard as they are to master, at least provide clear career tracks and responsibilities along the way. So what kind of person gets into producing in the first place? Do you have to have been raised in Hollywood—schooled in its hidden hierarchies, unwritten rules, and precise skill sets? Some producers are raised in Hollywood, born to industry connections. But many more are not—could never have dreamed of winding up where they are.
For lots of them, it begins with an obsession, not unlike the bug that afflicts directors or screenwriters or actors—a love of the screen, big or small, that takes years to coalesce into an understanding of how it really works and what their place in it might be. David Permut, whom these days you might call an old-school producer (Face/Off, Hacksaw Ridge), started out by selling star maps as a teenager in the ’60s. He had a subscription to Variety in the seventh grade. He wrote letters to directors begging for assistant jobs until he broke through. In his Beverly Hills office, he showed me a reply he received from Frank Capra when he was eighteen.
Fred Berger never went quite that far—but he thought about it. “When I was a kid, I always imagined writing Spielberg a letter pleading for him to let me bring him coffee and donuts on set, even for a day, for the thrill of watching a movie come to life. The fact that I get to walk onto sets—without having to sneak in—is still surreal. I don’t think I’ll ever lose the feeling that I’m an intruder, getting away with something.”
Like many would-be directors, Oberman started making short films in high school with a flip camcorder—“super-low production quality,” she’s sure to tell me now. She went on doing it through college and film school, even as she realized producing was her real forte.
The producer can be an artist, in a way, but generally is both more and less than one. In most of the stories producers tell about their origins there comes a point where the artistic impulse melds with a practical mindset—a desire to move from conceiving a project to organizing it, making it happen for themselves and others. These are people whose right and left brains are well-connected and equally essential. The organizers of those childhood parties and kickball games now begin helping their film-school friends turn their pipe dreams into projects.
A number of producers interviewed for this book were heavily involved in school drama clubs. Low-tech, communal, and fun, theater might have been the most accessible route toward practicing the art of putting on a show. But as they grew up, went to college, and looked around at their options, theater often felt too limiting.
“I went to school for acting,” says Jordan Horowitz. “And right after college I started producing plays with my friends. There was nobody putting the writers and directors and the actors I knew together to do the work that people wanted to do, so I started producing them. I produced some photo shoots, worked at a restaurant, did a bunch of random things, and eventually decided that the New York theater scene was not something I could keep doing, so I started working in the New York film scene.”
Sarah Freedman, who in 2019 was an assistant at Michael London’s production company, Groundswell, grew up in New York, the daughter of a lawyer and a prominent journalist. “My father used to cover theater, and so we would always see musicals and plays, and I took acting classes,” she told me. “My number one love is theater. I was a drama major in college, and I did this program at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, and I realized it was very insular. Theater didn’t need another educated Jewish white girl, but movies could be where my voice might be needed. And I wanted to make more money, but also have a bigger impact, and I couldn’t have that with theater.”
Freedman was mainly talking about pressing for more diversity and attention to sexism. Her ambitions are fairly common among former drama club kids. Film is a bigger world than theater in size and influence. It’s also a place where an organizer of other people’s dreams can, eventually, make a good living. For producers, as for many people who work in TV or film, the ambitions toward making money and having a cultural impact go hand in hand. But ultimately, given the time and pain involved, the latter impulse has to be the prime motivator. Because for those with talent and opportunity, there are far easier ways to get rich.
A producer’s earliest training, whether as an assistant or in film school or in the mad scramble to get a friend’s movie made, generally nets minimum wage at best. A small movie can earn a producer $30,000 if she’s lucky, for six months of work. When a production’s budget needs tightening, a producer’s fee tends to be the first to go—because the boss can’t quit.
Ultimately, producers can and often do make a lot of money, but they work a lot harder for it than most people in the industry. The money only kicks in after all the work of development, fundraising, talent scouting, and preproduction staffing has been done. If a studio has acquired it by then, the money starts to flow when filming begins—and that 5 percent of the budget can mean millions. That said, larger projects are often handled by production companies rather than individual producers, with fees feeding into the entire firm’s revenue. Some eventual percentage of net profit is often worked into the deal, but as producers are among the last to be paid, it takes the rare blockbuster for the eye-popping money to kick in.
For young aspiring producers, many of them assistants, that is a long way out. As in so many cultural professions, low pay at the lowest rungs results in a structural bias toward children of the upper middle class; indeed, the only producers I talked to from less advantaged backgrounds had worked their way through a lab program or accrued savings in finance or marketing.
In other words, the path of the producer is generally taken by those who have other options. In the old days of the European refugee studio moguls, the profession was a launching pad for working-class strivers. Today it draws people who might otherwise have gotten advanced professional degrees or gone into business. “It was a generation of college dropouts, it was much more Wild West out here,” says Berger of the midcentury heyday of MGM and the rest. “But it’s become a ‘cool’ career for the Ivy League now, and it’s hypereducated, not necessarily to the benefit” of the profession.
Berger went to the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He thought about law school, and his first-generation-immigrant parents encouraged that path. “From Penn, a lot of kids go into banking and law,” he says. Instead, after graduation, he took an unpaid internship at Focus Features. “Everyone I knew was earning big salaries out of school. I got $7 a day for lunch, three days a week, waiting tables on off days. Still working for my dad on weekends, still living with my mom, still commuting to the city… and I was having a blast, because I was one small step closer to the film world.”
Interning is one way to break through, but a slow one. Film school is an obvious first step for many, with the University of Southern California being the gold standard. It’s also a storied networking school, though it bears remembering that Steven Spielberg was rejected by USC, went to California State in Long Beach instead, and did just fine. It may or may not teach you the skills you need, but film school is a natural hub for the brightest and most passionate budding filmmakers.
Film programs, whether undergraduate or MFA, definitely have their detractors. “There are of course exceptions, but I’m not a huge advocate of film school for aspiring producers,” says Berger. “I was dissuaded from pursuing it by my industry mentors, and it turned out to be wise advice. Unlike law or medicine, this is a job best learned by doing. If you already know you want to make movies, that’s an edge—dive right in.”
Without question, film school provides social opportunities. Oberman was already meeting future financiers back then, and one of her classmates wound up becoming an executive in her production company. There are worse ways to break into a field, whatever niche you end up occupying, than finding an affinity group in your early years, absorbing the arcane mores and secret passwords, and facing the world with them together.
Just don’t expect to come out knowing anything firmly applicable to the way things actually work. Hollywood is a knowledge economy, and production is a craft. Whether you go to film school or not, you have to do it—or at least some parts of it—to know how. You have to make mistakes, defer to bosses who seem to have it easy, toil as an assistant with little more than a futon to your name. The early years of an industry career are a crucible, fun and frustrating and formative. If you can survive them with your drive and passion intact, you’ve got a shot.