I'm curious about what role the producer plays in the production of a movie. I understand that it's the person in charge, but that's all I know.
What are the responsibilities of a movie producer?
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The producer is effectively the person (or persons) that create the film, and are typically the only people who stay on the project from inception to release.
There can often be a hierarchy of producers, many of whom are accredited with production in order to guarantee their complicity and money (executive producers are typically of this category) whilst contributing very little creatively to a project. For example, Stan Lee is credited as Executive Producer on every Marvel title (including Marvel Animation), due to the perceived debt owed to him through the elevation of Marvel into properties other than print. He has little-to-no effect on the titles he 'executive produces', and by his own admission hasn't seen a huge chunk of them.
The head producer or 'Lead Producer' is the person tasked with making the film 'a go'. They are the individual that ensures a project reaches development, and stays on track. Whilst not neccesarily the 'money-men', they safeguard the investment of the 'money-men' and funding and often engage in a considerable amount of awareness and fundraising activities to find or improve a budget: this is especially true of independents.
To help, this is a typical role of a producer on a title, start to finish:
A producers first job is to find a project worth creating. Some producers are on a studio retainer, and as such will pursue titles under a certain mandate issued to them (by Genre, budget or sometimes as a vehicle for a certain star, but there are other examples). This is effectively the scouting stage, where they will approach and be approached by various creative types (from screenwriters to Directors), each with a stake in having their project realized cinematically. During this development, they must assess and make sure it is possible for the movie to be made, including negotiating the appropriate copyright and IP, deciding whether a title will 'work' (which can be influenced by the success or failure of similar projects released around this time) and raising funds/sourcing a budget.
This is typically the most volatile stage, as at this point no real contracts are drawn up and there is little to no legal commitment from any of the concerned parties. A lot of films get sunk at this stage, either because they have been abandoned or a producer hasn't done a good job of persuading/assuring investors that the project is tenable.
Once a project gets a go, the producer can go ahead with commissioning the casting and hiring of crew, particularily the specialist departments. Typically a screenwriter and a Director will get together, sometimes with other elements of the production crew, to produce a cohesive vision of the film that is going to be produced, replete with script. This is negotiated over against budgetary concerns and (increasingly commonly in the Michael Bay/Star Wars era) marketing; some films are designed almost solely to produce revenue through affiliated products, franchises are often the biggest culprit of this 'marketing led' film-making.
Depending on the overall power of the Lead Producer (i.e studio retained, free-lance or independent) the Producer can be the final say on decisions such as Director and writer choice, so the impact they will have on the film can not be understated. The producer at this point must shield the creative vision of the director from the potentially damaging interference of investors, whilst re-assuring said investors that their money will be spent efficiently to maximize their return. This is the most diplomatic part of a Producers role, and almost certainly the most important one.
Once principal photography commences, the Producers job is to supervise the project to make sure 'it comes in', meaning reaches completion. Their job is entirely dependent on their effectiveness during this stage, so they will concern themselves with the resolution of any problems that may arise on which their influence can be felt. They must also keep and eye and manage the budget (raising more cash if necessary, as circumstances dictate) as well as ensuring the project is being followed to schedule. Because the producer cannot be on set all the time, a producer will hire a network of Line Producers who will oversee disparate elements and report back. The Line Producer must possess the absolute trust of the Lead Producers, as they can be harangued and goaded into misrepresenting the tenability of production to assure and appease studios/producers.
Once a film is completed, a Producer will ensure that its final form matches the criteria required of it. Films can be altered or even butchered in post to appease 'the money-men', sometimes requiring re-shot endings (as happened recently with World War Z). Once this is completed, and the final product can be quantified, the Producer must begin working with the Marketing and Distribution Departments to make sure the project is well received...
With a final product in hand, able to physically show people the film, the producer may now turn to exchanging contracts with a distributor. For higher budget films (particularily studio) this would have been done much earlier, with financial guarantees in place. Smaller filmmakers will struggle to find a distributor unless they have content, so at this stage they can 'sell' the film to someone, in hopes that they will pick it up. Film Festivals used to play an important part in this process, and The Weinsteins were famous for finding titles in festivals: it's how Quentin Tarantino found himself with Miramax funding.
Whilst a Marketing department will sell a film to an audience, a Producer will sell a film to investors. That is the key difference between job roles.
After this stage is over, a producer will accept a Completion Bonus and (if possessing them) wait for the residuals for the film to roll in after it is released.