When we see a film’s opening credits roll, some of the credits are clear: we know that directors direct, writers write, and actors act. But if a producer produces, what exactly does that mean? Legendary film director Federico Fellini once quipped: “The producer is an authoritarian figure who risks nothing, presumes to know public taste, and always wants to change the end of the film.” Although there is no definitive answer to this question, Fellini is partially correct. The most succinct answer is that a producer gets a movie made. Just how much work is involved? We turn to the comprehensive The American Institute Film Institute Desk Reference that elaborates: “[A] producer often puts together a package and acquires or develops a story, bringing the creative [team — writer, director, actor, etc.] together and obtaining the necessary financing. This kind of producer typically heads a production company that may or may not have a long-term partnership arrangement with a studio, and is compensated by producer fees and sometimes by profit participation.” The producer can also secure rights, supervise casting, commission a film’s score or soundtrack, oversee the film’s budget, supervise editing (thus, earning Fellini’s wrath), and convincing the film’s key actors to promote the film in interviews and talk shows.
Of course, any astute moviegoer will note that in most films there are many types of producers — executive producers, associate producers, co-producer, and line producers. How is it possible that all these individuals are producing the same film and not stepping on or over each other? When asked what was the difference between an executive and associate producer, veteran screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) candidly answered: “I haven’t the foggiest.” In an informative article for Slate, contributing writer Ian Crouch clears the fog surrounding those homogenized titles. Crouch explains that an executive producer often purchases the rights to a book or story idea. Although executive producers obtain at least a quarter of a film’s budget, they rarely have technical or creative control of the film since they shepherd several projects at one time. Crouch adds: “The ‘co-executive producer’ title applies to studio executives or distributors who have a limited financial stake in the project. A co-producer works under the producer and often helps with casting, financing, or postproduction. The line producer is on the set at all times to supervise the budget but has little or no creative input. ‘Associate producer’ is a largely honorary title. Sometimes it’s a form of recompense for exceptional performance on-set. A script doctor who saves a bad screenplay, for example, might be granted an associate-producer credit. The title is also frequently an inexpensive way for a producer to pay back a favor or reward an assistant or colleague who had little to do with the film.”
Things get tricky when the Academy Award nominates a film for an award and has to ascertain exactly which producers actually did any real work on a film. One can imagine that this is a delicate task, since it typically involves prickly personalities and colossal egos; Crouch notes: “To ensure that a producer nominated for a best picture Oscar actually supervised a majority of the production process, the Producers Guild and the Producers Branch Executive Committee of the academy conduct extensive interviews with everyone from studio executives to crew members. Occasionally, an investigation leaves producers out in the cold as when the [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) withheld nominations from four of the six producers of best picture winner Crash .”
For further reading: The American Film Institute Desk Reference by Melinda Corey and George Ochoa (2002)