What the Hell Does a Producer Actually Do?

tomcruise-tropicthunderAs a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

What the fuck does a “producer” do all day?
–Morgan F., San Diego

First, thank you for submitting the most useful question of all time. This is going to be a ramble because “producer” encompasses such a variety of tasks, but hopefully will give you an idea of what the million people who throw the word around are actually doing.

A producer is anyone dealing with the logistics of getting piece of content made, and made well. This can be a film or TV show, play, digital series, short, music video, etc. In any other industry we’d call ourselves “project managers.”

I can’t speak to the world of producers with giant deals at studios who oversee all kinds of major franchises — the kind of producers who used to run the studio that houses them, and are on retainer in order to shepherd colossal sequels through with caution and (hopefully) common sense. That is a whole other level of wrangling. While I hear there was a time before mine when people sent out spec scripts to bidding wars, and sold movies on pitch with no elements attached, it’s only like that now for a handful of Important Producers, most of whom have already made twenty movies. No matter the scope, however, any producer’s job is to identify, package, sell, and make stuff that we think is great.

Identifying a good idea comes down to reading everything, and meeting talented writers. I sit down with writers I like and coax ideas out of them, from their lives, or interests. I reach out to funny people on the internet who I think would make good screenwriters, and ask if they’ve ever wanted to write a script. When I read a book or article I like, I try to option it, or to convince the writer to adapt it. Sometimes, if I’m extra lucky, I come across a script that is already really good, and try to convince the writers to let me produce it. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to trust me to do any of this, other than if they think my ideas are intelligent and they like my vibe. It’s often no more than taking a leap of faith on thinking a person is trustworthy and can get stuff done.

Packaging is the bulk of the job. Before an idea goes out into the world as a pitch or script, it helps to have some bankable elements (writer, director, and/or actor) on board, to make the project more appealing to buyers. Great talent, and great agents, are inundated with crap all day every day, and need some sort of relationship with whoever is submitting the material to know that it should be at the top of the pile. When a competent producer with a good eye and good relationships calls a representative, or the talent, it’s much more likely to get respectful consideration. And then we nag nag nag until someone says they’ll set a meeting, then we nag nag nag until someone says they love it, and then we nag nag nag until someone commits to attaching themselves.

Selling is just finding the money to make stuff, whether independently or at a studio.

When I like someone’s TV idea, I sit down with the writers and whatever other elements we’ve involved, we come up with a pitch for the series. I give feedback on various iterations of the pitch as it forms. If your producer is as Dance-mom-y as I am, that means a lot of beat sheets with intense character outlines, and so many practice pitches. When the pitch is ready to go, I coordinate with the writers’ agents to set meetings at networks, and we’ll usually hit the right buyers over the course of a few days. Then we wait for offers. It’s fun and addictive. In TV, the writer is the boss, and if you’ve created or helped develop a show to sale, your credit is actually Executive Produce. “Producer” usually refers to high-level writers on your show. Why this is different from movies, I’ll never know, but in movies the brass ring is the “Producer” credit.

In movies, you can pitch an idea (if you’re established), or you can spec an idea. Selling a comedy on pitch now, even with great talent attached, can be discouraging, because if it sells, it can sit in development for nine years while six Marvel-type movies come out. Recently the response to original comedy pitches is more “come back when there’s a script.” Most pitches I hear at the producer level are just ideas I like that I then try to package and help the writer through the process of writing on spec. The ideal situation is then to go studio or financier with a shooting script in hand, with a director and cast attached, a budget completed, and ask for exactly what you need. And then if you’re lucky, they give you half of what you’re asking. Just kidding! Movies are great! But hard.

If your package is commercial enough that a studio buys it and decides to make it, you’re golden, because you have production money and a distributor in one unit. If your movie is more indie-financier level (also a job for producers, in hand with agents: finding the right financier), once you’ve made it, you still need to find a distributor, which is what a marketplace like Sundance is all about. It’s not just Snapchat parties or whatever, it’s one-stop shopping for distributors. Sometimes these studios are the same studios that passed on the project when you pitched it, said “come back when there’s a script” and then there was a script decided they couldn’t put the development money in, so they’d just buy it later, after you’d made it independently. Producing takes a lot of convincing yourself and the entire creative team that you’re right and this project is going to be amazing, in the face of a hundred people telling you it’s garbage.

Great material, ultimately, comes from the minds of great creatives, but it is also producer’s job to help them make their material better, without getting in the way, and protecting the creative team’s vision from detrimental interference from buyers. We hold hands through rounds and rounds of discouraging notes, act as buffer between the creative team and the cash. It’s the producer’s job to support great ideas, brush aside not-so-great ones, keep the train on the tracks, no matter who having a bad day/week/year. In production, the producer continues to do whatever is needed to keep that train from derailing — helping the directors or writers hire a line producer who will hire a team to keep it on budget and schedule, hiring all department heads, making sure everyone is fed and happy, and doing their best work.

Basically, a producer takes care of all the parts of developing and shooting a project that no one else wants to do, so that the writers can writer, and directors and direct, and actors can act, without having to deal with anything annoying. It’s a hustle, and it’s exhausting, but it’s our job to hang out with funny people all day and talk about how to make their scripts better, and if it all goes well we get to reward ourselves by swimming in potato chips and M&Ms at craft services for 12-hour days. It might sound insane that the reward for all of this is then a 4am coffee run down a questionable stretch of Crenshaw, but the camaraderie and the product is worth it.

Have a question about the comedy biz for Priyanka? Send your queries to thebusiness@splitsider.com or bug her on Twitter.

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