An interesting primer for anyone interested in a career in movie production
A revealing guide to a career as a film producer written by acclaimed author Boris Kachka and based on the real-life experiences of Academy Award–winning producer Fred Berger and Oscar-nominated producer Michael London — required reading for anyone considering a path to this profession.
Becoming a Film Producer takes you behind the scenes to find out what it’s really like, and what it really takes, to become a film producer. Bestselling author and critic Boris Kachka shadows Academy Award–winning producer Fred Berger and Oscar-nominated producer Michael London to show how this dream job becomes a reality. At the center of any successful film is a talented producer. Producers bring films to life by assembling the major players — from screenwriters, directors, and talent, to, perhaps most importantly, the money. Fly between Los Angeles and New York as movies are developed, filmed, and released. Gain insight and wisdom from Berger and London’s years of experience producing films ranging from the indie darlings Sideways and Milk, to Academy Award–winning blockbusters like La La Land. Here is how the job is performed at the highest level.
This book, part of Simon & Schuster’s “Masters at Work” series, is an excellent introduction to what it means to be a film and/or TV producer. With three producers, at different points in their careers, as case studies, Kachka gives readers a look into this world: what it takes, the various roles a producer must play, and also the shifts and changes in the industry over the past few decades. Well-written and accessible, I really enjoyed this.
“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.
The book’s three main subjects offer very different glimpses into the industry. In each of these profiles, which are supported and bolstered by interviews with other industry professionals, we get a mini-biography of the subject, and some interesting insight into how they work and approach their projects. The author also provides an accessible, brief account of how the role of producer has changed over time.
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…
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.
Kachka’s youngest subject is Siena Oberman. In her 20s, she “occupies the niches of a producer just making her bones”, works mostly on lower-budget movies (~$5 million), and doesn’t make mega-bucks on the back-end. She also “barely has time to sleep and, having fewer people to delegate to, must wear many more hats.” Oberman’s story is one of a producer who has to be heavily involved and invested in their projects, intimately knowledgeable of all the various moving parts. In terms of how she allocates her time: “For me the priority is: What’s the biggest emergency?” Oberman’s story is one of a producer forced to be endlessly creative to work within smaller, inflexible budgets.
Fred Berger, in his late 30s, is further along in his career, “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 got his first big break as one of the lead producers on La La Land, and has leveraged that success into an ever-growing number of credits and more experience. He is also a good lesson in how the industry does not convey stability after a single mega-success. Kachka makes a point of writing that Berger, while confident and accomplished, is nevertheless “still working his way up to permanent stability.”
The author’s final primary-subject is Michael London. In his early sixties, London has been in the industry for decades, and has witnessed several of the industry’s most significant transformations. One reason for his continued success is his ability to adapt, and find a place for himself in the changing industry landscape/ecosystem. London’s career has seen him occupy a number of roles (to varying degrees of professional and personal satisfaction): mainstream production company executive, studio executive (Fox), a semi-independent studio-backed producer, completely free agent (where he enjoyed the indie boom with movies like Thirteen and Sideways), and head of a private equity–backed finance and production company. When Kachka spent time with London, he was an independent producer again, working on more TV.
One of the main points of the book is to stress that there is no one-way to become a producer. Not only that, but there’s no obvious, clear, or guaranteed path the career can take. There are no guarantees in the movie and television businesses. It doesn’t matter if a producer has released multiple mega-hits. If a proposed project isn’t “now” enough, or too similar to another project, it can wither on the vine. Similarly, the quality or timeliness of an idea cannot guarantee production and success — sometimes, the various pieces needed to get the movie or show off the ground just can’t line up (conflicting schedules, financial concerns, etc.). Kachka includes a number of interesting stories about projects that have become stuck in limbo, or took years to make. London, for example, has been trying to get A Visit From the Goon Squad made for years. Being a producer is being able to play a long game, to always think there are more opportunities to make more great content on the horizon.
Because there’s no obvious guide to becoming a film producer, Kachka offers various suggestions that might help the reader identify if they are, themselves, someone who can or should become a producer. The book is packed with details about how the industry works — everything from finding financiers, the importance of Sundance and what it can mean for production schedules, and also how literary agents fit into the industry.
One of the last sections of the book focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the industry. There have been benefits and challenges, some of the latter considerable. The producers interviewed say they are lucky and in a privileged position to survive the slow-down and shut-downs, but are painfully aware of those whose jobs were lost or curtailed enough to make everyday life harder. They’ve been given greater time to find and develop projects, but are nevertheless eager to get going again.
Between the weeks of hotel quarantine, extra staffing and testing, and especially insurance, COVID adds 20 to 25 percent to a movie’s cost…
Becoming a Film Producer reminded me a bit of Lynda Obst’s two Hollywood memoirs (and not only because she’s interviewed for the book), and also Ben Fritz’s excellent The Big Picture. If you enjoy Kachka’s book, then I’d recommend giving Obst’s memoir and Fritz’s book a read afterwards — while perhaps a little dated (more a consideration for Obst), they are packed with more details and examples of how the industry works at multiple levels.
If you have any interest in either a career in the movie/TV industries, or just a general interest in how the industry operates, then I would recommend you give Becoming a Film Producer a read.