You probably won't recognize the men or women who pick up the award for best picture at this Sunday's 81st annual Academy Awards. The trophy doesn't go to the winning film's director or to its on-screen stars. Rather, it's handed to the "producers." What does a producer do, exactly?
He shepherds the production from start to finish. In a typical arrangement, the producer develops an idea or script with a writer and secures the necessary rights. He often hires the director, supervises casting, and assembles a crew. Additionally, the producer oversees the budget and then coordinates the postproduction work—everything from editing, to commissioning music, to encouraging the film's stars to plug the movie on talk shows.
The top post of "producer" is just the tip of the iceberg, as anyone who's watched the opening credits of a movie knows well. Although Slumdog Millionaire, for example, credits only one producer, it lists two executive producers and two co-executive producers, along with a co-producer, an associate producer, and a line producer.
An executive producer often owns the rights to a book or story idea or secures at least 25 percent of the film's budget. Executive producers rarely have creative or technical involvement and are often caught up with several projects at once. 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. As David Mamet wrote in State and Main, an associate producer credit is "what you give to your secretary instead of a raise."
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 withheld nominations from four of the six producers of best picture winner Crash.
All the lesser producer credits go unregulated by the Producers Guild and are awarded at the discretion of the movie's copyright holder. These credits rarely mean the same thing from movie to movie and are especially murky on smaller, independent films, in which limited budgets often mean a few people do several jobs at once.
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Explainer thanks Chris Green of the Producers Guild of America and Michael Taylor of the USCSchool of Cinematic Arts.