First things first, working as a production manager is not easy. The job of the production manager requires a high level of organization and the ability to deal with high stress, fast paced situations. This job is not for everyone and should not be taken lightly. The role of the production manager is not a creative position; if you want to be involved in the creative aspects of a production this is not the position for you. This post will break down the skills, tools and responsibilities of a production manager.
Production Manager: Skills
Organization: This skill is repeated a lot throughout many different production roles, but I really cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be organized when you work as a production manager. Money is one of your main responsibilities and you cannot make mistakes when it comes to the budget. Take notes, leave yourself reminders, write everything down and follow up. Do whatever it takes to make sure that you keep on top of all of your responsibilities. Multitasking falls into this category as well, if you can’t juggle multiple tasks, this probably isn’t the right job for you. I work as a production manager in development, which means that I have to work on more than one project at a time and if I weren’t able to multitask, I would drown in my work. Pay attention all the time, ask questions when necessary and organize things as you go.
Budgeting: The budget is at the core of production managing. Depending on when you join a production, you may be the one creating the budget and you are definitely going to be the one managing it. To be an effective production manager, you need to be able to create a budget. In order to make budgets you need to have a strong understanding of your industry. You need to know what things cost, what is the standard rate for a gaffer, how much do you pay a production assistant, what are the union rates for actors, writers, directors etc.
Every production is going to be different and some will deal with unions and some won’t. It is important that you know how local unions work and what needs to be done when working with them. For me, I deal with ACTRA, WGC, DGC, etc. In the US you will be dealing with SAG, WGA, DGA, etc. There are unions for all roles on set, but you won’t always be dealing with all of them. Sometimes I deal only with ACTRA and others only with the WGC. Be sure to know how these unions work and how much you need to budget when dealing with them.
Another thing to learn about is tax credits. There are tax incentives for film and television projects in a lot of countries. Know the tax credits that you can take advantage of and always be looking for ways to help bring costs down. Look into funding opportunities and familiarize yourself with any and all ways that you can help make a budget work.
Once the budget is created, you need to know how to manage it and make sure that you don’t over spend. Track the spending as you go, do not wait until the end of a production. Make sure you know exactly where the budget stands at all times. You should try to commit a budget to memory as best you can, this way you can make decisions without always having to reference it.
Accounting: Accounting is similar to budgeting, but I wanted to separate it because it is important to understand that there is a difference. All productions should have an accounting department and as the production manager you will deal with them directly. You will do a lot of the prep work for accounting. Invoices should all come through you; you code the invoices to the correct budget category and then send them to accounting for payment. You will have to provide accounting with a lot of information and paperwork in order for them to do their jobs. This goes back to being organized, other people will be depending on you in order to get their job done. Make sure that you know what you are doing so that they are not waiting on you.
Leadership: As the production manager it is important that you can lead a team; you are not a one-person department. The production coordinator will report directly to you and help you with a lot of aspects of production. You will hire the majority of the crew and will be negotiating contracts throughout production. Make sure you present yourself as a confident leader that people can trust and also respect. On a side note, don’t hire friends to make things easier, make sure you are hiring the right person for the job. Be a confident leader and make sure to delegate when necessary; if you take on too much it will become more and more difficult to stay organized.
Communication: There isn’t a role on a film or television set that doesn’t require communication. Being a confident and clear communicator will save you a lot of time and trouble. Whether in person, over the phone or by email, make sure that you communicate in a way that is understandable and concise. You will be dealing with a lot of people in a lot of departments as the production manager and it is important to be a strong communicator. If you are shy or don’t like talking to people, this is not the job for you. A large portion of your day is going to be spent talking to people; make sure that this is something you are comfortable with.
Negotiating: As the production manager, you have to negotiate deals and contracts all the time. You have to be able to negotiate with people and work out deals. It is your job to spend the budget as wisely as possible; you cannot let people walk all over you. Negotiating smart deals and solid contracts is what can make you a sought after production manager. If you are not comfortable discussing money with people then this is probably not going to be a good fit. It takes practice and if you are open to learning and pushing yourself to become a strong negotiator then keep at it.
Production Manager: Tools
Computer: This one is pretty self explanatory, but I put it on the list because without a computer you cannot do the job of a production manager. If you are working as a freelance production manager you won’t always be working in an office that has computers available. It is important to own a computer; a laptop makes the most sense so that you can take it with you to set and to an office. Invest in a solid computer and make sure you always backup your files. You should keep all of your files from any job, as you never know when you might need them.
Budgeting Software: You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a budget. Budgets can be made in Excel, but there will be times when you take a job and they want the budget to be made in software such as Movie Magic Budgeting. If you can find a demo of this software or know someone who uses it, you should try to become familiar with it. If you can afford Movie Magic Budgeting it is definitely worth having and if you can’t afford it, try to convince the company you work for to buy it for you. You can also download a sample Excel budget from our Free Film Documents section to help you with smaller productions.
Office Space: This isn’t something that you have to have, but it is very useful to have a space in your home that you can work out of. It is good to have a printer, scanner and phone available so that you can work from home whenever necessary.
Driver’s License: This is something that I think is important to have no matter what department you choose to work in. Being able to hop in a car and get to set or solve a last minute issue is very important. You should never have to depend on someone else to get you somewhere and it will get you a lot more jobs if you are able to drive.
Cell Phone: It is rare that you find someone without a cell phone, but if you decide to work as a production manager make sure that you have a phone that has email and internet. People will always be looking to get in touch with you and you need to be available at all times. If you want to work regular office hours and ignore your phone when you get home; this job is not for you. Obviously there is a limit to how much work you have to do in the off hours, but make sure that you are willing to be checking your phone regularly and be willing to solve problems after hours.
Contacts: The production manager does most of the hiring for a production, they make deals for equipment and they track down any special needs that might be required on a production. It is important that you have people to call and that you have industry contacts. When you work with someone that does a good job, make sure that you have all of their information and that you keep in touch with them. You do not want to be starting every job from scratch. It is integral to your job that you network and make contacts from every job that you do.
Production Manager: Responsibilities
Hiring Crew: The production manager will hire the bulk of the below the line crew. The talent, producer and usually the director will be hired before the production manager comes onto a project. It will be a little different on every job so it is good to have contacts across all departments. You will negotiate contracts with everyone from the director of photography to the production assistants. This is where strong negotiating skills will come in handy.
Creating Budget: The production manager is usually responsible for creating the budget; it is always better if you do get to create the budget because then you get better acquainted with the numbers. There are a lot of things to consider when creating a budget; make sure that you have carefully considered all needs of the production. This is where having a strong understanding of industry rates and union rates will come in handy. Don’t forget about taxes and fringes. It is always good to have somewhere go over your budget when it is done; they may notice things that you have not. The producer may help you create the budget or they may be the one who creates it. Either way it is imperative that you understand how to make a budget and read it.
Managing Budget/Tracking Spending: Once the budget is created, the production manager is responsible for implementing it. When negotiating contracts and renting equipment you have to always be considering what is in the budget. If you need to go over on one line, it is good to know of another line where you can save. As you spend the money be sure to keep track. Note where you have saved and where you have gone over and always be looking at the total. The last thing you want to do is go over budget. Make smart deals and don’t get pressured into spending money that you know is not in the budget. There will always be people above you who can go above you and approve spending, even if you don’t think it shouldn’t be spent, this is unavoidable. I like to get these kinds of things in writing in case the budget is over at the end of the project and it was out of your control.
Managing Production: It isn’t just about money when you are the production manager. It says it right in the title; you are the one who manages the production. It is up to you to make sure that things run smoothly every day of the shoot. You are a part of a team that makes this happen, but in most cases it is going to be you at the head of the team. Any problems with production are going to come through you and it is your job to help solve them. Your input will be required often on set and in the office; being level headed and quick on your feet is important. The production manager stays on until the project is in post; you help wrap the production up and make sure all loose ends are tied.
Working as a production manager is a tough job and requires a lot of hard work. If you have decided that you want to work as a production manager the best thing for you to do is start at the bottom and work your way up. Production managers need to know everything about a production and the best way to learn that is to work in as many departments as you can and log as many hours on set and in a production office as you can. I have been working as a production manager for almost two years, but prior to this job I worked as a production assistant, 1st & 2nd assistant director, production coordinator, camera assistant, script supervisor and more. My success has been because of my willingness to try anything once and immerse myself in this industry. Don’t be afraid of starting at the bottom, there is a lot to learn and you will be a better production manager because of it.
Check out the Free Film Documents section of our site for a bunch of useful documents that can help any production manager.