Working With Your Line Producer / UPM:
The Importance of PreProduction

By Tony Estrada

Tips from Line Producer Tony Estrada on maximizing your shooting schedule & saving money on your indie film.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LINE PRODUCER AND A UNIT PRODUCTION MANAGER (UPM)

The Line Producer is the person brought in to prepare the budget, and execute it. He is the person primarily responsible for the “below-the-line” items, and the original studio term was “Below-the-line Producer.” That has since been shortened to line producer. Hence, the term “line producer.”

That bit of history out of the way, I like to think of the term line producer a little differently, and this is where we start getting into the distinction between a line producer and a production manager. This is the area of responsibility.

Because the line producer prepares the budget, he should really be the only one who is allowed to adjust it. “Adjust it,” you say. Why adjust it? Budgets always need adjusting. When you prepare the budget, you haven’t hired the crew or seen a location. You have to be able to make adjustments, as theory becomes reality, always with an eye on the bottom line, or the final number for the picture. Every good line producer I know understands that they will “borrow” from one line to give to another when need arises. This is my definition of line producer.

The production manager is given the budget by the line producer. The budget then becomes a blueprint for the production manager, who will go about making the deals. Does this mean that the line producer doesn’t make deals? No, it does not. In fact, the line producer, the production manager, the production office coordinator, and even the assistant production office coordinator will always be looking for the best deal. This is why there must be great trust between the two.

Once pre-production starts, the line producer’s main responsibility is to see that the film doesn’t go over budget. He prepares cost reports and cash flow reports, working closely with the production manager and the production accountant. Line producers who go over budget don’t remain line producers long.

When I had been the Line Producer on indie films under a million dollars, I never used a unit production manager (UPM), because it got too production management-heavy for my budget expense.

Ultimately, I was responsible for hiring and firing each of the different departments, such as craft service. A lot of it was the day-to-day management of a film production. Who gets hired, who gets fired, what they get paid. I make deals on equipment, sign off on location agreements, I come up with a working schedule for filming the movie. I tell the director, “I think we should do this, in this order, and here’s why… I figure out that it will take one day to do this and two days to do that.” It’s all about logistics, getting people, services and equipment to the right place at the right time.

Someone once asked me the difference between a unit production manager and a line producer, and I told them, the unit production manager protects the budget; the line producer protects the film. Ultimately, you’re reporting to whoever is financing the film. Somebody, somewhere, has said ‘I’ll give you this much money to produce this film from this script,’ and you’re trying to deliver that.

Now that we have those definitions out of the way, for the purpose of this article, we’ll call that person responsible for the logistics and budget of your film, the Production Manager. Assuming you’ve raised the necessary funds to shoot your movie [from preproduction, through principal photography, to post], and you have attached you’re A-list actors: How prepared are you to shoot your feature?

MAKING MOVIES IS NOT A ONE-MAN SHOW

The business of making motion pictures is the synchronization of many talents toward the creation of this highly technical art form. The successful production of a feature film is a collaborative endeavor, practiced to the degree of efficient harmony wherein each person involved in that production – from the stand-in to the lead actor, and from the PA all the way to the director and producer – contribute their combined skills and experience for the production of that feature. Each step in getting the action on the set recorded onto that piece of celluloid is a miraculous exercise in collaborative technical and artistic proficiency!

For example, in a scene with a dolly move, all the following things are happening at once: an actor is walking and hitting marks, a camera assistant is pulling focus, and a dolly grip is pushing the dolly, while all this time a camera operator is keeping the action in frame and the boom operator is recording sound just beyond frame line. If any one of these people makes a mistake, that shot must be redone. If you’ve ever been on a set, you know how often this happens.

Thus, organization is most important to a successful on-time, on-budget motion picture, and the person(s) responsible for making sure this happens are:

  1. The UPM (Unit Production Manager), the business manager who handles the logistics, the scheduling of the shoot, the allocation of the production’s budget, the hiring of the crew, and the equipment rentals. The production manager should be the first crewmember on board your production (while you are still in development) and is present throughout preproduction. And…
  2. The AD (Assistant Director), the on-set individual who facilitates the process of shooting the required day-to-day scenes according to the predetermined shooting schedule. The First AD is brought on during preproduction, 2 to 3 weeks before principal photography, and works closely with the director in achieving that director’s cinematic vision under the constraints of the producer’s budget and the UPM’s shooting schedule.

WHAT EXACTLY DOES A PRODUCTION MANAGER DO?

Simply, the Production Manager organizes, plans, and schedules your production manpower and resources so that you have enough money from the budget-on-hand to complete your shoot. What’s most important in making sure you have enough money to shoot your movie is finding what in a screenplay keeps things low cost.

A SUCCESSFUL PREPRODUCTION = AN ORGANIZED SHOOT

Too often, independent producers are in such a rush to shoot their feature that they spend little time in the development and preproduction stage of their production. This haste results in wasteful time, resource, and manpower mismanagement. More specifically, it can be something as obvious as the actor not playing their role convincingly or continuity errors in wardrobe or set dressing, because respectively, the actor or the costumer or the set dresser did not have their adequate prep time for the scene. Or behind the scenes, the inexperienced director is still figuring out his angles and camera set-ups on location while the crew and actors are standing around on the set! As a veteran Line Producer once succinctly told me: “Remember the Seven P’s: ‘Piss-Poor Preproduction Produces Piss-Poor Production.’ ”

A good rule-of-thumb is to allow 1 to 1½ x for preproduction as you would for principal photography. For example, if you have a 4-week shoot, you should allow 4 to 6 weeks prep time for all your paperwork, SAG filings, permits, location scouting, location agreements, deal memos, department meetings, camera tests, storyboarding, set dressing and wardrobe choices, & actors’ rehearsals.

THE PRODUCTION MANAGER / DIRECTOR RELATIONSHIP

The Production Manager’s three criteria for working on any project are –

  • Is the script any good? The script has to be a great script – each scene is an integral part of the whole and there are no extraneous scenes. If the scenes don’t add to the story and move the plot along, then it’s dead weight and should be taken out. It should be acknowledged that any changes the UPM suggests are meant only to improve the story and save the production money, and not a critique of the writer/director’s style, and these suggestions should be taken in that manner.

  • Can he work with that Director? There should be no ego involved. This is a collaborative effort. (Sometimes, independent directors don’t see it that way – their way or the highway – and honestly, do you need to work for that kind of tyrant?) In the course of production, the Director/Producer, the UPM, and the key personnel they bring together shall approach this project as a creative team effort, utilizing their collective skills and experience. (Recall the dolly move example in this article’s introduction.) It is acknowledged there is only one decision-maker, which is the director-producer, who makes sound decisions based on the informed choices that the UPM gives him.

  • Does the production company have the money? The script dictates what kind of budget you shall have in the making of your feature. Having many locations, a large cast, and even epic stories with period costumes necessitate a bigger budget than, say, a Dinner With André or Albino Alligator. It is acknowledged that the crew is to be paid fairly for the work they will do during principal photography and once the budget is determined, the UPM and the Producer stick to that budget. You can’t have any last-minute budgetary arguments during principal photography over why the Director cannot have a crane shot for a particular scene (because “it’ll look cool,” yet doesn’t add to the storyline), when it means taking the budget away from craft services, the art department or wardrobe department, or operating with a less-than-optimal number of crew personnel. My belief is that we don’t greenlight a picture until we know how much money we are going to spend on the making of that picture and we have the money.

VITAL INFORMATION THE PRODUCTION MANAGER NEEDS TO DO HIS JOB:

The Script

What’s the script about? Is the story set in modern times or is it a period piece? Does the story take place in a generic city or is it geographically specific (i.e., Ext. Eiffel Tower – Day, 1939)? How long is the script? How many pages?

The Budget

Do you have the money? How much money do you have for the budget? How much more money do you need? Is it funded through a studio, private investors, a grant, or out of pocket?

The Actors

How many actors? How many speaking roles? How many extras do you need? Are there any animals involved – dogs, cats, horses? What actors do you have attached to the project? Is it in the budget?

Visual Effects, Special Effects

Are there stunts involved? Fight sequences, falls, car chases, fires, which would require stunt coordinators and/or body doubles? Do we need fog machines, rain trees, helicopter sequences, underwater photography? Is it in the budget?

Locations

How many locations? Can we double up on different sets in one location? Will there be company moves required to go to specific or exotic locations?

The Format

On what acquisition format do you plan to shoot your feature: 35 mm, 16mm, S16mm, 8mm, 24p, HD video, or beta? Or will you be using a combination of these formats? Is it in the budget?

Equipment

Are you renting or borrowing equipment? Cranes, steadicams, car mounts? What special equipment would you need? Is it in the budget?
Finally, the Production Manager needs to know: How much pre-planning did you do? What else still needs to be done?

PREPRODUCTION TECHNIQUES TO SAVE YOU MONEY

Most importantly, here are some tips from this Production Manager on ways that you, the Indie Director/Producer, can save money without having your crew walk out on you, because they’re overworked and underpaid, and you’re considering skimping on crafts service & catering to make ends meet.

  1. Keep the number of shooting days down to a minimum. Organize each shooting day to maximize your efforts. I’ve always stressed Breaking Down The Script.

    A script is made up of scenes; each scene is made up of shots or camera set-ups; and each shot requires several takes. Break each scene and shot down by:

    • Similar Locations
    • Same Actors on the Same Days at the Same Location
    • Special Equipment on Same Days at the Same Location…or grouped in 2 or 3-day periods so you can use up your rental minimum effectively.
  2. Storyboard if feasible.

    Draw out each scene and if possible each shot. Run them in storyboard booklet fashion with major dialogue.

  3. Re-use sets if possible.

    Do your homework. If you do your pre-production planning right, group your script by scenes, rewrite scenes doubling up actors and locations, drop scenes that are extraneous and too expensive to film, you might find you have more than enough money to do the job.

  4. Don’t buy, when you can rent; don’t rent, when you can borrow; don’t borrow, when you can get for free.

    Do your homework. Rental equipment can vary widely. Why use a commercial house charging a price fixed rental if there’s a 401(c) filmmakers’ co-op in your area that might rent you the equipment at a better price if you become a member.

  5. Select your production team wisely.

    Find personnel with their own equipment: Camerapeople with their own Betacams or Arri’s; Sound people with their own Nagra or mixers.

  6. Location, Location, Location!

    Do your homework. Are there buildings or other locations that are “depressed” in which the owner needs some temporary help or assistance? You can get better terms with them than with a place that is fiscally sound.

    Use locations with tax incentives or rebates. Oklahoma rebates 15% of production costs incurred in their state. New Mexico has a combination tax credit and incentive program to entice more filmmakers to shoot their films there.

  7. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

    The same thing applies to post production. Find someone who works for a small company and see if you can use the equipment at night. If you have a rental at your home, you can get the price for one week that is less than at a center for one day.

    Bump the film or hi gain stuff to VHS with window burn and go over it at home after shooting. Pick your shots, organize your cuts, annotate your script and make an edit list so you can go into the edit suite and whip it out in record time.

Tony Estrada is a Line Producer for Commercials, Industrials, Corporate Communications, & Independent Films, as well as a Director & Producer in his own right for his own Documentaries. You can reach him at his cell, 469-471-4241, or .