How To Become an Executive Producer
The Executive Producer of a film handles the finances of a project. They are often a patron of the arts looking to support quality movies or things that will fill a specific niche within the film industry.
Tom Rau, an Executive Producer on many different award-winning documentaries and two feature films, says of the job, “The workload all depends on how involved you want to get. You can write the check and do nothing or be part of the entire process.
“For my documentary work, I got a lot of the people for interviews, close to thirty to forty percent of the people we used. I had a lot of experience in the things we were doing. However, for Shooting in Vain and Destined, I didn’t get involved. I supervised for a week on each project and then watched rough cuts of the films when they were ready in the post-production process.”
It’s rare for a film to make back all its money or turn a profit for the investors. Therefore, it’s important for the Executive Producers to not only control the experience they want to have but also to set their financial expectations appropriately and be in it for the right reasons.
The average annual salary for an Executive Producer is approximately $159,400. The salary range for Executive Producers runs from $151,000 to $188,000.
An Executive Producer’s earnings will vary based on the success of his or her projects. Generally speaking, since this is a career at the higher echelon of the film business, it can usually pay quite well — as long as the project recoups its original investments and turns a profit.
Since the Executive Producer is one of the top bosses on set it is up to them how much they want to participate in the production process or if they just want to trust that the work is getting done and watch the end result. Rau says, “For Mary’s Journey, I was quite involved. I helped scout locations and locked down over a third of the interviews. When we interviewed people I was in the room asking questions as well.
“With my fiction work, I visited set for about a week on each project and then waited for the first cut. The shooting schedule can be all over the place when making a film so it’s important that a person makes sure their personal life is flexible so they can be part of the projects they finance.”
Usually, set will run five to six days a week for a month or more. While the Executive Producer doesn’t have to be there at first call or until the end of wrap, if they want to participate they’ve got to adapt to the shooting schedule.
Executive producing is a unique career because most people getting into it are either executives who have worked within the film industry for decades or are film enthusiasts. Rau describes his documentary work as “a public service. It’s for people to learn. Our work deals with depression, suicide, and aging. You have to do it more as a passion.”
In terms of independent films, it’s the same attitude, however, the market is a little bit different. If an independent film is bought, it can make money but it’s usually just going to cover the losses an Executive Producer has made in other independent films. If someone is really trying to make a living, it can be tough. There are a lot of variables that can sink a film.
External advancement and success are determined by an Executive Producer’s projects playing prestigious film festivals, getting theatrical distribution, and winning awards. Many Executive Producers simply take pride in the films they’ve brought to life. They enjoy helping young people go after their dreams and participating in a unique role in the filmmaking process.
When becoming an Executive Producer, it’s important for a person to determine their own metric for success and choose projects that fall in line with what they find fulfilling.
Becoming the Executive Producer of a film at a young age can be a difficult task because they need the cash to write a check. “Most Executive Producers are people who have already had success in other fields and now have the extra capital to be investors,” says Rau.
However, it is possible to be an Executive Producer on a lower budget project. Many people collaborate on a film shoot through using soft money like lending assets they own to a production in return for credit.
Some common examples are providing a shooting location, allowing a car to be used or donating props and costumes. It’s a matter of being creative and helping the production achieve higher levels of production value. If someone fresh out of college wants to become an Executive Producer they can work at a production company to gain practical experience and help artists they admire make work on the weekends.
- Make low-risk investments that will pay out over time, providing a solid income stream to invest in films.
- Research filmmakers who are appealing to you.
- Create a list of soft money assets like state tax incentives.
- Make small investments in larger productions to see how they are run before investing a lot of capital into one project.
- Create a list of what is personally important to get out of the filmmaking experience.
Experience & Skills
Any prior experience with the cinematic arts will help an Executive Producer pick good projects. This can include a knowledge of philosophy and literature. Rau says, “It isn’t just the nuts and bolts of filmmaking but having a life and interests outside of the field. If you’ve had a passion or worked in a field that a film engages with then you’ll be able to evaluate its social relevance.”
Most Executive Producers don’t come from the film industry but are people who have been successful in other fields. They’ve lived below their means and set up assets that allow them to invest without concern that it could change their lifestyle. For many Executive Producers, contributing to a project isn’t just a business opportunity but a passion project.
Rau says, “The most successful personality characteristic an Executive Producer can have is the ability to trust. They’re going into a situation where the people they hire and are working with know a lot more about each of their individual jobs than the Executive Producer.”
Hiring the right people and trusting that they will do their jobs sounds easy but it can be an incredibly difficult thing to do as a manager. Many people will try to micromanage or try to do everything themselves which leads to slower production and less creativity.
They make everyone suffer through their learning curve instead of motivating and inspiring people to do their best work. An Executive Producer can have a variety of personality traits but if they’re able to hire the right people and let them do their job they’ll have a better experience executive producing and more successful projects.
Education & Training
A lot of people jump right into executive producing. Rau says, “I had no training. You have to have the desire to promote the arts and help people.” Some will begin by reading scripts and others will contact filmmakers they enjoy to support their work.
It usually comes down to an Executive Producer meeting a Director or Producer and discussing a project. The Executive Producer reviews a pitch deck and determines if it’s a project and person they would like to support. Most of the time it is a gut feeling more than a logical strategy that propels them.
There aren’t many organizations that are dedicated specifically to Executive Producers. Rau recommends, “The Producers Guild of America is a good resource. I’d also attend many of the major film festivals like Sundance, Toronto or Cannes to find the next up-and-coming artists.”
There are also non-profit companies like Film Independent in LA and the Independent Filmmaker’s Project in New York, plus various other local companies. Each of these resources has an online presence, as well as meetings that can be attended.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The biggest suggestion that an Executive Producer should heed is that if there is another business they can be successful with and still have the time to be in the film industry then they’re on the right track. Instead of trying to live flashily, it’s good to survive below what is necessary; that way when it comes to financing a film, it is a fun experience.
“If a person invests their retirement into a project when it’s taken to market or if there is a delay in the post-production process, they’ll feel it in their gut. Making movies takes a long time so waiting for a return that will come two or three years down the line isn’t an easy task.
“However, if an Executive Producer can invest only as much money as they’re willing to not think about the filmmaking process will be an exciting adventure for a few years.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake that Executive Producers make is they get caught up in trying to produce what they think will sell instead of what they believe in artistically. Especially in the independent world, it is very difficult for a project to get distribution. Some films have a very successful run on the festival circuit but never make it out to be seen by [wider] audiences. Other projects are very expensive home movies.
The Executive Producer needs to remember that not every project they invest in will be a success and, at the end of the day, they need to be proud of the work they supported. There are a lot of other businesses that will provide a much larger and more reliable financial return than film investing. If making money is the biggest motivator then an investor should consider those other avenues.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What is the difference between an Executive Producer and a Producer?
“Most people outside of the film industry don’t know the difference between an Executive Producer and a Producer. While the Executive Producer provides the financing for a production and can set it up with distribution, the Producer develops the script and handles all the logistics of getting a project made. The Producer may develop a project but they answer to an Executive Producer about how the money is spent. Even though they share similar titles the responsibilities are vastly different.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Tom Rau worked for thirty-eight years in healthcare as the owner-operator of Skilled Nursing and Rehab Centers. Currently, he’s the owner of an organic farm (Stone Coop Farm, Brighton, MI) and Hamburg Fitness Center and Camp (Hamburg, MI).
As a filmmaker, Rau has been the Executive Producer of a three-part PBS series, Embrace of Aging. This insightful series, produced by Producer/Director Keith Famie, winner of multiple Michigan Chapter Emmy awards, takes the audience on a deeply personal and educational journey with men and women as they share their life experiences of embracing aging and the end of life. Woven into the stories and discussions are some of the nation’s most well respected medical professionals.