The Executive Producer provides the financial backing for a film project. Their involvement depends on the project with some simply securing funds and others getting involved in the filmmaking process.
EP, Film Financier
Dependent on project budget and level of success
How To Become an Executive Producer
Q&A - Quick Answers
The Executive Producer of a film or TV series handles the finances of a project. They bring in investors (such as a studio or an independent finance company) or, in some cases, will invest their own capital. It is their responsibility to ensure the production has the funding it needs throughout the lifespan of the project. They serve as the liaison between the film/TV show’s financiers and the project’s Producers.
In addition to the funding they provide, Executive Producers may also serve in a hybrid creative/supervisory role. In this capacity, they’ll find viable intellectual property and package the production, finding the right talent and format for the project. They’ll then take the project to studios and see if they can attract a buyer.
Executive Producers also play an important role in selecting the project’s top talent, including name Actors and Directors, and in hiring Producers for the project. They make sure the project sticks to its budget and delivers on its creative promise.
To learn more about what it’s like to work as an Executive Producer, we spoke to:
- Angela Mancuso (Happy Death Day, Happy Death Day 2U, Who Fears Death)
- Ryan Donnell Smith (The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Tax Collector, Heartbeats)
What do Executive Producers do?
There are all kinds of Executive Producers. What I do is develop ideas. Sometimes they’re from books, sometimes from news articles, sometimes they’re original ideas. Sometimes I find them myself and sometimes they come to me from Writers. I try to develop them in what seems to be the appropriate format, which can be a feature film, a television movie, a series, or a limited series, depending on what the material lends itself to be. Then, I get it into creative shape and bring it to a network and pitch and sell.
It’s an interesting question because, in the film industry, it’s very different from television. You have a couple of different roles. I produce and I executive produce. As a Producer, I compare that to being a CEO of a company. You’re responsible for the overall delivery of every part of a movie, from the creative, to the budget, to the timing, hiring, firing.
Then in the Executive Producer line, Executive Producers can be involved in many facets and many different departments, but oftentimes, they’re helping to package and get the movie off of the ground in some way. A typical Executive Producer is either going to be putting in money themselves or facilitating money and helping bring financing to the project to get it off of the ground.
What are the responsibilities of an Executive Producer?
I do a lot of reading. I read newspaper articles. I read a lot of books. It runs the gamut. I read specs people bring to me. When I’m in development or not in production, I’m doing a lot of reading or researching. And that can be anything: it can be looking at Amazon new releases, the book reviews in The New York Times or some magazine, or an article on the radio that I hear. Any story that sounds interesting to me. I spend a lot of time looking for stories.
That’s the easy part: finding a story or idea that you like and that’s compelling. The hard part is finding out if there’s a market for it and a place to sell it, and finding a Writer who wants to adapt it for you. That’s the part of my job that happens when I’m not in production.
Once I sell something, my job completely changes. It becomes about who the buyer is, what they want, what changes they want, and then getting it to production where it becomes a completely different issue of finding a Director and cast. Sitting on a set and scouting for locations and actually making something…that’s the fun part.
The hard part of it is things shift under your feet. You never know what you’re going to sell and what you’re not going to sell. We work for money and to make a living. There’s the stress of developing, developing, developing, and then not getting something made, and that happens often. You can work on something for years and never get it made.
Every Executive Producer obviously has to have a passion for the project and believe in the project. The goal is to help bring the project to life. It takes a village. So, the executive producing team is the family that surrounds the project and helps lift the project off the ground.
The earnings for an Executive Producer on a low-budget indie film will be quite different than the earnings for an Executive Producer on a big-budget studio blockbuster. Income will also vary based on the success of the project. 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.
Executive Producers can recoup their money and receive added income if a project does well. If it does really well and continues to make money for years after its initial release, an Executive Producer will also continue to receive income from the project (based on the kind of deal they have.)
Still other Executive Producers receive a flat fee for their work packing a project.
With all these differing pay structures and possibilities, it’s almost impossible to come up with an expected range of earnings for an Executive Producer.
How does an Executive Producer make money from a project?
It depends. Sometimes Executive Producers make money, and sometimes they spend money. The traditional Executive Producer receives the credit because they’re putting money into the movie. You think of it as an investment; there’s an upfront investment with a long-term potential gain on it. You’re investing in the movie in hopes of getting a great return.
On the backend, when the movie gets released and sent out to the world, there’s an opportunity for the Executive Producer to not only recoup their money with a premium, but to also make money forever for the life of the movie by owning a percentage of the project. Now, sometimes Executive Producers help package the money, or they bring someone—like a friend or a business partner—who will get an Executive Producer credit if they bring money through. Sometimes those people are paid a flat fee upfront for doing so.
The Executive Producer is never paid a flat salary, really. There’s no way to say, “Okay, if I choose to go down this route, here’s the average pay that I’m gonna make in a year,” from looking at Indeed.com or something of that sort.
Our industry is so wide. People make movies for $100,000, and people make movies for $300 million. And there are Executive Producers and people that brought the money together for both of those projects. So the amounts of money that they made or didn’t make are vastly different.
If you’re buying a house, you can buy a very small house and you can buy the biggest house in the world, so there’s just such a range there. But what you can expect through and through is that if you invest and if you find projects that you believe in, where you’re going to make money is on the upside, is on the equity side.
You’re gonna own, and you’re gonna wanna focus on making sure that you have a little bit of backend participation on the project. You’re putting money into a movie that you believe in, and if you believe in it, then that’s where the upside potential is to make money forever. You call that “mailbox money” if a film does well and goes on and on for thirty years and brings in a little bit of money.
But the problem is that some of the best movies in the world make very little money, and some movies that were just kind of run-of-the-mill make ridiculous amounts of money. So it’s a hard thing to put a specific figure on, but I hope that helps a little bit with structure.
Unless something gets into production, you don’t make money or you make minimal money (if someone wants to pay you a very small development fee). When something gets into production, depending on what the genre is and who you’re selling it to, it can be a lot of money or it can be just an okay amount of money. It really depends on the project and what medium it gets released through.
But you don’t get any money unless you get something made. That’s the stressful part.
Since Executive Producers are one of the most powerful roles on a production, it takes years of hard work to land this job title. Many Executive Producers start off in other film industry roles whereas others come from different industries altogether (often in a financial capacity).
How do you become an Executive Producer?
One of the number one things I always tell people is: your relationships are of such value in life, and in work, too. Specifically, as an Executive Producer in film, the way that you become successful is by 1) either deciding to invest your personal money into film projects (and that’s a personal investment that you’re banking on for long-term gain) or 2) really, really building up a network and focusing on bringing great projects to financiers to have them invest in the project.
If that’s your goal—to become an Executive Producer in that manner—my advice would be to really make sure that you focus on the story, the creative, and the package of the movie. Because you’re working with people’s real money. You’re putting your name on the line and saying, “I trust and I believe that this movie will make money in the long-term, and I trust in that so much that I’m gonna ask you for your financial involvement in it.”
It’s a little bit of a finance position in that regard. It’s in many ways a very responsible, more accounting-type role within our industry, more so than some of the more creative producing roles which step into story.
There are a ton of amazing production companies out there. But also, there’s a way to really follow the trades and what movies are going into production. It depends where you’re located geographically. If you’re in a big production hub like New York, Atlanta, or Los Angeles, it’s a little bit easier. But there are projects going on all over the country. For example, I’m in the middle of Montana right now on a project.
Really follow the trades. Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline. There are so many great ways now with technology to track what’s out there. And then yes, of course, make any relationship that you can. Get out and about, meet production companies, meet studios, take studio tours, do whatever you can to build those relationships.
But also, if your focus is the finance side of packaging films, focus as much on the business side as you do the film side. It’s important to have a vast network of individuals on the finance side because you’re gonna need a network of people that will be willing to put money into projects. You need to do both. You need to understand film and how it works, and then you also need to build your professional Rolodex of industry executives from all sectors and really boost yourself professionally as you’re going into the market.
An Executive Producer isn’t really the first title for anybody. There isn’t a standard path. Everybody finds their own way. For me, I always wanted to write and be creative. When I went to school, I didn’t go to film school. I decided I was going to go to law school.
When I decided I didn’t want to go to law school anymore, and my parents said, “Go get a job so you can support yourself,” I got a temporary job (at the time) as a Secretary at HBO. HBO was a baby company with forty employees on one floor in New York City.
I was just lucky enough that I was there at a time where everybody was learning. They were sort of the rejects from network television and they were learning what cable was and how it worked, what basic cable was, and what paid cable was. Anybody who raised their hand and said, “I’ll try that job,” basically got to try their hand at whatever it was that had to get done. I ended up in production. I started really learning physical production; how to specifically bring a project to fruition.
I rose through the executive ranks and stayed with HBO for a long time—almost a decade—and then I ended up at Universal for about a decade and a half. I got drafted to Universal and moved out to LA. By the time I left there, I was the President of the Cable Production Group. I did the executive thing for many, many decades before I decided to jump ship and just start producing.
When I started producing, I already had all the knowledge about production and all the knowledge about development, budgets, and distribution. What I had never done was sell. I had to learn how to sell because I was a seller and not a buyer. That was tough. Just like when you go to the store and you have a Salesperson that’s really good at their job: you buy or you don’t buy.
Learning how to present something and make it irresistible or to convince somebody to buy something was hard. It was a lot of work. And it’s still hard. Every buyer is different. Every company is different and every human being working at that company has different tastes. It’s not easy to sell.
You have to not be afraid of the “no’s” because you’re going to get them. You get many more “no’s” than you get “yeses,” and you just get used to it.
Education & Training
Most Executive Producers do have some kind of collegiate background. They may have attended film school, business school, or another type of program entirely. Whatever their degree is in, they need to have solid skills in finance, organization, and team management.
Do you need a college degree to be an Executive Producer?
I think education is always important. I don’t think you necessarily have to go to film school at all, but know that you’re talking about a medium of storytelling. Whether you’re studying film and you’ve watched every Alfred Hitchcock movie to understand why that makes him important, or you’ve read every Hemingway novel, whatever it is you study: storytelling is about human beings. Higher education is important in that it helps you learn how to speak to people, and gives you more in common with the people you have to deal with.
I think studying psychology is really helpful in our business. You have to know how people’s brains work and you have to be able to talk to people. You have to be able to really communicate with people whether it’s in the selling part, on the set, or if you’re talking to a Writer who may be very sensitive. If you can’t read those people and relate to them in some way, you’re not going to be a good Producer.
I think that in general, business school is about understanding financing structures and finance in general. That’s a big part of it. I think [school] is always wonderful.
For me, personally, my journey’s probably way different from many others. My college experience was very, very different from what I do day-to-day. I went to school for sports medicine and thought I would be an Orthopedic Surgeon. But the things that I learned were a drive and a work ethic.
I had to study 15 hours a day in order to pass and make it through college because I was under a very rigorous program. So, where I didn’t necessarily learn tangible skills for the film industry, my experience was a work ethic and learning how to really dive in and give all of yourself to hard work.
Film school has such great value. It’s such an amazing thing that helps people understand the inner workings of the film industry, learn about the creative process, and learn about the producing process from a business and a creative side, in a manner where you’re not tangibly on set. It gives you a competitive advantage there if you choose to go that route.
At the same time, I think everyone should take every experience and get on set in whatever capacity that they can, whether that be as a PA [Production Assistant] or all the way up. Start to understand what the parts and pieces of filmmaking are. What does it take to make a piece of content, and what are all of the departments? I really recommend starting early and getting on set so that you really understand what it is and see behind the curtain of how the project is made.
On the executive producing side, I’ve worked with people that come from every different sector. So there are some people that have nothing to do with film in their day-to-day lives but choose to invest in film projects as a passion, and those people are in other industries. There are CPAs, there are accounting degrees, there are business degrees. Anything that you can do to better yourself, better your network, and better educate yourself is always a wonderful option.
What else do people need to know about pursuing a career in production?
I would say this: it’s an industry that I’m passionately in love with, and it’s so, so, very much fun, but this process is not easy. And it’s not quick, so it’s not for the faint of heart. You really have to be willing to devote time, love, pain, suffering, all of the above if you want to step into this industry. That’s probably what my biggest thing is: if you keep pushing and keep pushing, you’ll find success in the industry, but it’s gonna be quite the journey to get there.
It’s not something you should do unless you really love it, because it’s as much a lifestyle as it is a vocation. It sounds glamorous, but there’s nothing glamorous about having to work until 5 a.m. dead on your feet, where you’re getting bitten up by mosquitos or freezing cold. It’s not glamorous in the way many people think it is. You have to really love storytelling and the community. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone.
It’s physically demanding if you’re a hands-on Producer, which I am. As I get older, I don’t want a 5 a.m. call anymore. The worst thing is split days. When you come in at three in the afternoon and leave at three in the morning. That’s the worst. And that happens all the time.
Don’t do it unless you really love it. The reason I say that is because it’s pretty all-consuming. It’s very difficult to be getting married and having children when you’re on location, which you mostly are. You can be away from home for a long time and that’s a hard thing to do, especially for parents.
You shouldn’t take it lightly because it is what it is. The hours aren’t 9 to 5 hours. If you’re a Producer and you’re actually on a set, sometimes you gotta wake up at 3 a.m. because the call time is at 5 a.m. Sometimes you have to drive yourself in the dark and the cold and you don’t know where you are. (But now we have good GPS. We used to have to print Google Maps!)
Former President of Universal Cable Entertainment, Angela Mancuso left the executive ranks to begin producing in 2003. As an executive, she developed the EMMY winning series MONK and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, miniseries ATILLA, HELEN OF TROY, TRAFFIC, and others. Mancuso started her career at HBO, where she spent seven years helping launch original scripted programming for the network.
After a stint at LIFETIME TV as head of production, she moved from NY to Los Angeles to take on UNIVERSAL STUDIO’s initial foray into the world of cable television building a division that successfully produced successful series and movies for all major broadcast and cable networks.
Ryan Donnell Smith
Producer and Entrepreneur Ryan Donnell Smith has emerged as a leader in the entertainment industry over the last few years, lending his expertise in line production and tax equity structure to some of the most critically acclaimed films in the business today. As Partner and President of Production and Development at Streamline Global and Co-owner of Thomasville Pictures (based in the burgeoning area of Thomasville, Georgia), Smith has successfully financed and produced a slew of A-list independent projects, garnering Executive Producer credits along the way.
Smith’s most recent films include Executive Producing Netflix’s award winning historical drama The Trial of the Chicago 7, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with Aaron Sorkin directing. Critics were captivated by the film, calling it “a riveting movie” (TIME), “a compelling re-creation of a notorious trial” (Newsday), and “[a film that] will stand the test of time” (Film Threat). The Trial of the Chicago 7 was released in October 2020 and is available to stream worldwide on Netflix. Smith also holds Executive Producer credits (alongside Cross Creek Media) on The Tax Collector, which was also released in 2020 and stars Shia LaBeouf, Jimmy Smits, and Lana Parrilla.
As Partner and President of Streamline Global, Smith oversees the development, production, and management of Streamline’s film assets. The company’s unique tax incentive model is the first of its kind, helping numerous independent productions secure financing while in conjunction generating hundreds of jobs for creatives in the field. In addition, Smith serves as Co-owner of Thomasville Pictures, spearheading efforts to develop a robust production slate in south Georgia while leveraging a sought-after tax credit in the region.
Smith’s upcoming feature, The Tiger Rising starring Oscar nominee Queen Latifah and Dennis Quaid is paving the way for Thomasville Pictures. The deal for the film rights was finalized at Cannes in 2019, with Latifah serving as an Executive Producer, Thomasville Pictures producing and Streamline Global executive producing. More recently, Smith wrapped production on One Way starring Colson Baker a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly, and is gearing up for his latest feature Supercell starring Alec Baldwin. The disaster action film will be co-produced by Thomasville Pictures and financed by Streamline Global. In addition to his film projects, Smith serves as a producer on Broadway’s musical comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, which is set to resume performances following the coronavirus epidemic.
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Smith discovered his passion for the film industry at a young age, participating in his school’s fine arts program. While the seed for entertainment was planted in his early years, Smith went on to graduate college with a degree in sports medicine, and had hopes of becoming an orthopedic surgeon. Smith fell into producing, kicking off his career with national commercials, music videos, and a handful of concerts and sporting events for his hometown. His first big break came in 2016, producing the romance drama Some Freaks starring Lily Mae Harrington (All Rise) and Thomas Mann (Project X). He then went on to produce Heartbeats for Freestyle Digital Media.
While working behind the scenes in film keeps Smith busy, his entrepreneurial spirit has extended to other areas including becoming a Limited Partner at Mantis, The Chainsmokers’ debut venture fund. He is also involved in The Seed Lab, which helps manage and grow consumer-facing businesses that are on the cutting-edge of culture. On the charity front Smith supports the fine arts with generous donations to groups across the country in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Nashville.
Smith currently resides in the Los Angeles area.
Photographer credit: The Riker Brothers