Film Set: Who’s Who in Production Management
It takes scores of crew members to produce a feature film or TV show and there is a team responsible for leading and managing that team – that team is production management.
Production management is responsible for the nuts and bolts of film and video making. They manage crew, schedules, budgets, logistics, and the day-to-day operations of a production.
On a film set, the production management team consists of:
- The Production Manager
- The Unit Production Manager
- The Production Coordinator
- The Assistant Production Office Coordinator
- The Production Assistant
- The Art Coordinator
- The Post Coordinator
- The Tech Coordinator
- The Travel Coordinator
- The Locations Coordinator
The Production Manager
My first real job in television was as Production Coordinator for Nickelodeon’s Slimetime Live, a daily, live, interstitial TV show that usually ran in 4-hour blocks between normal afternoon programming on Nickelodeon for 7 seasons, 5 days a week. It was in that role that I learned all roads lead to the Production Manager.
A Production Manager is responsible for leading an entire production from script to screen – pre-production to post-production – on any given feature film or TV show. Whereas the term Production Manager exists mostly in television, it is also a role I have found on non-union feature films as well.
A Production Manager will usually be hired soon after the Director and he or she will be in charge of developing and managing the budget, crafting the entire shoot schedule, hiring most of the crew, organizing shoot days, spearheading important meetings, and managing the time cards each week to make sure crew is paid proper straight time, overtime, and potential meal penalties.
A Production Manager is the logistical leader and he or she must have strong organizational skills, a keen sense of crew temperaments, an in-depth understanding of all departments and their duties, and must be very good with budget numbers and line items in the budget.
While it’s true a Line Producer may also be part of the production management department and also exclusively “produce” the budget (create it and maintain it), Production Managers have also been filling that role, especially in TV.
The most important skill set a Production Manager must have beyond budget and logistical organization is that of a Therapist. It sounds a bit crazy, but everyone on the crew will go to the Production Manager with every single issue from crew concerns, scheduling issues, logistical fires, and problems in payroll. The PM is the eyes, ears, and mind of the production and he or she will listen to all of the department heads and crew members and troubleshoot a myriad of concerns and issues that may arise.
According to Seattle Supervising Producer and Production Manager Nin Robare, “A good Production Manager is cool and calm when shit hits the fan. It doesn’t matter how much you know or how things are done. If you are calm when things go crazy and listen to all sides and come up with options to deescalate the situation(s), then you pretty much got everything under control.”
The Production Manager is the backbone of the production and, while often under-appreciated, a PM can either make or break a project.
The Unit Production Manager
In feature films, the top below-the-line position is the Unit Production Manager. It’s typically the first credit an audience will see at the top of the end credits of a feature film or TV show. What’s the difference between a Production Manager and Unit Production Manager? Simply put: it’s a union thing. Whereas their roles are very similar, The DGA recognizes the title of Unit Production Manager while non-union shows call what’s essentially the same role a “Production Manager” or “Production Supervisor.”
The Line Producer
The role of the Line Producer in union work is generally an individual who is a numbers and budget shark. He or she brings a ton of experience to “producing” the line items on a budget and it is one of the most important roles in production management.
A fantastic Line Producer knows what is logistically needed for a production and knows how much each item costs. However, he or she is also a strong researcher who digs up costs from real vendors, rental houses, and department leads when adding costs to the budget. Line Producers may initially estimate, but they back up their estimations with hard facts and real costs.
In the non-union word, it seems that the once very strict role of a Line Producer only managing the budget has blurred and non-union Line Producers are not only managing the budget but also filling the role of Production Manager, too. They are also managing logistics, cast, and crew.
Regardless of the various assignments a Line Producer may have, he or she is part Mathematician, part Accountant, part leader, part budgetary guru, park logistical lion, and if really good, all heart.
Let’s hear from professional Line Producer Jimmy Sprague, who I have had the pleasure of working with on Discovery’s Naked and Afraid XL:
As a Line Producer, the strongest asset you can possess is the ability to listen and consider options when being presented with a request. We have all had Line Producers respond to a reasonable production request with a knee-jerk ‘No, we don’t have the budget for that’ without them really considering the request or reviewing the budget numbers.
I believe this type of response (which is incredibly common) does a disservice to the production as a whole and specifically to the person the Line Producer is speaking with. I believe a Line Producer who can listen to a request of a crew member, consider the request and why he or she is asking, and then can give them a response that is best for the production, goes a long way towards creating a healthy production environment and fostering positive production crew members.”
According to Los Angeles Feature Film Line Producer, Michael Bachochin,
”A strong LP is derivative of investment. A Line Producer with no investment or attachment might as well be a PA with a laptop (no offense, of course). That’s why I’ve always felt incredibly strongly against pigeonholing LPs as the ‘numbers and logistics guy.’ LPs can make or break shows and they are very commonly not held as equals at the Producer table, even though an invested LP can be a production’s greatest weapon.”
The Production Coordinator
As mentioned above, I have had the pleasure of being a Production Coordinator for Nickelodeon, Spike TV, and various commercials for the likes of Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Sears. It was in the role of Production Coordinator (PC), where I learned the most about what it really takes to manage an entire production.
The PC is the Production Manager’s right-hand man or woman. He or she will know nearly everything the PM knows and with the exception of managing the budget, a PC will assist in hiring below-the-line crew like Production Assistants, Craft Services, or Catering. He or she will also aid in streamlining the flow of information from the Location Department, the Travel Department, Casting, the Art Department, Payroll, and any other department that seeks information and direction from production management.
There should be nothing above or below a strong PC. If the Production Manager is the general, then the PC is his or her Lieutenant. They work in tandem, with the PC supporting the PM in nearly every aspect of production and the PC especially focuses on schedule, time cards, travel, day-to-day operations, answering important emails and phone calls from vendors, and maintains calm and organization from pre-production through production. PCs rarely work in post unless they are a specific Post-Production Coordinator.
The Assistant Production Office Coordinator
When you’re fresh out of film school or new to the film and television industry, a role a lot of people know nothing about is the APOC or Assistant Production Office Coordinator. This is a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in a career in production management.
An APOC will assist the Production Coordinator and Production Manager with the day-to-day office operation on a film and TV production. He or she will aid in managing vendor relations including sourcing vendors, acquiring bids, managing purchase orders, and submitting invoices for payment.
An APOC will also file, fax, handle the phones, answer lower priority emails, and hire and manage the Office Production Assistants and Interns. They will also set up meetings and may even make sure snacks and drinks are in each meeting.
A strong APOC is indispensable and, given the right experience, will eventually become a Production Coordinator. He or she is a great listener, a detailed note taker, and should have excellent interpersonal skills. Often, the PC is relegated to other tasks that take him or her out of the office, like coordinating location or travel shoots, and an APOC will step up and help coordinate in the office.
The Office Production Assistant
While many Production Assistant jobs can be entry-level, the Office Production Assistant is not. In fact, a decent degree of skill and savvy is pertinent to being an Office PA. He or she will be responsible for attending meetings, taking notes, emailing important notes and tasks to the rest of production management and department heads, maintaining the production calendar (along with the APOC, PC, and PM), and assisting with overall duties in the office including faxing, filing, phone calls, emails, making and distributing copies, and leading the rest of the PAs with lunch runs, coffee orders, and various other runs for other departments.
One day, the Office PA may have to gather important scheduling information from different departments and then add it all in a comprehensible way to the main production calendar or may lead the Interns on a special task that aids the Art Department or the tech team. It all depends on what’s necessary at any given moment, so be flexible and ready for action.
While the role is technically low on the totem pole of positions in production management, it is not to be taken mildly. It is a serious role that requires excellent listening skills, the ability to follow through on important tasks, and an overall, general knowledge of the production, daily and weekly goals, and expectations.
Other Production Management Roles
Art Coordinator: Will manage the daily and weekly tasks of the Art Department including prop purchases and rentals, prop and set dressing management, internal department scheduling, and gathering and submitting time cards.
Post Coordinator: Will maintain the post-production schedule, manage post-production staff including Editors, make sure deliverables are scheduled and dispensed on time, and oversee all post-production office duties (along with a Production Assistant).
Tech Coordinator: Will organize the purchasing, renting, and maintenance of all gear from cameras to lighting. He or she is tech-savvy and also possesses the organizational, scheduling, and logistical prowess of a strong Production Coordinator.
Travel Coordinator: Will schedule and coordinate all travel for a production including traveling Producers, Directors, cast, and crew. He or she will handle flights, hotels, ground transportation, location parking, and the travel calendar.
Locations Coordinator: Will work in tandem with the Locations Scout and Locations Manager in coordinating with film commissions, location owners, location releases, community postings, and paying location fees and insurance.
In short, production management is not about creativity, per se. The creative roles in film and television include Producers, Directors, Writers, Directors of Photography, and Editors. They are responsible for creating the sound and image of a production. They focus on “the pretty.” Those working in production management focus on the “nitty-gritty.” Without production management, an entire production won’t have the successful legs to stand on and won’t be the final creative accomplishment everyone working in film and TV hopes for and dreams of in our industry.
Finally, let’s close out with some thoughts of what makes a strong Production Manager according to former Nickelodeon Supervising Producer Angelika Bartenbach, who simply states that a successful Production Manager has “the ability to walk the line between creative vision and reality as well as executives and crew.”