What is an Executive Producer?

A lot is made of the role of an Executive Producer in the publicity of major TV shows and movies but the role and their responsibilities seem somewhat ill-defined in people’s minds. The role was recently put into the spotlight when one of Hollywood’s biggest executive producers was sent down for being a rapist and sexual predator and while the role of executive itself was not in question, the discussion around Harvey Weinstein’s power within the industry SHOULD have been better looked at. When compilation videos began circulating of all the times he was thanked in Oscar speeches and in interviews, it was understood that this was because he was a Hollywood “suit”, meaning someone who had final say on getting a production made and, while that is true to some extent, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Back in the early days of cinema the Director and Producer roles were almost the reverse of what they are considered to be now. This is because these titles were taken from the world of theatre where, to be a producer, meant you were in charge. The Producer sourced everything from actors to props, made sure everything worked together and ensured the end product came out satisfactorily. They, in a literal sense, produced the Film, in the same way you might ‘produce’ a pen from your pocket to write with. The Director, as the name implied, directed the production. They made sure everything flowed toward the end goal and the actors knew what they were doing and where cameras would be placed and so on. The more ‘creative’ aspect to filmmaking was left to, in large part, the writers, the set designers, the costume makers, and so on. Directors and Producers were usually on studio payroll and weren’t considered to have signature ‘styles’, they just did the job they were hired for regardless of the genre. While this changed over the early part of the 20th century the biggest change came in the 50s when French director, Francois Truffaut, along with a group of other directors loosely associated as part of the ‘French New Wave’ cinema, developed the ‘Auteur’ theory of directing. This, as the name implies, indicates that a director is the ‘Author’ of the film and is therefore not only the person who directs the action on screen but is the CREATIVE lead on the project. Truffaut cited directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Jerry Lewis and Howard Hawks as having definable styles of filmmaking that made them examples of Auteurs. Though this theory has been criticised and has morphed over the years, today it is a similar focus on Directors as the Creative lead of a film that is accepted as fact by the industry and audiences. Most people will see a film because it is a Spielberg film, or a Nolan film, not just because it has their favourite actor in it. Producers, on the other hand, have become a form of logistics manager. Their role is largely unchanged since the old days but there is no perceived ‘creative’ responsibility as a producer, they are at the creative whim of the director, ensuring the Director has what they need to complete the production. This is slightly different for TV as certain episodes tend to have different directors and, therefore, while Directors have a certain level of creative control over the episode the series as whole needs a more uniform style. The ‘Creative Lead’ for TV now is represented in the, relatively new role of ‘Showrunner’, an invention of the 21st Century ‘Prestige TV’ revolution. Before the term ‘Showrunner’ existed this role just fell under the responsibility of a producer. Today there is still no official credit for someone as ‘Showrunner’ and while they are sometimes still credited as Producer they more commonly receive an Executive credit. And this isn’t just television either. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was developed and has been creatively directed by Kevin Feige who has overseen the entire franchise since Iron Man and has many executive producer credits to his name, as well as producer credits. Yet he is often cited by the cast and the fans as being the ‘Genius’ behind the whole thing. And this is where confusion begins.

Recently I have been catching up on a few ‘prestige TV’ shows one of which is HBO’s Lovecraft Country which credits Hollywood A-List Directors and Screenwriters JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele as Executive Producers. This was heavily publicised on launch with the implication being that some of the creative decisions were to be made by these two Directors considered to be ‘Auteurs’. This happens a lot, where a famous director might direct an episode of a show and then thereafter be credited as an Exec. This happened with Bryan Singer on House MD, David Fincher on House of Cards and Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The implication being that these celebrity directors have continued input on the project without necessarily continuing to direct or write anything. But while that might be true, that isn’t necessarily the whole issue. The relatively unknown Misha Green is the showrunner but credited as executive producer for Lovecraft Country who also wrote or co-wrote all the episodes. In addition to this, at time of writing, there have been 5 directors for the 6 episodes currently aired. That seems like a lot of creative ‘leads’ for one project. So the assumption then is that: “okay Abrams and Peele don’t have creative input they just provide the money” and whilst that might in part be true there’s still more to it even than that. Which leads us to the other brand of executive producer: The Lead Actor.

As shows grow and films become more popular the reliance on the cast, particularly if it is lead by a specific character, becomes integral to the show’s identity and — more importantly — its marketability. Consequently the lead actor or actors will need to be tempted to remain with offers of better pay and often a certain level of creative input. This would traditionally put studios in an awkward position as pay scales are a matter of significant debate in the industry and creative input from multiple sources can muddy the water and mess up carefully maintained hierarchies. And Hollywood loves its hierarchies. But equally the mantra of all studios during production is to “keep the talent happy”. So how do you keep them happy when your show or movie franchise is doing gang busters and, rather understandably, the leads who are the face of the project want to have creative input and financially share the success? Well, you give them an exec credit. Hugh Laurie in House, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, to name but a few, are all credited as exec producers on those shows. What you begin to see at this point is how malleable this Executive credit is. Both ‘Auteur’ directors are able to have names attached to something with vague non-specific creative input assumed, while actors are also allowed a level of similar input too, all alongside the actual directors and show runners for the respective movies or TV shows all of whom being considered to be the overall creative leads. This creates a somewhat overpopulated and top-heavy creative team. Which brings us to the third and original kind of Exec: The studio man.

This is the true ‘executive’. These are people you have never heard of but are seen as talking heads in interviews, saying weird stuff like ‘Frodo-centric’, or are sat beside the director in behind-the-scenes footage. Names like Mark Ordesky, Michael E. Uslan, Louis D’Esposito, Hampton Fancher and Millbank Dorancey. Okay I made that last one up. But just running a list of these names gives you some indication as to their anonymity despite working on blockbuster movies and shows. Yet by discussing the other people who also have Executive Producer credits it shows that these people clearly have input and impact on whatever you are watching. So why don’t you know their names? Because these people are the mythical “suits” people in the industry speak of and just like those actors and auteur directors credited as Execs, these guys do have input on the production but without any assumption of ‘creativity’ from an audience. Why? Because these are the guys that sign the cheques. And this is what an Executive Producer credit all boils down to.

Executive Producers are ‘The Money’. Both where the money has come from and where the money is going. Making a prestige TV show or a movie is expensive and there is no guarantee that money will be made back. Getting that movie or show financed then, is a gamble. This means film studios and TV networks amount to independent Banks. Disney or Warner Bros loan a production company the money to make the thing on the understanding they will make a minimum of double that money back. And, just like a bank, there needs to be something to bet with, some collateral, something that can assure the money won’t just sink without a trace. So arrives the Executive Producer to ensure the money isn’t misspent and that a sellable product arrives on release day.

As an example, let’s look at Lord of the Rings. New Line Cinema — a subsidiary of Warner Media — green light’s three movies to be shot back-to-back to encapsulate the three book series of Tolkien novels. With splatter horror movie director Peter Jackson at the helm. Of course we know it worked out but at the time this seemed like an odd decision. To ensure the $281 million production budget does not go to waste, New Line sends Mark Ordesky to oversee production. This means if days are running long and overtime is needed to be signed off on, or what the craft service budget is, or does Mr Bloom really need another chauffeur driven car?, etcetera this has to be run past Mr Ordesky who lets New Line know. But equally if a scene is too violent Mr Ordesky might want to mention it to New Line who have a folder on their recent audience tests for decapitations and they don’t play too well in California so could we replace that with pushing the Orc off a cliff? and so on. The omnipresence of the studio can be likened to Sauron with Ordesky as the Eye and he can be seen — if you watch some of the behind the scenes footage from the special edition DVDs — lurking somewhere in the background, the ever present Executive Producer, ensuring Warner Media group isn’t going to have a ‘Heaven’s Gate’ on their hands. What’s interesting is that executive producers don’t even need to be part of production to assert this influence. The Weinstein’s achieved their successes by buying independent films that had already been made — known as ‘picking up a movie’ — they did this starting with Miramax in the 80s (which almost went bump before Disney bought it) then later with The Weinstein Company (that did go bump in 2018). This meant, however, for some movies the Weinstein’s got executive producer credit without having ANY creative or financial input during production whatsoever.

So where do the auteur directors and actors come in? Well the actors represent money onscreen and return on investment. If an actor is willing to stick with a movie franchise or TV show for long enough, the Exec credit gives them more control and money but also means the studio can keep a lucrative asset. Hugh Laurie was routinely nominated for an Emmy for each season of House so it makes financial sense to keep him sweet. This all tends to be for bigger budget stuff but the more interesting role of an Exec is when an A-lister puts their name to a lower budget project. As another example, Steven Spielberg is credited as an executive producer on over 60 movies including: Back to the Future, Gremlins, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Men in Black, Deep Impact, Twister, Transformers and… uhh… Cats. *ahem* What makes this so important is that a lot of these were original screenplays or weird projects that the writers or production teams were having a hard time getting green lit or even getting a name attached to. Spielberg, by lending his name to a script he liked but not committing to direct or produce wholly meant the script owners had some clout to pitch to studios with. Sometimes this form of input can even mean fronting some cash to get concept art made or start pre-production to present to financiers. The Exec credit then becomes a sort of ’Thank You’ often also equating to financial compensation upon release of the film.

More commonly today however an executive producer credit for famous names is for marketing purposes. The JJ Abrams and Jordan Peele credit doubtlessly means they were shown the script but didn’t want to commit to being involved themselves but wanted to see it get made. Therefore they sign off on it for a few points on the gross and in turn the production can put two A-list names to it to sell to audiences. The most explicit recent example of this was when Joker was promoted as being executive produced by Martin Scorsese. And seeing as it was a rip off of more than one of his movies this makes sense from a sales perspective. They were making a 70s Scorsese movie without Scorsese. It was all the more hilarious then that Scorsese removed his support for the film and his executive producer credit vanished for the final film. Probably once Scorsese realised what a load of hero-worshipping tosh that film was… (all of which created a rather amusingly awkward discussion at a Hollywood Reporter round table he and Director Todd Philips did together.) The point being that even if an Executive Producer doesn’t provide money they represent money in the bank in some form or another. The credit itself is deliberately vague and nebulous so as to not draw too much attention to the role but equally allows for egos to be soothed, wallets to be cushioned, art to be made and advertising to be sold. So the next time you see the opening credits of a movie, remember the executive producer’s name because they will have had a far bigger hand in the production of that movie than you think, without really doing much at all…

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Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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