10 Ways Directors Must Think Like a Line Producer

By Danny Indio / Danny Jiminian, Film Strategy

The no-to-low budget director is a man of many hats and throughout the production, the director will, at different times and simultaneously, wear the writer's cap, the executive producer's top hat, the director's beret, the line producer's helmet, the editor's hood... hell maybe even the caterer's toque. This is simply a reflection of how a no-to-low budget forces one to do more with less and so the director becomes a hybrid doing many of the most important jobs on the set by himself.  In an otherwise standard or big budget production, the director would pass the head gear to someone else who can devote all their attention to that specific job at hand.  One of the most important jobs that a director MUST perform with a no-to-low budget production is the job of the line producer.  In fact, even when he can delegate to someone else, the director would still benefit from wearing the line producer's helmet.

It's easy to imagine the line producer wearing a helmet since they are in the trenches every day the film is being made and are there for the planning during pre-production. The line producer is the day-to-day producer of the film and serves as the eyes and ears on the set conducting and coordinating the production's strategy and battling against disaster and setback along the way.  They report directly to the producer and are given the role of "fixer" when major issues arise.  They're also the "line" between the exec producer, director and principal cast and everyone else in the cast and crew.  To get to their position, they have worked in as many positions in a production as possible including being an Assistant Director or Production Manager.  

A director can focus on working with the the actors, sounds and visuals knowing that the production will run smoothly with a good line producer at the helm.  But when the producer/director can't afford to hire a line producer then, for better or for worse, he needs to act like one on the set.  Multitasking this way on the set means the director needs to be able to look at things from a line producer's perspective and thinking like a line producer means that you: 

1. understand producing means knowing the end result of the project and what path it will take after it is completed.  This doesn't just mean knowing the end of your story the way a screenwriter would but knowing where you want your project to end up screened at and how it will get there.  Knowing that will affect your creative and logistic decisions before and while shooting.  Line producers must keep the bigger picture in their mind to anticipate how things may affect the investment, distribution and marketing.  So should you.

2. know how to break down a script, create a practical budget and a realistic filming schedule.  A good line producer can look at a script and know how much it will cost and how long it may take to shoot.  Harnessing that skill takes practice and is something you should aim to do even if you can afford a line producer.

3. know what to expect from your crew and the depths of your crew's abilities with the purpose of minimizing friction as they do their job.   It's a line producer's job to know what everyone does and assess job performance to ensure the production is using the hours in the schedule and the money in the budget wisely.  Knowing the jobs also lets a line producer iron out any conflicts that can arise within and between departments. Taking that as a cue, a director who understands the jobs and challenges of the crew will receive their respect and motivation.

4. prioritize the elements of "mise en scene" based on what problem has been resolved and what task needs to be taken care of next. After consulting with the director and the producers during pre-production, the line producer knows what elements are the most important to focus on first from the following 8: casting/performance; production design (including location); costumes; make-up and hair; cinematography; sound; music; and, editing.  A problem-solving approach the line producer takes on the set once he knows what element is most important to the director is to first ensure that those issues are handled first and concurrently.  He then considers the rest based on budget, schedule and it's dire status.  Keeping all 8 elements in mind throughout the shoot, the line producer can head off issues before they become problems and solve problems before they become disasters.

5. bring your motivation AND your hustle to the set.  To get the job done, the line producer must be a coach motivating the team to victory, one minute, and the diplomat negotiating with opposing forces the next.  Directors should always leave the diva attitude at home but even moreso when they are running a no-to-low budget production.  Instead of throwing tantrums and making unreasonable demands, you need to encourage your team to make it through the no-budget day. And improving your negotiation skills by smooth talking with crew members, location property owners, cops asking for a permit, etc. will come in handy when you move up the ladder and are negotiating with the big shots.

6. carry EVERYONE's number on your person or phone. This doesn't just mean having the cast and crew's contact info but also having the name and phone numbers to vendors, rental houses, insurance providers, lawyers, agencies, businesses and organizations in or near your shooting location.  One of the ways a line producer solves problems is through communication; contacting people for information, following up on orders, asking questions, etc.  Directors forced to do everything on their own must be prepared to communicate at the drop of a dime, as well.

7. understand the contracts, ordinances and regulations affecting your production as well as you understand your script. Line producers aren't lawyers but a good one knows enough of what affects the production from a legal perspective to do their job well and know what questions to ask.  Alot of this comes from the repetition of experience but it also comes from paying attention to key contract clauses like the description of services, terms of employment, compensation, illness and capacity, and expenses.  Line producers are also aware of permits, labor issues, intellectual property matters and production incentives that could support the project.

8. track your progress by keeping and studying your production's paperwork regularly.  When a line producer is not on the phone, reporting to the producer or working with the cast and crew, he is reviewing paperwork.  From call sheets to production reports, the line producer needs to know whether or not the production is accomplishing the scheduling and budgeting goals created during pre-production and modified during production.  Even if you're inundated with having to do a million things on your no-to-low budget set, at least keep notes and review what you've done at the end of each day.

9. think "safety" when you budget and schedule. I recently read a great article about working long hours that points out how what we in the film industry take for granted, in terms of long work hours, should be reevaluated.  Safety might not be the first thing a line producer thinks of when he starts to work on the budget and schedule but it should at least be in the top 3.  "But I've gotten away with doing risky things before, why stress about it now especially when time and money is hard to get?" you might ask.  Well no one will notice a production that almost becomes a disaster and almost harms the cast and crew but gets away with it. However, they will notice when disaster strikes and kills or maims people in your production.  Aside from the lawsuits that will sink your no-to-low budget film, the disfigurements and deaths of people will weigh on your conscience.  Like a good line producer who knows that the limits of a person's ability to produce at peak points diminishes over time, you shouldn't overwork your people with extremely long hours (even 12 hours is already long enough but it's considered standard; more than 12 and you're pushing your people).  You also need to devote sufficient time and money to pull off certain stunts. If you don't have it, then don't do it or do it differently.

10. act decisive even when you're not sure, adapt and overcome and always remember that the right decisions are made during pre-production with thorough yet flexible planning.  

Directors working on no-to-low productions need to learn as much as they can from line producers.  Line producers use their creativity and quick thinking skills to be effective on the set and directors adopting the line producer's habits will find their directing abilities enhanced.  Like a good line producer, you will then be able to mediate disputes, handle strong egos, fix any problems that arise and know practically everything one needs to know to physically produce a movie.