Scarlett Ayres grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, wanting to be a doctor. Then she took an off-campus high school elective eaiest like Oak Park.
It was a nice break from class to go to the beach.
She fell in love. During her filmmaking lesson, Ayres began filming with her pals using a Flip camera. Ayres, no beach bum but an overachiever, compiled an internship résumé unlike any other: Indies Route One Entertainment, Plan B, Brad Pitt’s producing business, Paramount Pictures, and United Talent Agency.
In her sophomore year at Loyola Marymount University, she met with a Warner Bros. executive. “He encouraged me to focus on one subject and become an expert at it,” she recalls. Producing was that one thing.
Ayres enrolled at USC and submitted her short films to film festivals, from Outfest to Cannes. “I understood that if I could bring an actor, money, or a great director, I could become involved in productions and provide value.”
By 26, Ayres had 13 producer credits, four of them as a primary producer. She was juggling a dozen tasks at once on the set of her fourth movie, “The Birthday Cake,” an indie mob film set in Brooklyn that came out this month. Paul Sorvino’s unanticipated delay, faulty Wi-Fi, and an inexperienced crew member were all factors she had to juggle. Inquiring about her workday, she said, She replied there was no such thing. “My priority is: What is the most urgent?”
There is no ordinary road to become one like a producer’s day. It’s not something youngsters often want to do when they grow up, partly because it’s difficult for even adults to grasp.
Any movie’s ending credits will include an extensive list of “producers.”
It’s the only title anybody can join, says Lynda Obst, producer and author of “Hello, He Lied.” We have to remain and produce the film.”
Others are merely financiers. Others may not have paid but created a valuable connection or did a favor. Or a performer who earned a credit (and some back-end cash) for accepting a wage reduction.
Look closely, and you’ll find “(p.g.a.)” after two or three names. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) certifies them as “creative producers” who worked on the production from start to end. A screenplay, a marketing plan, a distribution deal, a release date, a marketing plan, and an on-set staff have all been handled by them.
That’s who we’re after.
Sha Heim, executive director of the San Francisco Film Festival, argues that “if there are similar themes” among individuals who lean into producing, “it’s like, ‘I put parties together.’” Or I would arrange neighborhood kickball games.’ Someone who can form teams.”
A left/right thinker: The aesthetic drive meets the analytical intellect in most producer-origin tales. She spent as much time on-site reading through tax paperwork, finance contracts, and cash flow calendars, making sure the cinematographer got enough expansive views for editing.
Producers are equally likely to be economics majors as English majors; others come from backgrounds in finance or law. Even the most artisanal small manufacturers use excel.
Christine Vachon, whose films included “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Velvet Goldmine,” and “Far From Heaven,” “Shoot to Kill” comprised not just wacky stories and aesthetic slogans but also a 30-page budget.
“La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz remembers exploring a new strategy while preparing for industry meetings.
I remember charting everyone’s priorities. See how my priority intersects with everyone else’s.” It was a dream come true for a performer. Intriguing to observe the producer’s focus on the project.
How do you begin?
Unlike acting or costume design, production has few academic paths (though there are producing schools). Assisting first and building contacts afterward, many producers follow previous industry professionals’ footsteps.
Although USC is the gold standard in film school, it is worth noting that Steven Spielberg was rejected by USC and fared well at Cal State Long Beach. This is an excellent location to meet your prospective partners.
Hollywood’s assistants are the future’s power brokers, and they learn their trade here. Typical jobs include United Talent Agency, Creative Artists Agency, ICM Partners, and William Morris Endeavor.
It’s the quickest way in; there’s lots of turnover and demand. Insiders call it “grad school” or “boot camp,” and it’s a great learning experience.
Agencies are information factories, and assistants learn everything by listening in on every call. They see how everyone works — agents, producers, executives, directors, and performers — and swiftly decide which one they want to work in.
If you’re a producer, you may start as a production assistant (PA) onset, meeting with agents and locating screenplays. An assistant may become an associate producer. To become a partner or go solo, you can start as a production executive (keeping the office operating).
What are the options?
Heim recalls an actor who asked her what she did all day while watching a movie. We’re must all board the aircraft. We need to get everyone up safely. We must reach 20,000 feet.
A producer has two options to get the aircraft off the ground:
Films funded by studios: Traditionally, studios financed and financed films. Still, producers like Obst at Sony are semi-autonomous and may take rejected ideas elsewhere. Others have first-look partnerships with studios, streamers, or networks that help pay costs.
Even without such an arrangement, an independent producer would like to book a studio before shooting starts. If that occurs, the producer receives her fee or share, and everything is well — except that the studio ultimately has the last say.
Films without a star or a defined genre potential may not get a pre-production studio agreement. To create an independent film, the producer needs to gather upfront funding.
Foreign sale guarantees and bridging loans insure investors’ money, not donors’ money. (These are the films with the most “producer” credits.) Generally, a sale to distributors pays the investors first. If the picture succeeds, the producer is among the last to profit.
Ayres still does. When we first met, “The Birthday Cake” was about to begin filming but needed final funding — essentially taking off without enough fuel to land.
The reality of indie production, says Ayres. “Almost every movie nearing completion seems doomed. … ‘I think I’ll make a movie in a week?’ It doesn’t seem genuine until it’s locked in.”
It’s the same for every indie film. No film is finished until it is released. It’s what makes the process exciting yet risky.
It might take years of toiling on a project or proposing numerous proposals before one takes flight. There will be low times periods of tremendous self-doubt.
After leaving a lucrative job at Fox to start his own production company, producer Michael London got his big break.
“I got lost leaving the lot,” he admits. “I quit my nice job, my office, and my assistant. I was working from home, and I wasn’t exactly confident in my abilities.”
But he was smitten by an unpublished story by Rex Pickett about two people wandering in California wine country. He needed a director.
A few days before he planned to quit and hunt for work, he received a call at his home office. Alexander Payne sought to turn the screenplay into the highly acclaimed 2004 film “Sideways.”
How do producers generate money? (And how much?)
Jobs for clever, motivated people are simpler to come by. Early training as an assistant, at film school, or in the wild rush to make a friend’s film may yield close to minimum pay.
A producer may charge a flat fee or take a percentage of the film’s budget. But anything might change over the lengthy development period. Production costs for a six-month film might reach $30,000. And when a production’s budget is short, the producer’s pay is usually the first to go.
Producers can and do earn a lot of money. But it only works after all the hard work of fundraising, talent hunting, and hiring. That 5 percent of the budget might equal millions if a studio has bought it by then.
A portion of net profit is typically negotiated, but as producers are often the last to be paid, it takes a rare blockbuster to get the big bucks.
What has changed in 20 years?
London has been adjusting effectively to Hollywood’s tectonic swings from the start of his career.
London had a tremendous career in the mid-aughts because of “Sideways” and two more famous productions, “The Family Stone” and “The Illusionist.”
“I was riding the independent movie boom,” he explains. “The idea of broader audiences for more personal films was inspiring.”
Groundswell was founded in 2006 by him, CAA (Creative Artists Agency), and Wall Street investors. It produced “Milk,” “The Visitor,” and “The Informant!” Then came the crash.
In 2008, two significant markets collapsed simultaneously: stocks and DVDs. London’s ability to raise funds through Groundswell became increasingly tricky with those two forces. He had to revert to independent production.
If you’ve been watching anything over the last decade, you’ll see his solution. Before independent film production started to falter, TV gained prominence, igniting a fiercely competitive sector that became even hotter with streaming. London received his first TV program concept early in that progression. Amazon, a newcomer to TV, was the lone taker.
“Betas” was Amazon’s first program. “It reminded me of ‘Sideways’ and ‘Thirteen,’” he adds.
To his liking, he got a first-look agreement with a Fox television subsidiary and rode the content boom with projects that had outstanding narrative elements. He created “Snowfall” for FX, “SMILF” for Showtime, “Chance” with Hugh Laurie for Hulu, and “The Magicians” for Syfy.
“I get to be here for a second wonderful moment,” London adds. This is the age of television, and there are lanes where, if you’re lucky, you can get anything done.
What bad advice do professionals constantly hear?
In a field where people come by side entrances, the only bad suggestion is to follow a particular route.
No film school is required. Producer Don Simpson loved a profile London did for the Los Angeles Times; Obst was a magazine editor before making the transition. In a sector where youth and vitality are scarce, some producers say it’s preferable to get in and find work simply.
No need to be an assistant. Ayres avoided the agency-assistant route and did OK. A position in development or onset may be just as good.
And due to TV, you don’t need a studio agreement. With so many streaming providers fighting for the perfect narrative, all it takes is a brilliant notion (plus a committed name actor and some open-minded financiers). Ayres avoids first-look partnerships to expand her portfolio and retain creative control until she finds the appropriate partner at the right pricing point.
I need guidance.
Key to networking A producer’s role is to connect. So many initiatives came together by chance: An in-demand director’s agent declines a project on her behalf but sends the script to a famous playwright who loves it. That’s not luck; it’s knowing the proper agent and maintaining an open mind.
Perseverance is key. The right team and the right time may make a project suddenly click. Every “surprise success” has a producer with a Plan A, B, C, D, E, etc.
Hear everyone except yourself. Before discovering your preferences, get to know the business — from mentors to performers to test audiences. Not every idea will be realized, and even fewer will be popular (never mind leaving a cultural mark). But no movie or TV program can succeed without a producer who exudes unfettered confidence. London waited years for Payne to be free to direct “Sideways,” a gamble he took because he trusted Payne’s instincts.
Ayres’s early success exemplifies these traits, starting with her breakthrough. While at USC, Ayres developed a pinched nerve, which was treated by breaking a vertebra. The inability to sit for ten hours a day wrecked her assistant plans. It may have been her most pleasing experience ever.
“I went to a number of events, and I asked for advice,” she recalls. The time I had was spent investigating the company and watching movies. Then she began to produce.
“Being a producer at 22? Getting big actors and millions of dollars? I don’t believe I’d be bold enough to pursue it because it’s insane.”
After a few years and countless films, she wouldn’t give her excruciating, thrilling career for anything.