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The inside track

The advice that follows comes from established professionals at various stages in their careers – but many of whom have progressed through a series of production roles to become production managers, line producers and heads of production with particular experience in TV drama.

TV is different

There is a lot of common ground between production management in film and TV drama in terms of core skills and people do move between the sectors. But there are significant differences too – which is the reason for the focus on TV drama in this resource pack.

The biggest differences may lie between the production management of an individual feature film and running a continuing TV drama series. But even within TV, no two productions are ever the same. The format inevitably has a big impact – single drama or mini-series, longer TV drama series that may run over a number of seasons, or continuing drama on air year round.

The nature of the format can require different ways of working with which you need to be familiar. Then even within the same essential format the budget, set and locations, scale and complexity will all have an impact on what is involved in pre-production and the way the shoot has to be managed – different budgets, different schedules, different expectations.

So employers in TV are looking for the core skills but also an appreciation of what can make TV drama different – and what that means for the role of production manager or line producer.

“ … television is a constantly moving train and your job is not to derail that train. Whether you’re an actor, director or whatever – your job is to keep the train moving till it pulls into the station at the end of the season.”
- Jon Hamm: “In The Actors’ Studio: The Cast of Mad Men”

What’s in a name?

Line producer or production manager? In the production hierarchy the line producer is the senior role. One way of thinking about the distinction between the roles where both are present is that the line producer is expected to plan and monitor how a physical production is to be delivered on time and on budget – while the production manager executes the plan day-to-day. But they require many similar professional and people skills.

However, job titles can be a source of confusion for someone new to the industry. With the pressure on budgets and different ways of working between productions, there can be a blurring of the boundaries between roles on different productions. Some jobs may even be advertised as line producer/production manager, so on some productions one person may essentially be fulfilling elements of both roles – and some productions may use different titles for these roles.

The size and make-up of a particular production management team will tend to be dictated by the sources of funding and the budget, the scale of the production, the complexity of the shoot, and the expectations of different co-producers and other stakeholders.

It may also be a case of playing to different people’s strengths in the production management team – and wider production team. So the combination of roles – line producer, production manager, production co-ordinator – may differ considerably according to the perceived needs of a particular production.

When considering any specific role you need to carefully read the job description to determine just what will be expected.

In the rest of this section when there is reference to the line producer or production manager role only, the advice is still intended to be relevant to either role. 

Hone your people skills …

….they’re the ones you’ll need most.

95% of my job is diplomacy.
- Robbie Sandison, Head of Production, Coronation Street, ITV

Being a line producer or production manager is not just a scheduling, logistics and numbers job – it is fundamentally about communicating with and managing relationships with a diverse multi-disciplinary team of people. So you need to be an effective communicator – in writing, on the phone or face-to-face – and good at building and sustaining relationships with many very different people.

As well as analytical and creative problem solving skills you need excellent negotiating skills, patience, diplomacy and a considerable resolve. You need to understand the dynamics of the team you work with and have the ability to persuade, coax and cajole others into doing what you need them to do to resolve the problems that will inevitably arise.

There will be times when you have to make tough decisions. You need to be decisive but you don’t always need to give an answer straight away when faced with problems – you can take to time to think about the right way forward, to prioritise and reprioritise  Ultimately, you need to be firm but fair. You can’t always be popular with everyone and you can’t afford to take things personally. Professionally, it is more important to be respected than liked but not impossible to achieve both most of the time.

And after you have resolved a conflict with someone you may still need them to be willing to work with you again! 

IT’s magic!

It is important to be familiar with the range of basic and specialist software used in TV drama to assist with scripting, scheduling and budgeting.

These include Movie Magic budgeting and scheduling tools and Final Draft or similar scripting software – but you also need a good working knowledge of Excel too.

While not all TV productions will rely on Movie Magic for scheduling, the budgeting tool is frequently used.

But budgeting and scheduling software can help provide a logistical breakdown of the script, detailing all the aspects of production requirements, and create a budget that can be continually reviewed and adjusted as the production progresses.

It all starts with a story… and a schedule

The starting point for the production management process is taking the script and breaking it down into a schedule – the timetable for the shoot – on which the production budget will be based.

Depending on the production, your exact role and when you join the team, this may have already been done or may fall to you. But understanding and managing this schedule and adapting it as you go – to keep the production on time and on budget – will be central to your role as a production manager.

Scheduling is a specialist skill that as a production manager you hone over time. However there are available courses where you can learn to use industry software to assist you with the process.

If you come to the production manager role from experience as a second/first assistant director then you will already have a knowledge of scheduling; if you come from other routes the more you can learn by observing and questioning colleagues along the way the better.

Don’t be afraid of the maths!

Budgeting is a key part of the line producer and production manager role and you do need basic numeracy skills to survive in the job – but don’t let the maths put you off. 

If it is already one of your strengths – particularly if you come from production accounting to the role – then it will hold no terrors. But plenty of established production managers have had to overcome their initial fear of the dark arts and learn to read budgets as well as scripts – and your production accountant is always there to support you.

As with scheduling there are available courses where you can learn to use the industry software and learn how to prepare and understand budgets – but while progressing toward a production manager role you should take every opportunity to learn from everyone around you about what is involved in funding a production and creating and managing a production budget, including funding sources, deal terms, rights and deliverables.

And the best tip from the professionals is “never destroy a budget”, because you never know when it might come in useful again.

TV production is a team sport

As a line producer or production manager, you are often called on to be a trouble-shooter and help colleagues to come up with creative solutions to the problems that inevitably arise during productions.

You don’t have to be an expert in everything – you just have to know enough and who else to ask. So it does help to understand the jobs of most of your other team members and how the whole picture fits together.

Whatever route you take into these roles, you will develop in-depth knowledge about some areas of the production manager’s job but try to learn as much as you can from others along the way about their specialisms too.

Be nosey – choose your moment but don’t be afraid to ask colleagues about their jobs. Help other people in their roles whenever you can and let people know of your interest in taking on a production manager role. Then when you are offered opportunities, step up and take them.

It’s not who you know as much as the impression you create

Once you get started in the business and begin to work your way up you will work with many different people who may have an influence on the opportunities that come your way – so from the beginning the impression you create is critical.

A good reputation and the chance to progress in this career has to be earned - and there are no shortcuts.

Every experience can help you build the substantial skillset you will need to be successful as a production manager. You need to demonstrate that you are reliable and committed, a good team member who will go the extra mile for colleagues, someone who can show initiative and is willing to learn and keep learning… and will do whatever you are asked with good grace.

Then opportunities to progress should come – but you have to seize them.

Making a dramatic move

If you already have experience of production management in other genres but are considering making a move into drama this can be quite challenging.

You need to understand the particular culture and hierarchy of drama production and what is involved in dealing with artists.

It will be valuable if you get the opportunity to shadow colleagues on established productions – but you may well have to step down and take a role at a lower level to build your experience of the particular demands of drama production.

Stay positive… stay calm…

... even in the production’s darkest hours, or when everyone else wants a good moan.

Few productions are plain sailing throughout and it can often be your function as line producer or production manager to be a sounding board for people’s concerns – sometimes personal as well as professional. They will look to you to provide reassurance and ultimately the creative problem solving to get things back on track.

In such a pivotal role, negative people don’t get hired the next time.

Shared responsibilities

As a line producer or production manager you need to understand the whole production process – where the money comes from through to how you are going to deliver the finished product.

You should make sure you have a good relationship with your executive producer/producer(s). Ultimately you have shared responsibilities for delivering the production on time and on budget.

With the rest of the production team you need to be very clear about budgets and other people’s responsibilities for their part of the production costs. You need to ensure there is continuous communication with everyone about costs and budgets so you can anticipate problems that may arise.

You are there to help the production team to be as creative as possible with the money available. You may have to challenge colleagues over costs but you need to be able to come up with creative options and alternatives to enable them to achieve their goals.

It can consume your life

The job of line producer or production manager on a TV drama can be a difficult one. It is extremely demanding and requires stamina and resilience. In the production period in particular it can be a 24/7 job; the hours can be long and unpredictable and you may be required to be away from home for long periods.

You need to thrive under pressure as every day is likely to throw up different problems that need to be solved to keep a production on track. But that can also make the job exciting and challenging. You get to be a key part of a big team and when the dynamics of that team are good it is a very satisfying process.

If all that doesn’t sound too daunting this could be the role for you. But you must also be aware that there is no real shortcut to gaining the knowledge and experience you need to succeed in the job.

There are courses that can give you an excellent grounding but there is no substitute for on-the-job experience – starting at the bottom and learning the ropes as you go – in order to gain the trust of colleagues and employers.

Useful resources

  • The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook by Chris Jones & Genevieve Jolliffe (ISBN-13:  978-0826479884), with additional resources at www.guerillafilm.com

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