Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Became an Independent Film Producer

By Gabrielle Nadig

For the last 10 years I have been working as an independent producer creating award-winning feature films, commercials, and short films. I love what I do and I have a talent for it, but there are so many things I wish I had known before I chose this career, things that film school didn’t teach me, and things people rarely talk about. I wish I could email my 20-year-old self and give her a heads-up about the struggles she’s going to face in her career. I can’t do that so instead I’m writing this to all the producers just starting out so that they can go down this path more equipped than I was.

Producer Gabrielle Nadig

Producers are Filmmakers and an essential part of the filmmaking process.

First things first. I did not really understand what a producer did before I started doing it and I still frequently come across people in the industry who do not know or do not value what we do. So I’ll explain… 

I was initially drawn to filmmaking because I loved telling stories. Early on, I realized my strength was in telling the difference between a good story and a bad story. I could identify who the best person was to tell that story and I could take someone’s great story and physically bring it to life in the real world. I could do that all on-time and on-budget. I quickly learned that these traits were rare. There are so many great writers and directors with a vision, but there are so few people who can bring that vision to life. These skills led me to be a producer rather than a director because I loved the idea that a producer could build something out of nothing. We are putting the literal pieces together to create a film. 

Producers are creatively involved in their films. I want to focus on that because the creative part often gets forgotten. We usually are the ones who are developing the script from an idea or existing IP, sometimes before the writer or director is even hired. We work with the writer to craft the story. We have notes on every draft. We have thoughts and input about key crew hires starting with selecting the director if they aren’t already attached. We have creative ideas about casting, locations, props, picture cars, music, etc. We watch every cut of the film in post and give notes. We strategize the release of the film. Plainly put, we are there every step of the way and our creative contributions and decisions can be seen in every frame of the film. 

Producers do not exist to simply fulfill the director’s bidding. We work together as a team to build the best film possible. A good director understands that a good producer makes the movie better and subsequently, this relationship becomes valuable to them. 

The director/producer relationship is a creative partnership. The director and the producer have to be on the same page about what kind of story they are telling and how they are telling it. They are collaborators in the truest of sense for years on a single project. In the best partnerships there is sincere mutual respect and the movie is always better for it. If the director is leading the creative vision, the producer is there to guide, support, manage, protect, and ultimately create that vision.

You will work on each project for far longer than you think.

I wish someone had told me this and I wish Directors knew this! When you are producing a film, normally you will create a single purpose entity that will own the film and through which all expenses will run for the life of the film. Usually that entity is an LLC, but depending on state tax credit requirements, it could be an LLC and another second entity. Guess who is usually responsible for handling these entities long after the movie is produced, premiered, and released? You’re right, the Producer! And for years after your project is released, you’ll need to file taxes for that entity or entities until you reach the point where you are able to legally dissolve the company. That could be three or five years after your release or even longer. At this point, the producer is usually the only person left working on the project. Did I become a producer to worry about taxes and accounting for multiple entities over several years? No, but it’s part of the job and I will do it because at the end of the day, I, as the producer, am responsible for my investors money and it is my job to make sure it’s managed properly and that includes taxes. 

This problem is only exasperated by the fact that these small movies do not pay well. The producer’s fee is small and on first time projects a producer might be asked to defer that fee. For example, on my first film I only got paid $5,000 total for five years of work. You might get backend points but those are meaningless 99% of the time because low-budget indie films are rarely financially successful. You cannot do this job and expect to make enough money to pay your bills in the beginning so plan on having a backup way to make money. I was simultaneously running a commercial production company while I was producing my first three movies. 

To the industry, the director is king. (Sorry producers)

The indie film industry and the Hollywood industry at large value the director over almost everything else. Everyone is always searching for the new, hot director, but we never stop to think about the producer whose contributions got that director on the map in the first place. At some point, a producer decided that this specific director was worth their time, commitment, and energy and kickstarted their career with their first short film or first feature film. 

After producing for a decade, it’s become clear that what producers working in the low-budget, independent, feature space are actually doing is helping first-time directors make large scale directing samples, which producers rarely benefit from. The directors will reap all the success of a film if it is good (and even at times when it is not so good) and will more than likely get pulled up into the Hollywood system. On the other hand, the producer will receive their minimal fee (if any) and maybe some backend, but will otherwise continue to make films in the <$5m space. The best a producer can hope for with any one particular project would be a film festival award, some critical acclaim, maybe an Independent Spirit Award, and maybe in some totally one-in-a-million chance scenario, an Oscar. 

But my dear producers reading this, what I say above is not the end of the world. The most successful producers working are making movies because they love telling stories and moving audiences. They love discovering new directors and talent. I’m telling you all of this because it’s important for new producers to know that while some people may devalue or overlook them, their contribution to the process is essential and deserves recognition. 

It is very unlikely that you will move up in the industry as fast as the directors you work with. 

Consider this hypothetical: I spend three years getting first-time-director Bob’s $1m film made. The movie premieres at a top festival and is well received. The film gets bought by a great distributor and finds its audience. Bob will probably (if he doesn’t already) acquire a manager and agent and he will go off to direct his second movie at a larger company or studio. Unless I’m the one who acquired the material for Bob’s second feature, or Bob and I have a company together, the likelihood of me continuing with Bob is low. Bob has no leverage as a new filmmaker to get me on his next film even if he wanted to and the studio probably doesn’t want another producer in the mix. So Bob goes off to make his next film and I meet another emerging director and start producing their $1-2m feature. And the cycle repeats, which begs the question, how do producers grow their careers? 

Of course there are exceptions to this scenario. There are some acclaimed directors who have continued to work with the same producer movie after movie. Classic teams like Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Steven Speilberg and Kathleen Kennedy, or Paul Thomas Anderson and JoAnne Sellar on the Hollywood elite side or Christina Vachon and Todd Haynes or Lynette Howell and Derek Cianfrance on the independent side have worked together for years. Many of Hollywood’s top directors have understood the importance of a good director/producer relationship and they have moved up the ranks together. However, over time, the ways directors rise through the ranks of Hollywood has changed and the people they can bring up the ladder with them is limited. An extreme example of this is Colin Trevorrow, who after making SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED for less than $1m immediately got tapped to direct JURASSIC WORLD for $150m. None of the producers, unless they were also a writer, from SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED worked on JURASSIC WORLD. 

When there is a great working relationship between the director and their producer and the director wants to bring their producer with them on bigger projects, the director often doesn’t know how to fight for that producer to move up with them or they get push back from their agents and managers. More often than not, bringing their producer with them on their next project is not even an option. 

This is unfortunately the norm and although it’s heartbreaking for producers trying to move up the ranks and produce larger films, we need to be prepared for this outcome and figure out alternative ways to grow our careers without relying on directors to pull us up with them. 

At the end of the day, I want my directors to succeed. Seeing them get great jobs and direct bigger movies or television after I’ve produced their first feature validates the potential I saw in them. I had good taste and spotted their talent before anyone else. It would just be great if producers had the same opportunity to rise up and prove themselves on bigger projects in the same way their directors get to prove themselves. 

There is no ladder to climb. 

When I first started producing, I thought that there would be a slow climb up a ladder. I would start with a tiny movie budgeted at $500k. Then I would do a film for $1m, then one for $2m, then one for $5m, then one for $10m and on and on until I could produce a STAR WARS movie for $200m. I would put in the work and slowly grow over time. However, this is not how it works for producers. The people who produce STAR WARS movies and Marvel movies rarely come from an indie production background. Most come through the studio system directly and are current or former studio executives. So if I wanted to produce a film on the scale of STAR WARS, I would have needed to move to Los Angeles 15 years ago and have gotten a job at Disney or Lucasfilm and worked my way up through their system. There are, as always, exceptions to this. Producers have jumped from indie to studio and live between the two worlds, but I wish someone had explained that there is no straight ladder for producers to climb. 

Directors have countless ways they are supported or promoted onto bigger projects. Almost every major studio has a training or mentorship program for emerging directors where they can shadow industry veterans with the goal of gaining future employment. Warner Bros has the Director’s Workshop. Disney has their Directing Program. Universal/NBC has the Emerging Directors Program. Directors also often get plucked to direct television episodes after their first successful indie film release. 

Newer producers can find amazing support and guidance from the Sundance Institute Creative Producing Program, IFP, Cinereach, or the Film Independent Producing Lab. But after their first or second feature film, there are little to no programs or ways for them to move up to larger budget or studio films. When directors work with good producers, they make better films. If we know this to be true then why isn’t the industry at large supporting producers like we do directors? 

There is such a demand right now for experienced producers. Places like Netflix, Amazon, HBOMax, and Quibi are pouring billions of dollars into production but are there enough producers with actual physical production experience who can produce all this new content? Imagine if each studio, streamer, and production company started supporting producers like they do directors with programs that, in the long run, they would directly benefit from. I’m not just talking about mentorship programs, although that would be great too. It would be amazing if these places actually hired emerging and mid-career level producers who have proven themselves on the smaller stage. I hear a lot that the only way to get hired on a larger budget film is if you have experience on a larger budget film. That’s a chicken and egg scenario. No one is going to hire me to produce a $10m movie if I haven’t produced a $10m movie before. However, when a director moves from a 500k first time feature to a $20m or $200m studio film, no one questions their ability. There has to be a way for producers to move up as well and show that they can handle larger budgets. Indie producers know how to make movies with the absolute bare minimum, imagine what great things we could make if we had resources. 

Recently, I was discussing the difficulty indie producers have when trying to move up to bigger budget films with a producer I admire who consistently makes films for major studios. After working together on a smaller film, he knew I was capable of producing bigger projects. When an opportunity arose, he was able to generously offer me a position on a $20m movie shooting abroad. I was not the lead producer, but I had a bird’s eye view of the production. It wasn’t surprising to learn that the production office was dealing with the same problems I would deal with on a $1m film. SAG hadn’t cleared the film to start. Key crew wasn’t hired yet. Clearances hadn’t been done yet. Scenes were being rewritten. Anything that came up was something I had dealt with before  with the only difference being that it was on a bigger scale. It showed me that independent producers working at the lower budget level are capable of handling bigger movies if given the chance. Because we are used to doing everything ourselves on low-budget movies, we know how every part of the ship works. On a larger budget film, we just have more support and better resources. The added bonus is we already have amazing creative taste and have strong bonds with directors.

You have to create your own opportunities. 

To grow as a producer, I want to continuously be making bigger movies. Bigger budgets, bigger stars, more experienced directors equals bigger audiences. A great way to move up this ladder is to generate and own the content and IP you are trying to produce. Optioning books, articles, graphic novels, etc, and developing for film and television will guarantee that you are involved as the project moves forward. But, word of warning, optioning IP is expensive and the competition is fierce. 

Alternatively, producers could contractually tie themselves to the directors they are discovering. What if I only agreed to produce a director’s first film if I was contractually bound to produce the second film no matter what? Or, what if I was contractually bound to the film/IP itself and if there was a sequel or the film was turned into a television show, I had the first right of refusal to produce it? Maybe directors would hesitate to partner with me, but what if every independent producer had the same requirement? Would things change? Would producers rise up with their directors? 

In conclusion…

I’m not expecting to change the industry, but I want to figure out a way to protect producers as they continue to do the hard work of discovering and developing great new talent. When I started producing films almost 10 years ago, I wasn’t doing it because I thought it would make a good career. I started producing my friends’ films because I believed in their stories and I had a very specific set of skills that no one else seemed to have. I could push the impossible boulder of making a film up a steep hill. 

I am determined to find a way to continue to produce because there are stories I want to tell and audiences I want to reach and I love the work. To the new crop of emerging producers reading this, do not get discouraged. Your work is vital and the future of filmmaking is relying on you. Let my experiences and the experiences of many of the indie producers working today fuel you to forge your own path, create your own opportunities, and fight for what you’re worth because you are a valuable part of the filmmaking process. 

Gabrielle is an award winning Independent Film Producer. Her latest film, LITTLE WOODS (Available on Hulu), starring the BAFTA Award-nominated actress, Tessa Thompson, and Lily James, premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and won the Nora Ephron Award. The film was released theatrically by Neon in April 2019. In 2019, Gabrielle premiered STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN starring Billy Crystal and Ben Schwartz at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. The film was released theatrically and digitally in February of 2020. In 2018, Gabrielle produced THE SUNLIT NIGHT, starring Jenny Slate and Zach Galifianakis, and co-executive produced THE WOLF HOUR, starring Naomi Watts, both of which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Her first feature film KING JACK (Available on Netflix) premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, where it took home the Narrative Audience Award.

Gabrielle is a 2013 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, a 2016 Women at Sundance Fellow, an alum of the 2015 Rotterdam Producing Labs and the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Producers Network. In 2019 Gabrielle was a Film Independent Spirit Award Nominee for the coveted Producers Award. From 2010 until 2017 Gabrielle was the Executive Producer at Buffalo Picture House, a Brooklyn based commercial production company where she produced and directed award winning work for brands such as Gucci, Stewart Weitzman, HGTV, and IFC.

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