Film 101: Producer vs. Director

by | Aug 12th, 2009 | 1:07PM | Filed under: Film 101

Movie_production (If you missed our introduction to the Film 101 series, catch up here.)

School's in! 

But since it's only mid-August, I guess that makes our first Film 101 lesson technically a part of Summer School, right?  (I really wish I was talking about the classic '80s Carl Reiner movie.)  Therefore, we're going to take it very easy on you in this first post and discuss something that many wonder but few are brave enough to ask: "What's the difference between a film producer and a director, anyway?" 

Here's the true answer: "That depends on who's producing and who's directing." 

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to divvying up responsibilities on a film project, and any definition of a specific role in the movie-making process is bound to have tons of exceptions.  But, since this is Film 101 and not Film 401, we'll focus on the high-level descriptions of what "typical" producers and directors might do.  In general, a producer takes care of the business and logistical side of things, whereas a director is usually there on the set — day in and day out — and is in charge of the overall artistic vision of the movie, as well as the execution of that vision.  

Let's get a little more specific.  A producer might spend a good chunk of his time flipping through scripts or looking at other possible source materials for adaptation (novels, plays, etc.), trying to find a project he deems worthy of his efforts (or that he thinks might make a mint at the box office).  If he comes across a keeper he will then get to work on securing financing or raising funds, selecting a director (and sometimes other key cast and crew members), helping to finalize the script and eventually figuring out distribution.  When all is said and done, the producer has ultimate responsibility for bringing a film in on time and on budget.  Up until this summer, Kathleen Kennedy was considered the most financially successful producer of all time with $5 billion in ticket sales grossed across 54 movies, but The Beard (aka Steven Spielberg) just knocked her out of first place thanks to his Executive Producer credit on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  He's now at $5.03 billion across the 52 movies he's had a hand in producing.

Speilbergwalkoffame It just so happens that Spielberg is ranked as the most financially successful director as well, which probably comes as a surprise to absolutely no one.  In fact, he's waaay in front of the rest of the pack with $3.76 billion across 24 movies.  Next in line is Robert Zemeckis with $1.8 billion across 14 films.  So what do these guys do when their director caps are on?

They are chiefly on the hook for taking a screenplay and bringing it to life on the big screen.  A director determines the overall look of the film, sets its mood and tone, and instructs actors, actresses and members of the crew how to carry out the vision that's whirling around in that creative mind of his.  Sometimes he'll use storyboards to communicate his thoughts, sometimes he'll actually act things out a bit on his own, sometimes he'll explain the gist of a scene and let his cast improvise — all of that really comes down to the personal style of the man or woman at the helm.  They're most likely going to have a say in everything from camera angles to editing techniques to the film's score and sound effects to action sequences to costume design, even though there are typically also specific people in charge of each of those areas.  That's why the director is usually the one to get the majority of the kudos if
the movie is a success… or the one to be blamed (and possibly
ridiculed) if the end product is a stinker.  More often than not, his influence is evident across all aspects of the finished film.

Woody-allenThese days, it's pretty rare to find someone who is solely a producer or a director; almost all of the major players in the filmmaking industry have done a combination of producing, directing, writing and even acting at one time or another.  In fact, finding success in acting, directing and screenwriting makes one — such as Woody Allen… or even Ben Affleck — a "triple threat."

We intend to write future Film 101 installments on influential directors and producers… and even perhaps have a little history lesson on how the roles of producers and directors changed when the filmmaking industry went through a massive upheaval in the 1950s (after a 1948 Supreme Court ruling ended the existing studio system… and the "Golden Age of Hollywood").  

But we still want to know what you're interested in learning!  Do you have any specific questions about what we've covered in this post that we could perhaps answer in another Film 101 piece?  Anything else you're just dying to know?  Or are you OK with simply tagging along for the ride and waiting to see what we throw your way next week?

7 Responses to “Film 101: Producer vs. Director”

  1. Nick
    Posted on August 12, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    I always find myself loving the various set designs… in particular, the lavish & enormous homes/ mansions seen in many different films (From the large beach house in “Weekend at Bernies” to the moving glass-walled mansion in “13 Ghosts”, etc). I’d love to see a Film 101 installment on how these homes/sets get designed, built, or chosen to be on film!

  2. Nick
    Posted on August 12, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    I think film 101 posts are a grand idea! Keep the information coming.

  3. Scruff
    Posted on August 13, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    I will happily tag along!

  4. Shaq
    Posted on August 13, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    this article was fantastic! short, sweet, simple & to the point! it would be great if you included some screenwriting related articles, or explained the screewriters job. the options in your poll were also fantastic, keep up the good work! =-)

  5. Livia
    Posted on September 9, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    I like when they have this special feature that is behind the scenes feature and it is very interesting what they do behind the scenes. Director is the one who directs the actors and makes the film in his or her version and the producers are the ones who picks out the music for the background and creats the scenes. I glanced at the article, it was great.

  6. Anon Emous
    Posted on December 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    So who owns the rights to a film at the end of the day? A producer or director?

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Twice Nightly
    Posted on July 14, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    As I understand it, since the producer is the one contracting or other wise hiring the director, the rights of the film would most likely belong to either the producer, the production company he works for and/or the investors that helped finance the project to begin with.

    Like imagine a corporate chain of restaurants, owned by the home office, aka the production company. They hire a GM (producer) who is given authority to open his restaurant and run it the way he sees fit, so long as it’s profitable and within company guidelines (in other words, has to make money and must go through standards and practices, etc.). Finally, that GM hires a Kitchen Manager (Director), who is in charge of the actual product being produced (the movie) and has significant influence over the independent recipes (scenes, ambiance, editting, etc.), but generally doesn’t have COMPLETE creative control over the final menu (ultimately, the final cut of the movie, or even the overall direction, plot or source material.)