[You make the movie twice.] Once in pre-production, where the locations, budgets, casting, etc., get all the creative juices flowing, and then again for real, when the machine takes over and it’s all about deal-making and staying on budget. Those are two distinct phases and I enjoy them both. – Kathleen McGill, UPM
INT. PRODUCTION OFFICE – DAY
Orderly chaos. CLOSE ON A CUP OF COFFEE. WIDEN to see it is on a desk filled with paperwork, files, and more coffee cups. Sitting at the desk is AMY, Unit Production Manager. She juggles a sandwich and phone, and she is clicking around on her computer.
Managing an independent film project or movie production is an arduous undertaking. There are people, places, and things to be wrangled. There are schedules to be managed. There are ups and downs. There is money—a lot of money. As a producer or independent filmmaker, it is important to hire a person who will protect that money to control costs, and look after the film’s day-to-day production needs.
This person needs to be proactive. They need to be quick-minded, confident, and have creative problem-solving skills. This person must understand that everything he or she does will affect the film's budget and final outcome of the movie.
On an independent feature, this role is filled by a “middle management” position called a Line Producer and/or Unit Production Manager (UPM). On larger budget films, the two roles are separate--the Line Producer is responsible for the budget, and the UPM is responsible for the logistics. My professional experience has been working with both positions merged into one, so in this article I’ll refer to the position as the UPM.
UPMs are charged with:
- The Schedule
- The Budget
- The Set – running the day-to-day business
UPMs need to understand business concepts, people management, and time management. They also need to have a firm grasp of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Having boots-on-the-ground experience across an array of positions like assistant director or locations manager is invaluable because the UPM is responsible for every contract on the business side of the shoot. The more experienced the UPM is, the more valuable s/he is as a decision-making resource.
The foundation of the UPM’s day-to-day job is the creation of a workable schedule, and the execution and enforcement of the film’s budget. The more intimate knowledge a UPM has of filmmaking, the easier it is to dig in and succeed at these two tasks.
First, she breaks down the screenplay into a temporary schedule that shows how long it will take to shoot each scene. From this schedule she estimates the cost of shooting for each day and produces a conditional budget to show the total amount of funding needed. When the 1st AD comes onboard, the AD takes over the scheduling duties from the UPM.
There are innumerable variables that affect the schedule and thus the budget. Since the schedule can change even after principal shooting begins, the UPM will still have hands on the project at a high level of involvement.
It’s not in the budget. – Every UPM, all the time
The UPM works daily to support the director's vision, so the producer and UPM work together to secure as many of the production elements as possible. A film budget is typically divided into four categories:
- Other (insurance, completion bond, etc.)
While the director is selecting “above-the-line” department heads (like the writer, director, and cast) the UPM is negotiating deals on “below-the-line” costs and everything else related to the film’s requirements such as:
- The remaining crew
- Salary rates
The terms “above-the-line” and “below-the-line” come from the top sheet of the actual budget document. These distinctions have been used since the early studio days when a budget top-sheet would literally have a line separating the above-the-line and below-the-line costs.
Above The Line (creative)
The above-the-line creative talent are essential to the film. These roles are fixed costs, so if your budget can’t afford them, you have two choices: rewrites or raise more money. On a low-budget, independent film, if you use guild members, the writer and director are hired at guild minimums, so you can’t really do anything to lower these costs.
Below-the-line (direct production costs like the crew, locations, craft services, and equipment) are more difficult to cut and make up the bulk of a film’s budget. UPMs do the negotiating, the hiring, and the firing, so this is where the UPM’s wherewithal and creative cost-saving skills come into play.
Then you have budgets within budgets: the art department budget, the catering budget, incidentals, extras, script copies, graphics, fuel, sharpies, location fees, hair and makeup, walkie talkies, extras, shipping costs...the list goes on. Something to remember is that every film production actually has two budgets: The gross budget, which details the total actual spending, and the net budget, which is the final out-of-pocket spending.
“You never want to say no to the director, but you can’t say yes to everything they want.” – JoAnn Perritano, UPM
During pre-production, UPMs set up the production office and monitor the production departments to make sure everyone is running on time and within budget. Because the narrative of a film directly affects the costs, schedule, and the budget decisions, the UPM should be consulted on all creative elements during pre-production that could dramatically affect a film’s budget.
- Are your night scenes driving the story, or can they be changed to day scenes?
- Are vehicles or animals involved? The famous coconut scenes in Monty Python and The Holy Grail were done because the production team couldn't afford horses.
- How many locations are in the script? Can sets be doubled up on?
On Mnemosyne, working with the writers, director, and producer, we were able to determine which locations and sets could be combined, did some script re-writes, and reduced our location requirements from seven to four.
We were lucky enough to find a primary location that housed the majority of our set needs, and all the locations required relatively minimal set dressing and props.
It's the most fun I have in the world, when I'm on set. I feel like, “Pinch me, I'm dreaming. When is someone going to come around and notice that I've been allowed to do this thing?” — Adrienne Shelly (Waitress)
During principal photography, UPMs often divide their time between the production office and set. On set, the two people responsible for executing the planning and organization established during pre-production are the UPM and the 1st AD.
If any two crew members need to work in harmony, it is these two. They each need to have a solid understanding of the inner workings of the production office and the set.
The UPM handles the logistics, the scheduling, the budget, the budget, and the budget along with the hiring of the crew, equipment rentals, and the budget.
The 1st AD is the director’s right hand. She holds the entire production company together and has a high risk of getting ulcers. She must be able to anticipate the director’s needs, facilitate the shoot schedule, and control the set to achieve the director’s vision under the constraints of the budget and the UPM’s shooting schedule. A good 1st AD finds the sweet spot between balancing the needs of the director, the UPM, and the star.
This is where the 1st AD and UPM relationship is put to the test. While the AD is on set answering 9,000 questions on three different radio channels, keeping the pace, managing an ulcer, and making changes to the schedule to reflect script revisions, the UPM is on the outskirts of the set making changes to the budget to reflect the script revisions and location issues.
There are a thousand different things a producer needs to think about, and dealing with contracts is not one of them. UPMs are an invaluable member of the team and an integral part of every film set.
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