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PGA Awards: Where Does the Role of the Producer Stand?

When asked to define the role of the producer, Gary Lucchesi employs a short but effective metaphor: “I always think of the parable of the Good Shepherd,” says the Lakeshore Entertainment prez and co-president of the Producers Guild of America. “He knows his sheep, and his sheep know him.”

That certainly speaks to the core of the position, as established by decades of film and television production: the producer is the individual who, as fellow PGA president Lori McCreary notes, “(provides) the path for the production to ensure a certain standard is held — (they) make sure everything’s working creatively and logistically, and the (creative) team is working well.”

But the host of changes wrought upon the entertainment industry in the past decade may have altered the perception of the producer’s role. And with the 27th annual PGA Awards taking place Jan. 23 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza, the producer’s role continues to merit discussion and debate.

Specifically, the rise of the showrunner — the television producer who serves as the creative fulcrum for the series, as epitomized by figures like Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”), Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) and Barbara Hall, who created and co-produces “Madam Secretary” with McCreary — has had a significant impact in a reversal of the accepted paradigm for producers.

“The creative vision is always going to be with the producer in one way or another, whether we’re getting a film greenlit or if we’re working on television or online.”
PGA’s Lori McCreary

“My experience in film is to get the film greenlit and made, and then bring in a director, and help bring his or her creative vision to the screen,” says McCreary, who, with Morgan Freeman, has produced such features as “Along Came a Spider” and “Invictus” through their Revelations Entertainment shingle. But as in television, “it’s flipped on its head — we hire directors who execute the creative vision of the producer.”’

As these series and others, such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and USA Network’s “Mr. Robot,” continue to redefine dramatic storytelling, so too do they redraw the cartography of the producer’s territory. Online series for companies like Amazon and Netflix have also made an impact, along with unscripted programming.

The latter is a particular concern for McCreary, who says, “We have to make sure that as we move into other arenas where unions aren’t as strong, we uphold the standards for labor and safety that we should all abide by.”

But the platform for production isn’t the only significant catalyst for change: as Lucchesi notes, the basic manner in which a project comes to a screen — any screen — has undergone a transformation.

“Ten years ago, the studios were usually financing the product,” he says. “A producer would develop the project and the studio would take the financial risk. Nowadays, with the rise of independent filmmaking, like the ones we make at Lakeshore, we have bank financing, we have completion bonds, we have contingency — all sorts of checks and balances. So someone has to pay very close attention to how the money is spent.”

Lucchesi recalls that during his tenure as head of production at Paramount from 1987 to 1992, the studio owned every component of the film — what then-chairman Frank Mancuso called “all the bullets in the gun.” But today, as Lucchesi says, “the studios share the risk” with such entities as Participant Media, which financed the 2012 Oscar-nommed film “Lincoln” and recent releases “Beasts of No Nation” and “Bridge of Spies.” That shared responsibility has increased the producer’s role in finding “the financing and distribution for films,” especially those in the “middle class,” with budgets in the $30 million to $70 million range, McCreary says. “The studios are doing fewer of those kind of movies, (and) we’ve lost the independent branches of the big studios,” she says.

Still, for the number of changes wrought upon producers, both Lucchesi and McCreary believe that the core responsibilities of the title will remain the same.

“Technology has changed the landscape significantly,” Lucchesi says. “But there still needs to be someone who can put all the pieces together, and that tends to be the producer.”

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