I want to be a film producer. How do I start?

An interview with Sean Patrick Burke

“The producer needs the set to be happy, crew to be taken care of, and make sure that everyone is there to ensure the director gets what he/she wants to make their vision successful.”

Every successful producer has mastered his or her abilities by taking well-calculated risks through unique paths. Setting the grounds for a film to be recognized in a prestigious festival or to make millions in the box office requires vision, talent, and energy, as well as some serious negotiation, organization, and people skills—none of which can be acquired overnight. Experience is key, and producers have to start somewhere, doing what they know (and what they can learn quickly)–fiercely. And always learning volumes on the job.

Sean Patrick Burke has one of these adventurous producing biographies. When he got laid off from his regular job just three months after becoming a father, he had to make some life changing decisions. So, against all odds, he decided that this was precisely the right moment to do what he loved the most: producing films. Ten years later, his producing credits include a Sundance winner (As You Are, directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte), and a big studio film (Super Troopers 2, directed by Jay Chandrasekhar), among other projects that he hand-picked. “I usually don’t want ‘safe’ projects”, he says. “I want thought-provoking pieces that will make people think outside the box.”

In the Independent Film Producing course he is teaching at IAFA, Burke will lay out to new and upcoming producers some of the invaluable information he wished he had when he started on the job. It will be an opportunity to learn the skills and practice them, while building confidence as a crew leader and creative producer.

In this interview, he talks about what to look for as a producer and how to go about it.

You have worked on indie productions, like As You Are, and in larger productions, like Super Troopers 2. What are the main challenges in both scenarios? Do they represent different types of producing?

They are both very different for sure. I do two types of producing:

PRODUCING: Where I take the project from script to finished product. I oversee everything. I work with the writers/directors on re-writes, I put together the necessary documents, I raise the equity for the film, partner with companies, get sales estimates, hire the crew, and oversee the entire production. It is a lot of work, but I like to be a very hands-on producer. There are many challenges with producing.

  • Packaging the film with the right talent/director. If you don’t package it correctly, it will be hard to sell.
  • Getting investors to sign on. This is and always will be very hard. Investors want to make money back, but they also want to make sure their money is being spent wisely. They will want many different types of documents such as budgets, finance plans, ROI structure, waterfalls, sales estimates, etc. etc. Getting everything lined up and ready for a pitch is essential.
  • Overseeing production. There will always be many hiccups with a production. Being a good producer is not allowing these hiccups to get in the way. Think outside the box, overcome obstacles, and take the stress off of the production and more importantly the director.
  • Firing people. It sucks, but it happens sometimes. If someone on my set is making someone feel uncomfortable, unsafe, etc. etc. you will need to fire this person. It is a difficult job, but it needs to happen sometimes. The safety of your cast and crew is of the utmost importance.

EXECUTIVE PRODUCING: This job is a lot more hands-off. I usually do this for projects that are very well-packaged, have a strong production team, or have a high success for my investors to recoup his/her investment.

This job is tough because your sole responsibility is raising equity. I find it is hard sometimes to get the proper documents needed for a pitch, but mostly it is difficult because it is just hard to pitch investors on a project. If successful, I get an Executive Producer credit and a fee for my work finding equity. It keeps my credits relevant and helps pay the bills.

If someone wants to become a producer, what’s the first step?

First step is asking yourself “WHY”? Why do you want to produce? I guess finding that reason is the first thing one should figure out. If they like the $100 Million+ films in the theaters, they may want to go work for a studio and work up the ladder to produce. If they like the Sundance type films and want to make thought-provoking content that is out of the ordinary, they may want to do indie films.

After one figures this out, they can learn to read scripts. Finding a solid script is hard. There really is a lot of bad content out there. Learning to find something good or even excellent is quite the task. As a producer, I would watch as many films as possible. Study film, study scripts, study what makes something successful.

How did you start working in film?

I started doing documentary filmmaking well before I got into narrative work. I traveled around and filmed in places that were affected by either a natural disaster or a government issue e.g., Oaxaca Teacher Strikes. It wasn’t until I got laid off from my welding job when my son was three weeks old that I decided to do narrative films. At that point, I couldn’t get another welding job, so I opted to just start making movies and pursued it full-time then. That was ten years ago.

What are you working on now?

Way too much. I currently have 11 films in development. Three are packaged and raising equity. All in budgets ranging from $2 Million to $30 Million.

How would you describe the ideal relationship between producer and director?

They need to get along. They need to see eye to eye creatively. Ideally, they work on the script together with the writer as well. Everyone on the project must share a passion to make the film. For the best relationship, it will be up to the producer to adjust any issues that arise early on. A director will need to focus on the creative integrity for the film. The producer needs the set to be happy, crew to be taken care of, and make sure that everyone is there to ensure the director gets what he/she wants to make their vision successful.

When you read a script to potentially produce it, what elements are you particularly looking at?

I will cover this specific question in the course, but it is very simple:

  • The writer is willing to take notes, make changes, and work as a team.
  • The same goes for the director if different than the writer.
  • The genre is specific. I am not into producing films that cover too many genres. They are not something sales/distribution companies want.
  • Creative, unique, well-written script. I usually don’t want “safe” projects. I want thought-provoking pieces that will make people think outside the box.
  • Something easy to pitch to investors, actors, agents, etc.

It is, of course, a big deal in everyone’s lives to make a movie, but you aren’t performing surgery on a dying person or saving the world from climate change. A movie is a movie. Make the most fun out of it while creating a unique and fun story to tell the world.

How would you describe the perfect set?

I find that a well-balanced set is the best type of set, one that is fun to be on while also being efficient. No one wants to come to a movie set where everyone takes themselves too seriously. The one thing that needs to be taken seriously is the safety of everyone on set and the treatment of everyone on set. Other than that, remember, you are making a movie. It is, of course, a big deal in everyone’s life to make a movie; but you aren’t performing surgery on a dying person or saving the world from climate change. A movie is a movie. Make the most fun out of it while creating a unique and fun story to tell the world.

What people should expect to learn in the course you will teach at IAFA?

This course is designed for someone like me ten years ago when I got into narrative filmmaking. I had zero clue what I was doing. I just jumped in, read every single book I could get my hands on, networked like crazy, worked on studio films, interned for indies, and busted my ass. This course is designed to teach every filmmaker the proper way to take a script and get it into production. All it takes is the work and dedication, but this course will guide you with the proper steps to getting that film made the way you want to.