Why be a producer? Sue Maslin, Owen Johnston and Gus Howard tell all

The film industry runs on good producers, though it can be a daunting role. Screenhub talked to three veterans who know the highs that make up for the lows.

Producers are so misunderstood that their names are dropped from festival programs, and relegated to page two even by IMDB, the industry’s own database of credits.

The role is crucial: producers start projects, find the money, take the financial risks and keep selling it when everyone else is long gone. More than anyone else, they have the right to hire and fire. 

We asked three of Australia’s best producers to talk about the best and worst parts of their job.

Sue Maslin

Sue Maslin has produced a string of documentaries and features, which brought her to the success of The Dressmaker. She remains a stalwart independent.

‘When it works, there is nothing like it. It is exhilarating,’ she explained. ‘What I mean by works is that it connects with audiences. That’s the only thing that makes it all worthwhile. 

‘Festivals or red carpets is just window dressing. When as a producer you have followed an idea right through production and seen the film on a screen with an audience – and most importantly, a regular audience – and you are hearing those comments and it connects, that is exhilarating. There is nothing else like it.

Read more: The true story behind financing The Dressmaker

‘We also have the joy of creative collaboration, creating the space for other creatives to do their best work. When that is possible, the process itself is really fulfilling. To survive as a producer, you need to be a gambler, you can’t be afraid of risk. You’ve got to be prepared to lose as well as win. And the process itself has to be rewarding and fulfilling, and that comes down to the people you are working with.’

Read more: Sue Maslin and the business case for gender equity

Gus Howard

Gus Howard has spent a lifetime in television, often in long form series drama. He has been developing his own projects and taught the producing course at the Victorian College of the Arts for several years.

‘Why do you think it’s worth being a producer? A producer’s vocation should be to make films about the way we live that make people say “Yeah!”’ he replied, continuing, ‘That is definitely the sort of thing that makes being a producer worthwhile. Yes definitely, the sort of thing that makes being a producer worthwhile. 

‘It’s good to be a producer if you feel that you can actually get past a certain point, because I think most producers – whether their business model producers or creative producers –  have a lot of ideas which never get past first base.  And once you get something that starts to build up a bit of velocity or a critical mass, it’s a great feeling. And it’s always worth pursuing.

‘But ultimately, it’s work, and it’s hard work and it doesn’t always pay off, and that creates a kind of mythology in the mind of the producer and the nice thing about mythology that you don’t know if it’s true or not but it’s worth pursuing. So they’re the sort of things that have always kept me going and I’ve been rewarded. That’s it.’

Read more: Gus Howard – how producers can storm Hollywood, gently

Owen Johnston

Owen Johnston has been a producer on both feature and documentary projects. He started as an editor in television, has been an agency manager and policy expert at Screen Producers Australia, and brings an academic rigour to his analysis of our crucial processes. 

‘Creative producers can see the big picture, who say, “There is a picture in this [idea or property], can you run it for me?” And they have the cognitive wherewithal to get everyone else to agree.

Owen Johnston

‘It is a calling, you know. There’s not a lot you can do about it,’ he said with a touch of humour.

‘Why would you be a producer? I think of the people who are really good at it. And I think they do it because they have endless amounts of energy, and they can see the big picture. And they’re good negotiators, and they are excellent at networking. They can use all those skills in a producing job, and they love film and television. That is the bottom line.’

‘Producers are the people who get the money. A lot of people who we call producers are really physical producers, whose skills come from a background in production. All their work is dependent on someone else to find the money, and use their networks. They are respected and loved, but they don’t raise the money. And that is the really hard stuff.

‘Creative producers can see the big picture, who say, “There is a picture in this [idea or property], can you run it for me?” And they have the cognitive wherewithal to get everyone else to agree.

‘The other thing you need is persistence. Never give up. A lot of really good producers have this tremendous ability to not be affected by rejection. It’s extraordinary. They don’t take it personally. If you are too close to the writing side, you can become such a believer that you are wounded. You need to know how to give up on a project and just move on to the next one. Or put it aside and say, “Look, the time is not right, and right at the moment with the people in positions of power. And, maybe I’ll come back in three four or five years and it will be different.”

‘It helps to be a clear-eyed realist. You certainly wouldn’t do it for the money, although if you are really good at it, you can. But they all do it by going global.’

A long, hard road

There are inevitable downsides to being a producer.  Producers actually make a living and a career out of rotating through production positions on other productions or for other companies. They become employees, or line producers, or development producers, or they work in agencies or executive producers. 

‘You can’t sustain yourself as a producer,’ said Sue Maslin, ‘unless you have other sources of revenue, and other strings to your bow –  that’s certainly the case. You have to focus on scale, on turnover. To be sustainable you need a very high level of production, which means you start running bigger enterprises and you stop producing. That is why quite a few of them stop doing that and go back to producing, because they miss the very thing that they got into the business to do.’

Gus Howard said, ‘One is expected to work for nothing beyond the point of sweat equity. The producer has to be prepared to put in quite a lot before they see any income, and it shouldn’t necessarily be just about the money. 

‘But when films cost as much to make as they do, it gets a little bit philanthropic. Nobody makes films with their own money, and no one makes films for no money with their own effort. Generally speaking the payoffs – you hear about them of course – but they are few and far between.’ 

The chicanery, cunning and persistence of the industry is in full view in the current Netflix series Call My Agent, though it doesn’t just focus on producers. 

Owen Johnston advises producers to watch an independent film called What Just Happened. Directed by Barry Levinson, produced by Art Linson, Mark Cuban, Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, it was written by Art Linson from his book, subtitled ‘Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Line’. It is available on Apple TV and GooglePlay.

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.

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