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ROAD TO BEING A UPM (OR LINE PRODUCER)

I am often asked how I get to do the job I do.  People ask how to move from TV to film, or vice versa.  People ask how to start doing bigger budgets.  These questions have no straight-forward answer.  There is no golden ticket to being a UPM, no checklist of things to directly do in order to achieve these goals.

I was discussing this with someone last week who asked how they might be able to start doing bigger budget projects.  I certainly started on films which were sub-$1M, then gradually got offered bigger and bigger shows.  To date, my largest budget for a studio was $143M.  The largest show I did as a UPM was just under $120M.  The smallest show was $350k.  It’s difficult to quantify ‘what I did’.

For me, it was not only being in the right place at the right time and getting the opportunity to show what I can do by two producers who trusted me.  It was also *years* of hard work and dedication to learning.

 

MY STORY

My story is unique.  Ask 100 people how they got their start, how they got to be where they are now and you’ll hear 100 different stories.

I have known I wanted to make films since I was five.  Yes, I am one of those people.  Aside from working with a cinematographer way back in my early teens while he worked on commercials, I really started out as an intern on two features for an Italian film company.  I was 18.  Meanwhile I was working at a local CBS affiliate doing various things - eventually as the Director of Weekend News (the guy controlling the technicals of the show, not the news stories).  Then, I finished school and moved down to Los Angeles.  After a few months of no jobs, living on the street for a few weeks (don’t tell my mom), I landed a job on a show as a set PA.  After a few years, I was an AD.  Then, on one show working as a Second AD, I was thrust into the office setting.  Long-story-short here, I was enamored and mesmerized by all the things that really go on behind the scenes to allow the set to do what we did.  So, I started over in the office as a PA.  Worked my way back up.  A few more years pass.  I was a production supervisor on a high-budget documentary with a big name director.  He and his Producer were kind enough to give me a shot at doing the budget for a shoot in Mexico …and boom, I was made the UPM.  Eight years after that, collecting non-union UPM days along the way, I was able to join the DGA.

I worked hard to prove I can be trusted with bigger projects.  I worked hard to create great budgets and well thought-out production plans.  I took time in the evenings and on weekends to review things, attend some seminars, have meetings with people who would lend their time and share their experiences. I listened a lot. I sent resumes to hundreds of people.  I pounded the pavement.  In the beginning, I did a lot of budget work for free.  Tried everything I could do to show I had what it takes to be given the next opportunity.  I still do all these things (well, perhaps not doing budgets for free anymore).  My network has grown a lot since those beginning days.  My resume is much longer and my experiences are much broader.

Each show I do is its own challenge.  Each project has its own heart and desires.  Each director their own vision. Each producer their own needs.  Learning the ways to navigate not only the needs, stress, and nuances of how to create budgets and schedules are beset only by the need to understand the hierarchy of Hollywood and cultivate relationships.

Still, how did I get here?  Hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and a little luck.  Many people say “It’s who you know” that will propel you - and while this is a lot of it, there is also something to be said about *what* you know.  You can be besties with the head of a studio, but if they hire you and you fail because you really don’t know the job - that’s egg on not only your face but theirs too.

 

MOVING FORWARD

Considering the core query, looking back on how I got here, what did I do which helped me get here?  I don’t have a solid, one-stop answer.  It’s a combination of things.

Have lunch with people.  Offer a meet at Starbucks to say hello and get to know someone (I can sometimes be coaxed by way of a Venti Chai, *hint*).  Cultivate a friendship which will perhaps lead to a job in the future.  Perhaps they know people who know people, who know people…

Study.  Take the time to review things which have nothing to do with your current project.  Read blogs & websites and see what other people are doing.  Attend some industry conventions and see what the latest buzz items are.  Knowing a new technology is out there will help you when figuring out how to do a shot or something later.

Learn more.  I was the UPM/Line Producer on a film at Fox.  At the time, I was horrible at Post Production.  I knew just barely enough to get by.  So, on that show, I hired a Post Supervisor with a caveat - she had to hire me as a Post PA when I was done with the shooting.  She did.  I worked as a PA in Post for six months after.  Learned a ton.  We did another show together, and today, I have 5 projects with Post Supervisor credit.  I now know that world too, which helps me as a UPM.  Take a class, feed your brain.  Listen, 10 years ago, I did stuff I thought was awesome.  Looking back, I have grown and know so much more.  In 10 more years, I’ll know even more than now.

 Stay updated.  Ensure you have or have access to the latest rate guides and contract information.

Be involved.  Nothing creates a sense of community than getting out there and being involved.  People's access to you, and yours to them, when people are active in the community.  Our community of filmmakers are things like this Reddit, or local gatherings like Women in Film, DGA and PGA events, or a host of other seminars like ones put on by Greenhouse.

Be attentive and show you care.  In whatever project you do, be there.  Be 100% dedicated to the show and ensure your producers know it.  If you are half there, people will notice.  Dedication lead me to additional work because people see I really care.  Which I do.  You should care about the work you do.  Do it to the best of your abilities.

Do more.  Ask what you can do to expand your knowledge.  I was the VP of Production and Post at a company for awhile.  While there, I was interested in dabbling in marketing and promotions.  They allowed me some opportunities and I ended up running the Oscar campaign for a film.  Do I do this now for a living?  No.  However, what I learned from doing that is still referenced in projects I do today.

Don’t be afraid to PA.  Test other waters.  I can’t tell you how many people I speak with who want to simply jump into the hot seat as UPM.  No.  Learn the ropes.  Understand how things work and you will be a better UPM later.  I rest a lot of my abilities on the fact that I have done a lot of different jobs.  I have been a Grip, Boom Op, done Post, Marketing, been a VP at a major TV studio, interned in Wardrobe, been a PA, AD, POC, APOC, Camera Assistant and more.  If you don’t want to actually work all those jobs - find people who do those jobs, *get in their head*, ask questions and understand what they do.

Find your niche.  For me, it was tough shows in odd places.  I slowly built my career on being able to parachute into tough places, figure out how to make a film and do it - on time and on a budget.  From Zimbabwe to Jordan, and Scotland to South Korea, 18 countries later I am very comfortable doing this.  I get hired because of this experience.  Find what drives you and figure out how to put that into your job.

Do it well.  Whether you are doing a project for $100k or $100M, do it well.  Take the time to ensure your budget and plan are well thought out.  Communicate issues to the crew and your producers/studio.  Strive to ensure your projects never go over budget or off schedule.  Think through as many ‘what if’ disaster scenarios as possible and you’ll be ready in case something goes awry.

Experience Matters.  Don’t expect to grow into this position with one project worth of experience.  Have a long term game plan and you’ll get there.  Take each show for what it is and learn what you can from it.  Keep that knowledge for the next one.

Choose projects which speak to you.  I was once given the scripts to two films and asked which one I wanted to do.  Both got made, but I chose the $4M film shot in a far-off land, as opposed to the $22M feature directed by a legend.  Why?  I felt the smaller film had more heart, more grit and was a bigger challenge.  That decision has not haunted me one bit.  The bigger feature was a total disaster, and while the smaller one failed to gain mainstream notoriety - it is one of those films which I still hold as one of the best I have ever done.  (check out: *The Stoning of Soraya M.*)  So, be ok with passing on shows you don’t connect with.  Do projects which will challenge you and you can feel proud of.

Read Reddit.  Is this not a well-veiled plug for my subreddit group?  Well, so be it.  It stands to convey the aspect of a community of like-minded people.  Being a UPM and/or LP is a fairly lonely position.  No one else on the show does what you do, and most of the time 80% of the crew feels you are screwing them over - even when you are not.  So, use forums like this one to ask for help, query others on best practices and share your experiences too.

Love what you do.  I end this article with my greatest advice.  You must love what you do!  L-o-v-e.  Don’t be a UPM for money, glory or fame.  Do it because you love doing the job.  It’s a tough job, no doubt - but rewarding too.  As a related note, try to hire people who love what *they* do too.  My father once told me, “Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Indeed. 

This is your career.  Make the most of it.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

Have some additional words of wisdom?  What’s your story?  How did you do it?  (or how are you doing working on it currently?)

This is a reprint of an article I wrote on Reddit at r/FilmTVBudgeting.

  Have some comments or what to discuss this article? Do it here!

 

Hire Stephen

View my Resume  |  IMDb Pro

~  Knowledgable, detailed, problem-solver

~  Budget experience from $300k to $143M

~  International experience in 18 countries

~  Member DGA, PGA & SAG-AFTRA

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