Production Manager (PM) is one of the most intense jobs that you can have on a film; I’ve seen near nervous breakdowns, occasional day-drinking and many other coping habits in PMs trying to deal with the stress and challenges of crazy days on production. While these occurrences were rare, it proves that this job isn’t for everyone. The buck stops at their desk, literally, so this takes a rare mix of personality, technical skills, organization and stamina.
Production Managers know how film production works, usually from years of working in hastily furnished offices and crowded trailers, as well as a resume that includes working on-set for several departments and pretty much every role in the Production Department. They have great people-skills, quite often in a charming but distant Human Resources kind-of-way. They are confident leaders, communicate well (and often) and work to get the most out of their budget through their extensive contacts and negotiating skills. They are detail-oriented with a multi-tasking mindset and usually fanatics about organization, realizing that they have so many tasks on their plate that if anything slips through the cracks it will cost them time and money. They have a skill-set and experience that relates to budgeting, scheduling, accounting and administration. They ask a lot of questions and give more answers.
The primary responsibility of a PM is the budget, quite often creating it after development and always managing it throughout production and into the post-production audit. Creating a budget is where their years of experience becomes valuable. A PM understands general costs for labor, gear and a thousand other things that a set needs to function properly. They usually have working relationships with the major unions that represent the craftspeople who make a film and are up-to-date with any tax credits or other incentives that might be available and how to maximize those benefits.
So, from the minute a PM is hired, they are tracking the budget. They want to know exactly how much they’ve spent and how much they’re projected to spend, accurately, at any time because it will affect the decisions that they make. While they keep a lot of the generalities in their head for moment-to-moment use, they usually have a team that helps them in this task; the accounting department and their team of Production Coordinators and office staff. Every invoice will run through the PM’s office, to be coded into the right category of the budget before heading to accounting to be paid. On smaller productions, there may not be an accounting department so these tasks will fall to the PM or a Producer who is coordinating these aspects of production. In any situation, communication, as with everything on a film, between these two departments is paramount. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
Finally, PMs are leading the production. While they are focused on the budget, they do this keeping in mind the organic structure of production, understanding that many of the smaller problems there can result in reduced efficiency. Productions are made up of progressively smaller groups of teams and teams are made of people. People make films. While they may deal with any number of people problems that come up, it isn’t always with money on the mind. Sometimes, they are concerned with craft services or the quality of lunch, emphasizing safety on a particular day, rewarding a crew member who pulled off the impossible, a specific personnel matter or person who’s changing the mood on-set. All of these challenges may find their way to a PMs desk in one way or another, either directly or when having discussions with key crew members and the Production Department team. It’s important to recognize that solving people problems leads to a happier, more productive set, which leads to saving money in the end. So, the eye’s always on the prize--coming in at or below budget and getting the most out of every penny spent.
The most successful PMs, like your ADs, are able to deal with making a lot of decisions, big and small, easy and tough, about almost everything that’s happening on set. It’s when to fire someone, when to add an extra day and how to massage the budget, when to reign in key crew members, helping the cast deal with circumstances and changes, dealing with the location contact who’s gone off the range, placating police and fire officers and a myriad of other tasks and situations. Their experience, working style, talent and persistence are essential to a successful production.