What do film producers do?
If you’ve ever been confused about the ambiguous distinction between executive producers, line producers, or even development producers, you’re not alone. Producers take on a variety of different roles within the film industry, but it’s not always clear what those roles can mean. In an effort to illuminate the vital contributions of producers, Cinema Femme spoke with seasoned executive producer Christina Sibul.
A graduate of Yale School of Drama, Christina got her start as a producer in Los Angeles the early 2000s, working on independent films like Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen”. Cinema Femme chatted with Christina about the day-to-day duties of a producer, as well as her journey into producing, her past projects, and her upcoming films. With her background in story development, Christina even has some advice for aspiring writers looking to get a script green-lit for production.
Projects in Christina’s hands have gone on to receive wins and nominations at the Oscars, BAFTA, and Golden Globes. Her most recent project, “Monica“, recently premiered at the Venice Film Festival and centers around a trans woman who returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother. In addition to producing, Christina is also a professor at CSUN, where she is dedicated to educating the next generation of filmmakers.
Christina Sibul, IMDB
How did you get your start in producing?
I got my start in producing by mistake, in so many ways. I had moved out to Los Angeles from New York, for a relationship. I was super happy in New York, but I [realized], ‘Well, I can really work from anywhere, where I can find something to do.’ When I went to grad school I had studied dramaturgy, which is the study and structure of plays, and it’s really all about [deconstructing how to] put collaborators in a room and sort of pull what they’re trying to do into a single work. And that was for theater – but it really is akin to the skill of [story] development.
When I got to L.A., I pretty quickly got a job as an in-house development executive with a producer, and I was literally in his house – he had just transitioned out of a studio job. This was back in the late 90s/early 2000s, and at that point in independent filmmaking, we didn’t draw as much delineation between development and production executives, so I had the great benefit of tracking projects that I had worked on in development all the way through production to release. It gave me a very top-down view on what the entire process was, and so the move into producing was actually, skill-wise, very easy for me.
There was the identification of material, the developing of material – the putting it together, the packaging of it – and then learning how to actually oversee it in production. My boss at that time was a really good mentor. We entered into a phase of life together in that we were really busy, thankfully. We were so busy that he had no choice but to delegate, and to send me to set. So I got to cut my teeth by being boots-on-the-ground on some really great productions, like “Thirteen” – that wasn’t the first one I’d been on set for, but it was the first one that I truly, passionately oversaw from beginning to end.
Can you explain the difference between producers, executive producers, developers, etc. for emerging filmmakers who might not be familiar with the different roles?
As a development executive, your job function depends on the production company: if they want you to function in external development, you go and identify projects and intellectual property, like books and things like that. Then you work with the internal development executives in terms of deciding who are the filmmakers going to be, who are the writers going to be – things that are either going to progress the script forward, or the adaptation from book to screenplay.
So an internal development executive doesn’t focus on bringing in projects, but works on the projects that are right there in front of you. Right there on the company’s plate, and progresses them towards a point where they get the green light to move into pre-production. So if you’re at a studio, the development phase of the project truly ends once it gets that green light to go to formal pre-production or prep. And then a producer at that moment also has a number of other job responsibilities – working within budget constraints, identifying budget level along with your creative partners – the producer will determine what the wise budget level is for that script, in terms of the content of the script and what it could and should do in the marketplace. And then you need to meet that budgetary assessment with a certain level of packaging – and I mean that in terms of actors, filmmakers, stuff like that.
So a producer handles the development end of the work, and potentially even the development funding – if you need to pay for an option, you either do that yourself, or you find the funding to do that, find an early development partner.
By option, you mean find someone to option a script?
Exactly. So that you control the rights of the script. Or, in this day and age we work a lot from books, or from magazine articles, and that would be called an IP – intellectual property. And so [you need to know], is there somebody who can option the IP on your behalf? Or a development partner, someone to provide development funding? Or even at that point, a production partner, like a partner production company that might have more funding or resources. And then you option the work – whether IP or screenplay – and if it’s an IP you have to figure out who’s gonna write it, and then move it forward into script form.
As a producer you really have to be mindful through the development process of what the budgetary constraints are. You need to be mindful of what it can do in the marketplace, which is much harder to determine now than it was ten years ago, before almost all content became streaming content. So it’s a much more challenging thing to assess than it used to be.
As a producer, generally you will put together the production elements – a line producer gets the budget done, gets the schedule done, and then crews up. In a smaller indie space, the producer will also be the line producer. I always describe production as many lanes of a freeway, and each job title sort of has its own lane – so a lot of times in production, we stay in our lane. If you’re the producer, you do the job of producer. If you’re the AD, you do the job of AD. But in indie productions, in many ways, we have to inhabit more lanes. You might take on different job functions.
As the producer, you’re also responsible for figuring out how and where you’re going to get post-production done, and then how you’re going to deliver it – to whom, and where. All the way through post, through finishing and deliverables, through distribution, the producer has the overall view, from birth to exhibition, the producer is involved in that life cycle.
I consult a lot, both as a development consultant and as a production consultant, and then I’m usually brought in for some very specific tasks. To push a script through to get it to the point that it will be green-lit by the studio; to advise on drafts, to advise on writers. A lot of times, for a consultancy, usually there’s some deal points that are very specific.
Sometimes the consultancy will expand – ‘Can you consult on a list of filmmakers? Can you reach out to these filmmakers?’ Things like that. Those all become negotiable deal points. Sometimes I’ll production consult, which will be – ‘Ok, we have a script, we have almost everything ready to go, but we need to [reduce the budget] and take $5 million out of it. How do we do that?’ And often the solution will be both in the approach to production and in the [approach to the] script as well, and sometimes fresh eyes can do quite a bit to identify which storylines, characters, locations can [be cut] or be combined into one.
And now since streaming is dominant, more traditional producers find themselves a little bit flummoxed about how to bring a budget level down considerably. And as someone who has come up from the indie level, of doing the $1.5 million dollar movie – I have more of an understanding of that. Knowing when to say, ‘Ok we don’t have a separate location for that, that’s gonna be a turn around in the back classroom and that’s where the office is going to be.’ Or ‘This parking lot can double for these four locations.’ In indie set design, we redress locations.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and development producers who are working to craft a story in the early stages?
I think for a writer, it is finding something that you can write really well, that has a very strong reason for you, [a reason for] why you are writing that. For filmmakers and writers alike, finding a deep engagement for you with the story. Because most of the time with your first film, it’s a statement about who you are. It doesn’t mean the lead character has to be you onscreen in any way shape or form, it’s not that, but it’s the conversation you want to have with the world. In having that conversation, you are telling the world something about yourself. Your values, your aesthetics. It could be any genre, it could be a horror movie, a very personal indie, an event that you either experienced or that you’ve read about or that made you think very deeply about the humans involved. And the way that you write those humans involved will be reflective of your worldview. So for writers and directors, that first movie or that first script is a very personal statement. It’s like writing the world’s longest personal statement for graduate school. All the sudden you’re writing a 105 page treatise on something about you and the world.
Now for producers… to get started as a producer, you produce! And there’s all sorts of stuff to produce right now. We watch a lot of content that is not necessarily two hours long, and there’s some really spectacular opportunities for short-form content, whether they’re short films or even TikToks that have remarkable transitions and do something artistic beyond just being funny in a sense. And branded content – branded content can be incredibly visually creative. So, there’s a wide variety of stuff that you can create, and as a creative producer, just begin to get your hands dirty and produce. Learn how to put a shoot together and crew up in your home town – knowing how to hold the line in terms of quality denotes a certain level of discernment. Knowing who’s going to work hard for you, knowing who brings the right aesthetics to the project. Learning how to make those assessments and decisions is the work of producing. In terms of producing, learning how to do the work is doing the work.
In terms of story, someone who is really interested in creative production from a development point of view should absorb as much content as they can. Old movies, classic movies, foreign films, TV shows… try to figure out which stories speak to you, and how you fit into this universe of entertainment. What do you gravitate to? We do the movies that we love, especially on the independent track. There’s no reason to do a movie you don’t love, simply because it takes like two years of your life! And that’s a conservative estimate. So you’ve gotta be passionate about it.
I think my favorite subscription is to the Criterion Channel, because I can watch all these weird old films and classic movies and poke at them a little bit. I love that. And as a producer, I’m always reading – in development you read a lot. You have to read scripts and be able to identify what works and what doesn’t work.
Are there any other specific resources you’d recommend, besides Criterion Channel?
Well, there are the bibles – Robert McKee’s Story, Syd Field, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat – all those gurus are all white men, which is really interesting to look at… but one of the things you do is, you read them all, so that you know what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense to you. Because a lot of that stuff we throw away. But we need to know the rules in order to throw them away significantly.
One of my favorites that I recommend is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. It’s about plays! But the core sense of drama and conflict is there. I also have an old crusty source that is from the 1950s, she was Tennessee Williams’ playwriting instructor, I think it’s called On Composing a Play by MaryAnne Galloway.
And then I also always, always recommend an article that I got in graduate school by Elinor Fuchs. She was a professor at Yale, at Harvard, I was one of her T.A.s when I was in graduate school. She has this article called “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet: Some Questions to Ask a Play.” It is play criticism [that approaches] reading theatre with an understanding of the rules of the world of the play – to evaluate that play according to the rules it has set, working within it. It’s been one of my primary sources when I think about development.
If you’re working in the studio system, you are producing widgets. You are asked for the most part [to work within genre] – “Do a romantic comedy.” But then, what are the rules of a romantic comedy? In the studio system, you have to [stick] to what they want you to do, and then try to find the individual voice of the project, of the writer, through the widget that you’re asked to create.
So those recommendations are… not screenplay structure books! But they tell you a lot about conflict, the construction of a dramatic world, how to amp up character, world-building.
Can you speak to some of the independent films you’ve worked on – what you learned, what you enjoyed most about them?
I mentioned “Thirteen” earlier – Catherine Hardwicke’s first movie back in 2003, starring Nicki Reed, Evan Rachel Wood – it was the first project I cried over in terms of the absolute drive and want to do it.
But another really special one was “Monica”, that I just did as an executive producer, I was attached to it as a producer for a while. I will say that there’s three extraordinary women that really pushed that into existence: Gina Resnick, Eleonora Granata, and Christina Dow who held the original option on the script. But it takes a village, and that one had a village of hardcore women pushing it forward, to tell a story we really believed in. It’s a labor of love. It’s a trans story that is not about the moment of transition – it’s about what happens when you return home to a town that [holds] a painful experience for you. And I think that’s really universal for a lot of people, that in the twenty years since we grew up in our hometowns, we grow up! Our lives change and broaden, and we change and broaden, and sometimes, we have a really hard time going home. But when you do return home, you [end up] confronting that aspect of who you were.
Following in love with story – the necessity, where you hurt, unless that story will be out in the world [is something I felt on “Monica”]. Our team on “Monica” felt that, in terms of, ‘This [story] has to be a conversation we are meant to have.’ And that’s where the work of producing, I don’t want to say gets easy, because it’s never easy, but there’s a level of intent to the hard work. Putting your shoulder down and grinding through the blocks as much as you can. And honestly that’s the day-to-day: two hundred emails, calls, calls to agents that will never get returned, because it’s like, ‘It’s an un-financed project!’ But you still try. And then eventually, somebody’ll be like, ‘Yeah, ok. My client love it.’ Things like that. And then it makes it through – that’s the chink in the armor I’m looking for, that I can then drive the Mack truck through. The work of a producer is persistence – persistence, persistence, persistence.
What’s something you know now, that you wish you’d known when you were first starting out?
I wish I’d known to value my own path as much as I value the path of other people. Because especially as a producer, you put so much stock and faith in building other people up, in building the other creatives around you up. But also, know that you’re a storyteller yourself. And you need to take care of yourself – not just your physical body but your soul. And don’t let the fight change you towards any sense of pessimism, but maintain that sense of endeavor and optimism. Respect and build your own path as much as you do for the people around you.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects lined up?
I have so many projects lined up! I have a bunch of projects in development. And I’m going to do my first short film this year. It’s a first-time writer-director working on a feature, she’s done a couple of other short films but we felt like we needed a fresh sample. [In order for the director] to get the budget level we want, we need fresh work from her. So she wrote a gorgeous short and we’re gonna do it.
I have a bunch of really exciting projects that have been a long time gestating, that are features or television. And honestly, I just keep building the world around me – I’m at an age and experience right now where I get to pick and choose a lot, and I love that. I get to lean into creators and collaborators who I love, whose politics and stories align with what I want to say. And that’s such a gift.
I’m being allusive because I don’t want to name anything – I feel like if I name something it’s not gonna happen! But I’m looking forward to a productive year and bringing really good projects forward, there are so many that are right on the cusp. If I were shooting something right now, I’d talk all about it, but everything’s right on the cusp. And I kid you not, “Sideways” took about eight years to come to fruition, from the time I touched the book to when we were actually on set shooting it! And I will say that I have a project that I’m hoping we’ll shoot this year, that has been gestating for even longer than that eight years.