Tonight is a good night. You're out with friends, you have a nice dinner resting in your belly, and you've settled into your high-backed theater seat to enjoy the latest romantic-dramady-action-thrillapalooza that Hollywood has sent your way. But before you can begin to enjoy it, you're presented with the opening credits in nice, confusing block letters. Directed by, sure… But then there are five producers. Six "executive producers." Even a couple people that the movie was "produced in association with." Who in the world are these people? What exactly do the film director and producer do?
The movie business can be a tricky beast to pin down; while everyone will tell you that show business is indeed a business, the fact of the matter is that it is the business of making art, and any environment in which artists and businessmen so closely touch is going to be fraught with more than a little uncertainty. Every movie you see - especially the big studio productions - has dozens of people working on it even at the highest echelons of control, never mind the hundreds or thousands of people actually putting in the sweat, and each of those higher-ups wants not only to get their paycheck, but to have their name up in the biggest lights possible. So, titles begin to get juggled around.
The movie's director is the most recognizable of the whole crew, and for good reason. He is in control over every part of the crew, the king and president of the set… It isn't an accident that the credits often call the movie, "A Director's Name Film." In a very real sense, it is his movie, and the buck stops here.
Except that it doesn't. The popular conception may hold the director as god and lord of the set, but ultimately he does have people to answer to. They are the producers, in all their varied title, role, and splendor. The director is only seen as having absolute control because most producers have neither the time nor inclination to hang around on set and boss him around. The director is the artistic one, the producers concerned mainly with money, logistics, marketing, etc (essentially all aspects of a movie not directly concerned the art of the process). If we were to think about the movie as a ship, then the director is its captain, but the producers are the politicians back home issuing the captain his orders regarding where to sail and what cargo to pick up. They rule in truth, from a distance and often by committee, but when the chips are down it is an unquestioned rule indeed.
But the title of "producer" is not indivisible; there are many different specific titles that producers can have, and often their ideal roles clash with what they actually end up doing. This is a very fluid industry we're talking about here.
First are producers in name only. These most fortunate of people have somehow managed to get their name attached to the movie (and thus a nice check) for little to no work. Perhaps they stumbled into the rights for the characters somehow. Maybe someone working on the film owes them a favor. Maybe they just have ties to the production company or studio that don't require them to ever come to a meeting or even make a phone call. These are the ultimate high-ups, mighty in Hollywood stature and rare beyond measure. They are most often credited as Executive Producers.
Then there are the other Executive Producers, the creative and financial giants for whom the title was created. Most often they are financial backers with a sizable artistic investment in the project. Usually they own or run the studio or production company making the movie, and all the big decisions are theirs, starting with the decision of whether or not to even make the movie in the first place. Any vision they have for the film - and they usually do - must be heeded first before anyone else is heard, even the director, writer, or other producers.
The main-level producers are the logistical muscle for getting things in place to make the movie. They answer a thousand questions that most people would never consider even needing to ask. Does the hero's costume look right? More fake muscles? Less? Should we get Blonde Heartthrob A for the lead role, or Indie Queen B? What city will be cheapest to shoot the movie in? Who should we hire to direct? The producers handle many of these on their own, but depending on the size of the production they may depend on a network of smaller producers; they need line producers to track money and handle spending, associate producers to bring in outside film and music, etc.
A powerful director with a lot of clout in the business can wrest a lot of this control from producers if he has the inclination, and there usually ends up being a lot of political give-and-take between the office of the director and his producers at the studio. At the end of the day, a film set contains a vast and diverse collection of people, often with conflicting visions and personalities, who are are trying to come together and create something worthwhile… A little wiggle room in duties never hurts, allowing the film director and producer to each focus on what they each do best.