Credits due: what is behind A-listers queueing up to become executive producers? | Film

Martin Scorsese, Ian McKellen, Leonardo DiCaprio and John Travolta are among the many A-listers to be named “executive producers” on feature films, documentaries and TV series of all budgets and sizes. But what the credit means, and how involved these figures are in the projects can vary considerably. In many cases, they will be a source of support, advice and guidance for other (often emerging) directors throughout the production process. But they are also increasingly being used for marketing and promotional purposes, sometimes even coming in after the film is made.

“Sometimes they are on from an early stage, helping to get it made,” says Robert Mitchell, director of theatrical insights at Gower Street Analytics. “In other cases they’re a name added much later in the day, sometimes after the film is completed, often on documentaries. Suddenly, it becomes ‘presented by Martin Scorsese’, which seems to be much more of a marketing thing.”

The much in demand executive producer credit can benefit both parties. For the makers of smaller films, having a big name attached can help fund and promote a movie, and for the A-listers it’s not only a chance to support other worthy projects and directors, but also make good money. “EPs get paid well, especially if they are actively involved, shepherding the project into action, fighting the battles in getting it funded and making it happen, even though they’re not physically producing it,” says producer Bill Doyle, who has worked with David Fincher on recent films and TV series.

Fincher is attached as executive producer on a number of projects, some more obvious than others. “On the Mindhunter TV series, David [Fincher] was the showrunner, so a guiding force behind the scripts, the look, and helped all the directors through the series,” says Doyle. “But he also enjoys executive producing projects by others such as the series Love, Death & Robots, instead of directing them. He’s still intimately involved in discussions, but not in the day-to-day. He lets others do it.”

‘She’s been there before’ … Ben Whishaw in Good Boy, for which Emma Thompson was an executive producer. Photograph: 130 Elektra Films

The EP credit can also be a way for those behind the scenes to muscle in. “This could be the person who bought the rights to the book, but didn’t have anything to do with the physical production, or managers of the actors that helped fund the movie, or those that helped get the sales done for smaller projects. So there are plenty of EPs that are not really hands-on,” says Doyle. It can also be about pure artistic admiration, as in the case of the Scorsese executive producer credit on British director Joanna Hogg’s two Souvenir films.

In the run-up to this week’s Oscar nominations announcement, many of this year’s short film contenders had the likes of Emma Thompson, Travolta, Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin and David Oyelowo all credited as executive producers. Elettra Pizzi, producer of Good Boy, says that Thompson only joined the Tom Stuart-directed short (starring Ben Whishaw) in January after the film had been finished. “We’re only a small film and have never been shortlisted for an Oscar before. It’s a big machine and a lot to get your head around, so we brought Emma on board for advice and support as she has been there before and gives the film a stamp of quality. We don’t have a big studio behind us doing lots of publicity and PR, we are independently financed, so having someone like Emma promoting the film publicly really helps.”

In the end, Good Boy didn’t get on the final nominations list, and adding star quality to the executive producer credit is not always well received by producers. An unnamed producer told the Guardian: “I work on projects where there are a ridiculous number of producers and executive producers, half of whom do nothing or very little, just turn up to meetings during or even after the production to show their face. A load of the money goes straight into their pockets. I recently worked on a project with A-listers attached as producers or executive producers, one of whom is an ‘adviser’, but really it’s for marketing and promotional purposes.”

This is a common tactic, especially on documentaries where star-power backing can make or break a film. Doyle says: “As a documentary film-maker you’re going to take any money that a big name can raise. If you are making a sports documentary, for example, and you get LeBron James to support it, he may not have diddly squat to do with the day-to-day, but he’s going to help you get the financing and exposure.”

But producer Michael Stevenson says “it’s no skin off the noses” of huge stars to support projects from up-and-coming film-makers, which often don’t take up much of their time. Stevenson enlisted the help of Claflin for his short film The One Note Man, as well as accessing money from narrator McKellen’s funding scheme (usually reserved for emerging playwrights). “As long as we put together the right package and look after them, they are amazing advocates for up and coming film-makers.”


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