Vance Van Petten: Establishing the Producers Mark

After a long-fought war with film studios over the best way to determine who really does production work, the Producers Guild of America unveiled a certification mark that's raising a few eyebrows.

 

From keeping projects on budget to hiring the right crew, producers are charged with a broad range of responsibilities on films. When award season rolls around, that makes determining who should get credit a daunting task. Enter the Producers Mark, a certification created by the Producers Guild of America that designates who did the bulk of production work on a specific film. Introduced late last year after a twelve-year battle with studios, the Mark, designated by the letters “p.g.a.,” establishes industry standards for a motion picture producer and creates a vetting process to decide who’s eligible that’s nearly identical to those used for award shows. Eighteen major studios have already signed on to implement the Mark, but much remains to be done when it comes to providing production credit where it’s due. Vance Van Petten, National Executive Director of the Producers Guild of America, weighs in on the importance of production certification.

Get In Media: Producer” gets credited to a lot of different jobs. What is the scope of the job?

Vance Van Petten: The scope is the largest of any career I think in the entertainment business. [The producer is] the first in and last out when it comes to any particular production. They’re responsible from the very get-go in launching a project either in television or in motion pictures or in new media, by either having their own idea or securing the rights to an idea or story or property and then seeing to it that it gets developed, hiring the right and necessary people, and working on it to develop the story. [Producers] sell it or to license it somewhere or to get financing for it, then to actually hire the crew and put together all the people and mechanisms to physically produce the production, seeing it through the editing process and the post-production process.

[Producers] make sure that everyone stays on target with what the original vision was of how this project or property or IP would be produced and keeping everyone on point or true to what that concept was all the way through until delivery of the project or the continual delivery if it’s a TV series or new media project involving many different episodes or segments or follow-ups. Again, it’s the person responsible for maintaining that vision, concept, and clarity as it continues to be produced or evolves from its original production. That never ends, because even at the end of the project when it’s delivered, he or she is still responsible for the afterlife, making sure it continues to be distributed or exhibited and shown.

GIM: There are several Kickstarter projects now where filmmakers are offering their top backers producer credit in their films. Is that problematic for the PGA?

VVP: It’s very problematic for the Guild because a financier is not a producer. It’s a financier and we obviously don’t abide by that phase of certain desperate people looking for financing [by] giving away the producing credit. It’s really frowned upon. It completely denigrates the value of what the producer credit means and it’s not OK. We’re not a union, so we can’t actually legally restrict someone from using it, but what we can do now is we have the Producers Mark and someone who just buys a credit would never be able to receive the Producers Mark on that motion picture.

GIM: Why did the PGA start the Producers Mark?

VVP: What happened was because we are not a collective bargaining unit, meaning a union … we could not lay down an edict with all the studios and distributors around the world saying we control the producer credit. In the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s, increasingly the credit was given away and it was not controlled until it got to a state in the ‘90s, got really seriously confusing, even impacting how the Oscars were given out, who to give the Oscars to. It’s supposed to go to the producers but are they really producers? Are they really just financiers or managers of the talent or actors? Who is actually the person doing the work of producing? That frustration led the Guild to say we have to take a very strong move and a very, very proactive role in trying to reign in or at least clarify for the audience and the industry who the real producer is. That’s how and why the Producers Mark was created.

That was the motivation for it and it’s taken us several years to put together a very encompassing definition of what would qualify for someone being able to use the Producers Mark, which is a simple “p.g.a.” and that’s trademarked. It’s literally called, legally speaking, a certification mark because the Guild certifies that a person, to receive the right to use the Producers Mark, must have performed a majority of producing functions on that particular film. It’s not licensed to a person forever beyond this one picture. It’s taken us many, many years to get a consensus within the entire industry as to the full definition of the major primary functions performed by a producer from the start of a project through distribution and marketing of the film. Those are all itemized. They’re available on our website and there are about 32 of them, functions from development through post-production.

RELATED: Richard Hatem on producing Grimm and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.

GIM: It’s been reported that the Producers Guild had a tough time convincing some studios to jump on board with the certification. Was it because it was so hard to come up with a uniform definition of producer?

VVP: No. It’s because historically the studios have been asked by many organizations to allow designations, mostly almost all membership designations like A.S.C.[American Society of Cinematographers], C.S.A.[Casting Society of America], and A.C.E.[American Cinema Editors] after a person’s name to designate their membership in a certain organization and by different unions. [Studios] refused them. For like 30, 40 years there’s not been any growth in the credits allowing people to attach letters. The ones I mentioned, ASC, CSA and ACE all established their practices over 40 years ago and have maintained it, but the studios do not want to add further, as they call it “clutter,” to the credits. It expands the amount of space needed in the credit box which is very, very important and very tight space in the film business, not just on the screen, but also on those one-sheets … It’s extremely dear to them as to how much space is used and they don’t want to give it up to designating memberships.

Our fight was two-fold. Number one, it was asking them to expand that space … and secondarily, it was tough to get them to understand that it is not a membership mark. It’s a certification mark, which involves a process where the guild has to be actively involved in investigating who produced a particular film. They were worried and concerned it would be the Guild getting involved in analyzing their business and how they produce their films. They were very skittish about it. They were worried it would be potentially distracting or invasive and studios are megalithic companies who don’t want anyone, either organizations or people, potentially telling them how to run their business. We had to tell them we’re not. It’s not invasive. The fact that we had done it for ten years on behalf of most awards shows, not just the Producers Guild awards, but for Oscars and BAFTA and Golden Globes, that same process of vetting, of arbitrating whether or not these people earned an award, it’s identical to the process we use for the Producers Mark … It just took us several years to make them feel comfortable with that to be able to accept it. That’s why it took some time to show that it was a safe and it was a fair process.

“I always recommend that you get any jobs you can during the production process or in the post-production process and you then make a commitment to yourself not to stay in that job more than 12 months to 18 months.”
GIM: The role [of producer] has changed significantly in the past few years. How do you see it evolving in the future?

VVP: Honestly, I don’t think it’s really evolved significantly. I think the job has just gotten bigger and more complicated. It’s just become a much bigger job because the art and science of making motion pictures and television and new media has evolved to the point where there’s new technological advances; new tools; new ways of telling stories; many, many more people involved; many, many more types of technology involved, not just in the cameras used but in how it’s distributed, which platforms. The job has become larger, more all-encompassing. You’ve got to be very astute, not just in how to handle a lot of people and manage a lot of people, but also how to be up to speed with the very fast evolution of the technology that’s impacting storytelling.

The future, it’s just escalating because the technology changes are just so dramatically impacting how we tell stories and then convey those stories to the audience, and how incredibly fractured and minutely specific the audience has become. In reaching out to a community to tell a story the same way as you tell on a movie screen that’s 30-feet high compared to a device you carry in your pocket, which has a screen of only one-inch high, you don’t tell a story the same. You do have to be aware of the technology and how it’s being utilized.

Add to that the distribution side, the platform side, and you have a problem as well with constantly trying to train the producers and inform the producers as to the most current technology on how to capture the stories … What you’re seeing is very quick changes, monumental changes of how we’re going to high frame speed, to three-dimensional, the sound differences in different theaters, the size of the screens, like literally from one-inch high to 30-feet high, actually 70-feet high if you have IMAX. I mean it’s just daunting how quickly the changes are happening now compared to the past and how producers are the ones who have to be most aware of how to adapt and how to still produce and distribute their product.

GIM: For students who want to move into the production world, what do you recommend they do to get started?

VVP: The producing job encompasses so many different jobs that report into the producer: writing, directing, crewmembers, the UPM [unit production manager], the AD [assistant director], etc. All are part of that team that the producer needs to know their jobs in order to manage them and hire the right crews and know when a crewmember is doing a good job or not a good job. I always recommend that you get any jobs you can during the production process or in the post-production process and you then make a commitment to yourself not to stay in that job more than 12 months to 18 months. You want to take samples of the different jobs from working in a crew on a set to working somewhere in the post-production process to also working in the development process, so you’re familiar with as many jobs as possible. When you are finally able to be a producer on your own motion picture, you can properly crew up, staff up, and manage the best possible way those people that you’ve hired because you know, for instance, what a best boy does or a grip does or what’s responsible of an editor versus a post-production supervisor. These are all things to do your job better as a manager of people, which is what a producer does. Learn those jobs.

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