The role of the Production Manager in any film, television or video production is a vital one. They often act as the head of the production department, working closely with other heads of department to ensure the smooth running of the production.
These tasks can vary from arranging travel and accommodation for the crew to negotiating contracts or working with local authorities to obtain licenses for filming in public locations.
Whilst Producers and Directors can focus on big picture and creative targets the Production Manager is situated more in the day-to-day operations of the production. As more Film and Television productions occur, as does the need for talented Production Managers with the projected job growth from 2014 to 2025 predicted at 9%*
In this episode we take an insightful look at the vital role of the Production Manager, a role in TV and film production that’s literally at the heart of everything that goes on.
As well as looking at the logistical and creative aspects of the role, we take a look at the art of negotiation with our guest, and also tips on keeping your cool when just about everything is going wrong!
Hilary Weston Jones (Television Production Manager)
Hilary Weston Jones is a well-respected name in Production Management in the UK, with over 24 years as a Television Production Manager to her name.
She’s worked across a variety of genres; including factual, reality, documentary, children’s and drama – with credits including Countryfile and Trawlermen for the BBC, and Big Brother for Channel 4.
Hilary currently resides as the Production Manager at Parkside MediaHouse, which is the studio facility based within Birmingham City University, and also devotes time to teaching – to pass on all she has learned from her time in the industry.
SCOTT LEDBURY: Thank you for joining us today Hilary. In brief could you just tell us what led you on to become a Production Manager?
HILARY WESTON JONES: Purely by accident really. I knew I was an organised person, in my previous life I was an old fashion secretary, typing shorthand, and I had a creative element having attained an English degree.
I fell into a job in television and had a look around the different job roles like researcher and an editorial route, then I found the passion for production management. You’re at the heart of everything, quickly realising that if you are a people person that this is the role for you. So it was by accident that I stumbled across the role but realised quickly that’s where I wanted to go.
SL: So talk us through the primary job role of a Production Manager in television, film or video production?
HWJ: The primary role of a Production Manager is to work along side the editorial team (directors and producers) to help them achieve their editorial and creative goal on budget, on time and safely.
Digging down further, budgeting and managing finances which includes a lot of negotiation skills, scheduling, health and safety, and there is a lot about staffing because you are at the heart of the production, from start to end sometimes being referred to as the mother which I hate, but you are the one who knows if someone has split up with their partner or if someone is pregnant or if someone has got financial worries.
People come to you so there is some kind of pastoral element as well as all the other things.
SL: So really everything is comes through you; the creative, financial and emotional side
HWJ: Yeah, absolutely, and then you go on to the legal, the copyright, the insurance, compliance issues, negotiating with presenters, dealing with agents and dealing with actors.
You are at the heart of everything. One of the reasons I say its the best job in the industry is because you get the longest contract being there from day one right to the very bitter end.
SL: All of what you have said, to the average person this sounds like a lot of stress and hard work and not very appealing but do you find it rewarding?
HWJ: Yes it’s very rewarding because for me personally there is nothing better than starting with a piece of paper which is an idea, then in a year’s time a television programme is out on screen and you have made that happen.
It can sound dull when you talk about copyright, which I teach, but they can be some of the most lively sessions because they don’t realise the in-depth nature of it. The other misconception is that you are just there to do sums and just look after a budget and that your job is to say no to everything because you want to keep that budget tight.
One of the biggest roles working with the producers is that internal negotiation so that if the producer comes to you wanting aerial shots or wants an extra week in the edit the PM’s job isn’t to say no about it but to look and try to move things around so you can enable that to happen.
SL: Is the production managers job to set the budget, spend the budget or both?
HWJ: It depends on where you are working. If you are working in a small production company, you would put budgets together alongside the producers and the channel. If you are working in the BBC you are given a lump sum and you work backwards to see what you can achieve with that.
Production Managers manage that spend and thats a daily monitoring thing, down to what your camera crew have spent on lunch to can you afford a 6 week shoot in America.
SL: How do you deal with overspend then, is it the case of not letting it go that far?
HWJ: Yeah, there are times that you will overspend which are not in your control like acts of God or a presenter falls ill. A clever PM always keeps a little money aside for these situations that only he or she knows about. In the old days when budgets were much bigger you openly had a contingency.
I got told to keep £2000 to the side for the wrap party and those days have long gone now but there is always one area where you might be able to save a bit of money. The trouble often happens in post production because thats at the end and its always expensive so an extra day or few weeks can push you over your budget.
SL: What does a typical skill-set look like for a good production manager then?
HWJ: You have got to be a people person, be able to get on with everybody. You need to be able to talk to an agent, a p****d off presenter to a work experience runner. You need to be able to hold that team together.
I’ve been working in teams that have had personality clashes and the PM is the person who has to try and sort those out. So I would say the biggest thing is communication skills, like being with people and like talking to people.
Organisation is key, I don’t know a PM that doesn’t wake up and create a list of things to do every single day. Huge attention to detail as well. Well it comes to finance I don’t have any qualifications at all. The minute I started working in production, turning that one idea into a budget then managing that budget till the end really fascinated me.
A lot of people get put off by the role or by saying ‘I’m not very good at maths’. You don’t need to be good, just have the other skills.
SL: Would you say that a primary role for a production, TV show or film company is to spend a budget wisely?
HWJ: Yeah, and the PM is at the heart of that. You have to know what the editorial vision and tone is going to be. Especially if you are working on a big production with say four directors and one director is coming to you asking for a drone, then a jib and then another director that doesn’t ask for anything.
You need to monitor that, working close with the producers to make sure that you are spending the money where it needs to be spent.
SL: Would you say that there is a creative side to the job?
HWJ: Yes absolutely. I think its another misconception is that a PM just works with spreadsheets. You need to know and understand the editorial goal and work to achieve that for the project. You can’t just look at it as a schedule and a budget.
You have to be able to negotiate with a producer because you get them sometimes asking for say another days shoot with the helicopter for £8,000 and you are the person that will have to re-juggle to make things work. You understand how important that extra day will be.
I think the relationship between the producer and PM is very important and a good producer will value the PM and share that creative vision with them.
SL: How much of a technical understanding are you expected to know?
HWJ: You are expected to know the basics. You need to keep up with technical advances and new equipment that comes out. I’m not a massive technical person but the importance of the production manager is knowing who to talk to.
You aren’t expected to know everything because you are working across the entire production and a good PM knows who to talk to.
SL: Talking about the the basics, take a jib for example, you would need to know its market worth, what its worth to hire, when to use it and maybe when to challenge using one?
HJW: Absolutely. That’s where the understanding of the vision comes into play because you always work with directors who want to use that latest toys and sometimes they don’t really need it but then some will have a justified reason.
Good directors understand the importance of a PM and they will always ask and give a justified reason why they need A, B, and C then the PM will make a decision on that. Going back to knowing detailed technical things, for a PM it’s knowing when to say ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ or ‘I don’t know the answer to that, I will ask A, B or C’.
Speaking to someone who knows the information is key to your role as it will help you as a PM to schedule and budget. It also goes back to being at the heart of the production so you need to make sure you know all your contacts.
SL: How does the hierarchy work within a production for the production term roles?
HWJ: It starts with the Production Assistant/Production Manager’s Assistant and they do all the bookings for you including cars, equipment, locations and hotels along with managing petty cash.
Its a great entry level role as it allows you to sit back and observe all the people and roles around you. People don’t stay at this level for very long, as long as they absorb all the information around them.
Next you would go onto a Production Coordinator, getting given a lot more responsibilities. This is where you will help with clearing copyright and overseeing all the call sheets. The role has changed in that the PC will now get more involved in budgeting.
These days the Production Manager may be looking after multiple productions so the hierarchy is very important as the PC will look after the day to day budget but the PM will still make all the big decisions and oversee it. Above that is the Production Executive who may also be overseeing multiple projects at once.
SL: What are your tips for negotiating?
HWJ: Know your market place, so know what you should pay for A, B and C piece of kit or how much a camera man costs. Be realistic. Nothing is worse than going into a negotiation either coming way under or way over the cost of something, because you look stupid.
I then always say be honest. If I’m on a production where I have a nice budget and working with regular people, then I might say to the camera operator, ‘I’ve got a nice budget, I’ll give you the going rate for this and you can have some overtime as well’.
I could then phone up the same cam op next production and say, I’ve got no money, can you do this for a buyout. Again, it is about the relationship you build with the production team and then they will trust you and do things like that because they know you aren’t ripping them off.
SL: That’s the key to keeping them on your side?
HWJ: Yeah. I worked on Countryfile for 2 years and we worked with hundreds of crew from all over the UK so we had a great pool of people who enjoyed their job and you tend to get good deals with them because they know they get x amount of days a year filming with you.
It’s very different to a negotiation I had where I asked a sound recordist to go film at the north sea, 10 days at a time, he was never going to get any sleep, it was going to be dangerous, it was going to be noisy and smelly.
He is going to get a higher rate in that negotiation because its a tough job, but I can’t offer him any overtime so you have to consider what you are offering the person and being realistic. And there are ways to talk to people.
Some people go in hard and some soft, so there is a level of professionalism. Somebody you know really well is the hardest to negotiate. You have to keep a level of professionalism with everyone.
SL: What would you class as a small, medium and large budget production in the BBC?
HWJ: Bearing in mind that I haven’t worked in broadcast TV for the last 2 years now but if we are looking at a 1 hour factual documentary, £120,000 for an hour would be a nice budget and £80,000 would be a tight budget but it depends what you want to do.
If you have £80,000 and want to film all in the Midlands and you’re Midlands based that’s quite nice. If you have £120,000 but have to hire a big name presenter or there is a lot of archive or they want you to fly to Istanbul for an interview, then it gets tight. In the old days they used to say £1,000 a minute for factual TV.
SL: What are the biggest roadblocks you have come across as a PM?
HWJ: I think it’s about managing crisis that happen all at once. You always start with a lovely schedule and budget and 100% of the time, by the end it has changed in some way. I think the one time I had to balance quite a few things at once I was doing a drama up in Manchester working with young people from a drop in centre, they had a lot of issues themselves. A lot of drug taking, cast not showing up because they had been arrested.
We had a night shoot, on a Saturday night in Manchester City Centre, some of the cast hadn’t turned up, the man who looked after our production base said that he wanted us out by midnight, he’d had enough. Then the caterers rang me to say that their chef had walked out and they couldn’t feed the forty people I needed them to at midnight. It was a complete meltdown.
You have to deal with it. Straight away, I got the location manager to buy a bottle of whisky and sit with the man who looked after our production base, buying us a reprieve until 9am. We had runners, running around Manchester finding somewhere we could get takeaway food, that could deliver the quantity we wanted, at the time that we wanted.
But when it’s done, and you’ve achieved all of that. You know that you’ve successfully managed all of the logistics, and made all that happen – that’s a fantastic achievement.
SL: What happens when you’ve sealed all of the potential leaks, put in all your contingencies and it still goes wrong, you’ve done all you can and something still happens?
HWJ: You have to keep calm, you can’t have the Production Manager crying in the middle of the Production office or screaming and shouting. I’ve been known to swear, and cry ONCE its all sorted.
You have to clear your mind; what do I need to do to sort this? It’s that inner calm, that Production Managers need to have. You may not be feeling it, but you need to show it.
SL: A big issue these days is copyright, there are firm rules about what you can and can’t do. What are the things that you and your team in production management would look out for, for copyright reasons?
HWJ: I’ve worked on a large number of home makeover shows and one of the most regular things is artwork on people’s walls. You get someone standing next to a painting they bought in a small town in Spain, full in frame, and the director hasn’t realised that you need to get permission for that, Luckily these days with the internet, you can find a signature and google the artist and hopefully find them.
If you can’t find someone, which sometimes happens, you have to keep all the evidence that you’ve done all you can to find the artist. If you can prove you have done everything you can to locate the owner of that copyright that you should be covered. It’s mostly getting the permission, sometimes you can achieve this with no payment whatsoever.
Before the days of the internet, I filmed in London in an Indian market, with an Indian Radio clearly playing the in the background. This was before you could use Shazam. We had to ring an Asian radio station, play them the track down the phone, then they helped us to track down the copyright on the song.
SL: A lot of people would think that could be classed as incidental, what’s the difference?
HWJ: It becomes a copyright issue, if it is fully identifiable. For example, if it’s a piece of artwork and it’s featured, you have to clear it. If someone is walking past a picture they bought in Spain and all you catch is a glimpse of it then you’re OK.
If you can hear a song that you’re able to identify then you need to clear it. That’s why filming in a shopping centre or restaurant can be so tricky, there’s music coming from everywhere.
SL: Is that your call, or the producer and directors, is it on your shoulders?
HWJ: Technically, the director and editor should locate things either on the shoot, or in the edit that would attract copyright. The Production Manager is quite often the last person to know about something. For example, I was sitting in an online edit for a programme due to go out the following day on BBC One, in prime-time.
They showed some fishermen singing the John Denver song; ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ and they had changed the words, and if you change the words you need to get permission. And we had 24 hours to either re-edit the sequence (which we didn’t want to do), or contact the John Denver estate and plead with them – which is what happened.
Usually the Production Manager and the Production Coordinator should be contacted immediately after filming if any potential copyright issues are raised. Often it can get to the edit stage before the production management team get alerted.
SL: I often say to people, that the Production Manager needs to make sure things are done by the book, to stop potential roadblocks down the line. Copyright issues aside, you take care of documentation and release forms, to prevent someone causing an issue at a later date?
HWJ: You cannot broadcast anybody who has not signed a release form, unless it is news and you’re interviewing someone in the heat of a moment, after a terrorist attack for example. Similarly with location agreements, you have to get permission to film everywhere.
If you don’t then that person can turn around and say, ‘I’ve not given you permission to use that footage’. And I’ve seen it happen where you’ve got into an edit and someone has checked and they haven’t got the release form. The Production Secretary and the Production Coordinator would do the daily release forms and the Production Manager has to be across all that, to make sure that everything is signed off.
It’s never too late and generally people will sign after the filming, but it’s always best to get sign-off before filming. If you’re doing hard-hitting journalism and someone breaks down and cries on camera – and they’ve already signed the release form then you can use the footage even if they say that they don’t want you to.
SL: Do you guard your contacts book with your life, is that the secret weapon of the Production Manager?
HWJ: I would say no. I think in the old days, yes I had a contact book. What has changed now, in the world of the internet and forums there is a huge amount of sharing information.
For example, the Production Managers Association forum, where daily there will be obscure requests; such as a drone company is Beijing or a cameraman in Brazil.
There is a whole sharing aspect, of sharing that information and the production management world is now a community.
SL: Often I say to jobbing cameramen or even students, it’s not the producers or directors, you want to get in with the Production Manager because they do the hiring and firing.
HWJ: When it comes to recruitment, production managers are often involved in editorial recruitment, I still get phone calls even though I’ve not worked in the industry for two years.
People asking for recommendations or reviews of people I’ve previously worked with. Again, the Production Manager is involved in the whole process, you have those contacts in all aspects of production, so yes you need to be friends with the production manager.
SL: Any tips for keeping the Production manager happy?
HWJ: Keep the production manager informed of what you’ve been doing. Don’t come back to the edit saying that you’ve filmed a brilliant brass band, I’ll ask; What were they playing? Did you get their permission? Were they professional musicians? It’s all about being kept in the loop, you don’t want to find something out at the very end, because the Production Manager has to pick up the pieces.
SL: Thank you very much Hilary, it’s been fantastic to speak to you.