Producers United Is Launched By 86 Top Film & TV “Career Producers” To Change Fee Structure, Get Health Benefits & Stop Gradual Ecosystem Erosion

EXCLUSIVE: As signatories prepare to negotiate new deals with IATSE and Teamsters, it might seem like the last thing the town wants to chew on is another group claiming it has gotten the short end of the stick.

The 86 members of Producers United – a grassroots collection of the most prolific “Career Producers” who make about 90% of Hollywood’s biggest independent and studio/streamer films – will test those waters on behalf of all producers who don’t have it as good as most might have believed.

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The members of this upstart group, which Deadline is revealing for the first time here, include the producers of Oscar-winning films, and franchises that include James Bond, John Wick, Transformers and many others. They have banded together on behalf of other producers and have made approaches to studios, streamers and financiers on the film and TV sides. Meetings are set over the next few weeks to press the case for reforms that if not addressed, could in the long term could fuel a potential “extinction event.”

The Producers United members believe they’ve got legitimate concerns that can be addressed without too much hardship on their employers. Some are symbolic indignities that have eroded the position of producer, and others are financial. They make their case to Deadline, and they are persuasive. Much of their motivation is for the next generation of producers.

Click to see the entire list of producers who will be pressing the case.

It has become difficult for veterans to make a living, they said. And just the way the WGA pressed the case that slashing staffing of writers rooms in the lead up to last year’s writer’s strike endangered the ecosystem that produces future showrunners, these Career Producers believe they are facing a crisis up the road if things don’t get fixed. While they’ve been setting meetings with the CEOs, the leaders of the Producers United movement have the sneaking suspicion that the bosses don’t even know there is an acute problem.

At its core, consider that writers are well paid for their contribution through the development process, as is everyone else involved on the ground floor of a picture. Except the Career Producers who often are the catalysts for getting projects going in the first place. At best, producers sustain themselves on half of a one-time $25,000 development fee, a sum that has been the same since 1971. Gestation of films and TV projects through development can stretch nine months or nine years. The small sum paid is applied against an eventual fee that does not kick in until start of production.

It has made the Career Producers feel like the equivalent of wildcatters who drill on spec and only get rich when they strike oil. Wildcatting in film and TV might have been worth that gamble years ago, when overall deals were more generous and producers who set up many projects could sustain themselves through all those development fees. Nowadays, producer fees have been increasingly capped, which makes the pot of gold elusive.

Business affairs executives don’t ask the guild-repped writers, directors and others to cut fees. It’s common for producers to be asked to take haircuts when budgets need cutting, or other producers are added to the roster. Those added elements often are there to serve as advocates for stars and come aboard to protect their interests.

Producers United is comprised of a group that call themselves “Career Producers.” They are the ones who have no other interests but keeping on track the film they have grown from inception. They are usually the only ones asked to sign their names and put themselves on the hook for budget overruns and mishaps, even those resulting from audits years down the line when distributors have closed the books and don’t want to hear about it.

They are also the only ones in the core brain trust behind films and TV series that don’t have the leverage that would come from the clout of a collective bargaining guild. The Producers Guild of America has helped police who among them gets an Oscar, but they are not in a position to negotiate financial terms. The PGA, whose presidents Stephanie Allain and Donald De Line announced at the recent PGA Awards that Legendary, Blumhouse, Macro and Berlanti agreed to a healthcare initiative — isn’t involved in this Producers United mission, but many of the Producers United members are PGA members who believe they are rowing in the same direction.

“The PGA is a great organization,” said Producers United member Julie Lynn, who runs Mockingbird Pictures with Bonnie Curtis. “ It reps a membership of over 8,000 people, in over 20 categories of work, which is an awesome responsibility.  Many of us in Producers United belong to the PGA —  and we’re excited to link arms and move in the same direction on these issues.”

What Producers United Members Want

In broad strokes, the Career Producers want to change the structure of how their fees are paid out during development, and for film and TV companies to kick in health care costs, which has become a major burden for the producers and their employees.

Secondary reforms that might come from making the Career Producer title a thing will help halt erosion in the stature and authority of producers. These producers said there was a time the lead producer could smell trouble and stop production until it was straightened out. A few mentioned the Rust tragedy where it seemed no one stepped in while missteps that led to tragedy were happening. Too often, producing roles are handed out by business affairs executives, or added at the behest of movie stars who themselves are moonlighting. The Career Producers are often asked to cut their own fees to facilitate those additions. They want those costs to be paid by the studios. They hope that the CEOs who solved the last two labor strikes will recognize the mutual benefit of empowering the producers they rely on for quality control on a set, and to bring in movies and TV productions safely and on budget.

No More Being Paid Like An NCAA Athlete

The Career Producers want the studios and financiers they work for to make healthcare contributions, and shift the way that fees are paid so there is more cash flow to pay staff and overhead as films wind their way to green lights. That money would be paid in equal advances of up to 10% of a Career Producer’s total fee. In television, it would be an amount equal to the pool of non-writing EP fees for one episode. Those funds will go against the eventual fee paid right before productions begin. So this is not as much an increase in fees here, as the timing of when the monies are paid. The exception is monies paid on projects that don’t make it to green light; those sums would be treated same as fees to writers on projects that don’t make it out of development hell.

In health care, they are asking for health insurance contributions for Career Producers during 8 weeks of pre-production, the span of production, and, at a minimum, the final 8 weeks of post-production.  They believe this will allow all Career Producers, particularly emerging ones, to establish a bank of hours that will provide the security of health insurance for the people (and their families) who are responsible for the health and safety of a film or television show and its crew.

Considering the roles they serve that the Career Producers believe are vital to keeping films from going off the rails creatively or in the areas of safety and budget, they believe it amounts to a small cost for studios.

I spoke with about a dozen top producers who are driving this initiative, and they are persuasive in describing how far producers have fallen in status.

“I don’t think what we are suggesting will be painless, but we believe it’s not wildly painful, either,” said Lorenzo di Bonaventura, one of the town’s most prolific makers of big studio pictures and among the few who still has an overall deal at a major studio. “We’re talking about basic American rights here. You have a right to work and get paid for it, and you should have healthcare. What we’re asking is to face up to a basic commitment, which is to pay people for their work and give them a little protection. This is not bone breaking from a monetary point of view. We recognize that we’re asking them to take a step, but we don’t believe it’s that big a step. But it’s a huge step for the emerging producers.”

It is hard to get anything in Hollywood without leverage particularly in a period of contraction. One can only go so far with the argument that the two gestures would be beneficial to the movie and TV businesses over the long term. Many of the same producers behind this initiative signed a petition asking the term “producer” be dropped from AMPTP because of the false conveyance that they were with the signatories when the studio bargaining entity scuffled with the WGA, SAG-AFTRA and DGA. Nothing happened. So the Career Producers realize they’ve got an uphill battle, even if just about every current studio chief and creative executive will become a producer the moment they leave the exec suites.

Why Producers Are Not Unionized

Producers started out in Hollywood with guild protection. The Screen Producers Guild was formed in 1950, and its biggest negotiating accomplishment came in 1968 when they brokered a deal with AMPTP that put them on par with the DGA. But the WGA challenged its authority to rep producers, and the PGA agreement was invalidated in 1974 by the California Court of Appeal on the grounds the SPG was dominated by producers who had ownership stakes in the studios and were considered employers.

That condition no longer exists, but in 1983 the PGA was denied another attempt to unionize because, the NLRB ruled, producers were essentially an arm of the employers and shared in the proceeds. Another bid came in 1985 when PGA tried to join the Teamsters, and threatened to go on strike against AMPTP. They compromised; limited pension and health benefits were given, but PGA was not recognized as a bargaining unit. At the time, PGA members who worked at least 600 hours in a six-month period on union projects on the West Coast were eligible to participate in the Motion Picture Industry health plan.

Most recently came an attempt by The Producers Union and its leaders Rebecca Green (It Follows) and Chris Moore (Manchester By The Sea) who repped 108 producers and attempted to gain the rights to negotiate directly with studios and financiers, mindful of testing the previous obstacles cited by the NLRB. Nothing much happened, but the producers are still pressing the case. Green and Moore are also supporting Producers United.

Producers United is not looking to align with a labor union. They instead will appeal to the chief executives in meetings that will come in the next few weeks hoping to enact reforms without acrimony.

The producers I spoke with had war stories, some of which I was not given authorization to print. Red Notice producer Beau Flynn said he has observed the cost of the slow erosion of the standing of producers.

“Systematically the business has changed so radically, that there has become a real degradation,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have an overhead deal, but studios have slashed the majority of those deals. We remember the days when a studio would have 30-50 of these and they not only sustained the producer, but also the young producers underneath them as well. Those deals have primarily gone away. Add to that the number of people now taking producer credit, not because of a vanity issue because we don’t care about that, but fees of the original producers then get chopped down when you have so many producers.”

This has led to a “producers pool,” which pit producers against one another in an atmosphere that resembles Walmart on Black Friday.

“The producers pool gets set by both the financiers in the indie world, and by the studios in the studio world,” Flynn said. “It becomes a death match where you fight over what’s in that pool, usually with the lead producer or the career producer having to make sure that everyone is happy, whether it’s the actor, director, other partners, managers. And that ends up leaving the lead or career producer with usually a very small amount which has to sustain you for years. Because, how many movies can you make over a period of time? It can take years and years and years to make one indie or studio movie.”

The third indignity, Flynn said, comes from a producer overseeing development and watching everyone else in the process get paid full freight while they ride their $12,500 development fee.

“You are working for free, and watch these pictures coming together, and crew members come on and they’re all getting paid weekly,” he said. “Producers usually are the last to get paid, and not until eight weeks out from production, and not until the movie is officially green lit. So everyone else is getting paid but not the producer, and that can go on for years. Lastly, first dollar gross is now gone and backend language has been pushed so far back. Producers used to be willing to give up their fees, bet on themselves and their projects and try and participate in the backend in success. Those backends have become so diminished. Throw in Covid, the strikes and you have fewer movies now, and bankruptcies at theater chains. So now you have a really small percentage of hitting your backend. It puts producers back in the fee-based business, and those fees have been squashed down because of budget reductions and the proliferation of other producers.”

Wiip’s Mark Roybal, who has produced Mare of Easttown and Doubt among others, said the lack of a binding system of evaluating producers has helped exacerbate the adversity.

“The Produced By credit is not decided by any guild, and we’re the only group like that,” he said. “Writers have WGA, the directors have the DGA, but our credit is assigned by the studio, by their business affairs, or by the studio head. And so those things are kind of given out by, not by us or by our governing body or anything like that, but by the studios that employ us. So they have given out a lot of credits. In order to compensate people for not compensating them. They’ll say, ok you’re a producer. Over time it has led credit proliferation. And that’s why I think there’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace as to what exactly is a producer.

“That led to the decoupling of the word from the work and the services provided,” he said. “There’s no place where it’s written down, what that credit is intended to be given for. So it gets bartered, frankly, because it’s free to give it away. A studio, network or a streamer can choose to give somebody that title as a sign of honor and it doesn’t cost them anything to do it. What happened over time, of course, is that once people got the title, they also wanted their remuneration. And the problem became, well, who’s paying for that? The answer the studios and the networks and the streamers had was, well, you are you the producers, so you handle it. But we didn’t hand out that credit in the first place. So why aren’t they paying for it if they’re going to do that?”

Part of the discussion will be that studios absorb those costs, and leave alone the fees of Career Producers.

Another former studio production president turned producer, Kevin Misher, believes that a reevaluation of roles is overdue to decide the producer title. That would re-establish a pecking order of responsibility that might not bring Hollywood back to the character that informed Jack Woltz — the producer in The Godfather who found a horse’s head in his bed — but it would sure help. Misher believes that’s why the establishment of the Career Producer title is important.

“How do you define what the producer is? The Career Producer does so many things on a set both before the movie exists, before it is shot and after, all the way until release. Some of the people on the Producers United list do their jobs differently, but they share the same overall responsibility, which is to run a small company that produces that one thing. If you think of it that way, the size or scale, whether it’s a movie or television show, it doesn’t matter. You are working with the artists, the craftsmen, the workers, the technicians, everybody on that side. And then there’s always a bank that you have to manage. Sometimes it’s a studio, sometimes it’s a group of investors, sometimes it’s an individual or et cetera, et cetera.

“You’re always weighing the art versus the commerce and trying to reconcile those things at all times,” Misher said. “There’s nuance to that. It’s not clean. It’s not like a screenwriter who writes a screenplay, or an editor or a cinematographer. You know what their jobs are. This is why the producer has gotten to this place. But if you had to distill it, we are responsible. The producer is ultimately responsible for delivering that thing, the movie or the television show, whatever it is, and achieving both creative and financial success. We’re the people entrusted to manage the creative, and be responsible to the financials.”

Why Will Studios Voluntarily Give What They Don’t Have To?

Because their only allegiance is to the film they’re producing, Career Producers believe they have proven themselves worthy allies to studios, streamers and financiers. That includes the willingness and expectation of everyone on the Producers United list to put themselves on the hook, signing contracts that leave the responsibility on their doorstep. They hope the employers take that into account.

“On an independent film, all the other guilds expect us to sign paperwork,” said Cathy Schulman, producer of Crash, The Woman King and many others. “That is a personal guarantee, financially for all the residuals. And then our employers, who are really the financiers of the picture, wherever we managed to put together the money, they require us to financially guarantee that we will deliver the movie into completion for the amount laid out, no matter what obstacles arise. Just as importantly, the director and all the artisans and actors involved put themselves in our hands creatively. So what becomes apparent on an independent film is that we bear the financial, logistical and creative liability all the way through to delivery and often beyond, if an audit comes up 10 years later or more.”

Said Jennifer Todd, who has produced the Austin Powers films, Alice in Wonderland and two Oscarcasts: “There’s a beauty of the weird job that we’ve all chosen. This is important to me because really the reason why we’ve spent so much time on this is, we all got very lucky when there was a path for us. And even though it’s never a straight path in becoming a producer, we could find a way and now we have to literally prevent the path off from being cut off.

“It is too hard for all these younger people who work for us and who learned from us to become producers in their own right,” Todd said. “I know the path for them would be more viable specifically with two of the issues here. If they could just get this little bit of health coverage contribution in their lives, and some money upfront on the project. I feel really strongly about that because I believe without great producers, it’s much harder to have great products in all aspects of it. So I really want this for the people that are 10, 15 years behind us.”

Like many in Producers United, di Bonaventura has experienced the dynamic between producers and studio chiefs from both sides, when he ran production at Warner Bros to now, when he produces tent poles for Paramount. As an exec, he always sought out a producer with a spine because it left him with one less thing to worry about. As producer, he’s tried to be that person and that’s why he believes that incorporating these changes will return a relationship between studio execs and producers to something closer to a partnership.

“If you look at the history, the thing that has changed is that the producers were regarded as essential elements that aided the studio in keeping control of a project,” he said. “That could be from talent management to budget and everything in between. That eroded in part because of the corporatization of…let’s call it the buyer. They do not see as much advantage in producers as we saw back in the day. When it comes to really hard decisions, the studios have retreated. From a corporate point of view, when something is starting to go against them, they want somebody to either help them by taking the lead on the set. I’ll pick our dear friend, Paula Weinstein who passed away recently. When we knew Paula was on a movie, we knew that the budget was going to be managed properly, and we knew that the creative was going to always be at the forefront of the decision making. And we knew that she would alert us if there was a problem. And I think that’s where producers really protect studio executives. We can see the problem living on the set, or wherever we are. If not hour by hour, we know half day by half day exactly what is transpiring, and we can see a problem coming and hopefully our job is frankly to solve it before it gets to the studio.

“My personal point of view is I got 24 hours to solve a big problem. If I can’t figure it out by then, it’s time to bring the studio in. That was the process.

“The breakdown in that process has been the fact that for whatever reason, studios don’t allow the level of trust between the two entities,” di Bonaventura said. If you’re an executive you might sometimes say “We would’ve made different decision than what the producer made, but we don’t have time to make all those decisions.” As an executive, what you’re really counting on is the producer making the best possible decision in a short period of time, and 95 out of a hundred times it aligned with what I would have done as an executive.”

Tendo Nagenda served in top exec posts at Disney and then Netflix, before branching into the producing game. If he’d been brought this scenario, one in which fees could get paid on projects that don’t get made, he would not have taken umbrage.

“When you break it down, we’re asking for an advance against a fee that hopefully they would want to pay because it would be a movie or TV show that ultimately will benefit them,” Nagenda said. “If it doesn’t happen and it’s abandoned, then yes, it will cost them more than it otherwise would have. But ultimately the allowance of this as a profession to continue should also work in the studio favor. And that is the quality control, the ability to count on these things that they pay for, rights they secure and develop, all things which are mutually beneficial. This is an advance against something we hope they’re excited to pay for. I love my writer friends, but they’ve never had to grasp the fact that no matter what, they get paid.

“Even in total failure,” Nagenda said. “I’m going to use a hypothetical. Let’s pretend a producer’s fee is a million dollars and a top-end writer’s fee is a million. The writer got a million dollars, whether that movie got made or not. What we’re suggesting is the producer is going to get 10%, whether it gets made or not. It’s a big difference, and we have probably worked on it longer than that. I’m not saying worked harder, I’m just saying longer. So we’re not asking anywhere near what they have.”

The benefits might be more profound in the indie space. Mark Vahradian, who produces big movies with Di Bonaventura, said no studio will green light a film with an emerging neophyte filmmaker without an experienced producer in place.

“Hollywood has an originality problem,” he said. “To compete with new media, we must champion fresh and diverse talent, but we must also champion the seasoned producers they need to navigate the filmmaking minefield and bring their visions to light. Those producers are disappearing.”

Naomi Despres, who often produces in the indie space, said the health benefits would do wonders for that producer ecosystem: There are a lot of young producers and next generation producers who are working in the independent space. And what we really want is for this to become general best practices so that even in the independent space, there’s no universe where you wouldn’t provide healthcare. Especially there, where producers are asked to cut already small fees or defer them. That is very much the norm. The idea that on top of that these people don’t have healthcare, is deeply problematic. Many within this group started in the independent space and then moved into the studio space. But they have worked for many, many years in the independent space and the struggles would certainly lessen if they have health care.”

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