Awards Watch: Producers Guild

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Marshall Herskovitz
(Illustration by Chris Morris)
 
Six years after the Producers Guild of America first codified what a producer does, its Producers Code of Credits has become the standard to define the job. The code not only helps define who should be credited with an Oscar or Emmy, but also gives everyone in the industry a way to determine what qualifies someone to hold the title of producer on a movie or television show.

"The PGA has absolutely had an impact and is making certain the producer has actually done his or her job in order to get credit," says Laurence Mark, producer of "Julie & Julia" along with last year's Oscar telecast.

For years, the role of the producer was undervalued because almost any manager or financier who wanted to be one could muscle a credit. That was something the PGA fought passionately to change, culminating nearly five years ago when the movie Academy ruled that no more than three producers could be Oscar-nominated for any one film (a rule that has since become more flexible).

"The arbitration process at the PGA is extremely thorough," Mark says. "They not only get statements and questionnaires from the producers involved, but also call on costume designers, creative executives at the studios, the editors, casting directors and others to literally get a full range of opinions. They are extremely conscientious and thorough."

Limiting credits has "cut down on the abuses," says Vance Van Petten, the PGA's executive director. "It still happens but much less."

"One hears far less frequently about people who don't actually do the job getting credits on movies," says "Milk" producer Dan Jinks, "particularly when it comes to movies that are up for awards consideration. It's hurtful to people who work incredibly hard on movies to see somebody who possibly never even showed up on the set get a credit. That has been going away, due in large part to the efforts of the Producers Guild."

The Producers Code or Credits -- or "the peacock," as it is known -- 18 months ago became the basis for a credit card-size document that unfolds into three pieces that provides a definition of what a producer is.

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"So when someone says, 'I'll finance your movie, but I want a producing credit,' they can literally pull out this little card and say, 'Actually, financing is more of an executive producer credit,' " Van Petten says. "They love that they can say, 'No.' "

Since the introduction of the code, the rate at which the PGA has rejected applicants has more than doubled, from about 10% six years ago to more than 20% today, giving an imprimatur that adds legitimacy to a real producer. That's important because confusion about the producer's role was putting legitimate producers out of business.

"Producers were losing their development deals at studios in huge numbers," PGA president Marshall Herskovitz says. "We really needed to bring about a better understanding of the role of the producer in the creation of content."

The PCOC couldn't have come at a better time as the industry has had to deal with dramatic changes in terms of who controls the production of movies and television shows. Those changes occurred when government rules limiting the power of the networks were lifted in the mid-1990s, resulting in a massive industry consolidation.

"From the 1950s until well into the 1980s, producers were very powerful," Van Petten says. "They went to networks on their own. They sold or licensed product to the networks and still owned the copyright. Now 99% of (PGA) members are employees."

Van Petten mainly attributes the dwindling of a producer's power to "the vertical nature of production and distribution," but producers have struggled to maintain influence since a 1983 decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which stripped the PGA of union status, a status it had enjoyed since its origins in 1950. In practical terms, the NLRB's decision meant that studios did not have to negotiate with the PGA as a union and so the collective power of producers was dissolved.

The PGA then became a trade association and, in 1985, aligned itself with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which allowed for nearly half the PGA's members to qualify for a health insurance plan. The guild leadership continually tried to regain union status until 2000 when Van Petten took over and changed the organization's mandate. Instead of pursuing the power of collective bargaining, the PGA shifted its role to focus on providing services and support to its members.



"What became clear right off the bat was that the producing credit had to be the focus," he says. "The mission was to come to a functional definition (of a producer) and then enforce it."

As a definition emerged, the membership began to grow. In 2001, the PGA's 500 or so members more than doubled when the PGA merged with the American Association of Producers, which represented line producers, associate producers and other below-the-line workers on the producing team.

"It was a very beneficial merger for both sides," says Stephen C. Grossman, a veteran producer who was co-president of the AAP when the merger was negotiated. "It came at a time of huge transition in the production of content and the use of technology."

The following year, the PGA opened a New York office, which now has more than 1,000 members and an active program of screenings, seminars and mentoring. The guild has also expanded the PCOC to include new-media producers because many of them crossed over into movie and television production as well.

Today the organization has grown to more than 4,200 members. Two-thirds are producers, co-producers or executive producers in film, television and new media, and the other third is made up of associate producers, production managers, production supervisors, segment and field producers, production coordinators, visual effects producers and postproduction staff.

Joining the PGA also has benefits beyond mere prestige.

For those who can't qualify for the IATSE employer-paid health insurance, the PGA offers a discounted group insurance plan. It also actively helps its members secure jobs by hosting job forums three times a year in the television, film and reality/nonfiction programming divisions. At each forum, about two-dozen employers meet with 100 potential employees (chosen on a first-come, first-served basis) in a format akin to speed dating: each member gets up to two minutes with each employer to pitch his or her skills and hand out resumes. This year, the PGA is adding an employment-oriented Web site to its services, which will not only match members with employment opportunities, but will also provide further information on what producers actually do.

In 2009, the PGA inaugurated an annual conference called Produced By, an event that featured presentations by 170 producers -- including James Cameron, Matthew Weiner ("Mad Men") and Roland Emmerich on the specifics of their roles. The conference, co-hosted by Fox, sold out all 1,200 tickets and will be held again in early June on the Fox lot.

But perhaps the guild's most visible initiative is the annual Golden Laurel Awards. Originating in 1990 for film and television, the awards have become a surprisingly reliable barometer of which pictures will later get Academy Award nominations. Like the Academy, with which the PGA works closely with on issues of credit, this year's Golden Laurels has expanded its best picture category to 10 nominees.

"The profile of our awards has grown in recent years," Herskovitz says. "As people in the industry have come to understand the role of the producer in the creation of a film, it naturally follows that the PGA Awards are seen to have real value in the industry."

The guild has made strides in other areas as well. A decade ago, about 15% of the members were women. Women now comprise about 45% of members, though Van Patten admits the PGA still falls behind in minority representation. It is a problem the guild is working on.

"It's a long process (involving) seminars (on) pitching and story creation, and education," Herskovitz says. "We really give them the tools so they (can gain further) access in the business. A significant number have come out of the program and set up projects they generated at studios and networks, so there are real world benefits."

Beyond all this, Herskovitz says he cherishes the chance the guild gives him to associate with other producers. "A meeting of producers is usually a short meeting," he says. "(It) gets to the point, gets the job done -- and we all have a good time in the process."
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