The role of a unit production manager is similar to that of a line producer, in that the UPM is hired by the producer during preproduction to oversee the budget and scheduling of a film or television show through the end of principal photography. Line producer is a role recognized by the Producer’s Guild of America, but a UPM is a member of the Director’s Guild of America and works under a bargaining agreement between the union and the studio or production company.
In preproduction, the UPM is responsible for preparing a preliminary shooting schedule and below-the-line budget by breaking down the script and assessing time and cost. This person will also work with the location manager to search for and survey all shooting locations and secure permission contracts. The UPM will participate in the hiring of below-the-line crew and coordinate arrangements for housing and transportation, as well as obtaining rental agreements for gear and materials. During principal photography, the UPM will have final approval over all financial expenditures, approve salary and time sheets for crew, and sign off on each day’s call sheet. The unit production manager is also the producer’s eyes and ears on set; production reports are produced daily detailing the shoot’s progress, costs incurred, and changes made to the schedule or budget. If the film or show is lagging behind projected goals, the UPM must step in to identify the cause and take action to get the shoot back on track. Ultimately this person is responsible to the producer (the person signing the checks) to keep the project on time and on budget.
This is a logistical role that requires balancing what the director wants against what the budget will allow. If a scene is running over schedule, the UPM may have to cut staff or draw funds from one line item to give to another. When conflicts arise that threaten the smooth operation of the crew, the unit production manager will step in to mediate the situation and decide on a course of action. It’s not a creative role, but the person in it does have authority to terminate crew employment, alter the equipment and materials lists, or advise the director on what is and is not feasible under the budget and schedule.
Skills & Education
Production managers are highly experienced veterans of the film and television industry. A college degree in film/TV production is advantageous, giving you a firm knowledge of the equipment, job functions, and techniques related to the industry. Courses in finance, human resources, mathematics, statistics, and entertainment business are also invaluable to a UPM. The most important skill a unit production manager can have is the ability to look at the script and instantly know what each element will cost and how long it will take to shoot. That is not easily taught, but comes with experience and a good mind for numbers.
What to Expect
A unit production manager must be a skilled diplomat capable of devising compromises. The UPM controls the purse strings and must be prepared to say no when the director is insisting on six more hours of shooting and the crew is about to hit overtime. A UPM who goes over budget and over schedule will not get much work, but if you can offer creative solutions to complex problems, you will be a sought-after professional. You can reach this role on-set through experience as an assistant director or through the production office as a production coordinator or assistant production manager. A UPM can move up from small, low-budget productions to larger films and television series or can parlay his or her experience into work as a producer.