Precisely what a producer does is one of the murkiest questions in cinema.
It’s been debated forever, books have been written on the subject and I have producer friends whose brows furrow when asked by those outside the industry to explain what they do.
According to Merriam-Webster, a producer is “someone who is in charge of making and usually providing the money for a play, movie, record, etc.” This definition encompasses executive producers too, so it might be instructive to examine the verb ‘produce’.
The word earns three definitions. The first two refer to creating something by machine or natural process. The third defines the word thus: “To cause (something) to exist or happen; to cause (a particular result or effect).”
The decision by the Academy to exclude Jonathan Sehring and John Sloss — two people who had until very recently been regarded as producers on best picture nominee Boyhood alongside Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland — is baffling and disrespectful.
Writer-director Linklater gets the Academy’s approval and his inclusion is a no-brainer. This is the man who conceived of the movie, brought the characters to life and planned his professional schedule around it for 12 years.
Cathleen Sutherland started out on the project as a production manager but became producer. She accompanied Linklater on location scouts and collaborated with him on the minutiae of bringing the team together, from 2002 to 2013. Both are Boyhood producers through and through.
The Academy has decreed, however, that IFC Films president Sehring and longtime film executive and Linklater’s lawyer Sloss do not qualify as producers.
This makes no sense. Sloss was the first person Linklater told about his idea for Boyhood, while the pair were strolling through Venice in September 2001 after the world premiere of Waking Life, which Sloss had packaged.
“I thought it was inspired, slightly crazy but brilliant, and that it was going to be very hard to finance,” Sloss told me last year. “But it happened better than any of us imagined.”
It happened because Sloss brought his considerable energy and expertise to the table to structure unusual deals that would allow the project to take shape.
Linklater and Sloss knew who they would call first. Sehring had invested in Waking Life and is the embodiment of independent cinema. “I talked to the people I worked for,” Sehring told me. “My boss, Josh Sapan [of Rainbow Media, IFC’s owner before AMC Networks], didn’t have a moment’s hesitation. He said we should do it.”
IFC Productions’ investment entailed Sehring giving Linklater approximately $200,000 each year for 12 years. Sehring had to effectively pitch a new short film once a year and secure financing from his corporate paymasters every quarter.
Talk about a thankless task. There was no getting away from the fact there might never be recoupment, and if there was, it would not be for at least another 12 years. Sehring stuck to his task and lobbied his bosses over and over again until Boyhood was finished. How is this not behaviour that causes something to exist or happen or causes a particular result or effect? Without Sehring, Boyhood would not have been made.
Meanwhile Sloss, who had structured the package from the outset, continued to oversee every aspect of the $4m-plus production’s legal profile and maintained year-round dialogue with Sehring, Linklater and Sutherland on all the big decisions.
Again, how is this not behaviour that causes something to exist or happen and so on? Without Sloss, Boyhood would not have been made.
On an ordinary movie one would argue the duties carried out by these two seasoned professionals would at the very least qualify them as executive producers. They were not the ones poring over call sheets, sitting on set each day and night, eating with cast and crew and putting out production fires.
But they were the ones who built and literally invested in the architecture of a unique feature project that required their near-constant attention for more than 12 years. With all respect to the hard-working cast and crew, there were four guiding lights on Boyhood.
The Academy exists to celebrate cinema, and in so doing its members apply their expertise and passion to an appreciation of those involved in its creation. Extraordinary circumstances demand flexible interpretation of guidelines, and Boyhood is an extraordinary movie.
Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland, John Sloss and Jonathan Sehring produced the movie. It’s as simple and complicated as that.
Jeremy Kay is US Editor at Screen International