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Meet the Executive Producer

A conversation with Mike Drake ('Just Mercy') on the path to becoming and EP, and the role of social responsibility in the evolution of storytelling
February 8, 2022
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Executive producers have been frequently called the CEO of a film or television production, because of the significant role they play in steering the direction of a project. The role can, however, sometimes be an unclear and complicated one for those not in the know. What’s more, with Hollywood’s push towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion, the significance of their role requires an evolution to see better representation on screen and behind it. We spoke with executive producer Mike Drake (The Whole Nine Yards, A Simple Favor, Just Mercy) about what an EP does and how to be a successful one – especially when faced with the need for greater social responsibility.

What does an executive producer do?

“Basically, you're either one of three roles,” explains Drake. “You are either paying for it, had a hand in developing it (or are partnered with a talent who did), or make it. You can do one, two, or all of those things at once.” What do those three roles look like in action?

If an executive producer is financing the film, then it’s pretty simple: their bank account becomes the production’s. However, an EP doesn’t always directly fund a project. Sometimes, instead, they work towards securing funding, approving and monitoring budgets with producers and line producers, and liaising with financiers where needed.

If an EP is involved in developing a project, that typically means they have nurtured an original story idea, acquired adaptation rights to existing material, purchased a script, or paired themselves with A-level talent to work on a narrative they’ll try to sell to studios.

Lastly, if an EP is overseeing the making of a film or television series, they can be a critical part of several elements of production. They can be involved in everything from overseeing the script, to bringing talent (actors, directors, producer) on board, hiring the crew, monitoring production, providing notes during post-production, and can even be a part of resolving any legal concerns or marketing the project.

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Executive Producer, Mike Drake

Drake compares his EP approach to being like “a fancy version of a line producer.” He likes to be the go-to person for the financial, logistical, and creative aspects of a project. “I'm the one that's going to drive the production plan and have a big say in how it gets made: when, where, at what time, and [for] how much money,” he says. “I'm the one that everyone turns to ask, ‘How are we going to do this?’ and can respond, ‘Let me figure it out.’”

How do you become an executive producer?

Because of the wide range of responsibilities an EP can (and cannot) have, it’s understandable that there are no academic programs dedicated to learning the ropes. That said, it’s not uncommon for EPs to have studied filmmaking, creative media production and technology, or business management in school. But from there on, there isn’t an official, clearly defined, road map. Some (privileged with time and money) pursue material to turn into a film, and the connections to realize it. Some work their way up through the industry, exploring positions like production coordinator or line producers first.

Drake did the latter. After earning a degree in screenwriting, he pursued internships in the parallel industry of commercial production. (A path others, like editor Randy Bricker, have found themselves taking too). He first started at a visual effects company, before moving to an internship at Steve Golin’s video production company, Propaganda Films, where filmmakers like Spike Jonze, David Fincher, and Antoine Fuqua cut their teeth.

It was an anxious time for Drake. “I didn’t have a mentor or anyone that could say, ‘Hey, you know, those internships will lead you into production, and these internships lead you in development,” he says. It could lead to feelings that will undoubtedly resonate with aspiring EPs today too. “You're petrified that you won't even be able to work in the business. It seems impossible."

As I've gotten older, I've been more focused on having a specific intention, when the opportunity presents itself, to get involved in projects that I think may help shift the narrative of how we see ourselves as humans.

Despite the obstacles, it wasn’t impossible. Even if Drake was unsure of his future, he was gaining valuable experience, and quickly, thanks to the fast-paced world of commercial production. “The cycle turns over so quickly - like within weeks, as opposed to months or years,” he says. He went from intern, to production coordinator, to production manager, in a short span of time. And this acceleration gave him enough confidence – at 24 – that when a college friend who was making low-budget movies at Showtime, asked Drake to work together, it was an easy decision. Soon, he was working his way up fast, yet again – line-producer, associate producer, co-producer, and then executive producer.

Drake says he accomplished this by being willing to learn, and to be of use. “It's paying attention and trying to be helpful,” he says. It was especially critical – through roles like line producer – to study how a project coheres from top to bottom. “A lot of people gravitate towards production based on the fact that it’s cool to make a movie. They don’t understand the scope of the business and how all the pieces come together,” he says. Also important? Some elbow grease. “I worked until my fingers were bloody and I did not stop moving,” he says.

What makes a successful executive producer?

Beyond the cultivation of relationships, hard work, strong management skills, good storytelling abilities, and more, what makes a good EP is understanding that filmmaking is a mercurial process. Screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything” and Drake agrees with that wisdom. “Filmmaking is like life - an imperfect, messy process,” he says. “It doesn't matter how many films you make or how long you do this, you'll never know everything. That's just the simple truth.”

What’s also true is that valuable lessons can nonetheless still be learned from the messy process of filmmaking. Which is why Drake offers one critical piece of advice: “Try to quietly pay attention to what worked, what didn't work, and why it didn't work,” he says.

Drake also stresses that what defines a successful executive producer has changed in the last several years. “Filmmaking is a business and it's escapism,” he says. “But sometimes you have to make something that may make a bigger impact.” That means accepting social responsibility and doing more to ensure the diversification of subject matter, cast, and crew.

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Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, 'Just Mercy' / Warner Bros.

It’s why, for example, Drake was passionate about making Just Mercy, a film starring Michael B. Jordan about a civil rights attorney looking to free a wrongly convicted man. “As I've gotten older, I've been more focused on having a specific intention, when the opportunity presents itself, to get involved in projects that I think may help shift the narrative of how we see ourselves as humans,” he says.

It’s also why Just Mercy became a powerful milestone in the push towards normalizing the adoption of inclusion riders to ensure more diverse cast and crews. Changing the industry in that way needs to fall in the purview of the EP, Drake believes. “I’m the one that generates the hire,” Drake says. “You can think about who is the best person for the job while also being mindful of a very simple ratio. Trying to make sure that half the film [crew] is women, a person of color, or a person of LGBTQ.”

Taking charge of that push towards greater diversity will require the same elements that make becoming a good EP possible. “It’s the passion of telling stories,” he says. “And it’s largely about perseverance.”

Topic: Spotlight

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