Upon entering the film industry, you’ll inevitably interact with an individual with an important-sounding-yet-vague job title; The Unit Production Manager. Having a good UPM is completely critical to both the financial and creative success of a production. But exactly what does a unit production manager do?
In this article we will be answering that question, along with info about a UPM’s salary, how you typically earn a job as one, and what behaviors you must learn to be the best Unit Production Manager you can be!
- 1 What Is A Unit Production Manager or UPM?
- 2 Unit Production Manager Job Description / Duties
- 3 Unit Production Manager Salary
- 4 Getting A Job As A Unit Production Manager
- 5 What Makes A Good Unit Production Manager?
- 6 Unit Production Manager vs Line Producer
- 7 Conclusion
What Is A Unit Production Manager or UPM?
The Unit Production Manager or UPM is the highest ranking official in the below-the-line hierarchy. They are responsible for keeping the crew on schedule, below budget, and making sure the film gets made in the most efficient way possible.
The Unit Production Manager is represented by the DGA, has a very long list of duties, and can expect to work 80 or more hours a week on larger shows.
A good UPM can be the difference between an awesome and a terrible working experience. The ability to solve problems creatively and manage the crew respectfully can save potentially millions of dollars, and allow the creative team to execute their vision perfectly.
Unit Production Manager Job Description / Duties
The role of UPM is definitely not for the faint of heart. Here’s a rundown of all the duties you will be responsible for as a unit production manager.
- Preparing the shooting schedule and breaking down the script.
- Working with locations department to scout and secure locations.
- Participate in the preparation of the budget.
- Monitor the production reports at the end of each day
- Coordinate the arrangements of logistical challenges – accommodations, transportation, etc.
- Negotiate releases and contracts for locations, cast, and equipment.
- Supervise all of the departments.
- Solve problems on a day-to-day basis.
- Approve all financial expenditures, call sheets and salaries.
- Identify issues causing project setbacks and take actions to correct them.
- Mediate conflicts and find a solution that’s best for the production.
- Communicate what is and what is not possible to the director given the schedule and budget.
Yeah. You’re responsible for pretty much EVERYTHING. While the producer is responsible for creating a project that is feasibly profitable, the UPM is responsible for making sure the project stays profitable. It requires a ton of personal investment.
Keeping everyone in line can be incredibly stressful and requires a ton of experience and backbone. It is often said that the UPM has the thickest skin of anyone on an entire film set. When you have a million things stressing you out, you don’t have a lot of mental space to feel personally attacked.
Unit Production Manager Salary
The UPM is just about the highest paying positions you can achieve while still below the line. With all those aforementioned duties, exactly how much can you expect to make as a UPM?
If you’re working on non union or low budget shows, there’s really no telling how much you’ll earn. You’ll be paid anything between full union rate, and.. nothing. But people don’t typically work full time as UPM’s on small indie gigs. That work is usually done either as a means of gaining experience, or as a personal favor to your collaborators.
Full time UPMs work consistently on shows approved by the Director’s Guild of America. Although getting into the union can be quite a hassle, the DGA minimum salary is quite nice. It varies between $4500-7000 minimum per week, varying dependent on things like the type of show, and whether it’s at a location, or a studio.
According to payscale.com, the average salary of a Unit Production Manager is around 65k a year. While this might not seem like that much, it’s important to understand that film jobs are very draining, as well as sporadic. You’ll have many weeks off between shows if you choose to. If you want to work nonstop all year long, you might feel like death, but you’ll make a lot more than the average.
Getting A Job As A Unit Production Manager
If the overwhelming job description hasn’t scared you off, or if you’re intrigued after learning about the salary, you’re probably wondering what steps you can take to become a unit production manager yourself!
Keep in mind that in any case, it is a very high level position that will require hard work and patience to attain. If you were plopped directly into the UPM position without gaining the proper experience first, you will fail miserably, so take your time and enjoy the journey.
Step 0 (Optional) – Get Educated!
I want to first emphasize that in the film industry, education is not very important, and you’ll almost never be asked about your degree. The industry is built on the back of passionate college dropouts.
That being said, a formal education is always useful no matter what you’re trying to do. If you’re going to school, here’s a list of classes you should check out to improve your potential as a UPM.
- Finance, Statistics, Math.
- Human resources, management, business.
- Entertainment, TV & Film Production, Producing.
Step 1 – Begin working in your local film industry.
Obviously you aren’t going to be able to just snatch a top level position right away! You’ll need to start working in the local film industry. If you’re looking for some advice on how you can break into that, we’ve written a very in-depth guide.
It’s important that you get experience both on-set and in the office. To reach such a high level, you’ll need to be working as hard as you can to make connections and learn both sides of film.
On set you will work as a set PA, and eventually climb the AD ladder. In the office you will start as an office PA, and hopefully land gigs as a secretary, or production coordinator. We even recommend you dabble in different departments over the years – maybe you’ll find that you have a calling elsewhere.
If you manage to survive the years of work, and flourish as a production coordinator or first AD, and somehow still have ambitions of becoming a UPM, you’re in luck. You’re getting pretty close.
Step 2 – Get experience as a UPM.
While the traditional climb is a sure-fire way to become a UPM, you don’t need to wait to become a 1st AD to start getting experience. By using the internet and your networking skills to find indie films, you can get experience as a UPM early. The pay won’t be anywhere near that of the big budget shows, but you don’t want to jump headfirst into the position never having done it before.
Once you’ve managed to complete a few small films as a UPM, you will be much more confident in your abilities to manage budgets and schedules. Plus, if you’ve done a good job, your connections will trust you too.
Step 3 – Know the right people.
Going off of the last step, most people become UPM’s because they are in the right place at the right time. Of course, it’s not all luck – you have to put yourself in a position where you’re around people who trust you and have the power to help.
If you work hard, put all your energy towards learning and doing the best job you can, eventually you’ll come across an opportunity to be a UPM on a project bigger than anything you’ve done before. You’ll always need to take a leap of faith, but if you’re willing to do that, you’ll be working as a Unit Production Manager on blockbusters in no time.
What Makes A Good Unit Production Manager?
Knowing how to become a Unit Production Manager isn’t going to help you if you don’t even know how to be a good one! Here are a few key attributes you’ll find across the best UPMs in the business.
As the entirety of your job is basically communication, having strong communication skills and a sense of diplomacy are very important. Here are some tips for improving your communication skills and becoming everyone’s favorite UPM.
- Be transparent – One of the most essential parts of running a successful operation is being as transparent as your NDA’s will allow you to be. By communicating what is going on on your side of the production, people will be more understanding and not take things as personally when they don’t get what they want.
- Ask questions and listen – Even if people aren’t able to get what they always want, knowing that their voice is heard will make them feel much less helpless.
- Respect others – Getting on people’s good side is all a matter of respect. Praise people in public and criticize them in private. Have important conversations in person rather than through your assistants or text messages.
- Be strict, but never mean or condescending – You need to have boundaries for what you’re going to allow, but there is never a reason to belittle or insult your fellow crew members – even if you feel disrespected yourself.
Management Skills (duh)
At the end of the day, the Unit Production Manager is, well, a manager. So, obviously, proper management skills go a long way here.
There’s one ability that is an absolute prerequisite if you’re going to work as a UPM – The ability to say no. If you’re a pushover, and are constantly going over budget and/or schedule, you’re not going to be given work for very long. You’re one of the only crew members that gets to say no to the director, so you better make sure you have the balls to actually do that when it’s necessary.
Conversely, if you’re a hardass that never gives their crew any leeway, you’ll hurt morale and do more damage. While you shouldn’t worry about whether or not people like you, having people on your side will make them more understanding when you need to tighten the purse strings. Being a good manager means being able to facilitate compromises and reach agreements that make all parties happy.
Experience And Creativity
At the end of the day, it all boils down to your experience. You can study all you want, but real lessons come from being smacked down hard by your mistakes. The longer you work as a UPM, the more mistakes you will make, and the more you will learn and grow.
Just because you aren’t working on the creative side of things doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities to get creative as a UPM. Coming up with creative solutions to problems is what sets apart good UPMs from great ones. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!
Unit Production Manager vs Line Producer
Film terms can be a bit messy, with hierarchies differing, and the duties fulfilled by the various roles changing a lot from set to set. The crew role of line producer can sound awfully similar to that of the Unit Production Manager. Here are some guidelines for what you can expect, although nothing is really set in stone in the film industry.
The unit production manager and line producer roles are, in fact, very similar to each other. In some productions, the line producer also acts as the UPM, and on most sets, the UPM reports to the line producer.
When both roles exist on a project, the line producer creates the budget and oversees the hiring of the entire crew, and the UPM will execute the plan which was assembled by the line producer.
On other projects, a line producer is effectively a non-union Unit Production Manager. While UPM’s are members of the Director’s Guild of America, Line Producers are members of the Producer’s Guild of America, which is not technically a union, and lacks many of the benefits and drawbacks of being one.
In essence, like we said before, the Unit Production Manager is more focused on managing the day-to-day operations of a production. A line producer, on the other hand, views things from the perspective of the bigger picture. They’re considering how things are going to impact the budget as a whole, while the UPM puts out fires and devises smart solutions to problems as they arise.
Confused? Yeah, we are too a little bit. Don’t worry about it. Point is, they’re pretty much the same.
The unit production manager role is one of the most stressful and intensive. Despite not playing a creative part, you’re tackling the whole of the project and subjecting yourself to the pain that comes with executing the vision of a film.
We think that if you aren’t the creative type, but are still very passionate about working in the film industry, the Unit Production Manager position is just about the best thing you can aim for short of being a producer yourself.