Laura Thoel talks about her career as the Executive Producer/Head of production at www.smugglersite.com.  You can also find her on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

I am an Executive Producer/Head of Production of television commercials and music videos at an international production company called Smuggler. I am based out of the Hollywood office.

How would you describe what you do?

Wow, where to begin. I do a lot. In fact when I go on vacation, my away message directs you to 7 different people! As an Executive Producer my basic function is to always be booking commercials! How I do that is I work with the directors in breaking down a commercial (how long it will take to shoot, how we should shoot it, the talent count, what are the visual effects and any special concerns or other issues etc).

I also work with the directors on their treatments, not just to edit it for spelling and other minor mistakes, but to make sure the visual references are relevant and that the text touches upon all the key elements to be discussed, as well as covering the important bases for the Creatives at the Advertising Agency and the Client. Throughout this process I communicate with the Advertising Agency producer to make sure everything in the project is discussed and allowed for, and that they realize how our director is the right one for the project! I also keep a handle on my directors’ overall life schedules, not just jobs but what personal things they have planned so that I can let the sales reps know when they are available for more work. I also let the directors know what crew are available, and in most cases, advise on which Producers, DPs (Director of Photography) or Production Designers would be right for it.

Once the job is in production, I oversee the producers and make sure all is going well, staying on budget, the director is happy and the Agency/Client are happy and having a good experience. As the Head of Production, I do the actual bidding for my jobs, oversee the other bidders, make sure our support staff has their instructions, handle insurance, answer union questions, create and manage overall job protocols and procedures, approve timecards, crew deal memos, pre-production booklets, job actuals and any and ALL production questions.

What does your work entail?

I think I answered it pretty well above!

What’s a typical work week like?

Oh my, there is no typical work week, something new every day – part of what is very appealing about this job! In general, I start my mornings off around 6am with coffee and the Blackberry to handle anything pressing. Since we have offices in New York and London and productions sometimes shooting around the world, there often will be urgent questions or clients needing something, or maybe even an early conference call. Then the days are spent on more conference calls for future commercials, working on treatments and budgets, booking crews, overseeing productions, visiting a commercial shoot on set or location, meeting with staff and directors and answering a million questions.

How did you get started?

Getting fired! I actually had a job as a writer at ABC radio in New York, but after working the night shift in a windowless space and eating Healthy Choice frozen meals heated up in a shitty microwave, I got lured away by a PR company. That soul sucking place was no match for my 20 year old attitude, and after they accused me of being a lesbian (which I am not, but out of principle refused to answer them), they fired me. I called my university’s job placement hotline (the Newhouse School at Syracuse) and they said they had no journalism jobs but had something at a production company. Well I called them and they met with me right away. It was Epoch Films, another commercial production company, and the interview was amazing. It lasted 6 hours! I basically met first with the staff, then each director one by one, and they were so engaging and interesting and cool- and what a shock – cared what I thought, and what music I liked, and movies that inspired me. I thought, this could work! Plus they didn’t mind that (at the time) I chain smoked or wore a beret non stop.

What do you like about what you do?

I like being a problem solver, and my job is a lot of that. I like being creative, and I get to dabble in that as well. I don’t like being bored, and that never happens since even after 20 years I still learn something new every day. Add to all that, emerging technology or effects, and amazing and interesting directors and colleagues, and you have a pretty fun job.

What do you dislike?

The hours can be pretty long, I pretty much always have to be available or reachable, and there is quite a lot of stress since you have to move very fast and do things right and with a high aesthetic.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I am on salary with a bonus structure.

How much money do Executive Producers make?

Executive producers have a huge range as it depends on the size of the company, the success of the company, whether you are a partner at the company, or if your deal involves profit sharing. The range can be as low as $100,000 and just goes up from there.

In my business there really is no average as it varies so much as this industry is all about the negotiation. But if I was to guess I would say average is $200k.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

I started out as the Head of Production at Smuggler in the range of what the industry standard rate was for that role at that time.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to become an Executive Produceer?

I think a college education is beneficial, in pretty much any degree, but is not mandatory. It is helpful to go to college because you have time to mature there, get the fool hopefully knocked out of you, but also engage in a lot of courses that just grow your brain and make you interesting (I remember taking African literature, philosophy and public policy just because I wanted to). I found journalism to be a helpful degree because that taught me how to research, how talk to just about anybody, how to act like I know what I am taking about when I don’t, and how to be tenacious. General skills for this would be to have a strong work ethic, ability to work off little sleep and still be sharp, ability to work with anybody, and the ability to think outside the box and not to be afraid to take risks.

What is most challenging about what you do?

Probably the most challenging is knowing when to stop working, there is so much to do that you could do this job 24/7. Other thing would be stress management, and how not to bring your work worries home with you!

What is most rewarding?

Working with all the young people who come into the industry, and helping them figure out where they fit in it. And booking jobs, I love that feeling! And it is even sweeter when you see the finished commercial in the end and you know you had a hand in it.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

To try everything and ask questions. Be helpful, and don’t be concerned with what’s in it for you. If you take it all in, the experiences will be bigger because you are not closed off to learning. And keep out of the drama, that doesn’t do any good.

How much time off do you get/take?

I take about a month off per year (in 1 – 2 week increments) plus holidays.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That it is easy. That it is not filmmaking. That there is a program that figures out how you shoot a commercial or how much it costs. That we come up with the concepts. That all of us have a script or really want to be doing features.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I want to keep working with the Smuggler directors and staff, and keep growing in experience and getting better and smarter! I also am writing a YA novel and have 6 children’s picture books in the works, so I want to get something published. I want to go back to Germany next summer (where I grew up) and show my family all the things I love about it, and I want to go on an African safari. Oh and if I could live in Morocco for a year that would be grand.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

There are so many skillsets you learn from doing what I do, that you could go off and be a writer, or you could line produce the commercials or be a freelance bidder and go to different companies working on their budgets. You meet so many dynamic and interesting people, many of whom become dear friends for life or just a funny story that you tell over and over.
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