The Wrapbook Team
Apr 27, 2021

12 Ways to Become a Better Unit Production Manager

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Unit production managers have one of the toughest jobs in professional filmmaking.

And being the best at any tough job is no easy feat.

To give you a leg up, this post breaks down the key components of the unit production manager job description and identifies 12 ways to become a better UPM, whether you work in film or TV.

But before we dive into our list, let’s get a few things straight.

What is a unit production manager?

Also known as the production manager or the UPM, the unit production manager is in charge of the administration of any film or television shoot.

The UPM monitors, controls, and facilitates the flow of high-level logistical decisions, especially those that revolve around scheduling and budgets.

That all sounds great in theory, but what does it mean in practice?

What does a unit production manager do?

Any solid unit production manager job description would primarily emphasize the UPM’s role in production management, specifically as it pertains to the production’s budget.

The UPM is responsible for taking a big-picture budgetary plan- as laid out by producers and other above-the-line crew- and executing it on a day-by-day basis.

Of course, no plan is perfect, and there are thousands of ever-evolving factors that can impact any shoot at any point. The unit production manager will spend most of their time responding to these factors by evaluating schedules, negotiating with department heads, and shuffling resources any way that they can in order to get the movie made.     

A UPM salary is earned by completing a film at planned standards, within the constraints of an initial overall budget, against the influence of rapidly changing external circumstances.

So, in short, what is a unit manager in film or television most responsible for?

Getting their project finished without breaking the bank.    

And depending on the production, there might be a few people that assist the UPM with that responsibility. 

Heidi McGowen talks about this and her day-to-day work as a UPM on ABC’s Black-ish.

Let's get into it.

How to become the best unit production manager

Now that we have a basic understanding of the UPM’s role, let’s dive into our list of 12 ways to become a better unit production manager.

We'll start with a big one.

1. Learn how to budget

What is a unit manager in film or television’s number one skill?

From a technical perspective, the only possible answer is budgeting.

UPMs may not always create the budget, but they are the ones most responsible for making it work on a day-to-day basis. This could mean knowing how to budget effectively for SAG actors or other unions’ rates. They also have to understand the ripple effects of shifting funds from one department’s budget to another and be familiar with how cutting costs may help or hinder a crew’s shooting efficiency. 

To be the best at their job, unit production managers have to understand every nook and cranny of production budgeting. And while they likely use budgeting software to simplify this process, the more in-depth the UPM’s budget knowledge is, the more adept the UPM’s problem-solving skills will be.

2. Learn scheduling best practices

In pre-production, what does a TV production manager do when they realize an episode of their show will likely exceed its budget?

In most cases, they’ll first take a hard look at the episode’s shooting schedule.

Whether you’re working in feature films, television, commercials, or even web content, the primary x-factor in determining any production’s budget will be its schedule.

The schedule ties together and influences every other cost-driver (i.e. cast, crew, locations, equipment, etc.), and as such, it’s the first place a UPM will look to trim the budget without sacrificing material quality. A good UPM would prefer switching up the schedule to prevent a costly company move, for instance, over shaving digits off the operational budget of the art department to save an equivalent amount. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the unit production manager does not determine a production’s schedule on their own. However, making the effort to develop a deep understanding of how schedules impact budgets will grant them a critical skill set on any shoot. Some UPMs will use production management software to help in this process.

3. Hire top-notch crew

What is a unit manager in film or television’s first priority when they jump on a project?

If they want to hit the ground running, they’ll likely start by hiring crew to fill the rest of their department.

Become a Better Unit Production Manager - Hire Crew - Wrapbook
UPMs try to hire the best of the best to make their job easier. Referrals are the best way to ensure skill and reliability.

It may seem obvious but hiring other top-notch professionals will make a unit production manager’s life exponentially easier and will boost the quality of their own work to ever-higher levels. 

Therefore, a good UPM will learn to recognize the characteristics that best serve each and every film crew position, from PAs to department heads.

Word of mouth and referrals are usually the most common practice for hiring as they connect you with already vetted hires. But if this isn’t the case, and you find yourself looking through a pile of production resumes, at least you’ll know what to look for.

You're likely already collecting this info in a film crew list template so you always know who is doing what. But over time, this will end up looking like a directory for your future shoots. When you're onboarding your crew through Wrapbook, the software stores every hire into your own personal digital rolodex.

4. Learn how to manage teams

Once they’ve hired their own team and those that fill other departments, the unit production manager’s focus shifts toward oversight.

A solid UPM knows how to keep their hands off of each department, respecting their autonomy as individual teams that together make up the film crew as a single body.

At the same time, the unit production manager is responsible for making sure that no department is exceeding their budget without reason and for seeking opportunities to create freedom within the production budget as a whole.

Knowing how to balance these seemingly opposite approaches is key to good team management, and any UPM would be wise to master them both.

5. Learn to manage individuals

What does a production manager do when two department heads are feuding over budgets in the middle of a tight shoot?

With so many individuals making up any film crew, it is inevitable that managers of any kind will be required to deal with egos every now and again.

Good unit production managers learn how to manage individuals on their crew effectively and with care, approaching personal situations with both a sense of respect and an understanding of their own innate authority.

6. Know each department well

When the art department claims they won’t be able to turn around a set on time without hiring five more people, what should a UPM do? Do they give the greenlight? Or do they negotiate?

In order to do their job well, a unit production manager must be aware of how each department operates. They need to have a broad understanding of what reasonable expectations do and do not look like for each department under a variety of circumstances.

To the above example, the appropriate response would vary according to the specific conditions in which it presented itself. 

Become a Better Unit Production Manager - Know Each Department - Wrapbook
Becoming a better unit production manager means knowing all of the roles.

If the UPM has enough experience and an informed appreciation of the art department’s work, they would be able to discern whether the best decision is to approve the extra hires, deny them, or make some kind of compromise, (perhaps hiring three new crew members instead of five). 

Being able to draw upon a wide range of experience is a crucial skill for any unit production manager.

7. Read more scripts

One characteristic that sets a great unit production manager apart from an okay unit production manager is the ability to quickly translate what they read in a script to the numbers everyone else reads in a budget.

Of course, several different factors feed into this ability, but the one that is perhaps most overlooked is a UPM’s familiarity with the basic act of script-reading itself.

Screenplays act as structural guides in creating a film, they aren’t rigid instructions for literal assembly. As such, there are often multiple ways to bring a script’s ideas to life on screen. Being familiar with this process for the sake of the budget, could set you apart from other UPMs. And while there are plenty of other people more equipped and suited to worry about a script’s translation (i.e. the director or script supervisor), for the sake of the budget, it’s an important yet underrated skill of a strong UPM.

The more scripts that a UPM reads, combined with an increasing volume of productions that they work, the better the UPM will understand how to achieve a script’s goals in a manner that is cost-effective for the production.

8. Get creative with problem-solving

Question: What does a unit production manager do when they’re facing an impossible problem?

Answer: They get creative.

Sometimes, a UPM will be the one to suggest strategically using one shooting location as two script locations in order to eliminate extra location fees and a company move. Other times, a UPM will have to convince a director that giving the impression of a few hundred extras is a better choice than actually hiring them.

While the role of a unit production manager is not always creative, the capacity for creative problem-solving is perhaps the single most valuable quality that they must develop.

After all, it’s no accident that most of the other entries on this list contribute to a well of experience or insight upon which a UPM can draw to craft innovative solutions.

No problem is “impossible” to a creative UPM.

9. Become a people person

A unit production manager that brings a personal touch to their labor also brings a vital contribution to the set’s quality as a workplace.

For a UPM, it pays- sometimes literally- to build one-on-one relationships with the crew. Doing so allows a UPM to not only keep their finger on the pulse of the production but to resolve budgetary issues better and faster as well.

Become a Better Unit Production Manager - Become a People Person Image - Wrapbook
Make sure everyone knows you way before issues arise.

For example, it’s considerably easier for a unit production manager to reach out to a department head about a touchy issue if they’ve built some level of familiarity and trust with that department head first.

In this way, a UPM’s ability to network takes on a hybrid role as both a self, and team-oriented tool.

10.   Learn how and when to say “no”

What does a unit production manager do when the director of photography wants to go $100k over budget? What does a unit production manager do when the assistant director wants to extend the schedule by a month? And what do they do when the director wants to add a thousand extras to a scene?

In short, the UPM says, “No.”

The word “no” gives a UPM meaning. It’s central to their authority over the operational budget.

However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to deliver that word. For a UPM, knowing the difference between the two can mean the difference between being the best at your job and never being hired for another job again.

When a unit production manager denies a request, it’s important that they do so with respect and without shutting down the other person as a professional. To be successful, a UPM must maintain a firm, clear, but also open mind, which brings us to our next tip…

11.   Preserve the vision - know when to say “yes”

The fact of the matter is that the role of the unit production manager does not exist to serve the budget.

It exists to serve the production.

What does a film or TV production manager do when their director tells them that they need to add a location? What if adding that location is absolutely critical to the director’s ability to achieve their creative vision?

If the UPM were serving only the budget within the tight constraints of television production, they would simply deny the request. Extra locations require extra money spent. Extra money spent is bad for the budget. To avoid spending extra money, the UPM would nix the extra location. Tough nuggets for the director and their “vision”.

On the other hand, if the UPM is acting in the best interests of the production itself, the story would play out a little differently.

In this hypothetical example, the unit production manager wouldn’t necessarily say “yes” outright, but they would certainly go out of their way to find a solution that meets the director’s needs before telling them “no.”

And that’s the key to being a UPM.

The UPM is being paid to help get a movie made on budget, not to pinch pennies for the sake of its inherent pleasure. It is their mission to help a director realize their vision within the scope of what’s possible for a specific production.

A great UPM knows that searching for ways to say “yes” is the heart of their job.

12.   Collaborate for success

Our final tip for becoming a better unit production manager is to focus on collaboration.

No matter what position you work on the crew, collaboration is always the name of the game when it comes to filmmaking. The endeavor of crafting almost any movie or show hinges entirely upon a group of motivated people joining together to make something new.

In that way, each member of the crew is interdependent upon the others, and the UPM is no exception.

In fact, knowing when and how to best collaborate is the cornerstone of a UPM’s role as a problem-solver. They need to work with others- either department heads or members of their own department- to achieve solutions to any issues that might arise.

Without collaboration, even the best unit production manager would find themselves paralyzed.

With collaboration, however, the UPM is an irreplaceable part of the filmmaking team.

How does the UPM stack up against other roles?

To better understand the role of the unit production manager and create a sense of context for their responsibilities, let’s take a few moments to compare them to other positions within the production department.

Production manager vs. line producer

It’s not surprising that line producer and UPM film jobs are often confused for another by those uninitiated in the grand organizational mysteries of professional production. At a glance, line producer and unit production manager definitions can seem extremely similar.

I mean, what is a line producer?

It’s someone who controls a production’s operational budget.

And what is a unit production manager?

It’s also someone who controls a production’s operational budget.

The unit production manager job description is so similar to that of the line producer that the two roles are often filled by a single person on small or low-budget shoots.

And even on larger shoots, given that line producer and unit production manager job descriptions are so alike, mixing them up is still an incredibly easy mistake to make.

Fortunately for all of us, there’s also an easy way to tell the two roles apart.

The best way to understand the difference between line producer and UPM film jobs is to take a look at the hierarchy between them.  Any full unit production manager job description would specify that the UPM reports directly to the line producer.

The line producer is, most often, the UPM’s boss.

The line producer, in theory, is responsible for higher levels of planning than the UPM. They’re often the architect of a production’s operational budget. In contrast, the unit production manager job description emphasizes execution. The UPM is responsible for making sure that the line producer’s plan is carried out.

Of course, this simple difference in hierarchy creates other contrasts outside of the line producer and unit production manager job descriptions.

An average UPM salary, for instance, is different from that of a line producer. Because the line producer ranks one notch higher than the UPM, their average day rate is higher than an average unit production manager day rate. In turn, an average production manager salary range is significantly lower than an average line producer salary range.  Again, this is how it’s typically done but every shoot will be different. 

Perhaps surprisingly, line producer and production manager unions are different as well. The primary unit production manager union is the DGA, while line producers more frequently belong to the PGA, if they belong to any union at all.  

Production manager vs. production accountant

What is a unit manager in film or television’s role compared to that of a production accountant?

The best answer, arguably, is hidden in their job titles.

A unit production manager manages the money, while a production accountant accounts for it.

The production accountant will most likely be one of the first people hired onto a shoot by the UPM out of self-interest (and, you know, necessity). Because it’s the production accountant’s skills that enable the UPM to better carry out their own responsibilities.

The accountant tracks the flow of a production’s funds, which means they have to keep tabs on a surprisingly wide variety of expenditures, even if they’re not directly involved. They may not be the ones who process digital timecards for cast and crew, but they’re absolutely aware of how much money is being allocated to payroll each week.

Because of their familiarity with a production’s cash flow, the accountant will likely be the first to know if financial problems are beginning to form. If the production accountant alerts their unit production manager early enough, they’ll give the UPM an opportunity to adjust the shooting plan, move funds, and hopefully avert budgetary disaster.

To learn more about the intersection of accounting and film production, check out our list of the 21 most asked questions about production accountants.

Production manager vs. production coordinator

Question: What is a unit manager in film or television without their production coordinators?

Answer: In serious trouble.

If production accountants are the UPM’s eyes and ears, production coordinators are their hands, arms, feet, and legs. They get work done and keep a production moving in accordance with the unit production manager’s direction.

Those new to production might have a lot of questions about the coordinator’s job, but that’s only because coordinators often seem to do so much.

Production coordinators report directly to the unit production manager and often represent the UPM “in the field.”

UPMs strategize and make decisions, while coordinators are the ones who actually make the moves. They’re the boots on the ground. They do all the arranging, e-mailing, calling, and, you know, coordinating that keeps a production on track.

For instance, what is a unit production manager supposed to do when a budget crisis forces a major schedule change that affects cast, crew, and vendors alike? Managing this hypothetical crisis at only the highest levels of production would be an overwhelming task in and of itself, but it would be virtually impossible to accomplish if the UPM also had to sweat every single logistical maneuver that the crisis entails.

In this case, it is imperative that the unit production manager be able to rely on their production coordinator. 

The coordinator will be in charge of reorganizing waivers and forms, rescheduling your favorite craft services company, making sure that the crew’s digital startwork is up-to-date, and so much more.

The relationship between a UPM and their coordinator is an excellent example of the symbiosis you hope to find in all departments of a crew. A good production coordinator inspires their UPM to do their job at the best quality possible.

Wrapping Up

If you’re challenging yourself to become a better unit production manager, Wrapbook can provide more than just helpful tips. Our software provides a one-stop for onboarding cast and crew, collecting timecards, running payroll compliantly, and more. Check out our pre-recorded demo to see it in action.

Or you can always reach out to us directly with any questions.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.

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About the Author

The Wrapbook Team

The Wrapbook Team consists of individuals who are thrilled about building modern software tools for creators. We’re a team of compassionate and curious people dedicated to solving complex problems with sophisticated solutions. You can find us across the U.S. and Canada.

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