Being a producer is much like being an actor -- you get paid once a film is in production. Everyone's heard of starving actors, right? Well there are a lot of starving producers too.
If you set up a film at the studio, you may get a paltry development fee (usually $25k) that you usually end up splitting with a producing partner or two. But for argument's sake, you are very much like an actor -- working diligently toward being on set with the hope of a good pay day.
If you are an indie producer, you may not get any upfront pay. You may only have a deferral deal. Or you may only get a portion upfront.
And, typically, the salary that you do get won't make you rich unless you live in a third world country.
So how do you pay your bills as a producer? Well, there are a number of ways and I am sure every person's story is different. But from my experience, the typical indie producer cannot solely live on his or her producer fees from their films. The fees are either too small or too far apart.
For me, I do a lot of freelance work both in publishing and film. I used to be a full time writer and editor in publishing so I still write and copyedit material for other companies. I also desktop books -- another skill from my publishing days. And I work in film production too. Before producing films, I was a production coordinator so I can always take on short gigs for other films. Or I may personally assist someone on various jobs.
The overall theme to paying bills as a producer is flexibility. Try to find jobs that allow you to take big breaks to produce a film. Who cares where the money comes from to keep you going? Whether it's writing, editing, bartending, waitressing, bagging groceries, doing construction, working productions, living off mom and dad, etc., you can still call yourself a producer if you are truly developing and producing films as you are paying your bills.
The proof is in the pudding. If you make a great film, no one is going to care that you were walking dogs to survive. In fact, the Hardly Famous Web site lists the jobs celebrities had before they were famous. Check it out. It sure made me feel better and gave me hope!
It would be incredible to make a nice living as a full-time film producer. And I believe it is possible. That is certainly my goal. How do you make it happen? It comes with experience, connections, talent, and funding. And all of these aspects of producing take time to develop. Don't get discouraged if you still have to clean people's homes or nanny their kids or drive a cab so you can fund your goals as a producer. You are not alone. I'm right there with you as is every other indie producer out there.
Why do you see top indie producers at panels or writing articles or doing Webisodes online? Survival! They usually get paid a fee to do these things. Or they are getting publicity that can lead to more work and more pay. Sure they may be earning enough from their producing fees to live but the extra gigs probably give them a nice cushion.
The key to paying your bills as a producer is to figure out how to fit in paid work with the spec work so you can be solvent. It's not easy but you need to figure it out if you want to be a working producer.