Film Production Accounting

This post has been well received ever since I first posted it in 2009. I’m updating now to bring it up to 2014 standards.

There is a professional accounting niche that is little known – Film Production Accounting. I regularly receive queries to my web site, or my blog, about film production accounting and of how to enter this field. Most of the queries used to be from the Los Angeles area, but over the past 4 years there has been an equal number of queries from the Film Tax Incentive States.

FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTANT CATEGORIES AND EXPECTED PAY

Production accountants have traditionally fallen into the field without much of any kind of accounting background. I believe that film production is the last industry in the world to hire accountants who don’t have some kind of formal training in accounting. Currently, the field of film accounting is looking more appealing to a wide variety of CPA’s who are looking for something more markets to penetrate – or even to change careers. Most film accountants get into that position through a period of apprenticeship as assistant accountants. The levels usually go from File Clerk, 2nd Assistant Accountant, 1st Assistant Accountant to Key Production Accountant (sometimes referred to as the Production Auditor). Another position that is classified as an assistant accountant is the Payroll Accountant. The Payroll accountant is an expert in calculating complicated union payroll time sheets and is usually too busy to do much else than just that one function. A good payroll accountant can make in the area of $1800 to $2,000/week on the bigger Hollywood productions and are worth every cent.

The File Clerk would start in the range of $500-$900/Week, a 2nd Asst Accountant in the $900 – $1400/Week range, a 1st Assistant Accountant in the range of $1,500 to $2,300/Wk.  usually the accountants get a little more on a big Studio production, and less on a small independent production.

THE SKILLS OF A FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTANT

The Film Production Accountant needs to be conversant with every area of film production, if not downright expert when it comes to predicting cost overruns. The rapidity of spending during the production of the feature film, or TV show, is so high that it would be a nightmare for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the usual reporting system. That’s why an experienced Film Production Accountant doesn’t get out of bed for less than $2,500 a week (a 5 day week). Experienced production accountants demand and get at least $3,500/5 day week, and if they go on location ask for another $1,000 to cover off Saturdays worked (even though they don’t need to work many Saturdays).

The Film Production Accountant’s job falls into the same three categories as any other accounting function:

– Bookkeeping: the speed of bookkeeping has to be experienced to understand. Petty Cash is often in the $60,000 to $80,000 a week range.

-Reporting: there are very specific Budgeting and Weekly Cost Report formats which can be a bit of an IQ test until you get used to it. This type of report is used throughout the film production world from Australia to India to Europe to North America.

-Auditing: because the money appears to be spent so helter-skelter it can be abused, mostly by producers and department heads. It’s up to the production accountant to see the signals and prevent it before someone embarrasses themselves. There really are lists kept of those deemed to be A, B or C listed. Those that are B and C listed are almost always because of their inability to control their departmental budgets.

So, if you have an accounting background you can pick it up very quickly, but you really do need some experience first. The fact that you’re intimately dealing with so many facets of the actual film production it’s certainly a challenge and, I have to say after 30 years, tons more challenging and rewarding than working in manufacturing, banking, etc.

MY JOURNEY TO, AND IN, FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTING

My own background started out in Engineering in the 70’s. Then, when I graduated I saw that open pit mining wasn’t doing it for me, so I started working with an accounting firm to earn a designation. My original purpose was to become skilled enough to be able to use both Engineering and Accounting to help failing businesses turn around. However, after I got my accounting designation I discovered that I would be taking a steep cut in pay to go back to being a junior engineer so I took a job as a Chief Accountant/Controller at a place with about 15 branches. After 5 years I went out on my own, starting a small accounting practice with a couple of other people. After a couple of years of beating the bushes and working 7 days a week I saw that I could make more money as a Film Production Accountant than I could in my practice, so I dropped my office space, my 2 staff, and started working as an assistant accountant.

STEPPING STONE TO FILM PRODUCING AND PRODUCTION MANAGING

Like other industries, after spending many years accounting for and auditing the money, including advising producers and production managers, you start to get the idea that you can do as good as, or better job, at producing. There are many production accountants who have gone on to related film production careers – although, funnily enough, they often keep quiet about it. I presume because they want to distance themselves from the infamous “Blue Suit” – the much maligned Big Studio Exec. (Not a job for me – man, talk about pressure).

THE DOWNSIDE

A downside to Production Accounting is that you don’t ever have a JOB. You get CONTRACTS which last anywhere from 5 weeks to 9 months (pretty seldom longer than that). I’d say that my average contract on a film or TV production in the $20Mil to $40Mil range was about 6 or 7 months. Honestly, I really liked the fact of working with different people. I have often talked with other people in the biz, and we almost all agree that the independence that brings is worth the stress of looking for contracts. Once you’ve been in the business for 3 years, and if you haven’t messed up, you’ll be on call, especially if you’re willing to travel.

So, there’s the pros and cons to getting into the film production industry as an accountant.

HOW TO BUST IN

I spend some time talking about ways to bust in during the weekend workshop. With the advent of tighter and tighter money I see even more opportunities for film accountants as aides to producers, or even film accountants producing projects on their own. Subjects like Film Tax Incentives, verification of paperwork required during Crowdfunding of “Accredited Investors”, cash-flow schedules, familiarity with equity terms, etc can all be easily learned by film accountants, or by professional accountants and bookkeepers interested in penetrating this market. (If you are interested in how this all fits together see this short video).

Good luck in your career, whatever you choose.

For more about training as a film accountant see this link to film accounting workshops and training online.

John Gaskin

Puzzling Through Film Guild and Union Agreements

Over the years (since 1985) I have puzzled through the various Guild and Union Agreements. SAG has always been the most challenging, with it’s multiple “Schedules” and it’s overly legal-sounding narratives. I’ve had several SAG Codified basic Agreements thumbed through so much that the dog-eared pages unglued from the spine. As I got more familiar with building my own web site, and with the technique of bookmarking pages in pdf documents, I’ve been able to have easy access on my online references that I’ve keep up to date.

AGREEMENTS CAN BE DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND 

The agreements for every guild and union in America is settled with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers). These agreements can get quite verbose with legal references to residuals, sideletters, webisodes, etc. For example the current  SAG Codified Basic Agreement is 814 pages, and the DGA Basic Agreement is 624 pages. The various IATSE (crew) agreements are shorter but still lengthy and sometimes equivocal, for example my most recent copy of the IATSE Local 600, for Camera, is 164 pages with references to the usual West Coast rules, but then references the “Corridor” rules                           (most of the East Coast) is in a Sideletter at the back of the agreement)..

 SOFTWARE PROGRAMS TO HELP GRIND OUT THE PAYROLL

So, it’s no wonder that a novice, trying to understand the payroll rules for cast and crew get overwhelmed with the idea of finding out what information is important in a sea of information. Understanding the rules for each Guild and Union Local is the first step in processing the weekly cast and crew payroll. There are some software programs out there that are referred to as “Hours-To-Gross” software that help the film payroll accountant process timecards faster. The most notable are Showbiz in America and EPOL in Canada. These two software programs really help to increase the speed of processing, and assist in the application of the various rules; however, I’m sure that most experienced Film Payroll Accountants will agree with me that an understanding of the rules of the various Guilds and Union Locals is the only way to avoid blunders and embarrassments – believe me, the crew and cast agents are ruthless if there are errors in their pay calculations.

ENTERTAINMENT PARTNER’S PAYMASTER IS A “COLES NOTES” OF FILM PAYROLL

Entertainment Partners has been selling their Paymaster for years. It’s an excellent “Coles Notes” sort of payroll reference, but because it’s emphasis is on short-cutting the information for someone already in the know, it is easy to misinterpret. I use it as a quick reference, but there are MANY times that it’s unclear to me until I get a look at the exact reference in the appropriate Agreement.

WEB PAGES TO MAKE IT EASIER TO REFER TO FULL AGREEMENTS AND CHEAT SHEETS 

I’ve made a short YouTube video of the way I’ve set-up my web pages to help me find the right references quickly, along with Cheat Sheets, forms, calculation templates, etc. Attendees get access to these web pages and lots of practice calculating timecards for multiple situations in my film payroll workshop. I have one coming up this month in Atlanta, GA.

 

For more information, see http://www.filmaccounting.com

Cheers / John

 

Why So Few Film Production Payroll Accountants

A SCARCITY OF FILM PAYROLL ACCOUNTANTS

When I was on my last television series production in New York (2018/19) there were so few local film payroll accountants that we had to hire someone from out-of-state. Recently my son-in-law, a Film Payroll Accountant based out of Toronto, told me that there aren’t enough film payroll accountants to supply the demand there as well. I knew that this was a need in the newer tax incentive States, but I didn’t think it was so prevalent in other more established film production centers like New York and Toronto.

WHY?

So, it got me to thinking – why are there so few film production payroll accountants?  Is it the demand from the financiers to have more skilled payroll accountants or is it just that we of the old guard are retiring?  Or, maybe it’s just that the productions are leaving Hollywood more and more and need a train more local film payroll people?

HIGH DEMAND

Probably a blend of all the above, with special emphasis on the last point. At any rate it spells opportunity to you guys out there who want to get into the ‘biz but haven’t found a foothold. Just to reinforce my point, I did a little homework. I checked out several pages of Emily’s List (a blog announcing various film accounting jobs available across America and Canada). Out of a sample of 120 listings, 52 were for a Film Payroll Accountant or Assistant Film Payroll Accountant. That’s over 43% of the listings are for local Film Payroll Accountants.

GROSS PAYROLL ONLY

As you can see from my other posts, film payroll accounting is all about knowing how to calculate the “Gross Pay” – that is, understanding the rules regarding Overtime Hours multiplied by the contracted rate, plus any Meal Penalties and Rest Violations. You don’t need to know about government and union withholdings and contributions – all of that nasty stuff is done by the film payroll service companies.

HOW TO CALCULATE GROSS PAYROLL

So, the task becomes knowing how to calculate union and guild payroll, and that’s all we do for 2 full days – right from beginning to end. You will be left with all of the reference material, as well as on-line access to the full courses and materials for future reference.

See my web page for more info at http://hwww.talkfilm.biz/filmworkshops6.htm

 

Cheers,

 

John

 

Film Accounting and Production – Degrees Not A Factor

The profession of Film Accounting is arguably the last accounting profession on Earth, where you can earn a 6 figure annual income, WITHOUT a degree of any kind – however an apprenticeship of 2 to 5 years is common.

NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR EDUCATION

Sorry, I know you may have a 6 figure debt as a result of your university degree, but truly – you don’t need a degree to work in film production or in film accounting. I have had marines trained in defusing explosives, television script writers, bookkeepers, CPA’s, office production assistants, film school students, etc all attend my workshops and enter the field of film and television production accounting successfully.

WHAT PATH CAN YOU TAKE TO GET INTO THE BUSINESS?

Film production people are a breed that believe in getting a valuable final product at any cost in a defined unit of time – and, they don’t see that kind of attitude coming out of colleges; at least, not in a large percentage of cases. Most film people truly believe that if you can’t walk into the job and DO it (without too many mistakes), then you’re not going to make it and they’ll let you go and try someone else.

HOW TO PUT YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD?

The best way to break into the business is to find out the terms used, the basic practices, who to contact, what are the fundamentals required of a new employee etc. Once you have 2 or 3 productions under your belt, you’ll be in demand and will be able find work quite easily. I have several testimonials of people who have made it into film accounting or film payroll after taking one, or more, of my workshops.

PRACTICAL TRAINING

About 2008 I developed a successful training agenda in film accounting, film budgeting, managing film production cost reports, etc. Have a look at my courses on http://www.filmaccounting.com for my upcoming workshops in Atlanta.  Click here to see the agenda, testimonials, and more.

 

Best/John

The Film Industry and the CPA, Professional Bookkeepers

FILM ACCOUNTING PRACTICES

Film Accounting principles and practices are basically the same throughout the film production industry internationally. None of it is brain surgery, but the rapidity of the life cycle is unique, as are the industry terms and practices. As an example of the rapidity of the of the production cycle, here is a typical Indie feature film cycle – in a few weeks/months you start with nothing, open a bank account, find a studio, order furniture, hire crew and cast, buy/rent everything, finish shooting, sell/return everything, pay off whatever, close bank accounts, turn off the light – the door slams on the back of the last man/woman standing – the film accountant. A FULL understanding of the film accounting system is vital to external auditors who need to move quickly to balance their chargeable hours to a competitive field.

BOOKKEEPING-REPORTING-AUDITING

Throughout the Film Accounting process, the multiple details of bookkeeping, reporting and internal auditing (ensuring that the transactions are legal and ethical), can get a little overwhelming, especially if you’re not ready. You would normally have 3 or 4 weeks before the shooting starts, to go from an empty room to a fully functioning office, you need to have a system that is drilled to the level of habitual. The Producers and Financiers expect (actually, DEMAND) that the cost reports are issued timely (the Weekly Cost Report compares every line item in the budget against current Estimated Final Cost, and all variances accounted for). There are a number of ‘tricks-of-the-trade’ in managing that report; remember, it goes to all bosses everywhere.

ACCOUNTING SOFTWARE USED IN NORTH AMERICA

Back in the mid-1980’s, when “Personal Computers” were just getting a foothold, a payroll service company, Entertainment Partners, got the idea to create their own proprietary general ledger software tailored to the film industry. It became the standard general ledger structure. Thereafter, other payroll services followed suit, creating their own proprietary software with the same structure. We use that type of proprietary software in our workshops. In all cases, the payroll services will only grant a license to use their software if you use their payroll service  – so without workshops like mine no one can really learn the general ledger software without apprenticing under a film production accountant in an actual film or television production.

FILM ACCOUNTANT’S PRODUCT

The film accountant’s Boss is the Financier(s). That would include the funders as well as lenders, and the Completion Bond company. It’s a little difficult sometimes, because the Producers are in direct communication with the Film Accountant and technically have the right to fire him/her. I could tell you stories – actually, I do tell you real stories how to handle that situation if it gets noisy. The Weekly Cost Report, more than anything else, is the ‘product’ of the Film Accounting Department. If all systems are ‘in’, the result is a meaningful Cost Report that the Producers and Financiers take to heart – the bond company has the right to take over the production and their most used document is the weekly cost report. Getting familiar with these terms, reports and software is a matter of a fun weekend workshop.

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR CPA’S

CPA’s who want to service the film industry as auditors in some way have several routes:

  • prepare an opinion of the Estimated Tax Incentives from the Film Budget (Required for bank loans)
  • prepare audited statements of the Cost Report in post-production for the State Tax Incentives,
  • service the administration of the tax credit with the State for the Production,
  • claw through the interim costs to see if the Estimated Tax credits are in-line, etc.

Or … work as a Film Accountant somewhere within the Film Industry (if not in production, then with the studios).

SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR PROFESSIONAL BOOKKEEPERS

  • After the big wave of activity generated from the shooting of the film or television production there is a time period referred to as “Post-Production”. The accounting workload is substantially reduced; however, weekly payroll for the editors, weekly payment of invoices and weekly cost reports for the financiers are still required. This stage of accounting is referred to as Post-Production Accounting. The work can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months.
  • Because of the personal interaction with Producers and crew, spin-off work is always possible, such as Income Tax preparation for producers, cast and crew.

For more info on the upcoming workshops, testimonials, CPE and videos see my web site.

Cheers / John

Opportunities in Film and TV Production Accounting

In 1985 I found myself at odds with a career. The Savings & Loan Company where I had worked as a Controller was bought out and I was left on the street. I resolved to find an industry which had lots of cash flow, and which could withstand the various economic trends. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who introduced me to the film and television production industry. It’s not an industry which is easy to discover on your own.

CONTRACT EMPLOYEE – FILM & TV PRODUCTION ACCOUNTANT
Working in the production side of that industry has provided me with a steady stream of “Contract Employee” work. In spite of the seeming temporary nature of the employment, the transparency of the length of time of work, and the much higher rate of pay for accountants and bookkeepers, makes it easier to predict how to manage your life. Another bonus is that no one cares if you want to take time off between contracts – an excellent way to travel, take the family for a 2 month holiday, etc.

TELEVISION INDUSTRY IS GROWING – LOTS OF WORK FOR ACCOUNTANTS
The Television Broadcasting Industry has been growing dramatically over the past few years – see the chart here showing the growth of the US Marketing size for Television Broadcasting. Anyone with Netflix and Amazon Prime accounts can see the amount of new “original” content produced by these two giants. What’s not so obvious to those outside the industry is how accountants and bookkeepers could get involved, either by servicing the productions in some way, or actually working as a film and television production accountant.

ONE OF THE CURRENT HOTSPOTS FOR TELEVISION PRODUCTION

Many of these television productions could be produced in your state, or close by. Currently one of the current hotspots for television production is Atlanta Georgia. That’s why I am returning to Atlanta for another couple of workshops:

FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTING 101

You will start with hands-on practice doing the functions of assistant film accountants using the unique proprietary general ledger software. Additionally, you will learn the industry wide standards for budgeting film and television productions as well as industry terms, principles and key industry reports. We also spend some time showing the attendees how to find work in the industry

US CAST AND CREW PAYROLL

You will learn how to manually calculate cast and crew payroll for Screen Actors Guild (SAG Day and Weekly Performers), Directors Guild (DGA), crew working in middle America (IATSE Area Standards) and crew working on low budget theatrical release movies (IATSE Low Budget Agreement).

For those who need it, each workshop qualifies for 14 hours of Continuing Professional Education.
See you there!

Cheers / John

Film and TV Payroll Accountant – A Little Known Profession

The film business is really a word-of-mouth industry. There are no “Headhunters” who bird-dog the hiring for productions, and there are no college courses in any film program anywhere that teaches the very well paid positions of film accountant or film payroll accountant. Getting verifiable statistics of the demand for those who work at the various levels of film production accounting is almost impossible.

EMILY’S LIST

However, there is one source that many studios, producers and production accountants have used to find available film accountants. It’s referred to as “Emily’s List”. The postings are looking for various levels of film accountants to work across America, and even up into Canada. The internet address for Emily’s List is at http://ricegortonpictures.com/thelist/

4 OUT OF 10 LISTINGS ARE FOR PAYROLL ACCOUNTANTS

I went through the last 120 listings or so, over the past couple of months, to discover how many requests were for Payroll Accountants. I found that 4 out of 10 listings are for either a Film Payroll Accountant, or for a Film Payroll Clerk. That makes the other 6 out of 10 listings shared by Key Accountants, 1st Assistant Accountants, 2nd Assistant Accountants and File Clerks. It’s safe to conclude that Film and Television Payroll Accountants are in very high demand.

CALCULATING TO “GROSS PAY” ONLY

As you can see from my other posts, film payroll accounting is all about knowing how to calculate the “Gross Pay” – that is, the Overtime Hours multiplied by the contracted rate, plus any meal penalties and rest violations. You won’t need to know about government and union withholdings and contributions – all of that nasty stuff is done by the payroll service.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

So, the task becomes knowing how to calculate union payroll, and that’s what we do for 2 full days – right from beginning to end. You will be left with all of the reference material for SAG, DGA, IATSE (Crew) Area Standards, and IATSE Low Budget Agreement, as well as on-line access to the full courses and materials for future reference.

The payroll workshop is over the weekend of Nov 16th and 17th, 2019 in Atlanta.

Hope to see you there!

For more info you can check out my web site at http://www.filmaccounting.com

Best / John

 

Film and Television Accounting 101 Workshop – Atlanta (CPE 15 Hrs)

Film Accounting 101 Workshop

101 Curriculum

The Film Accounting 101 Workshop is coming up in Atlanta on October 19th and 20th, 2019.

It’s a full 2 days with lots of action for the attendees – the main thrust of the workshop is to create Assistant Film Production Accountants. The workshop:

  • introduces attendees to the industry specific practices,
  • the industry specific terms and reports, and,
  • all the while getting to practice  using the proprietary general ledger software unique to the film and television production industry.

It’s almost all hands-on practice in my workshops, with as much one-on-one as possible with 20 (or fewer) attendees.

Have a look at this short video where I give a brief rundown of the curriculum of the weekend workshop.

The end result for the attendee is someone who can work in the film and television production industry as an assistant accountant, or as an informd State Tax Incentive auditor (if you’re a CPA). Also, emerging line producers learn the best cost control points during any production.

See the curriculum for yourself, as well as the testimonials, then visit my web site for more details.

 

Cheers / John

What Does It Take To Be A Key Film/TV Production Accountant?

I get asked a lot about the possibilities of working in the Film and Television Production Accounting Department, especially by CPA’s and others, who are interested in getting into this well paid and interesting field. Questions like: What does it take to be a Key Film Accountant? What does the general ledger software look like? How do you get experience? What are the industry specific terms, principles and practices? Is the work a “job” or is it contract work?

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BECOME A KEY FILM ACCOUNTANT, OR FILM PAYROLL ACCOUNTANT?

It takes a series of apprenticeships, learning the industry specific general ledger software, as well as the industry specific terms and practices. Unfortunately, there isn’t a particular course, or series of courses, which would give you a degree in Film Accounting, or in processing Film Payroll. It just doesn’t exist. So, the tried and true way is through on-the-job experience, or by attending one of my workshops.

WHERE CAN I GET MY HANDS ON THE FILM PRODUCTION GENERAL LEDGER SOFTWARE?

The general ledger software cannot be purchased, only leased. Currently, there are three established film and television payroll companies that lease their own proprietary general ledger software for free if you use their payroll processing service. They are:

  • Entertainment Partners (known as EP),
  • Extreme Reach
  • Cast &Crew
  • Media Services and

The general ledger software for all of the companies is remarkably similar. EP was the first one to create the software and the other companies created software in the same mold. The stickler is that you can’t get access to the software unless you’re on the job, or you get a weekend of practice at one of my Film Accounting 101 Workshops.

WHAT ARE THE INDUSTRY SPECIFIC TERMS, PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES?

It’s always difficult to start throwing out terms without giving people a full reality of what it means in context. So, I won’t start listing out a series of terms … of, okay, maybe a couple:

  • A Specialized Report is a Hot Cost: A Hot Cost in the film and tv production world is an estimate of the total cast, background and crew cost for the previous day as compared to the budget for that day. Yes, it is complicated, but not so much when you have the know-how and the software set-up to work with.
  • A specialized practice is to sell (or, attempt to sell) all saleable items at the end of the film or tv production. These items purchased, although treated as “expenses”, are tagged as “Assets” in the general ledger, then the proceeds of any sale at the end of the production is credited to the appropriate “expense” category.
  • Film and Television Payroll is loaded with industry specific terms. For example, the head electrician is referred to as the “Gaffer”, and the Gaffer’s assistant is called a “Best Boy”. The background to these, and many other terms, are covered in my workshops.

IS THE WORK A JOB OR A CONTRACT?

The work is as a “Contract Employee”. The upside to being a Contract Employee is that you can have time off between productions.  The downside is that you’re never 100% sure when your next contract will be (although, it’s worth noting that television content is currently keeping EVERYONE busy, especially Film Payroll accountants). Also, most productions have the option of getting benefits. In some cases it’s a matter if joining a union (IATSE Local 161 or IATSE 871), or, in some cases you can get benefits from the studio (e.g. NBCU, etc), without joining a union.

Find out more about this career by attending one of my workshops in Atlanta this fall.

For more information, see this link for the Film Accounting 101 and the US Film Payroll workshops.

 

Cheers / John

Understanding the Film Production IATSE Union

Film Producers, and Financiers/Studios, understand the value of having an experienced film crew working on their film or television production. Those crew members with the most experience are almost always going to belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees. The IATSE union (pronounced Eye-At-See) represents all unionized film and television crew throughout America.

IATSE CREW UNION LOCALS

Over the years the IATSE Union “Locals” have established different rates and regulations depending on the type of production, and depending on the “Jurisdiction” of the locale where you’re shooting. Since approximately 60% of the shooting cost is crew labor, it’s important that Producers understand the costs when budgeting for different locales.

THE COMPARATIVE COST OF IATSE CREW

As Producers are locking down their finances and film budgets some common questions keeping them awake at night are:

  • Can I get experienced crew in that locale?
  • If so, is the cost of that crew the same as the crew cost I have in my budget?
  • If there isn’t an experienced crew available locally, what will it cost to travel in crew, and house them during the shooting period?
  • In that circumstance, how much more will the rates be for that crew brought in?
  • Should I go to another State where the Tax Incentive isn’t as lucrative, but where I can get local crew?
  • What is the cost of the experienced crew in the new locale, and how does that cost compare to my budget? 

It all gets kind of spinny, especially if the various “Jurisdictions” rates and regulations are not understood. To make it even more difficult, when bringing crew in from, say Los Angeles, to work in Atlanta, those crew from Los Angeles still get paid under the same rates and rules as Los Angeles (i.e. more expensive rates and rules).

BREAKING DOWN THE IATSE UNIONS BY LOCATION

So, let’s backup and look at the various IATSE “Locals” to see where they are and how the rates are assigned. Hopefully, we can get a good idea which locations provide the best ‘bang for the buck’.

The IATSE unions in America are generally thought of in three categories:

  1. West Coast – 13 States on the western side of America, inclusive of Alaska (See the Map).
  2. East Coast – Essentially the 5 states of NY, NJ, PA, CT and PA.
  3. Area Standards – pretty much everywhere else, notably Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana.
  4. Finally, the Low Budget Feature Film Agreement – the only Agreement which applies to ALL of America and Canada, where “Low Budget” means up to $14,200,000 (and it does not apply to television productions, only features).

Each of the above have their own rates and rules regarding overtime, etc.

THE BEST ‘BANG FOR THE BUCK’ IS….

I made a quick table, see below, of the rates for a feature film production. As you can see the rates show that it is least expensive to shoot in the American Standards jurisdictions – I.e. Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, etc. This is a very rough look, as there are other considerations, however, it gives you a rough idea of the comparative costs.

FILM ACCOUNTING 101 and US PAYROLL WORKSHOPS

In the Film Accounting 101 Workshop coming up is where you get to learn the industry wide general ledger software used by film production accountants throughout America., and in the US payroll workshop coming up you get hands-on experience calculating film and television union and guild. Producers and Line Producers feel these courses have helped them with controlling their film projects as well.  

To learn more visit my web site, at http://www.filmaccounting.com .

 

Comparison of 2019 Rates: West Area Standards East LowBudget
Position (LosAngl) (Atlanta) (NYC) (Tier 3)
  Key (e.g. Gaffer) $     49.66 $        36.53 $     60.70 $       37.46
  2nd (e.g. Best Boy Elec) $     44.87 $        33.33 $     55.92 $       33.89
  3rd (e.g. Electrician) $     43.74 $        30.15 $     53.06 $       32.37
Speciality Dept Heads:
   Hairstylist $     52.94 $       36.53 $     71.40 $       33.33
   Standyby Painter $     65.34 $       33.33 $     78.70 $       35.85
   Sound Mixer $     75.30 $       36.53 $     75.39 $       60.31

 

 

Cheers / John

 

Film Production Accounting – A Little Known Field

There is a professional accounting niche that is little known – Film Production Accounting. I regularly receive queries to my web site, or my blog, about film production accounting and of how to enter this field. Most of the queries used to be from the Los Angeles area, but over the past several years there has been an equal number of queries from the Film Tax Incentive States.

FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTANT CATEGORIES AND EXPECTED PAY

Production accountants have traditionally fallen into the field without much of any kind of accounting background. I believe that film production is the last industry in the world to hire accountants who don’t have some kind of formal training in accounting. Currently, the field of film accounting is looking more appealing to a wide variety of CPA’s who are looking for something more markets to penetrate – or even to change careers. Most film accountants get into that position through a period of apprenticeship as assistant accountants. The levels usually go from File Clerk, 2nd Assistant Accountant, 1st Assistant Accountant to Key Production Accountant (sometimes referred to as the Production Auditor). Another position that is classified as an assistant accountant is the Payroll Accountant. The Payroll accountant is an expert in calculating complicated union payroll time sheets and is usually too busy to do much else than just that one function. A good payroll accountant can make in the area of $2,100 to $2,600/week on the bigger Hollywood productions and are worth every cent.

The File Clerk would start in the range of $750-$900/Week, a 2nd Asst Accountant in the $1,000 – $1400/Week range, a 1st Assistant Accountant in the range of $1,500 to $2,300/Wk.  usually the accountants get a little more on a big Studio production, and less on a small independent production.

THE SKILLS OF A FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTANT

The Film Production Accountant needs to be conversant with every area of film production, if not downright expert when it comes to predicting cost overruns. The rapidity of spending during the production of the feature film, or TV show, is so high that it would be a nightmare for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the usual reporting system. That’s why an experienced Film Production Accountant doesn’t get out of bed for less than $3,000 a week (a 5 day week). Experienced production accountants demand and get at least $3,500/5 day week, and if they go on location ask for another $1,000 to cover off Saturdays worked (even though they don’t need to work many Saturdays).

The Film Production Accountant’s job falls into the same three categories as any other accounting function:

– Bookkeeping: the speed of bookkeeping has to be experienced to understand. Petty Cash used to be in the $60,000 to $80,000 a week range; however, it has dropped off with the advent of “P-Cards” (credit cards specifically used for purchasing). Indies with limited credit, and limited cash flow, still use a lot of cash. Regardless if cash for credit card, the accounting for all of that is staggering.

-Reporting: there are very specific Budgeting and Weekly Cost Report formats which can be a bit of an IQ test until you get used to it. This type of report is used throughout the film production world from Australia to India to Europe to North America.

-Auditing: because the money appears to be spent so helter-skelter it can be abused, mostly by producers and department heads. It’s up to the production accountant to see the signals and prevent it before someone embarrasses themselves. There really are lists kept of those deemed to be A, B or C listed. Those that are B and C listed are almost always because of their inability to control their departmental budgets.

So, if you have an accounting background you can pick it up very quickly, but you really do need some experience first. The fact that you’re intimately dealing with so many facets of the actual film production it’s certainly a challenge and, I have to say after 35 years, tons more challenging and rewarding than working in manufacturing, banking, etc.

MY JOURNEY TO, AND IN, FILM PRODUCTION ACCOUNTING

My own background started out in Engineering in the 70’s. Then, when I graduated I saw that open pit mining wasn’t doing it for me, so I started working with an accounting firm to earn a designation. My original purpose was to become skilled enough to be able to use both Engineering and Accounting to help failing businesses turn around. However, after I got my accounting designation I discovered that I would be taking a steep cut in pay to go back to being a junior engineer so I took a job as a Chief Accountant/Controller at a place with about 15 branches. After 5 years I went out on my own, starting a small accounting practice with a couple of other people. After a couple of years of beating the bushes and working 7 days a week I saw that I could make more money as a Film Production Accountant than I could in my practice, so I dropped my office space, my 2 staff, and started working as an assistant accountant.

STEPPING STONE TO FILM PRODUCING AND PRODUCTION MANAGING

Like other industries, after spending many years accounting for and auditing the money, including advising producers and production managers, you start to get the idea that you can do as good as, or better job, at producing. There are many production accountants who have gone on to related film production careers – although, funnily enough, they often keep quiet about it. I presume because they want to distance themselves from the infamous “Blue Suit” – the much maligned Big Studio Exec. (Not a job for me – man, talk about pressure).

THE DOWNSIDE

A downside to Production Accounting is that you don’t ever have a JOB. You get CONTRACTS which last anywhere from 5 weeks to 9 months (in the feature film world pretty seldom longer than that). Television can last longer if you’re working for a major network series. I’d say that my average contract on a film in the $20Mil to $40Mil range was about 6 or 7 months and on a network series with 22 or more episodes about 11 months. Honestly, I really liked the fact of working with different people. I have often talked with other people in the biz, and we almost all agree that the independence that brings is worth the stress of looking for contracts. Once you’ve been in the business for 3 years, and if you haven’t messed up, you’ll be on call, especially if you’re willing to travel.

So, there’s the pros and cons to getting into the film production industry as an accountant.

HOW TO BUST IN

I spend some time talking about ways to bust in during the weekend workshop. With the advent of tighter and tighter money I see even more opportunities for film accountants as aides to producers, or even film accountants producing projects on their own. Subjects like Film Tax Incentives, verification of paperwork required during Crowdfunding of “Accredited Investors”, assisting with monetizing various State Tax Incentives, familiarity with equity terms, etc can all be easily learned by film accountants, or by professional accountants and bookkeepers interested in penetrating this market. (If you are interested in how this all fits together see this short video).

Good luck in your career, whatever you choose.

For more about training as a film accountant see my upcoming Film Accounting 101 workshop in Los Angeles on July 20th and 21st, 2019.

John Gaskin

 

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