Graybeards of the Film Biz – the Film Production Accountant

Woe is the poor film production accountant. Well paid, but overworked and under appreciated. Ask any working independent producer who his/her key people are during the film production and right after the UPM, and parrallel to the 1st AD, is the Production Accountant (or, sometimes called, the Production Auditor). Unlike the UPM and 1st AD, who have the bigger salaries and DGA resid’s, the production accountant’s credit is about page 14, right after the three set PA’s who were in charge of keeping the pathway clear at the back of the studio.

An experienced production accountant knows the key ‘Blue Suits’ (the financiers of every shape and category), the multiple unions and arbitrary rules, the bonding representatives, the banks, the budget’s secret pads and worrisome points, knows THAT ‘guy’ at the Union office who can fix that problem, the cast agencies, the IRS contacts, the payroll in’s and out’s, the magical ways of presenting the film’s progress through the production period to said financiers and knows whatever gossip is most current in the very village atmosphere of international film/TV production.

Many of the accountants are also tough as a rusty spike – after all you can’t suffer under the responsiblity of the budget’s bottom-line without much acknowledgement for 15 or 30 years without getting a little testy. In the most part, though, production accountants have seen that what-goes-around-comes-around and they (we) mostly keep an eye out for their (our) charges. My approach is much like an Uncle who takes the nieces and nephews to the nearest entertainment show – hey kids, I’m benevolent, but only to a point, then I’m able to blow you backwards through the nearest cinder block wall.

What’s not to like?….much.

Who are these graybeards of the film production world? Why is it that the only thing most cast, directors, the bulk of the film crew and even high-end Exec Producers know about production accountants is that they make paychecks?

Well, they know every detail about how-to-direct-the money. It’s a LOT of detail, especially when dealing with the Majors (the ‘Majors’ is the big, and growing, list of Hollywood Studios who negotiate as a group with the powerful IATSE crew and Teamster unions) or when dealing with the Bonding Companies (something every independent film production knows all about).

Some time ago Ron Howard called for a meeting with the UPM, the Exec Producer and me (the Production Accountant). Ron wanted to know why the budget was so high. It was an honest attempt on his part to learn how to ‘Direct The Money’. He has a professional viewpoint and it’s difficult to impossible to be a professional without also having an eye on the film production’s bottom-line.

We were all a little stumped, as you can imagine. It was in New York city, in the mid-1990’s, and much of what we all do is on automatic that trying to back into the place where Ron was – well, it was a time for squirming in your chair.

So, I determined to write a book for the non-accountant. the very basics of Directing the Money. I ended up calling it Walk The Talk, and it does well on the internet. A couple of Universities have it in their producer programs (U of S.Calif and the U of Tampa), with a couple more in the wings.

It wasn’t easy to write because I wanted it to be able to start from the literacy level of a film school graduate (no jokes, please, as many of us are also grads of smok.. I mean universities).

If you want to know more, check out my site at http://www.talkfilm.biz

Blog me if you want a free template for your film project’s budget.

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About filmproduction
I have worked in the film production industry since 1985, working on over 50 different productions of every size in 6 different countries. My self-published book, "Walk The Talk" is written in an easy to read manner for film students and working professionals who haven't had the chance to learn how to 'Direct the Money'.

7 Responses to Graybeards of the Film Biz – the Film Production Accountant

  1. Doug Turski says:

    Read your info on production accounting. I am a CPA that focuses on tax advisory work. I was also a tax director at an entertainment company. A friend of mine is interested in breaking into the prod acctg areana. I took a production acctg class at UCLA extension. Are positions limited or how would someone break in and get a shot as a prod acct? thanks, Doug

    • Production accounting has been about the best of any kind of an accounting career for me. The toughest part for me was to break in and actually reach the level of the Key Production Accountant. The producers and studios who do the hiring are almost always looking for someone who has been-there done-that. Also, this is probably the last field in accounting on the planet where you can be paid as a key executive and yet not have any formal accounting training so your competition is from insiders who aren’t formally trained as accountants – they land in that position through apprenticing over a few years and by simply being ornery enough not to quit and to be able to stand up to the pressures of it all. So, when I started working in the film biz in 1985 there were a lot of people who said that I’d never make it, etc because I had accounting training, had worked as a head-office controller in a company with 15 branch offices, was used to regular hours, etc. So, I had to apprentice for almost 3 years before i got my first break as a key – and it was a low-budget straight-to-video horror film called “The Brain” lol, so you can imagine.

      In your case I can only say that if you have a thick skin and are willing to assist a key accountant, I’d send my resume out to every key accountant and every studio finance exec I could find, telling them you’re willing to put in the hours (say 12 a day, sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more). You can get the names and addresses from the IATSE local (I assume you’re in Los Angeles) and the Stuio Exec’s from some internet research.

      I did one seminar where I was able to take the attendees in 2’s and 3’s to the production offices. If you’re interested i’ll put you on the list for the next time I can do that, then you can see for yourself what production looks like – it’s quite different.

      Best regards,
      John Gaskin

    • Hi, Doug. Over a year ago you had posted a comment on my blog telling me about a friend of yours who was interested in the production accounting area.

      Your friend may be interested in knowing that I’m doing someworkshops again, in LA, Detroit, New York and Toronto – both in person (as a workshop) and also Live On-Line Training. Have a look at my website at http://www.talkfilm.biz

      Best
      John Gaskin

  2. J. Jones says:

    Hi John,

    The London accountancy practice I worked for a couple of years ago was hired to work as the auditors on a feature film. Whilst working on this project I found the film accounting industry something i would love to work in once I had qualified. So I decided to get my accountancy qualification first then look into it. I will gain my Chartered Accountancy qualification (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales) this year and was wondering what would be the best way for someone like me to get into the industry. I still have the details of the Financial Controller of the film i worked on and was thinking about contacting him. would this be the best way into the industry?

    The financial controller in question has worked on some large films and i was wondering if a UK resident may find it harder to work on American films?

    Also, would you recommend i attend any film-specific accountanct courses or is it a case of learning on the job once you have a foot in the door?

    Lastly, what level of pay would an entry-level candidate expect to receive? I remember from the work on the film that employees on a film get expenses as well as a salary.

    Thanks very much,
    J

    • Wow. With your background you could quite quickly fit in with a production company of some kind, especially if you spend some time in production accounting.

      Definitely communicate with as many production auditors (financial controllers of film productions) as you can find. When I was first looking to work in the film production business I sent out 30 letters… no response. I then sent out another 30 letters to new names I found across North America. Still no response. So then I widened my scope to include producers and production managers, found ANOTHER 60 names and sent letters to them as well. Within a couple of weeks I had 3 offers. The point is that you can’t communicate too much, and your communication has to have as little BS as possible – straight up facts – we get so much BS in this business that it’s actually refreshing to get a simple and factual resume with a covering letter (include email addresses and phone numbers where possible of any references you can provide). Design your covering letter to emphasize how you can help them from their point of view.

      When writing to production auditors play down the Chartered Accountancy title. I believe that most production accountants disbelieve that a CA would not be able to take orders and do ‘grunt’ work – which is what you’ll be doing initially. Play-up your willingness and experience in working long hours, perseverance, ability to stay bright under trying circumstances – qualities like that (if they’re true). Also play up any bit of experience you may have, or can learn, about handling their problems – things like calculating crew and cast payroll, familiar with reading and coding from a film budget, etc.

      As far as attending courses goes, there isn’t much of anything out there. You should download my book, if you haven’t already, which will give you insight into the types of problems faced in the process of ‘Directing The Money’ during film and TV production, as well as lots of practical examples of how to address those problems. My book, “Walk The Talk” is an inexpensive e-book and you can download at http://www.talkfilm.biz

      Currently in the UK I see the assistant accountant making in the range of GBP900/week and the key accountant in the range of GBP1,400-1,700.

      It’s tough to work on American films in America, but it’s a piece of cake to work on American films being produced in the UK. Once the Majors (Disney, WB, Paramount, etc) know about you they’ll be happy to hire you on their non-American location shooting anywhere else in the world including the UK – like South Africa, Morocco, Germany, etc. In my experience most Americans are parochial by nature and don’t want to travel out of the country to work, so the Majors are always scrambling to find accountants who they know will travel. Of course, the production will pay for your travel and living when away from home. In most cases they’ll also pay you for the use of your personal car and computer, if required.

      The primary areas that you could familiarize yourself with is film budgeting and the foibles of processing such a high volume of payroll, payables and ‘petty cash’ (in the range of US$50,000 per week). There is also a process of reporting costs and comparing the expected costs to the approved budget – called the Weekly Cost Report. All of the above are covered in my book, “Walk The Talk”. I also have on-line courses for each of film budgeting and film production cost reporting.

      I hope that helps you.

      Best regards,
      John Gaskin

  3. J. Jones says:

    John,
    Thanks so much for the reply, it was extremely helpful. I will definitely take a look at your book. I have a few more questions if you have the time.

    Unfortunately I only worked on that one film and therefore only have the one contact. I would also like to contact those based in the USA too as i have always wanted to live there and would never rule out relocating.
    i was wondering if there a website or some other means of getting the contact information in order to send letters to the financial controllers, producers and production managers?

    Thanks again,
    J.

    • I have found that the best way to find contacts is to go to a good reference library and ask the librarian. It’s amazing what kind of reference books they have.

      The internet is a source but it usually costs money to get access. For instance IMDb Pro often has contact information on producers and production managers, but not for studios and production auditors. You can subscribe to the Hollywood Creative Directory at http://www.hcdonline.com/ or buy the book at Amazon (of the same name) in order to find the studio execs and producers’ contact info.

      It’s tougher to find the production accountants. Most of the experienced production auditors in America belong to the IATSE union, but IATSE won’t give out the contact info. You’d be better off just to call IA 161 in New York ( http://www.local161.org/ ) and tell them your goal and ask for their advice. They know everybody and in New York and will either tell you to ‘for-geda-bowd-id’ or will pass on your contact info for anyone they know could use your services. Accountants on the West Coast are represented by IA 871 (http://www.ialocal871.org/ ) – call them up and go through the same routine – they will help if they’re able and if they believe that they can help their members in some way.

      If you’re located in the UK, call the UK Film Council and ask if they have a publication of available accountants production managers, etc that you can access. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t. In Canada you can Google the Canadian Film and Television Producers Association (CFTPA) and order their big annual publication. It has tons of contacts in it.

      I hope that helps. Let me know how it goes.

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