When the UPM/Line Producer Is Also the Film Accountant
January 12, 2011 2 Comments
I received a professional email from a UPM/Line Producer based out of Belgium. He’s obviously worked a lot, and has done a very good workflow narrative of what he needs to do as part of his Film Accountant “Hat”. His name is Bavo Bostoen, and with his permission granted, I am posting it here on my blog.
Bavo is trying to find a software that inter-relates between the Film Budget and the Actualized Costs. He had his sights on the biggest budgeting software, but once they understood his needs they dropped it. My advice to him was to really get familiar with Showbiz Budgeting – it’s the closest solution that I know of (I have heard that Guerilla has something, but I never used it before).
Anthony Lopez by email email@example.com to buy a copy of Showbiz Budgeting. Tell him I sent you and maybe he’ll give you a deal. (He’s a good guy, and for the record I am not getting commissions on anything).
Here’s Bavo’s email – I edited it a little to fit the format of a blog:
First, to (re)frame the discussion, let me copy my last mail, and than I’ll try to add some context that will hopefully make you better understand how we function, and why we need cost actualizing (and PCE and …) functionality integrated into the budgeting software.
Cost Accounting Done By the UPM
In Europe, where I work, cost accounting on a lot of productions (especially lower budget independently financed films) is usually done by the UPM – or his assistant – using a software like Showbiz Budgeting or Gorilla, packages who offer an integrated actualization capability (*). Or else it’s done on Excel. On set production accountants who do the actualization through an accounting package that’s compatible with the budgeting package (I suppose that is the US way of doing things) are fairly rare, except maybe in the UK on higher budget films.
The following workflow is usually used: the PM uses a set of film accounts (comparable to the sets of accounts delivered with EP budgeting), draws up a budget and during production (if green lighted) the budget is superseded by the cost actualization spreadsheet.
Meaning: each invoice or petty cash envelope (*) is put into the cost-to-date column of the appropriate account, cost-to-complete columns are updated accordingly, over/under is calculated per line item and production decisions are made accordingly. All this is done by the UPM, usually with an assistant. There is no accountant involved, as the chart of film accounts is completely different from the fixed COA used by all accounting packages.
This is why it would be extremely helpful if the budgeting software would have an integrated actualization module, because then we don’t need to export the budget and do the cost-runs externally in Excel (you’re always more prone to errors, except maybe when you’re an Excel programmer). This is also the reason why integrated PCE (petty cash envelope) functionality is equally helpful (**).
Each week (or sometimes more frequently) the whole package (cost actualization, all invoices & PCE’s, cash usage etc) is transferred to the accountant of the production company, who updates the company accounts as a whole. In essence all costs are booked twice, once by the different UPM’s in the film chart of accounts (of each project) and once by the accountant into the fixed COA (for the company as a whole), it’s double work but it’s hard to avoid (***).
(*) salary info is a little more complicated and usually comes back to the UPM through the production company accountant, it’s mainly handled on that level and they communicate the weekly amounts back to us. But these days salaries are more frequently handled through an intermediary ‘employer of record’ and they invoice directly to the production, where these invoices are handled in the same way as any other costs. It should also be noted that short form work is nearly always done with freelancers who invoice directly to the production.
(**) have a look at Showbiz Budgeting to see how this functionality is implemented (free trial available).
(***) Analytical Accounts: in theory you can avoid this by using different sets of accounts (they’re called “analytical accounts”) within the accounting package (first accounting level is the fixed COA, second level is a production code or number assigned to and defining each production, third level is the specific film production account, forth level are for extra costs or insurance claims etc), but it’s very complicated because most accounting packages are not flexible enough to accommodate this workflow in a streamlined way + most production managers are not accountants anyway, and don’t know how to use the many different accounting packages in use.
Conclusion – what we need ideally, based on all the above
– we need extensive cost actualization functionality integrated into the budgeting software
– we need PCE (petty cash envelope) functionality within the budgeting software, because it’s directly related to the updating of the cost-to-date (by PCE)
– consequently we need a module to record cash distribution between main production company and the production itself, this would directly interface with the PCE functionality (because cash hand-out and reception is either applied to the different PCE’s or to the production bank account)
– ideally a way to follow-up credit-card payments (UPM, usually, and sometimes some key personnel, in rare cases, receive prodco (production company)credit cards to do payments instead of using cash) ; we do this through what we call PCCE or “Petty Credit Card Envelopes” which are useful to compare against credit card statements, and are similarly linked to the cost-to-date
– cost actualization data need to be entered at the detail level, otherwise it’s meaningless – basically it should work exactly the same way as budgeting itself, from detail to account to category level
– the budget should be viewable with all actualization data against the budget data, for each level (detail, account, category)
– per cost-to-date item, there should be (user configurable) extra note fields, which could refer to any or all of the following: the kind of cost item (invoice / petty cash receipt / contract / etc) – custom numbering scheme (to identify all items, this could simply be an increasing counter) – – date field – payment mode (cash, creditcard, bank) – VAT/tax percentage and if this is deductible or not (for cash receipts tax is a non-deductible cost, for regular invoices tax is deductible, but sometimes only partially) – etc
– a way to follow up on extra costs, not initially budgeted for, like extra costs related to an insurance case
– related to the above remark: a way to work “cost-plus” in commercials (instead of fixed fee), so the final budget would be derived directly from the final cost actualization
– extensive selection/sorting methods based on all fields
I hope this (admittedly) very long explanation helps you to better understand our working conditions. Feel free to call for more info, but beware I’m in the Brussels/Paris timezone!
Freelance UPM / Line Producer
Footnote and Background – Fixed Chart of Accounts
In Belgium and France (and a lot of other European countries so I’m told), accounting laws define a fixed chart of accounts (COA). These accounts can be expanded upon, but they must follow a detailed fixed structure (they are numerical accounts of which the first 4 positions are defined by law). This chart of accounts is defined in such a way to allow (external) shareholders – such as shareholders, potential investors, employees, banks, suppliers, tax, VAT & social security services – to get a detailed view on the financial state of the company as a whole. At least yearly, (audited) accounts are published electronically through the national bank, for everyone to see. This is were the standard chart of accounts comes in very handy: financial software can automatically run reports on these accounts, compare them with other companies from the same sector & do all kinds of analysis etc. All stakeholders are able to use this info.
The problem is that the fixed COA is rigid (it has to be), one dimensional, describes the company as a whole and doesn’t allow for project analysis. A production company with different audiovisual projects going on at the same time (be it feature films, television, commercials etc) needs a different set of accounts to follow up on each project.