The Film Payroll Accountant

On my first contract as a key accountant I worked on a $1Mil production called “The Brain”. As you might expect it was a ‘B’ Movie. I was the only accountant (no assistants) on a crew of about 60 and a cast of about 10 or 12 – we also had about 100 background extras. Since it was 1987, I’m pretty sure that it was the last production that that actually had a manually kept set of ledger books with the big General Ledger and a separate cash book, journal book, etc.

At that time most payroll was done “in-house”, that is, without an entertainment Payroll Service. All remittances were made to the unions and government manually. It was a very busy 6 days a week but everything got done and in many was a lot simpler than it is now. In today’s environment one person doing that amount of volume by him/herself would seem like an impossibility – my, my but we are taking a lot for granted now.

Which leads me to my theme – the film payroll accountant has now become the standard in any film production, even though the Film Payroll Accountant doesn’t know anything about government deductions and producer contributions, and only a little bit about the union “fringes” (i.e. the benefits paid to the union by the producer). And that’s totally forgetting about the union and government deductions that have to be remitted. They are also very well paid. Hmmmm…

The Film Payroll Accountant knows how to “Gross-Up” the time cards – that is, to calculate the gross amount of payroll due to the employee after calculating the three producer sins – overtime, rest violations and meal penalties. Yup, that’s it – no knowledge of deductions and contributions and timing of remittances, no dealing with audits from the government, no calculations of employer/employee deductions/contributions for unemployment insurance, workers compensation, medical (etc, etc) understanding need be had at all.

And yet….. and yet, this category is a whirlwind of activity and is a source of many producer problems. The tax credits demand more control over the payroll forms than ever before … but it’s still manageable. The computer has taken away much of the strain of calculating the weird and convoluted penalties negotiated by unions over the years. And yet there are fewer and fewer reliable and well trained payroll accountants. Hmmmmmm…..

Maybe it’s my philosophical bent, but I have a tendency to look at that and wonder why – why is there a dearth of film payroll accountants and why doesn’t the average film payroll accountant know much about payroll (outside of the 3 producer sins mentioned above).

Unions have a lot to do with it, I think. There’s a philosophy of only doing YOUR job that rubs off in many of the union locals – not all, mind you. I think of the main union local in Louisiana as an exception, but I see the problem as one of not being “professional” – interested in producing the best job possible through a thorough understanding of the topic. The payroll accountants that I really know and like are pro’s –  there’s just so darned few of them that I can say that of; and all of them have been around a very long time.

Computer programs are the next culprit. Why bother knowing a lot about payroll if you don’t need to (said the spider to the fly)? We all have our Excel “helpers” but when a generation of payroll accountants learn “Film Payroll” through programs like EPOL in Canada and Showbiz in the US, I groan. In all cases they have learned to use the software but have bypassed the necessity of understanding union payroll rules. The software has taken away the ability to help the producer with quick questions like – what will it cost to shoot the 13th hour? – what’s the % of union/government fringe per $1,000 of payroll? My, my. Hmmmm….

If you’re a film payroll accountant who DOES have a good grounding in payroll and understands the whole spectrum, my heartfelt congratulations – please send me your resume. If not …. get the union contracts and start down the path of being able to answer the producer’s quastions quickly and with authority.




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'.

3 Responses to The Film Payroll Accountant

  1. Sarah O says:

    Thank you very much for posting this.

  2. Sarah O says:

    Do you ever plan to come to Chicago?

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