The Three Key Areas of Film Accounting

Film Accounting is somewhat of a mystery to outside accountants. There ARE film industry specific practices that separate film accounting from other industries; however, anyone can learn the three key areas rather quickly, and have a lot of fun at the same time.

There are three basic areas to address, preferably in a hands-on workshop:

1.THE FINANCIAL AND ACCOUNTING CONTROL POINTS

6basicfunctions

6 Basic Functions

There are key accounting control points that are standard throughout any film or television production. I have found a workshop environment to be the best way to learn the workflow and processes, pointing out the control points as we go along. There are typical forms, templates and rules followed in film production accounting. You will be able to take home standard templates and forms used throughout the industry every day. Also, flow charts help as a later reference when you start applying what you’ve learned.

2.THE FILM BUDGET AND THE “COST REPORT”

The Film Budget and the Cost Report issued during any film or television production are

the career maker/breakers for any film accountant or producer. You should have an understanding of how to present, read and manipulate both the Film Budget and the Cost Report, something so important to their career as a producer. (The “Cost Report” is the vernacular for Financial Statements in film production. It is confidential at all levels. This workshop may be the only place you’ll be able to learn how to produce it).

3.CASHFLOW REPORTS AND FILM TAX CREDIT ESTIMATION

An emerging producer, or a film accountant, who can prepare a weekly cash-flow schedule from the budget, as well as a reliable estimate of the tax credits expected, is far in advance of other emerging producers in the same pool. A first step is having typical templates commonly used in the industry to create the cashflow schedules and the tax credit estimates.

REAL SITUATIONS

Within these three areas I convey as many real situations as I can, throwing in examples of fraud and how to control it, how the industry is different/similar to other industries, as well as my real experiences with celebrities like Ron Howard, George Clooney, Steve Martin, etc. There are other areas that I get into given time, including how to find work in the film production industry, both as film accountants, and as a services the CPA can perform in the industry.

FILM ACCOUNTING WORKSHOP 101

My next Film Accounting 101 workshop is coming up in Chicago on Oct 22nd and 23rd. Step 3 above is not gone through in detail, but the templates are provided. The curriculum is more designed for those who want to actually work as film accountants. However, the testimonial below from a producer who recently attended reminded me that it is still what many producers want to know about film accounting:

“John Gaskin has an amazing wealth of knowledge that crosses over into various film departments. In his Film Accounting workshop, he outlines the big picture of film financing and production, and then hones in on the detailed accounting procedures. As a producer, the course has given me the confidence to manage larger budgets and communicate with production accountants more thoroughly on different points of financial control. In addition to attending his course, I also read his book “Walk the Talk”, which I’ve recommended to other industry professionals many times. With both formats John breaks down a breadth of complex information in a manner that is clear and digestible.” SR

Come join us at the next workshop. I promise you will NOT be bored!

 

To find out more about the Film Accounting 101 workshop at http://www.filmaccounting.com

Cheers / John

Advertisements

Film Payroll – SAG Day Performers

BIG DEMAND FOR FILM PAYROLL ACCOUNTANTS:

There just aren’t enough film payroll accountants trained to fill the demand, not only in the new booming production centers of Louisiana and Georgia, but also in the more traditional centers of New York and Los Angeles. Today (March 27th, 2015) I see listings on Emily’s List for payroll accountants in Baton Rouge, New York and Long Beach. Click here to see Emily’s List.

SAG PAYROLL CALCULATIONS ARE BASED ON EXACT RULES

Calculating SAG Payroll is the litmus test of who can actually be a Film Payroll Accountant. It requires an ability to find, read, interpret and apply the rules for payroll as written in the SAG Codified Basic Agreement. The references of what, and how, to pay SAG Day Performers can be confusing, especially without a helping hand nearby. For the first few days doing of SAG payroll it’s like the first day of Trigonometry in high school!

PAYROLL WORKSHOPS AND ONLINE PAYROLL COURSES

After doing quite a few live weekend workshops on film payroll I have re-designed my online course to follow those succesfull actions. Essentially, I have found that my students learn by watching me on the board, and then doing it themselves… repetitively.

How It Works

How It Works – SAG A Online Payroll Course

LOTS OF VIDEOS AND PRACTICE:

So I have made 2 1/2 hours of a slew of video clips, all on the SAG payroll rules applied to Day Performers (called Schedule A performers in the big codified basic agreement).

Have a look at the video describing how it works.

For more info see my web page at http://www.talkfilm.biz/filmworkshops9.htm

Cheers / John

 

Finding Film Financing – Can It Be Taught?

A friend of mine told me that he is very interested in opening a Film Financing School in Los Angeles. The school would deliver a series of comprehensive courses by industry professionals. His investors have asked him why no one else has done it before. My friend asked me how I would respond to that question. When I started to answer him, I realized that I needed to find out what others thought. Please feel free to chip in with your opinion.

FINDING FINANCING IS A GAME OF CREATING CONFIDENCE

Finding financing is primarily a game of creating confidence – this is true of any business, but especially of film financing. Those who have expendable income can afford to have professional investment advisers. Those advisers are allergic to risk – period. This is not only true of “Accredited Investors” (those who the Securities Commission have defined as being open to general solicitation of funds) but also of the Major Studios.

REDUCING RISK FOR INVESTORS

So, Film Financing is a game of reducing the risk for investors. Reducing risks CAN be taught. It just isn’t taught in film schools, and is only very rarely addressed in graduate schools. Remember that those with expendable income generally have a wide spectrum of ways to invest their funds. Film is risky; however, it is also sexy, and if a large amount of the risk is eliminated through good business practice I believe that investors will come.

CREATIVE BUSINESS PRACTICES

How do you reduce the risk? The answer could generally be split into two fields: the creative script, and creatively performing the business of film and television.

The creative script is where 90% of the effort is placed, and that’s why so few Indies make it. The writing and casting of the script is left alone here. That is something that the film schools DO know how to teach. In this blog let’s look only at the creative business practices and what it takes to reduce risks as perceived by the investor.

FILM FINANCING – WHAT IS THE BEST COURSE CONTENT

Here is where I need your help. Can you give me feedback as to what you would like to learn in order to make film financing a possibility for you? These are the categories that I feel are needed. Each of these courses/categories could be attended separately; however, it would be best in sequence. These categories are well in advance of most of what’s on the web. Please let me know how you feel about it, especially if you would rather do it online, as opposed to going to LA to attend in person :

  1. Film Budgeting and Scheduling: using Excel and/or Movie Magic applied to an actual script.
  2. State Tax Incentive estimating on at least three film friendly States (say, Georgia, Louisiana and California), utilizing the film budget and shooting schedule completed above. Once an estimation is learned, then the student must learn how to best monetize that tax credit estimate.
  3. Process “An Offer to Sell Securities”, otherwise known as Crowd Funding, applying the current rules and forms per the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
  4. Prepare Cash Flow Schedules (both cash expended and cash funding arranged/postulated) acceptable by a bank as part of a Bank Loan Process. Use the Film Budget as the basis for the cash expended and the State Tax Credits, Pre-Sales to specific territories and Equity expected as the cash funding arranged/postulated.
  5. Process a mock bank loan based on an actual loan processed to experience the range of legal and accounting documents required by the banker and the Completion Guarantor. Use the cash flows above as the basis to estimate the loan interest.
  6. An introduction to the Guilds and Unions of the film industry: What are the general rules of payment and fringe due per the rules of the Writers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Director’s Guild and the IATSE crew unions. How does the residual system work and what are the budgeting and cash flow obligations which the producer must manage.
  7. Film Production Cost Control Points for both producers and accountants: The investors need to know that you have the ability to control production; otherwise the investors will cut you out of the process very early on. The only way for them to have confidence in you is if you can demonstrate an understanding of film industry specific production workflows, forms and practices, including your relationship with the Completion Guarantor through the weekly Cost Report.
  8. Final Business Plan: Bring together all of the above into a final business plan that is professional looking, scalable and defensible.
  9. Salesmanship: reenactments of pitching investors with the business plan above, pitching the script, assuring investors that you CAN control the costs during production, etc. This level is very much a practical where the student will bring together all of his/her knowledge of the line items above.
  10. Other: There are certain legal templates used to Incorporate as an LLC, to acquire Rights Ownership, to write Distribution Agreements, format Pre-Sales of Rights to Territories, Equity sweeteners, etc that can either be introduced within the subjects above, or brought into the mix after acquiring the knowledge above.

 

Each of the 9 items above would have a unique curriculum.

QUESTIONS

There is no guarantee that the Semester Credits would count towards a degree in another university. Is that important to you?

Does this comprehensive course appeal to you? Would it be better delivered in person, or online?

All for now,

Cheers / John

Film Accounting – Understanding Union Payroll

For anyone who has ever tried to understand how to pay a SAG Performer, take heart. Know that when you look at the full 710 pages of the SAG “Codified Basic Agreement” you really only need to understand 15 to 20 pages of that tome. This is also true to a lesser extent for the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Teamsters working in film.

FILM PAYROLL RULES ARE LOCATED WITHIN EVERY “AGREEMENT”

The film unions and guilds have made “Agreements” with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, generally known as the AMPTP. The “Agreements” state the rules of the contract between the Guild or Union and the Producer, including all payroll rules.

Each Guild/Union has broken down their rules into the following 4 categories:

  1. The “Basic Day” and Overtime Rules
  2. The penalties associated with “Rest Violations” (also called “Turnaround”).
  3. The penalties associated with violating Meal Periods (called “Meal Penalties”).
  4. The various circumstances associated with Travel – whether to a “Distant Location” (i.e. staying in a hotel), or traveling outside of a defined “Studio Zone” (also often referred to in each locale as “The Circle”).

Once you know where these points are in each of the agreements your task becomes one of familiarization and practice.

THE NECESSARY TRAINING AND PRACTICE

I’ve found that a full weekend practicing the feature film payroll rules, followed up by on-line links to all the materials, is plenty for your average person to learn how to calculate the union/guild payrolls to “gross” (i.e. to the gross amount of pay due before union and government benefits/deductions). I also supply timecard templates (yes, with the formulas) which are “helpers”

SCOPE OF THE US FILM PAYROLL WORKSHOPS:

The solution to understanding Film Guild/Union Payroll is to find a central source of contracts for SAG, DGA and IATSE then summarize the four categories of payroll rules mentioned above. Then have someone show you their version of Excel formulas which comply with these central rules. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I have done that, one union at a time for each of:

  • SAG
  • DGA,
  • IATSE National Low Budget (any feature or TV production in North America less than $13Mil) and
  • IATSE Area Standards (any feature or TV production greater than $13Mil outside of the Los Angeles and New York zones).
  • I have a general Teamster contract for the non-LA/NY areas, but, honestly, it’s child’s play to understand after learning the above.

Actually, it is not a problem for me to say that if you understand SAG, DGA, IATSE Low Budget and IATSE Area Standards payroll rules, you can understand Film/TV payroll anywhere in America – it would only be necessary to get a copy of the local contracts in those higher production centers and you’d be ready in a day or so.

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

Cheers / John

 

Crossing Over to Film Accounting – Financing

FILMACCOUNTING101DEFINING THE WEAKNESS IN FILM FINANCING – NO ACCOUNTING EXPERIENCE

An accountant is seldom used to help the Producer pitch for financing. Most emerging Producers aren’t educated in pitching to financiers who are well schooled in standard business practices – and, even if the pitching Producer has some idea that help is needed in preparing financial projections, the cost of the accountant’s services may seem prohibitive.

ACCOUNTANTS GENERALLY LACK EXPERIENCE

Even if the pitching Producer does go to his/her local CPA, it may very likely be a disappointment. Most accountants ARE weak in this unique area of film finance. Ask any CPA about investing in film production and they’ll tell you straight up – too risky! But … ask that same accountant about investing in a rental property in Bohunk, say a small medical center, and the accountant will jump in with both feet. Why? Simply because the accountant has experience in similar projects and there is an infrastructure in place to find and analyze data of a similar nature.

FINANCING FILM PROJECTS IS PIONEERING WORK

The film industry has been a closed industry. The current blast of YouTube, Netflix, etc has opened the door to the industry, but it certainly isn’t a “taped path” to success. However, there are a few steps that are proven true in current film financing projects. These steps are only a crossover from standard business accounting to film accounting. The standards are still in the pioneer stages, so be prepared for some hard won work.

FINANCING = GENERATING CONFIDENCE WITH GOOD BUSINESS STANDARDS

The weakest factor for emerging producers to overcome is to have the ability to generate a financier’s confidence – that is, to have those with disposable income (financiers of any kind) feel confident that the film project being pitched will generate a return. That financier has several investment avenues available. Indeed there are teams of professional investors knocking on their door, all with clear documentation and proven track records. Your best hope of generating that confidence is to present your facts according a business standard that the financier is familiar with.

CROSSING OVER TO FILM ACCOUNTING

Enter the accountant, or professional producer, who has crossed over to film accounting. The film accountant is familiar with five particular ways of generating confidence – all of which should be referenced in any Executive Summary and Business Plan:

  1. FILM BUDGET: A professional film budget with both a summary page and supporting detailed accounts. If this document is unfamiliar to you please click here for more information. (Note: Within the appendix of the business plan include a copy of a standard “Cost Report” so the investor can see the industry standard of reporting the costs and how they are controlled.)
  2. STATE TAX CREDIT ESTIMATE: A clear schedule estimating the State Film Tax Incentive available based on the budget. If this topic is unfamiliar to you please click here for more information.
  3. FILE FORM D WITH THE SEC (CROWD FUNDING): Show the investor that you are only looking for “Accredited Investors” by filing a “Form D” with the SEC. This is a relatively simple form which separates you from the novice who is looking for a freebie. Please read my blog on this topic to get a better understanding of what it takes to legally solicit funds broadly.
  4. CASHFLOW REQUIREMENTS: A weekly cashflow requirement schedule both in summary and in detail by account (based on the budget). Click here for more information.
  5. FINANCING CASHFLOW SCHEDULE: By preparing this schedule the investor can see that you are transparent and alert to the costs of borrowing from film friendly institutions. Click here for more information.

Including these documents in your business plan, clearly referenced in your executive summary, will raise your credibility meter significantly with any financier.

For those of you interested in getting into film accounting in a more detailed way, should visit my web site for upcoming Film Accounting 101 2 Day workshops – two coming up, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. See http://www.filmaccounting.com

Cheers / John

30 year veteran of over 50 film and television productions in 6 different countries.

New Orleans -Managing Film Budgets and Production Costs

My final series of workshops are coming up in New Orleans. I’ll be delivering three workshops over three days. Here’s the one for Line Producers, Emerging Producers, or just anyone who wants to learn more about managing film budgets and costs – Sunday, May 22nd in New Orleans

The attendees will review a $9Mil budget from several angles, learning the practical methods of managing a film budget used by film producers and production accountants everywhere. From that very important step, we practice the essential steps in controlling and reporting the production costs through the Weekly Cost Report – this report is fundamental to ALL media-based productions, and is reviewed weekly by the completion guarantors, the financiers, the studios, etc. In addition you will be introduced to the 6 basic ways that you can use to control the costs before they are spent.

The workshop is delivered by John Gaskin, a production accountant who has 25 years experience working on over 45 film and television productions of every size, in 5 different countries. John is also an author of a book used in the mentoring program at AFI, the U. of S.Calif’s producer program, and the U. of Tampa’s producer program.

The workshop will be held on Sunday, May 22nd in New Orleans. It counts as 8 hours of Continuing Professional Education.

There are many testimonials on John’s home page. For more information on the “Managing Film Budgets and Production Costs” workshop see http://www.talkfilm.biz/filmworkshops1.htm

#5 of 7 – Below-the-Line Film Budgeting

Below-the-Line film budgeting is usually thought of as highly as visiting the dentist. Executive Producers, who package the film projects for development, mostly refer to BTL as a one-number-bottom-line. Once a few key positions are hired, the film director often loses interest and runs from the dentist’s chair …er… I mean, the budgeting table.

Wow. Think about it. Once a film producer or film director leaves the big budget arena of below-the-line the only recourse left to him/her is to demand what they want … if you’re not Ron Howard, et al, don’t take the chance. Get visible in the BTL budget process.

The purpose of this Article is to take you out of the dentist’s chair and put you into a good game of cribbage. Get into the game by ‘Directing’ the BTL costs, then use the savings YOU created to be able to do the creative things you’re capable of – within your sphere of influence (directing, producing, UPM’ing, being head of any department, etc.).

The Shooting Period (Sometimes called Below-the-Line) includes all costs associated with the shooting of the negative. Click here for a pdf page – it’s easier to see than the figure below.

Below-the-Line budgeting can be mundane, if viewed in all its detail. It includes every detailed listing of every type of labor cost (hours of Travel, Work, Holidays, Prep, Wrap, etc.), as well as every detail of wardrobe purchases by character, all construction costs by set, all details of trucks and equipment rentals, etc. etc. etc.

So, let’s narrow it down to a function of ‘Directing’ the BTL costs. Let’s focus instead at the most significant cost—crew labor and the additional ‘fringe’ (that is, the additional government and union amounts that the Producer has to pay over and above the crew wages.)  You can refer to my book for simple ways to ‘direct’ the costs in other BTL areas.

A very large part of being able to control the costs as a Director, Producer, etc. is to know the fundamental terms used to describe, and control, crew labor costs.

The first term used A LOT is the ‘the budgeted number of worked hours’.

The Budgeted # of Worked Hours:

Usual Way:

Director/Producer To Studio Exec –  “Uh, how many hours do you expect us to shoot in a day?”

Studio Exec – “Well, we have a policy here at (Hollywood Studio) stated in our Critical Assumptions that we can only …”.  You see how the Studio Exec is in the driver’s seat. Regardless of the number of worked hours normally budgeted, he’ll be tempted to push the budgeted worked hours down.

Walk The Talk Way

Director/Producer To Studio Exec –  “There’s a lot of difficult shooting to complete the production on time. We REALLY NEED at least 13 hours of work budgeted for the regular shooting crew, with additional hours budgeted for the crew who have earlier calls, like wardrobe and makeup and hair crew. Any less and I can’t guarantee that we won’t be over budget on a daily basis!”

Studio Exec – “Uh, yeah. Sounds right for this type of production. I’ll check the Critical Assumptions.”  Now you’re in the driver’s seat.

You CAN support a 13-hour day as the norm in today’s film production environment.  You SHOULD push for 13 hours budgeted per day at any opportunity.

Regardless of your position—whether it be a Director, Producer, Production Manager, Dept Head or Joe Crew Member you will have your opportunities to complete your production in less than the 13 hours budgeted.  When you’re successful, you can treat that savings as money in the bank, which can in turn be used to enhance the quality of the final film in other ways.

The chart below (representative of a small to medium sized film production) shows why directors such as Clint Eastwood are so loved by the Hollywood Studios.  Not only do his movies make money, but he also knows how to shoot the script in a relatively short day. Thirteen-hour days are unheard of on a Clint Eastwood set.

The cost of a 13th hour worked is shown in this simple chart:

1 Day        1 Week        2 Weeks        3 Weeks         4 Weeks

13thHour $     5,500   $     27,500 $     55,000 $     82,500        $      110,000

12th Hour $     4,200  $     21,000  $     42,000   $     63,000        $       84,000

11th Hour $     3,100  $     15,500  $     31,000   $     46,500        $       62,000

10th Hour $     2,000  $     10,000  $     20,000   $     30,000        $       40,000

To sum up:

1.Avoid the 13th Hour of shooting for two weeks and save $55,000, which you can use to apply to other film enhancements.

2. Shoot 12 Hours one day and 11 hours the next and take home ($5,500 x 2) + ($4,200) for a total of $15,200—enough for a 100’ crane with operator and a hot head camera for a day. (See my Handy Budgeting Table in Chapter 17).

INSIST that you participate in the Below-the-Line budget process. For example, if you, as a Director, had asked for a specific crane shot, ask to see the budget page printed out that reflects the rental of the Crane, the Crane Operator, etc.  By simply insisting on a review of specifics before the Final Budget review with the Studio you can control over your areas of interest.

The principle of actually testing the budget (before its final approval) applies to anyone who has responsibility for costs in any area of the film production.

If you feel intimidated by the task of reviewing sections of a budget, take a moment to review the sample ‘small unit’ budget below.  Do you see how the columns are arranged?  The chances are very high that you’ll be referring to a document with these column headings – this is the most commonly used format, everywhere.

The “Amount” column refers to the amount of “Units” (that is, the amount of Hours, Days, Feet, Weeks or just ‘Allow’ if there isn’t a specific unit).

The ‘X’ is used primarily to reflect the number of people involved.  Rather than saying 42 Man-Days, you could say 7 Man-Days utilizing 6 men.  Then the ‘X’ would contain the number 6, representing the 6 men.  Also, if you have a foreign currency, like Canadian dollars, and you want to represent the budget in US$ only, then put the exchange rate in the ‘X’ column.

The ‘Rate’ is the dollar rate that matches the ‘Unit” – if it’s hours, then the rate would be $X/Hr, if the unit is days it’ll be $X/Day, etc.

The ‘Subtotal’ column is the result of multiplying the columns by each other:

Amount x ‘X’ x Rate = Subtotal.  Click here to see a pdf page of the figure below.

Now take a quiet moment to review the “Small Unit” schedule above. Look at the ‘Rate’ for the Fringe line items.

Can you see where the figure comes from?

Answer: See page 68 of Walk The Talk for the answer.

Can you think of any categories that may be missing in Fig.17.1?

Answer: See page 68 of Walk The Talk for the answer.

Can you see anything odd with the rates in Fig. 17.1?

Answer: Here’s a hint –  I’ve highlighted the three areas:

See page 69 of Walk The Talk for the answer.

Walk The Talk Way:

Just in case you’re not yet comfortable with ‘The Budget Talk’, here are some very good direct questions for a director, producer, Production Manager, etc., and suggested responses, you can use and apply on every film production:

Question: What is the budgeted number of worked hours for the crew?

Answer: If it’s less than 13 worked hours and you’re shooting the show anywhere in North America, you could be in trouble.

Question: Are there any plans to build sets?  If so, where are the Production Designer’s plans and construction budgets?

Answer: You want to ensure that the Production Designer is using the experience of a good Art Director and Construction Estimator in coming up with the construction estimates.  If you want to get into more details on Construction budgets, see the handy construction table in Chapter 17 of my book.

Question: Have the Departmental Budgets come in from the Wardrobe Designer, Set Decorator and Props Master, etc.?

Answer: If so, you should have meetings with each of them. Ask if they feel comfortable with the numbers.  They may have been arm wrestled into accepting unreal budgets from the Producer.

Question: Have the Gaffer and Key Grip prepared their required equipment lists yet?  (Ask to have a look at them).

Answer: You seldom get any real equipment lists until after the ‘Tech Survey’, late in the Prep Period; however, this kind of questioning keeps everyone honest.

You get the picture. ‘Direct’ the BTL costs and win. It’s not so bad – really.

Does all of that seem like too much? Then, you’d better get a good book, that’s easy to read, that lays it out for you. As of July 27/08 both the University of Southern California Masters of Fine Arts (Peter Stark Program) and the University of Tampa Film Program have ordered my book, “Walk The Talk” as required reading for their students.

They’re available in my book – see my web site here “Walk The Talk”. All of them are simple but effective.

#4 of 7 – Above-the-Line Budgeting (A Producer Favorite)

I was getting tired of having 7 articles that I had taken a lot of time to prepare sit languishing on Google Knol. So I started printing them here. Since then Google no longer will let my Google Know articles appear on Google searches. Shame. Oh, well, there’s always WordPress.

Above-the-Line budgeting (if you don’t know what Above-the-Line means look a little lower for the definition) is a very hot topic – as you can well imagine. It’s the favorite topic of most film producers who package a show in development. It’s probably more important to them than the script!

Pretty much anything you hear about on the internet, on entertainment shows and in magazines is about the Above-the-Line people. What actors, directors, writers and producers are earning, creating, developing, etc. That’s all Above-the-Line stuff.

ATL (as it’s often referred to) is where most of the money goes. Sometimes over ½ of a film budget is Above-the-Line. So, our employers, the Executive Producers, Bonding Companies, Major and Independent Studios, spend much of their time on that topic as well. It’s important that you know that language and can walk-the-talk when it comes to this ATL area.

Picture this – Steven Spielberg just called you into his office for an interview. He wants your point of view as the potential Film Director, Line Producer, Unit Production Manager, Director of Photography, Gaffer, Film Accountant, etc.

Would talking to him in the language of the pros about the Above-the-Line Budget make you tongue-tied? If not. Throw this article away. If you think it might be a problem, then let’s get carry on.

Above-the-Line Defined – ATL includes all costs associated with the Writer, Director, Producers, Cast and Stunts.   In keeping with the purpose of these Articles, I want to show the reader how to survive film budgets and costs — within the degree of control of the reader. Therefore, I am avoiding the costs of the Writer, Director, Producers and Stars.  All of those costs are driven by the financiers/Studios and they don’t need my help there.  It’s the everyday cast and stunts (normally called Daily/Weekly  Performers, ‘Bits’ and Stunt Performers) that you need to know about.

ATL Basics

There are five different kinds of cast costs.

1.Stars – this is the early stages of packaging the project and usually is not a factor in any cost control decisions during the production of a film.

2.Supporting Cast – as a film director, or producer, it’s up to you to plead your case from a script point of view. From a cost point of view, it’s up to how well you can sell your case. For the rest of us – ride it out.

3.Day Performers – this category refers to an actor who comes in for a day or week, or for upgrades of extras to a small speaking role. During the early days of creating the budget not a lot of time is spent on this category. Producers and accountants have a tendency to budget Day Players slightly higher than the minimum scale rates. There’s also a tendency to budget for at least 12 hours worked per Day Player.
The cost of each individual day player is not huge; however, if their hours worked as a whole are well controlled and brought in under 11 hours a day, you can save from $20-$40,000 on a studio feature production.

4.Stunt Performers – the unpredictable problems of stunts can make this cost a big over-budget item, or it can make for some big savings, too.  This line in the budget is a favorite place for producers to add some “fat”. It’s difficult to argue with the number of stuntmen needed or the stunt equipment needed, etc.  So, a prudent producer tosses everything possible into this category in a blind bid to cover unforeseen problems. If you can control the stunt within an inch and get it done fast, there’s a very good chance you’ll save a significant amount of money to use on other things you’d like to do.

5.Fringes (additional payments to Governments and Unions) – for every dollar you spend on cast/stunt wages, you pay an additional 32% in fringes. This is a significant figure, and one often overlooked. Save $40,000 on stuntmen and day players, do not pass go; get an additional $12,000 in saved fringes.

Those definitions had to be stated. Now – how can we make those categories of ATL budget work for us? What, exactly, can it do for our careers?

Before we can get into that with an example, let’s look a little closer at the term ‘Non-Discretionary Costs’.

Non-Discretionary Costs Defined:

Non-Discretionary costs are the costs that are mandatory to be able to shoot the film. Those costs include hiring the characters in the script, performing the stunts called for in the script, renting the appropriate camera equipment and vehicles in order to shoot the sequences called for in the script, buying film stock, etc.  These are the costs that are the last to get cut in any budget belt tightening.

In this section we’re talking about Cast, Stunt Performers, Dancers, etc. that are categorized as ‘Above-the-Line’.  We want to determine how to ‘direct’ the ‘Non-Discretionary’ costs to our favor.

‘Direct’ Non-Discretionary ATL Costs

Whether you’re the Director, Producer, Production Manager or Department Head, find the Non-Discretionary costs in your particular area. If you’re budgeting, pump them up. If you’re not budgeting, find a way to control those types of costs.

If you’re a Director, this is your big chance – don’t miss it. Get involved with this process. Ask to see the budget pages involving cast and stunts – plead, joke, cry, laugh, whatever it takes – just make sure you follow the advice below:

1.The Studio (or other financier) pushes back hard on costs that are considered to be discretionary.  If there are costs that are easier to defend as non-discretionary, such as cast and stunt costs, then overplay this hand as much as you like.  It’s irrefutable that the cast and stunt costs go directly into the film.  Also, the Studio Executives can’t refute the fact that you “…want the stunts to make the audience leap out of their seats”, or you want the Director to “…have enough time to work with the actors.”

2.If you end up with more than enough budgeted funds in the non-discretionary costs, you can apply that savings to apply to the discretionary cost areas. (“Yes, you can have the silk shirts. We’ll offset from our savings in the Stunt Budget”, says the Producer to the Costume Designer).

I know – you’re muttering ‘Machiavelli’ under your breath. Hey! It works!

Have a look at the chart below. (If you can’t see it well, click here for a clearer PDF page of Figure 13.1.
 

 

In the example, I calculated the cost of a 10-hour day for a group of stunt performers to shoot a typical heavy stunt – which I’ve called a “Bridge Sequence”.

Then I calculated what it would have cost for a 12-hour shoot day.

You can see that there is a difference of $26,824. That’s a sizeable sum.

It’s now up to you to suggest ways to apply that savings to other factors that will enhance the ‘look’ of the movie.

The $26,800 saved in the example above can be utilized in a Crane Shot, or for a spectacular eye-catching special effect – whatever you like.  It’s funding in the bank that has been created by YOU.

Don’t get too concerned about calculating the details above – that’s why there are Production Accountants.

In summary, here are the key points:

Ensure the budget for cast, background extras, stunt sequences, etc. has a comfortable number of man days and worked hours,

Then beat the budget with good planning, fewer worked hours and reduced man days.

Be aware of this process so that you can ask the accountant for estimated savings.

Then stakeout that savings for your own purposes to enhance the film.

Don’t forget about the 30% fringes on top of the gross payroll.  You can utilize that amount as well.

Does all of that seem like too much? Then, you’d better get a good book, that’s easy to read, that lays it out for you. As of July 27/08 both the University of Southern California Masters of Fine Arts (Peter Stark Program) and the University of Tampa Film Program have ordered my book, “Walk The Talk” as required reading for their students.

They’re available in my book – see my web site here “Walk The Talk”. All of them are simple but effective.

Cheers,

Visit my web site at www.talkfilm.biz.

John Gaskin’s Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/johngaskin

Email: johngaskin@talkfilm.biz

Film Accounting 101 in Louisiana – February 2011

New Orleans: I have tried to get back to Louisiana for a few months now. Finally, with my O-1 Visa firmly in place, with Ease Entertainment sponsoring me and with Mike McHugh, the Busines Rep of IATSE Local 478, firmly in support of training, I’m back!

The Film Accounting 101 is one of my toughest courses, but is well liked and usually well attended. It’s a very practical, hands-on weekend course. We have only a little theory with mostly just practice, practice, practice in doing what an assistant film accountant does. This next one is in New Orleans on Feb 19th and 20th of 2011.

Background to Film Accounting 101: I started the course a couple of years ago simply because there isn’t any time during a film production to train an assistant accountant. The film budgets are so slim these days that only experienced people can jump right in and DO IT. This presents a common conundrum in the film production industry. How do you get experience if you need experience to get the job? Well, this course addresses that problem. Louisiana is ready for, too, with their heavy film production slate.

Go to this link to learn more, or simply read below: http://www.talkfilm.biz/filmworkshops3.htm

Here is the course presentation as shown on my web site:

_____________________________________________________________

Film Production Accounting 101

Intensive Week-End Workshop, Followed by 7 Live On-Line Training Webinars  Note: Each webinar is recorded live and can be reviewed later at your convenience.

LOUISIANA – FEB 19 & 20, 2011 ( CPE 30.5 including the Webinars)


Sponsored By Ease Entertainment Services  

Introduction: This is the defining course for the fundamentals of Film Accounting. The course is a very practical hands-on workshop of 2 intensive days followed up with a series of 7 Live On-Line Training webinars. This is the toughest course I give, so bring your roller skates! We’ll start from the ground up, practicing all activities associated with an assistant accountant, gaining a thorough practical understanding of the entertainment general ledger software. Finally, the live on-line training webinars bring you into a senior level of Film Accounting through managing the Film Budget and Cost Report (the financial statements of film productions). The classes are small and all attendee’s questions and what-if scenarios are welcomed. Click here to see video testimonials.

Course Objective: You will understand and have practiced the duties of an assistant film accountant with the confidence that you CAN not only perform the tasks expected of you without extensive training, but also with an understanding of the cost control points of any film or television production. (Line Producers and Public Accountants will understand the background to their their duties in controlling or auditing production costs.)

Participants: will be able to communicate to experienced Film Accountants and Producers convincingly, simply by telling them (showing them) what you have drilled to perfection in this workshop.

Who Is It For?

  • Anyone who has tried to find work as a film accountant and has found it difficult to break in, regardless of their previous training, experience or education. If you have a high aptitude with figures, a strong desire, and you have some basic skills in Excel and Word software, you qualify.

  • It has also been well utilized by Line Producers who want to strengthen their abilities to manage costs of a larger film production.

  • Public Accountants who need to audit the books and records of a film or television production have found this very practical grass-roots training invaluable.

EXPERIENCED FILM ACCOUNTANTS ARE RELUCTANT to train new personnel in fundamental procedure, simply because of the time constraints. This is true for me, as well as for my colleagues. So, how do you get experience if no one will hire you? A solution is to get “up to speed” in workshops like these, learning the various techniques through DOING IN A CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT

Where:           New Orleans, Venue TBA

When:               Sat Feb 19, 2011 from 9:00AM to 8:00PM (light supper provided)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 from 9:00AM to 6:00PM

Followed by 7 Live On-Line Webinars at 1 1/2 hrs each, from

7:30pm to 9:00pm CST starting Feb 22, 24 (break for Mardi Gras)

continuing Mar 15,17,22,24,29

About John Gaskin: John Gaskin is a working film production accountant. He is a veteran of   45 film and television productions over 25 years in 5   different countries. He has worked with   such notable directors as Ron Howard, Frank Oz and Walter Salles, as well as a variety of mid-   to-low   budget productions. He has acclaim as a lively instructor who has an impressive list of   video and written testimonials. 

Go to this link to learn more: http://www.talkfilm.biz/filmworkshops3.htm

#3 of 7 – Translating Film Scripts Into ‘Money Talk’

Most directors, executive producers and crew have elected to stay away from budgets and costs. The heavy grinding SHOULD be left to accountants — BUT, the control still needs to rest with the Director, Producers, Production Managers and Department Heads.

As a filmmaker, get a degree of familiarity with the money flow, especially with the budget creation and the weekly ‘Report Card’ – the Cost Report.  Find a comfort level where you can, AT THE VERY LEAST, KNOW WHAT TO ASK.  Know how to formulate the questions—you’ll impress the money belts off  the Studio Executives.

Picture the following scenario—you are a Line Producer and your Director wants to do a crane shot that entails several movements best handled with a ‘Techno Crane”.  It will also involve 100 background extras (the first 50 need to be SAG Union extras).

Studio Executive:  “That’ll cost $200,000 and I don’t see how that will pay back at the box office.  It cost even more than that on my last show, and THAT was in Denver just last February … yaddy, yaddy, yah.”

(Remember, the Studio Executive is going to estimate high).

You, the Line Producer (or the Director could do this himself), rather than feeling out of your element, say, “According to my charts a top of the line ‘Techno Crane’ can be rented for $8,000 for a week (if you aren’t already familiar with basic costs of Techno Cranes, etc. Figure 17.2, Table 1 of my book presents some general costs that can be used as ‘round numbers’ to help formulate this kind of answer).  We can shoot out the extras over two days—according to my charts that’s about $14,000 a day for the SAG extras and $7,000 a day for the non-union extras (see Figure 17.2, Table 2 of my book). According to my math, that’s ($8,000 + 14,000×2 + $7,000×2) =  $50,000.”

Then, after taking a breath, you also say, “Because we’re in the Studio I know that we can get our shots with 10 Hour shoot days all of this week.  As you know, wrapping the crew 2 hours early saves $10,000 a day (See Figure 15.3 – I’ve made a chart to broadly indicate the cost of crew labor for the last two hours of overtime on small/ medium/ big budget shoots to give the reader a general familiarity with the costs of overtime).  There’s the $50,000 we need. And anybody who would shoot in Denver in February must be……”.

Directors, Line Producers, Department Heads, etc. deserve all the help they can get. Some of these people, through the school-of-hard-knocks, have developed a ‘knack’ for conceptually streaming their creative ideas through a ‘what’s the cost?’ process. But that process is all too often tainted with blame on ‘the blue suits’ and ‘the money guys’ and ‘all they’re interested in is the money’, etc. It’s also often based on misinformation, biased toward a predetermined decision. Take my word for it; unless you can be familiar enough with the language of money in film production, you’re up the proverbial creek.
 

 

Some training and drilling is needed to get to know the tricks of directing and controlling the costs during film production, but not a lot.

There’s a regularly occurring pattern of problems presented by and to the director, producers, production manager, department heads, etc. on down the line. Conflicts that come up are almost always due to poor, or no, translation of a creative need into a cost that is based on accurate projections. Most attempts made by creative people to trade-off expected costs with some kind of savings somewhere else in the budget are clumsily presented and easily shot down by those who know the ‘lingo’ of budgets and costs.

Let’s take up an example:

You’re the Director of an Independent Film Production. You’ve shot the exteriors called for in the script and you’ve seen the dailies; however, you KNOW that there’s a better shot of that exterior in Oklahoma that would give the perfect hook to the opening of your film.

You know that you can convince the producers and the studio of this on a creative plane.  But, you also know that the studio and most producers will shudder at the task of dropping that bombshell on the financiers/Bonding Company that you need to dip into the closely guarded Contingency funds.  (Oh, did I tell you that we’re going to Okl…).

1. How do you pose solutions to those added costs?

2. What’s the right way to approach the game of cost trade-offs?

3. It’s always going to be a challenge to present this kind of choice – but, a very doable challenge if you know how to translate your needs to cost trade-off’s by using my Walk The Talk ideas.
Here’s a variation of three typical kinds of questions for feature film or TV productions.  I’ve shown the way the questions are usually posed, as well as the Walk The Talk way.

Example of Walk The Talk On Reshoots

Usual Way:

As the Director you sincerely express your view that the Oklahoma shot would be a perfect opening for the movie. What kind of response do you think you’ll get? Here’s the most likely, from my experience:

Producer/Bonding Company Rep – This will put us over-budget by $130,000. I’ll talk to the… ‘whoever’ – (it’s a stall for sure).

Walk The Talk Way

Alternative: Director/Line Producer – The cost of shooting 1 day of exteriors will not require a full crew in Oklahoma. I’ve called the Film Commission there (see my web site for internet links to all Film Commissions and major Unions) and they have assured me that there are plenty of local crew available to work at a very decent rate.  I estimate it should cost about 1/2 of your estimate, say about $75,000 (see Figure 17.2, Table 3 in my book) to give us a bit more than we absolutely need.  I can get that back over the next 5 days here in New York. You see, I’ve rehearsed the next five days with my very experienced cast and there’s no way that we can’t complete the scenes scheduled in 10 hours a day instead of the budgeted 13 hours a day.  And, as you all know, that last 2 hours in New York costs about  $10,000 a day (see Figure 15.1 in my book).

Alternative: Bonding Company – Oh. Have the accountant make a schedule of the costs and we can check them. (That’s a Financier’s last stand – it’s up to the accountant to verify your estimates.)

A budget is simply an amount of money needed, or made available, for the purpose of producing a film/TV show/documentary/commercial/etc.

In the last article we covered the four major categories of any budget.  Review the categories and get a ‘feel’ for the types of account descriptions that are listed.  Don’t spend too much time on it right now; we’ll be spending more time on it later.

The full process of budgets and costs travels the following simple course of events:

1.Budget Preparation During Pre-Production

2.Final Approved Budget (Just Before the Shoot)

3.The ‘Cost Report’ Process Starts (The Cost Report compares the projected known costs with the budgeted costs on a line-by-line basis). Note that the Weekly Cost Report has the same structure universally, so if you are familiar with one cost report, you’ve be familiar with all Cost Reports everywhere. It is regarded by all film productions, in every country, as a report card of how well you’re doing with the investor’s money. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HOW IMPORTANT THIS DOCUMENT IS TO YOUR CAREER! We’ll be looking at Cost Reports, and how to present them to your best advantage, in the last 2 articles of this series.

Here’s some general information on budgeting and how it relates to ‘Translating Creative Ideas Into Money’. This final section of the article segues into the next couple of articles, where we’ll be looking at some details to increase your familiarity with budgets.

The budget is intended to be a direct reflection of the final shooting schedule. Every time the script says something simple like “Joe looked at the clock” or as complex as “Dawn in the Desert” all of the associated costs for that activity should be detailed in the budget.

Furthermore, every aspect of the script that has been detailed by the First Assistant Director through the various reports that assist in organizing the shoot should be detailed in the budget. When the Final Approved Budget is signed off by us all (the Director, Producers, Financiers/Studio Executives, Production Manager and the Accountant) we are attesting that the budget, the shooting schedule and the script are all dynamically linked.

So, you need to contribute to the “Final Approved Budget” in any way that you have the authority to do so.  As a Director, feel free to insist on ample budgeted working hours for the crew as well as for the more obvious elements of cast, stunts, special effects, camera cranes, etc.

If you are a Line Producer, Production Manager, Department Head (or even a crew member keen to get an upgrade) you should be familiar with the format of a budget page, like a Departmental Budget. We’ll be going through all of those details in the next two articles. (See Chapter 17 of my book for an example of a Budget of a ‘Small Unit’ to shoot a “New York Alley Scene”).

The usual production ‘breakdown’ reports, like the Shooting Schedule, Day-Out-Of-Days, etc. are usually well known and very familiar to Directors, Producers, Production Managers and Department Heads; however, translating the associated costs into a budget requires such detailed monotony that it quite often overwhelms (or, under-whelms, if you like) the creative minded people.  However, you can quite quickly get familiar with the language of Budgets and Cost Reports if you can find a good book.

Well, I have a good book, that’s easy to read, that lays it out for you. As of July 27/08 both the University of Southern California Masters of Fine Arts (Peter Stark Program) and the University of Tampa Film Program have ordered my book, “Walk The Talk” as required reading for their students.

They’re available in my book – see my web site here “Walk The Talk”. All of them are simple but effective.

-John Gaskin

%d bloggers like this: