Why Another Writer’s Strike Is Unsupportable

How did one of the richest and best paid guilds come to the brink of a strike? Deadline Hollywood has an excellent summary of the WGA leader’s rhetoric, starting with Sept 21/15 right through to April 10.17. It’s my purpose to present some of their rhetoric and to refute it with real facts and figures.


First of all, let’s look to see how many writers are involved, and compare that to the number of other people will be affected by a WGA strike. In May of 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published that 422,560 people were employed within the “Motion Picture and Video Industries”. Out of the 422,560 people, only 3,460 people are classified as “Writers and Authors”. To make a point, that is only 0.8% of the total number of people employed within the industry were Writers at the time of that survey, leaving 99.2% of the industry severely impacted. Hmmmm. Without getting into anything else, I think that those numbers tell you something, especially when compared to a writer’s average annual salaries – see further below.


The rhetoric raised by the WGA to support a strike bid leaves me scratching my head. Per Deadline Hollywood, the WGA Reps are saying, “During this ‘peak TV’ era, when more television is being produced than ever, and when everyone who works in television is finding a sellers’ market for their skills, why is the average TV writer seeing their income go down?” This seems astonishing! How could the average salaries go down?


Well, in the “old days” the TV writers were working generally, on 22 or 23 episodes a season – not always, mind you, but generally speaking. These days the trend is toward producing 13 episodes a season – this is the new formula supported by streaming services and the various Cable television programs. So, yes, a writer who worked on 23 episodes would make more than someone who worked on 13 episodes – Duh! The elephant in the room is: How many more writers are actually making a living now as compared to them good ‘ol days? Well, the answer is a lot more.


To give you an idea of how very few active television writers there were in 2009, here is what Charles B. Slocum (Asst Exec Dir of WGA West) said in Aug/Sept 2009, “In 24 hours, NBC has just three hours of dramas and comedies. And, on some nights those make way for Dateline or Deal No Deal.” So, it’s a fair conclusion that very few writers indeed were working in those good ‘ol days.

Here is a comparative statistic from Deadline Hollywood going back to 2015 when the streaming companies (HBO, Netflix, Starz, Amazon) just started to hit their stride: “The guild’s records also show that in 2015, TV writers earned $803 million under the WGA West’s basic contract, for an average annual income of $194,478, which was $48,936 more than they made in 2006.” Are we to support the writers because “the average tv writer has seen their average income go down?”


I have more tables to support the writers fees, including their residuals, all based on their WGA 2014-2017 Theatrical and Television Agreement. However, I think you get the point – another writer’s strike is unsupportable. You can have a look at their “Schedule of Minimums” published on their web site.

Should I start a petition? If it won’t stop a strike, at least the WGA will know how the majority feels. Let me know how you feel.


Cheers / John


See my web site for current workshops on Film Accounting 101 and Film Payroll , CPE qualified http://www.filmaccounting.com




Film Production Payroll Accountant

SAGAFilm Payroll accountants are a category that is never heard about outside of the film industry. A Film Payroll Accountant with a couple of years experience usually makes in the range of$2,000/Week. What does a Film Payroll Accountant need to know and how much demand is there for their services?


There is one source that many studios, producers and production accountants use to find available film accountants, including film payroll accountants. It’s referred to as “Emily’s List”. Those who post there are Producers 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://www.ricegortonpictures.com/blog/


I went through the last 100 listings or so, to see how many postings 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. Wow…. that proves to me that the Payroll Accountant is in demand.


Film payroll accounting is all about knowing the union rules for cast (Screen Actors Guild), directors and assistant directors (Directors Guild of America), crew (IATSE) and drivers (Teamsters). The skill is derived from knowing how to calculate the “Gross Pay” – that is, the amount of gross pay after factoring in overtime, meal penalties and rest violations. The  government and union withholdings and contributions are calculated and reported/remitted by the payroll service.


So, the task becomes knowing how to calculate union gross 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 for SAG, DGA, IATSE Area Standards, and IATSE Low Budget Agreement, as well as on-line access to the full courses and materials for future reference. (A Michigan Teamster Agreement is reviewed at the end of the 2nd day; however, after doing the above it seems pretty simple).

The payroll workshop is over the weekend of May 20th and 21st, 2017 in Chicago.

Hope to see you there! (Note to all you CPA’s, this is a fun way to earn 16 CPE points!)

For more info you can check out my web site at http://www.filmaccounting.com/filmworkshops6.htm

Cheers / John

Film Payroll – SAG Day Performers


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.


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!


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


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


Film Payroll Accountant – Most In-Demand Job in Film Accounting

There aren’t many ways to assess the demand for film production accountants. The film business is really a word-of-mouth industry. Getting verifiable statistics of the demand for those who work at the various levels of film production accounting are usually hard to find.


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 https://sites.google.com/site/ricegortonpictures/film-tv-prodn-accounting-listings-1


I went through the last 120 listings or so, from Sept 24/14 backwards to Aug 14/14, 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. Wow…. that proves to me that the Payroll Accountant is a scarce commodity.


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.


So, the task becomes knowing how to calculate union 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 for SAG, DGA, IATSE Area Standards, and IATSE Low Budget Agreement, as well as on-line access to the full courses and materials for future reference. (A Michigan Teamster Agreement is reviewed at the end of the 2nd day; however, after doing the above it seems pretty simple).

I did a screen recording to give you a better idea of how the Film Payroll workshop works – see this short YouTube video:  http://youtu.be/GcwXoq0cRE8

The payroll workshop is over the weekend of Nov 8th and 9th, 2014 in Toronto; and again on Feb 7th and 8th, 2015 in Atlanta.

Hope to see you there!

For more info you can check out my web site at http://www.filmaccounting.com/filmworkshops6.htm

Best / John

Film Unions – Finding Financing or Finding Work


In my last article, “Finding Film Financing – Can it be Taught?” I listed several blocks of knowledge which could be taught. Having a workable understanding of such things as Union/Guild Agreements, Film Payroll, Bank Loans, Tax Credits, Production Cost Controls, etc., and how they weave together, will project you as a competent professional.


Does that mean that a financier will invest in your film project if you know your way around film Guild and Union Agreements (SAG, DGA, IATSE, etc)? Not necessarily. But it does mean that an experienced financier will have more confidence in your decision-making, and will have more confidence in referring you, listening to other strategies more suitable to their portfolio, etc. It definitely gives you an elevated status which the film community will pick up on. That financier might just say, “I’m looking for a young executive like you…” and start negotiating a contract to keep you on full-time.


The film and television production community prides itself as being much different from the rest of the business world. Word of mouth is everything. Impress one studio executive, or an experienced bond company representative, or a state tax administrator, etc. and believe me you have just made an “in” with their contacts as well. There are so many “wannabe’s” and only a few who will actually go the extra mile to learn the financial building blocks of the business of producing film and television content. Show them you’re in that small group who understand Guild and Union Agreements and their confidence in you rises sharply.


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 for calculating payroll into the following 4 categories:

  1. The “Basic Day” and Overtime Rules
  2. The penalties associated with “Rest Violations” (also called “Turnaround”, or “Forced Calls”).
  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”.

Once you know where these points are in each of the agreements your task becomes one of familiarization 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 manage and 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”. Once you have a working understanding of the various Agreements you can fluidly optimize your management of any union/guild within your production.

For more information see http://www.talkfilm.biz

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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 Production – Your Daily Report Card

hotcost The Hot Cost measures the daily cost of labor (Cast and Crew) with the budgeted amount of daily labor – along with the page shot compared to the page count planned to be shot that day. It goes to all financiers, studio execs, the completion guarantor, etc – establishing your credentials as a Producer/Production Manager. You could call this your daily financial report card.


The Film Production Accountant prepares it, usually without too much input from the UPM or assistant accountants. Some key film production accountants involve their payroll accountant; however, I have found that unsuccessful – it simply puts too much burden on the payroll accountant. The Hot Cost should be prepared with enough information to be checked by the UPM.


Each day the Assistant Director’s prepare a “Daily Production Report”. The In/Out times, as well as the lunch break, is recorded on the DPR. Every person who worked on set is named along with their title. In addition, the DPR shows all the times related to each and every actor, the number of lunch plates, the page count shot (per the Script Supervisor),any notations of accidents/delivery of major equipment/illnesses, etc. From the DPR the Key Film Production Accountant calculates the actual costs of cast and crew for the day and compares it to the budgeted  daily cost.


You really need to have a grasp of the cast and crew union rules for calculating payroll in order to effectively manage the hot cost reports. Once you get a grasp the union rules you’ll start to wonder what all the fuss was about. No matter what union contracts you’re dealing with, each 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 travelling outside of a defined “Studio Zone” (also often referred to in each locale as “The Circle”).

For those of you newly exposed to Screen Actors Guild, the various IATSE (crew) Locals and the Teamster (driver) Locals, it may seem a little too much; however, it’s MUCH easier than learning to use Excel – so, have a little patience, do a lot of practice time cards, and you’ll have it.


The solution to understanding any Hot Cost is to find a central source of contracts for SAG, DGA and IATSE then summarize the four 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 you can work anywhere in America or Canada – 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.


I’ve found that a full weekend practicing the film and television 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 templates (yes, with the formulas) which are “helpers” ad which you can use to develop your own Hot Costs, no matter the circumstances. I leave you with on-line links to all of the materials – see this link to get an idea of what I mean.

Have a look at this link to a short video of how my SAG on-line course works.

Check out http://www.talkfilm.biz  for live weekend payroll workshops, as well as workshops on Film Accounting.

If you are already a film accountant and would like to learn more about Hot Costs, see this short video.



Worried About An IRS Payroll Audit?

Many film productions have been paying their employees as independent contractors. Some have been issuing 1099’s, others haven’t. The IRS has been searching through industry looking for such employers, and have very smartly come up with a program to have businesses come to them voluntarily.

See this link to an IRS publication explaining the concept. Here’s a quote from the last paragraph:

“Employers accepted into the program will generally pay an amount effectively equaling just over one percent of the wages paid to the reclassified workers for the past year. No interest or penalties will be due, and the employers will not be audited on payroll taxes related to these workers for prior years. Employers applying for the temporary relief program available for those who failed to file Forms 1099 will pay a slightly higher amount, plus some penalties, and will need to file any unfiled Forms 1099 for the workers they are seeking to reclassify.” – http://www.irs.gov/uac/IRS-Expands-Voluntary-Worker-Classification-Settlement-Program

Some of you may be interested in consulting with your tax consultant. It could be a cool way to segue into the IRS’s good books.



New Form I-9 from USCIS – Expires March 31, 2016

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has published a new  Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. The revised Form I-9 has several new features, including new fields and a new format to reduce errors. The instructions to the form also more clearly describe the information employees and employers must provide in each section.

 All employers have 60 days from March 8, 2013 in order to implement the use of the new Form I-9. After May 7, 2013, all employers must use the revised Form I-9 for each new employee hired in the United States. To be in full compliance with this requirement.

I would print all nine pages for now until everyone is used to it.



There are a variety of skills to start with. I’ve decided to start with Managing Film Budgets (as opposed to creating a film budget). This is a vital step to any emerging producer or film accountant. It’s the natural precursor to actually licking the tip of the pencil and creating your own budget. In this series you’ll learn what a standard film budget looks like, how the columns are arranged, how to manipulate a budget as a manager, and how to control the processing. In 90% of the professional film projects you’ll work on, the budget will come to you in some kind of form – then you’ll need to massage it, have changes made to it, etc. That is you’ll need to manage it until it becomes “Locked” prior to the first day of production.

  1. Production Managing the Film Budget and Cost Reports – there are tons of experienced people who are ready to produce in some capacity, or who have the ability to Production Manage the physical production; however, many of those same people experienced in physical production of film and television haven’t any experience in managing budgets and cost reports. That’s a recipe for disaster and a short career. It’s also a very limiting factor to assistant film accountants who want to upgrade to the key film accountant. I will offer you a training solution with a minimum of inconvenience to your busy schedule. In this topic, for now, I am only doing the “Managing” series of webinars. Let’s leave the detailed budget preparation for later – also, I first need to ask permission from Movie Magic to use their software.
  2. Daily Hot Costs (Definition: a daily summary of the labor costs as compared to budget for the shooting crew as well as a way to declare other known over or under budgeted cost items; a working knowledge of cast and crew guild/union rules is required).

These vicious little monsters are the bane of every film accountant, Line Producer and UPM (Unit Production Manager). The Hot Costs have become VERY important to the studio production executives and financiers at every level. Not only is it difficult to get it done swiftly and accurately, but it’s difficult for the UPM and Line Producer to explain/defend the Hot Cost to the production executives up the line.

Essentially the Hot Cost is a daily cost report comparing the budgeted costs with actual costs for the cast, crew and background extras (and a few other things, but those other things are minor when compared to cast, crew and extras). The Hot Cost is completed every morning by the Production Accountant for the previous day’s shoot.

The Line Producer and UPM need to understand it and sign off on it before the Production Accountant sends it along to both the Production Executives and the Financial Executives (including the Bond Company if the production is an Indie).

First Level of Understanding: There are definitely two different skill sets we’re talking about here. The first level of understanding is simply to be able to read it and manage it. You’ll need a basic understanding of the SAG Rules, and an understanding of the terms “Worked Hours” and “Pay Hours”. You’ll also need a basic understanding of IATSE contracts in general. This first introductory level is for Line Producers, UPM’s and Producers.

It’s not just the job of the film accountant to know what’s going on with the Hot Cost. The UPM and Line Producer are just as much in the hot seat as the accountant is.

Second Level of Understanding: The second, and more detailed level of understanding, is being able to calculate the Daily Hot Cost. This requires a good understanding the payroll rules associated with SAG, DGA, IATSE and Teamsters. It doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect. But it does mean that you understand the rules. So, I have taken special trouble to provide references to exact clauses in the payroll contracts that refer to:

–         Overtime

–         Rest Periods

–         Meal Penalties

These are what I call the Producer’s Three Sins.

In this series we look at each union or guild, one at a time, until we cover the rules associated with Cast (SAG), Assistant Directors (DGA), Crew (IATSE – especially Low Budget National Agreement) – and Teamsters.

In each case I will provide Excel templates and a pdf copy of the appropriate contract. Unfortunately I can’t cover all of the contracts on the West Coast (there are many Locals in California), but I can give yu a familiarity with the contracts and show you how easy it really is to pull out the payroll relevant clauses. What appears daunting is really only a few clauses that are applicable.


Note that each recorded webinar has attached to it, through an ingenious web site called Screencast.com, all of the materials used in that webinar and all files are easily downloadable – such as template budgets in Excel and MMB, Guild/Union agreements, vital links, gross payroll calculating templates, actual cost reports, template cost reports, etc.

AGENDA- next part

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