What do you want to become?
Assistant Production Accountant
Alternate Career Titles:
Second Assistant Production Accountant
Career Overview: Whereas the Production Accountant takes care of macro-level financials and overall budgets for a production, Assistant Production Accountants take care of micro-level financials such as paying bills and dealing with petty cash accounts.
Average Annual Salary: $73,000
General Salary Range: $70,000 to $78,000
Become an Assistant Production Accountant
Dina Ramsey, Second Assistant Production Accountant on HBO’s True Detective and True Blood, and current Finance Associate at Cartoon Network, clarifies the general job structure in the notoriously nebulous Accounting Department: “Every department is a little different, so it depends where you are, but there is a hierarchy. You start as an Accounting Clerk, or File Clerk, which involves high volume filing, organizing and matching invoices to purchase orders (POs). When you’re an Assistant Accountant, you’re either a First or Second Assistant. Second Assistants are in charge of paying all the bills and auditing the petty cash expenses.”
Ramsey explains that the most important job a Second Assistant Production Accountant does is pay bills: “Everything you see on screen — cars, props, set decor, locations, hair and makeup, wardrobe — has been paid for and has a bill attached. It’s thousands and thousands of invoices, so it’s a lot of work!” She explains that if the show is location-based, there are a lot of transportation costs attached so the workload goes up: “For example, if you’re shooting in a specific neighborhood, you have to give checks to so many different people — you might be using the front of someone’s house for trucks, or you have to pay inconvenience fees to residents who couldn’t use their house during production. I even had to write a check to someone whose horse riding lesson was interrupted because of our production! True Detective had so many different locations; it cost a fortune for transportation and inconvenience fees!”
All productions accrue petty cash expenses and the Second Assistant Accountant also takes care of those transactions. As Ramsey sets out, “People bring us their expenses and receipts for things they bought at a petty cash and debit card level. That is also a high volume workload, collating information for the Production Accountant to get a more comprehensive ‘big picture’ of the production finances.” Sometimes there are several Assistant Accountants, as was the case for Ramsey on True Detective and True Blood, and they share an office with the Bureau Accountant, the Clerk, and the First Assistant Accountant. Ramsey describes the main differences between the duties of a Second and First Assistant Accountant: “The Second Assistant is so busy paying the bills, they don’t have time for auditing. The First Assistant does journal entries and takes care of anything that needs adjusting in the budget, say, if a mistake was made or there are financial discrepancies.”
The third major task for a Second Assistant Accountant is entering financial information into the computer system. Ramsey elucidates: “We get stacks and stacks of POs every day from the different departments and we enter all of them into the computer accounting system, ensuring it’s all coded correctly. Then, when a Producer comes and asks how much we spent on, say, transportation last month, we can pull that up in a flash.”
Ramsey shares her insight on people’s assumptions or naiveté with regards to the Accounting Department: “The Accounting office is its own little ecosystem. We hire our own crew and no one really tells us what to do! Currently, I work for Cartoon Network, a big corporation, but we’re still a team unto ourselves and no one really understands what we do, even though we’re paying everyone working there! I don’t think people understand that everything to do with the production comes through Accounting. Nobody wants to deal with the finances; a less experienced Producer or overly creatively-focused Producer can easily lose track of finances. Producers need to understand that production money needs to be spent efficiently and wisely and it makes for a much easier shoot.”
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Ramsey has welcome news for anyone considering a career in the Production Accounting Department: “Accounting is an easier world to break into because we are always looking for Clerks. You can become a Clerk and test it out to see what you think; meanwhile, you can enjoy the fun aspects of production, interact with all the different departments and meet a lot of interesting people. On TV shows, you meet the most fun people you ever will in your life.”
As for Ramsey’s personal journey, she never planned on a career in accounting. As she explains, “I never thought I’d be doing accounting. I’m a musician and I had a friend who was a Production Accountant and he needed a Clerk and I thought it’d be a great day job — this was on the show Scrubs, on ABC at the time. Then I realized I had a knack for it and felt it was an interesting career option. Ultimately I ended up becoming a Second Assistant Accountant on True Detective. The nice part is that there’s a big pay jump when you move from a Clerk to a Second Assistant!”
Now at Cartoon Network, the pace of Ramsey’s job has mellowed a little: “I got five years of live action experience that I needed for my resumé and I’m really glad I did it but it was high volume, high stress. At Cartoon Network, it’s more stable with a lot less pressure and intensity. I became such a workhorse in live action, so I really appreciate the calm I have right now!”
Education & Training
With regards to qualifications, Ramsey insists that, primarily, it just helps to be genuinely interested in production accounting: “If you’re only trying to get on set to schmooze, don’t do it; your day will not be like that. But it is fascinating because everything in the production flows through the Accounting Department. That way, you learn the intricacies of production from a very specific perspective.”
Ramsey says there are no specific routes to landing an entry-level Clerk job, but she highlights some of the fundamental skills anyone will need, regardless of their education: “You should have excellent organizational skills. You’ll be doing so much filing and organizing and you can very easily make things difficult for your co-workers if you’re not on it. Saying that, most offices have their own protocols so you will have some guidance in that aspect. Initially, you’ll be labelling files in a specific way so you need basic clerical skills like using printers and printing labels. You also need solid social skills because, in the entry-level Clerk position, you take on a Receptionist role too — you’re answering phones and you’re the first person people see. Your people skills need to be up to scratch.”
Experience & Skills
Often, people feel that math skills are paramount for any aspiring Accountant, but Ramsey dispels that myth: “You don’t really have to be good at math, but I always say you need to be good at logic because you’re always solving puzzles. You also have to excel at time management under pressure. The puzzle-solving comes in when you have these stacks of POs to enter into the computer system. What happens is the vendors will then invoice us and sometimes the invoices don’t match the purchase orders and you have to figure out why. You have to work out what’s different and get the department’s permission to pay it.”
In other words, any job or experience that involves solving problems and using the left side of your brain is going to be excellent resumé material for breaking into the accounting world.
Despite the outrageous misconceptions about accounting, Ramsey reminds anyone looking at becoming an Assistant Production Accountant that you need to be social: “You have to like people because you’re going to be interacting with and meeting so many different people from all walks of life. They’re going to be coming in to talk to you and you need to be professionally assertive. Ultimately, you’re there in service to the production, so customer service skills come in handy. There’s no room for people who say, ‘Oh, that’s not my job’; you have to be willing and flexible and hard-working.”
Ramsey is clear that accounting is a service industry, in the end, so you need to bring an attitude of “how can I help?” Anyone arriving with airs and graces will not thrive in the Accounting Department.
Ramsey sheds some light on the working day for any Assistant Production Accountant: “When you work on a show, you’re contracted to the production, you’re not working for a corporation. Your ‘boss’ is the Production Accountant — they hire you and they will dictate your schedule. I worked for a gentleman who wanted me in at 08:00, then I worked for a woman who wanted me in at 09:00 so it just depends. Also the nature of the show affects your schedule. The HBO shows were often 10-12 hour days, whereas Rizzoli & Isles was a more regular, 8-hour work day.”
Ramsey advises that, “The key is to find people you enjoy working with, people that fit your lifestyle. There is always a production and crew that you will click with. The great thing is that everything is temporary; if you’re not enjoying the crew you’re currently working with, you can always find another show after production wraps.”
Ramsey explains that it’s bad form to leave in the middle of a show so you stick it out for a season and then you can move on if you’re not enjoying it. After wrap, the production accounting team stays on for a little while before passing on to the Post Production Accountant.
As for Ramsey, she is still a prolific musician and has just released a new EP: “I feel very lucky to have a solid work/life balance and I’m able to find time for my creative pursuits.”
Ramsey is optimistic for anyone hunting for that entry-level accounting gig: “There are a lot of Production Accountants and you can easily go on LinkedIn and do a search; they’re always in need of Clerks and it’s something you can do for a year or two before moving up. Send them an email to say that you’d love to clerk for them — it’s not too difficult. In terms of the entry-level, it’s really not as competitive as other areas in production. Frankly, people always need Clerks and Accountants!”
Entry-level Clerks are paid around $750 per week. Ramsey says, “It’s not a huge amount, but it’s only for a year or two — when you move up to Second Assistant Production Accountant, you get a big bump to anywhere between $1100 and $1500 per week.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The union for Assistant Production Accountants is the IATSE Local 871 and some productions require that you be a part of the union (HBO, for example). Ramsey says, “We share the union with Script Supervisors and Art Department Assistants so it’s quite a general purview from a union perspective. The beauty of being a Production Accountant is that you don’t have to be in the union to get benefits. You get what is called non-affiliate benefits and the show will contribute to the motion picture benefit fund on your behalf. That way, you bank production hours even if you’re non-union. You can’t join as a Clerk, but you can as a Second Assistant.” You will need a certain amount of hours to join, but check the website for exact, up-to-date details.
- Get your resumé together and highlight your organizational and IT/computer skills. Even if you don’t have a lot of experience, emphasize that you are intelligent and you want to learn. Also, focus on the fact that you’re genuinely interested in production accounting.
- Reach out to Production Accountants on LinkedIn or connect with friends in accounting and get your resumé out there. Production Accountants are very open and receptive to hearing from people looking to become Clerks.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Contact working Production Accountants and ask to clerk for them. Most will be very happy to be contacted because there is a lack of Clerks in our departments.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I’ve seen people turning up, not being interested and wanting to schmooze with production people in other departments. They don’t do well in the Accounting Department.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Do I need to be good at math? (Spoiler alert: No!)”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Patience. Also, I’m always willing to learn. If someone is showing you their way to file, you have be open to a new approach. It might sound mundane, but people often know systems and idiosyncrasies better than you. Even down to the type of paperclip we use, there is a method to the madness and there’s a reason for everything — do not be rigid in your attitude.”
Dina Ramsey has been working steadily in the field of production accounting since 2011. She has worked on the live action TV series True Blood, True Detective and Rizzoli & Isles as a Second Assistant Accountant, and currently enjoys working as a Finance Associate at the Cartoon Network, where she is becoming very skilled in the challenging realm of Animation Payroll Accounting.
In her spare time, under her birth name Dina D’Alessandro, Dina pursues her musical passions of writing songs and performing with her band Beautiful Things. She is also busy learning the art of composing music for TV, film and games.