How To Become a Production Accountant
What Does a Production Accountant Do?
The duties of a Production Accountant are contingent on the size of the production. For indie films, it is often a one-person team while on a large production there’s an entire department with multiple people devoted just to payroll. Richard Sotiros, a twenty-year veteran of production accounting says, “It’s a job where people are managing money, paying payroll, reporting to unions, and using software to provide projections for the Line Producer.
“It’s important to measure expected expenses versus the remaining budget. Usually, when a project starts they spend a little bit of money and are under budget but then things fluctuate. However, as expenditures get tracked, an important budgeting category is created called ‘estimate to complete.”
“It’s what lets the Producers know if they are going to run over budget or not, whether they need to raise more capital or modify the shoot schedule to come in on the correct dollar amount.”
When a project is funded by a movie studio or private equity firm they want to make sure that their funds are in compliance with the IRS and see where the money is going. Many Producers have embezzled funds that were supposed to be spent on the film, instead putting a swimming pool in their backyard.
Since building a movie usually involves bringing a lot of strangers together for a short amount of time, the Production Accountant watches over funds and keeps every department honest.
“It’s crucial to have a background in accounting or bookkeeping,” says Sotiros. “A person could work for a basic company or school doing bookkeeping and payroll. From there they can move into film production to get more familiar with how everything works. A person must learn the presentation, structure, and terminology. For example, what above and below-the-line is, as well as what expenses belong in pre-production, production, and post-production.”
Breaking into the industry can be difficult. Once a person lands a job within the Accounting Department, they’ve got to prove their skills, as well as the fact that they are conscientious and dependable. Once trust is developed, recommendations will be made to other independent productions or a studio will promote an Accountant to work at a higher position.
Producers pay good money to have someone watch over the budget so becoming an Accountant is a well-paying career that many people strive to do.
Education & Training
Sotiros explains, “I broke into the industry by first becoming a CPA and then began working at a film company. That allowed me to start at a high level within the company and even though I didn’t have as much film experience I understood how to run the books.
“It wouldn’t hurt for someone to get film school experience, even if they have no intention of working as a Grip, Editor or Art Director. That diversified experience would help them understand the various line items better when doing their accounting work. It doesn’t need to be a formal school, just something that will give a taste of what filmmaking is. There are all sorts of workshops that can accomplish an introduction.”
Having experience with an accounting background, as well as an understanding of what goes on during film production will make someone more likely to land an opportunity as an Accountant. They can begin looking at different accounting firms or checking with the major studios to see if there are any career openings.
What Skills Do You Need?
It goes without saying that if someone wants to be an Accountant they need to have experience with numbers. Sotiros says, “There is a difference between bookkeeping and accounting. Bookkeeping is recording a transaction while accounting is understanding the theory of why things are set up in a specific way. If someone wants to work in the film industry they need to be proficient at both.
“That can be learned either through attending school or by working as an Assistant in the Film Accounting Department. Either way, experience and the importance of getting it cannot be overstated enough. Additionally, aspiring individuals should be familiar with industry-specific software like Movie Magic.
“Many different productions have their own budgeting software and ways of setting up budgets within that software itself. It’s important for an individual to make sure that they can use it without any problems so that they can focus on the actual act of accounting.”
Accountants need to gain practical experience, a theoretical understanding of how budgeting works, and be able to use the industry-standard software to be successful in their career.
When most people picture an Accountant, they think of the wrong thing. Sotiros explains, “The common image of an Accountant is a mousy person, with thick glasses and no personality. The successful people I’ve met always have a logical side that makes them savvy and able to deal with numbers but they are also charismatic. Both studios and independent productions interview to hire Accountants and the person who usually gets the job is whoever can sell themselves the best.
“There is always a lot of tension around spending money so the Accountant must deal with the film industry’s big personalities that are constantly conflicting. The more outgoing an Accountant is and the better they are able to handle high-pressure situations, the more likely they are to succeed in the field.” Like many other careers in the film industry, Accountants must sell themselves to land a gig and deal with large personalities. A shy, avoidant person will have trouble with that.
“The career of an Accountant is intense. They work day and night because a lot is going on in a short period of time. Maybe in between projects, an Accountant will have a month off but when production is going they’re working their butts off. When things hit the fan Producers need up-to-date budgets to make informed decisions,” says Sotiros.
This career is not for someone who just wants to work nine-to-five. The Accountant must work not only in every phase of production but is constantly on call to provide numbers. While overtime is paid, they could be summoned to work for weeks straight and for long hours if it’s what the project needs.
The primary contacts for an Accountant are the Production Manager, Producer, Line Producer and Studio Representative. They also do payroll so technically the Accountant interacts with everyone.
“In order to break into film accounting people need to be willing to work for free or minimum wage,” says Sotiros.
A low-level Accountant needs to have a background with transactional recording to get themselves their first opportunity. From there, they can learn the craft and more complicated elements of film budgets. These skills can be learned on the job; however, most Producers are only willing to pay money to people with experience. If someone is trying to build up their resume they may need to do unpaid work to get started.
How Much Does a Production Accountant make?
The average annual salary for a Production Accountant is approximately $60,300. The salary range for a Production Accountant runs from $21,000 to $114,500.
A Production Accountant is a freelance employee, even if they sometimes are hired for months on end. Sotiros says, “A lot of times a bid to do a job is a flat amount. The Accountant must work it in so they’re not doing sixteen-hour-days and undercutting their own value.
“There’s no question that a busy Production Accountant can make six figures in a year. Really, the rate is based on reputation and market as well as what kind of projects are looking to hire. Obviously, a low budget film will pay differently than a big studio production.”
“When I worked at Fox Television, I was paid weekly with a somewhat typical eight-to-five day. However, they often paid overtime and added a lot of hours. During hiatus, I picked up other work.”
Typically, Production Accountants can make between $500 to $1500 per week for an independent production. Rates will become much higher depending on if it’s a larger film with more work and responsibility.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“One of the best organizations is the National Association of Production Accountants,” says Sotiros. They provide a community of support for Production Accountants and even have a certification process.”
“There are also training courses and events. It’s best to check out their website for the most up-to-date information and online resources. Otherwise, see what local Facebook groups are available in your nearby community.”
- Get a bookkeeping job for a local business.
- Check out want ads for Production Accountants. Look at the skills they ask for and require, then learn those skills.
- Do the National Association of Production Accountants certification program.
- Offer to work on a production for free or low-budget. Start with a short film or commercial.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Aspiring Production Accountants need to be prepared to work hard. It’s not always going to be fun. Most of it will be hard work but the career is cool. Independent shoots give a decent living and on studio films, there is even more money.
“Just make sure to take time to rest between opportunities. It’s a competitive world and easy to be forgotten about so make sure not to take too much time off and always practice.”
“That practice isn’t just with software and budgets but with communication skills and self-confidence. This career is freelance so it requires a multifaceted skill set. The biggest suggestion is to know what it is and entails before jumping in.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What are the bad things to expect as an Accountant?
“The hours a Production Accountant needs to work can’t be stressed enough. The days aren’t always fun and often the Accountant must break bad news to a Producer. However, if someone understands the downside of the career then they can have the appropriate expectations. It’s the only way to survive and maintain sanity.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“The desire to do a good job. I just care about what I do.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake that people make is to try and begin a career as a Production Accountant without understanding what skills the job will require. It doesn’t mean that a person needs to have all those skills. They can be developed over time.”
“However, a basic understanding of the landscape will let them know what they need to develop. Ways to do this could be to reach out to working Production Accountants or joining some local online Facebook groups.”
“A person could get started if they have a background in accounting but they must realize that each industry is different. To have worked within oil and gas isn’t the same as film production. Many people make the error that all accounting is the same and they don’t bother to learn what is unique about film accounting.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What does a person want out of being a Production Accountant?”
“Each person needs to ask themselves what they want out of being a Production Accountant if they’re considering this career path. The film industry has a lot of magic surrounding it and there is a certain prestige around working in it. However, the more an individual defines their own goals and how the career will meet them the happier they will be.”
“There is no job stability; Accountants are constantly hustling for work. They must be able to sell themselves. People will be jerks and not apologize. The hours are long. But, on the flip side, it provides an opportunity to control a schedule and participate in the entertainment industry. The balance of each of these factors weighs on everyone differently. However, if someone is looking for a steady paycheck, this is not the career for them.”
Richard Sotiros received a degree in Cinema from Columbia College of Hollywood. He has worked as an Accountant for clients such as Warner Bros, DIC Animation, Sovereign Pictures, and Weintraub Entertainment. He also acted as the original Production Accountant for Fox Television’s hit show, America’s Most Wanted.