How to Become a Production Accountant?
In the entertainment industry or any industry at all, the bottom line is to make money. Sure, thrilling audiences around the world is a happy by-product. But if you lay out more money than you bring in, you won’t be in the movie business for very long, and you can forget about that successful film career you were dreaming of.
And you can take an entire studio with you. The famously panned Ishtar lost an estimated $40 and scared Coca-Cola away from the movie-making business. Just two years later, it sold Columbia Pictures to Sony. For director Elaine May, she didn’t make another movie for almost 30 years.
A movie flop is one thing – it still happens despite careful development and market research. But when you go over-budget, that’s money lost which could have been avoided. Costly overruns could sink smaller productions, shelve unfinished movies, and get your movie posted on film industry “Biggest Flops of All Time” lists.
It’s not always a bad thing, though. If you need a shot, you need a shot. Titanic went $100 million over-budget, but after becoming the first billion-dollar movie in film history, all was forgiven. Pirates of The Carribean: On Stranger Tides is the most expensive movie ever made at almost $400 million. It still made over a billion, so what’re a few more zeroes here and there?
Of course, if you don’t have the backing of movie behemoth Disney, you probably aren’t reaching those kinds of stratospheric numbers anytime soon. Especially if you have a competent accountant to keep track of every last penny. Before reaching out for financial backing, you’ll need to know how much to ask for.
What does a Production Accountant do?
Production Accountants work closely with a line producer, first to figure out how much a movie might need to in order to be made by reading the script. The production accountant position for feature films is a key strategic partner for the line producer who then takes that information and relays it to the producers, directors, and other “above the line” parties that use the information to inform their decisions.
The size of the production often comes into play.
For smaller, independent movies, a production accountant may act as the line producer as well. On larger feature films or series, an assistant production accountant position may be needed, or even a whole team that’s dedicated to just payroll.
During the filming of the movie, the accountant will continuously provide projections for the line producer. It is a laborious undertaking. Keeping an eye on hiring both actors and crew members, equipment purchase or rentals, and even how much lunch is going to cost on any given day are all concerns under the purview of a film accountant. While initial figures may be presented to the studio by the production manager, the accountant is busy scheduling payouts, permits, and other day-to-day activities.
By The Numbers
Accountants, by design, are all about the numbers. Gathering information, making projections, and offering recommendations when costs start deviating from those projections means their job isn’t too different than that of accountants who work for toy stores or restaurant chains, although a film accountant generally has more moving parts to work with and more rigid deadlines. At the end of the day, whether it’s a restaurant, toy store, or feature-length animation production, someone has to explain how daily costs impact the overall budget.
One notable difference is “9 to 5” are numbers not often found in a production accountant’s vocabulary. Keeping a film on-budget can make for long days. Making sure schedules are adhered to, that equipment rentals are returned on-time, and that shooting in expensive locations wraps on-time and that union crews aren’t getting too much overtime are all vital factors which require constant oversight.
That being said, making a movie isn’t a 40-hour-a-week job for anyone in the movie business. Shooting starts early in the morning and goes deep into the night. If a flash flood sweeps through a location, taking a few cameras and props with it, producers need to know how much that’s going to cost ASAP.
The Bottom Line
A job working in the film industry sounds like a lot of fun, right? Rubbing elbows with the rich, famous, and powerful. However, there are those times when a production accountant finds themselves trapped between a Big 5 studio and a hard-nosed director used to getting his or her way.
In these cases, the accountant must be neutral, providing facts, not opinions. If money is taken away from column A to pay for more column B, how will that affect the overall budget? This information is needed at a moment’s notice, so understanding how every dollar is being used is a must.
When producers go looking for more money, this type of information is invaluable. In most cases, production accountants start in the “real world” to develop a solid foundation and then transfer to movie productions. The best accountants also work to understand all aspects of the industry between movies to make themselves more valuable.
Learn About the Biz
Interested in becoming a production accountant, but can’t tell the difference between a grip and the best boy? Consider applying to Film Connection. While most of our externs are working towards careers in the screenwriting, editing, or directing fields, our programs and workshops will give you a better understanding of how films get made.
With Film Connection’s in-industry approach, you’ll be working with one of our mentors, an experienced professional inside of a production company. Learning how much time it takes to set up lighting, what “scale” is when hiring talent, and the cost differences between building a set or finding existing locations are all aspects you can learn firsthand when you train directly with one of the mentors who choose to teach tomorrow’s pros the ins-and-outs of the business.
And if you’re already a CPA, you already know the numbers. Let Film Connection give you the rest of the knowledge you’ll need to jumpstart a career in film.