Every year, on the second Friday in December, Hollywood pores over the “Black List”.
It isn’t an inventory of disgraced actors or failed directors, but a rundown of industry executives’ favourite unproduced screenplays. It can take years for a script to attract funding but once it does film finance professionals must spring into action to help bring the story to our screens.
When a project is given the green light, the studio hires a team to ensure budgets are balanced and financial records are kept. These specialist financiers work behind the scenes throughout a film’s development, from pre-production all the way to distribution. Though major motion pictures have multi-million dollar budgets, it’s still important that they adhere to a detailed spending plan. Production accountants play a big role in ensuring that happens, keeping track of expenditure during often chaotic shoots.
While budget forecasts are usually prepared long before filming begins, not everything will go to plan on set. Some of the most beloved motion pictures ever have suffered unforeseen expenses. Shooting on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was supposed to last 55 days but ended up taking a mammoth 159, thanks to the poor performance of the film’s most difficult star: Bruce the animatronic shark. The delays and the prop’s repeated mechanical failures pushed the project over budget to the tune of $5 million.
“Productions are not a profit and loss situation,” explains Samantha Scowcroft, general manager and production accountant at Moneypenny Services, which specialises in working with the entertainment industry. “You’re not looking at growth or KPIs and targets. It’s here and now. And it can change in 24 hours.”
During production, accountants must be on hand to deal with a wide array of financial administration and management tasks. The size of the accounting team and the way responsibilities are delegated depend on the scope of the project. No two films have exactly the same requirements but production accountants can expect to deal with cash flow, budget forecasts, insurance claims and payroll.
While they aren’t solely responsible for managing the budget, production accountants have to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the relevant producers. “An experienced professional will be in constant communication with their line producer or production manager, having conversations about where they see issues and raising red flags,” Scowcroft says.
Gaining experience in production accounting isn’t as simple as earning a certificate from an accounting body and applying for jobs at specialist firms. In fact, there are only a handful of companies in the UK that specifically focus on the area. Most production accountants are freelancers hired directly by the studio or line producers for the duration of a project’s development. Holding an accounting qualification can help with securing work but professionals working in other parts of the film industry have often been known to turn their attention to finance.
Working as a freelancer on short-term contracts won’t appeal to everyone but those seeking a new experience may find that production accounting injects some welcome variety and excitement into their career. Most accountants are based in a production office close to the film set. In some cases, that means travelling to far-flung destinations to assist with the making of a movie and dealing with unusual working conditions.
“For example, you might get shipped off to Tahiti and have to do accounting using mobile phone data that only works in one corner of the room,” Scowcroft says. “The adventures that you can have with production accounting are great fun. But it’s definitely not traditional accounting.”
When films are made, special purpose vehicle companies are setup to produce them. According to the Production Guild, it can take up to three years after the delivery of a film before these are shut down. While accountants have usually moved onto other projects by then, they can still be responsible for submitting returns and monitoring costs long after shooting concludes. However, unlike their colleagues in more traditional roles, they are left with more than paper returns and digital records once a job is over – the chance to enjoy a movie they helped bring to life.
“You work on a film, even if it’s just a small independent production, and 12 months later you can go and sit in the cinema and see that you’ve been part of a story that is bringing enjoyment to other people’s lives,” says Scowcroft. “Production accounting is very high pressure and it can mean very long hours but it is rewarding.” It’s a treat that lasts longer and tastes better than any bag of popcorn.
Jesse Onslow Norton is a writer, editor and communications consultant at Flibl. A former coder, his editorial work focuses on fintech, digital transformation, policy and regulation. His clients include corporations, governments, startups and SMEs from across the world. Follow him on Twitter @JesseOnslow.