5 Things to Know Before Becoming a Film and TV Production Accountant

If there’s one person on a film or television production who gets a peek at pretty much everything that’s going on at all times, it’s the production accountant. Managing a TV or film budget from beginning to end, the production accountant works with people in every department — approving requests, checking receipts, and meeting regularly with producers to keep them up to date on how spending is tracking.

TV and film production accounting is a demanding job — and one that’s always in demand. Here’s what you need to know to become a production accountant. 

 

What is production accounting?

Production accountants are responsible for tracking all costs on a movie or TV show. Every dollar spent on a boom mic or a bolt of fabric for costumes goes through the production accountant, who monitors expenditures and makes sure the production is staying on budget — or predicts when it’s threatening to go over. 

Production accountants work with department heads, unit production managers, assistant directors and line producers to tally up spending and produce reports on current and projected costs, including payroll for the cast and crew. They meet regularly with studio heads or executive producers to report the state of a production’s financing.

The number of people on the accounting team depends on the size of the production. In addition to the key accountant, there may be a first assistant accountant, second assistant accountant, a payroll assistant, clerks, and one or more payroll accountants, who also work with the payroll coordinator at the payroll company responsible for processing the paychecks.

 

Production accounting is a tough job, but a good one.

One of the great things about being a production accountant, says Molly Doria, former production accountant and Director of Product Design at GreenSlate, is that you get to interact with every part of the filmmaking process. “The production accountant sees every single thing the film pays for, so you really get a big picture of how a movie is made,” she says. 

If you’re interested in producing, or aspire to make your own film one day, working in production accounting is a great way to learn about what it takes to make a movie happen. It’s also a great job for people who are drawn to the more clerical side of filmmaking, or who like solving puzzles, Doria says.

“I love it,” says production accountant Josh Mandel, who has been doing the job for 15 years and mainly works in TV. “It's a new show every six months and every job is a different challenge, so you don't get stuck in the same thing.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that accounting is a regular 9-to-5 kind of gig. This is the entertainment business, after all, and production accountants need to be prepared to handle issues that arise outside of normal business hours — which is why Mandel wasn’t surprised when he says he got a recent 3am call to deal with some crew paperwork. 

But for all the long hours and detailed work, production accounting can be a reliable and lucrative career. Production accountants are in high demand, says Mandel. With so many shows and movies in production now — thanks in large part to the booming streaming market — there aren’t enough accountants to go around, so it’s a great time to get into the business. 

 

Film and TV production accounting differ in a couple key ways.

Just like there are similarities and differences between watching a film on the big screen versus bingeing a bunch of episodes of your favorite show, there are things about working in production accounting for each type of entertainment that are effectively identical and things that are very different. The job is basically the same whichever type of production you’re working on: tracking the budget and adjusting projections as you go. What differs is how long the project lasts and how the project is budgeted.

The most noticeable difference is in the scheduling. Because a TV series generally produces more minutes of content than a film, television jobs typically last longer than a single film shoot. (Unless, for example, you’re talking about a mega-blockbuster with location shoots all over the world and months’ worth of CGI.)  While a production accountant might work on one to two series in a year, you could book three or more feature films. 

Another difference is that a movie typically has a single budget to manage, while in television, you track budgets per episode. Episodic budgeting adds another level of complexity to the accountant’s job as they manage multiple budgets’ expenses simultaneously. Either way, the same day to day accounting skills apply.

 

Your accounting software matters — a lot.

The accounting team is responsible for tracking and categorizing costs across the entire production budget, from cameras to costumes to catering. A lot of the job is entering data in the accounting software, importing employee wages and fringe costs, and generating and reviewing reports to see how each department is pacing on spending. That means what software you use makes a big difference in how easily and efficiently you can do your job. Each payroll company has its own software, Doria explains, so when selecting a payroll company for a production, a big consideration is what software they use. 

Production accountants are only as efficient as the tools they use to do their jobs. Most payroll companies rely on old-school paper workflows — pages of start work and timecards that need to be entered manually into software systems, many of which haven’t been updated in years. GreenSlate’s all-in-one system was designed by production accountants to reduce data entry and put everything you need, from start work to purchase orders to petty cash, in one place — without reams and reams of paper to deal with.

Some people have very strong feelings about which accounting software they like most (or least). “I don’t take shows unless they’re GreenSlate,” Mandel says. GreenSlate is the first and only all-digital, web-based software developed to integrate every aspect of cost tracking, reporting and payroll management. “It makes everything so much easier and less stressful that when people call and say they're using the other payroll companies I won't take the show.”

Mandel adds that GreenSlate’s paperless platform was a game changer during the pandemic, when producers were trying to find creative ways to keep filming under social distancing and travel restrictions. He recently completed a show in Rhode Island without ever leaving Los Angeles. “I think this is going to be the industry standard” going forward, he says. “Everyone sees that they don't need to have as many people travel.”

While travelling to the set might be considered a perk of the job for a production accountant, being able to work from home is, too. “As things get more digital it’s one of the more flexible positions,” says Doria. “You can’t be a camera operator and work from home.”

 

How to get a job as a production accountant

While a background or education in finance and accounting can be helpful, it isn’t necessary for getting a job as a production accountant. Again, this is show biz — things work differently here.

“You don’t have to be a certified accountant,” says Doria. “There’s less emphasis on degrees and more on work experience and connections.”

Working as a clerk in the accounting department is a good way to break in. From there, it’s all about doing solid work, building rapport with producers and making sure they think of you for their next project.

Many of the unions offer workshops and job skills training. And companies like GreenSlate offer ongoing training opportunities such as live webinarsSites like TheLIST regularly post openings for production accountants. You can also upload your resume and availability to GreenSlate’s site — the company is constantly getting hiring requests from clients on the lookout for their next production accountants.

Eventually you may want to join a union (the two big ones are IATSE 161 and 871). While some projects are non-union, most large films and series will only hire union workers. Joining a union affords wage protection and benefits, but also requires paying dues and working exclusively on union productions once you join.

GreenSlate
26 October 2021

Production