The Wrapbook Team
August 4, 2022

BTL Payroll: Tips to Minimize Costs for Below the Line Crew

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Budgeting payroll for below the line crew is surprisingly complex. From overtime to meal penalties to mileage and more, below the line payroll is littered with force-multiplying expenses that have the power to make, break, or decimate your production’s pocketbook. 

To help you avoid BTL payroll overages and get cast and crew payroll right, this post collects handy tips and tricks for cutting these payroll costs. Below, we’ll dissect the driving forces behind BTL payroll and break down ways that you can make them work better for both you and your individual crew members.

Let’s dive in. 

Below the Line Payroll Tip #1: Learn how to negotiate rates

When it comes to raw dollars and cents, the principal costs of all BTL payroll services will always be determined by the cumulative size of your crew members’ day rates. The more you pay your crew members individually, the more expensive your crew (and your BTL payroll services) will be in its entirety. Therefore, the best and most obvious way to minimize below the line payroll costs is to simply negotiate your crew members’ rates up front. 

When negotiating day rates, production teams must strike a balance between two concepts that seem to pull in opposite directions: 

1.     You only get what you pay for.

-and-

2.     You can only pay for what you can afford.

Together, these principles form a guideline for responsible negotiation. Their implication is that a production must negotiate rates within its budgetary means without undercutting the income of its crew. A failure to abide by either recommendation may be met with stiff, unintended consequences. 

However, if you find yourself concerned about over-negotiating to lower the cost of BTL payroll services, remember that you have other negotiating tools at your disposal beyond the day rate itself. 

For instance, you could negotiate a kit fee.

In some cases, offering a kit fee can be a simple way to make a less-than-desirable day rate more enticing to prospective crew members without increasing the cost of your BTL payroll services. 

Kit fees increase a crew member’s overall compensation without increasing the risk associated with volatilities like overtime. So a kit fee’s impact on your budget is much easier to predict in advance. Additionally, kit fees are taxed differently than day rates, a fact that could prove mutually beneficial to both the cost of your BTL payroll services and your crew’s personal finances. 

Of course, there are limits when it comes to negotiation, particularly when you’re dealing with major unions or guilds like IATSE, the Teamsters, or SAG-AFTRA

Fortunately, the day rate is not the only driver of BTL payroll services expenses. 

BTL Payroll Tip #2: Schedule strategically and realistically

Your shooting schedule is the X-factor of BTL payroll services costs. 

The core calculation of all standard cast and crew payroll essentially boils down to the multiplication of how much you’re paying your people by the number of days or weeks for which you’re paying them. That’s why cutting just a single day from your schedule can reap serious savings when payments go out. Even though it’s only one day, it’s one day for which you would have had to pay dozens of below the line crew members thousands upon thousands of dollars, not to mention the resulting fee increases for standard BTL payroll services.

But balance is crucial.

When scheduling a shoot, it may be tempting to shrink the number of shooting days down to an absolute minimum, but that’s not necessarily the best call. 

Forcing your production into a too-short schedule is something like forcing yourself into a pair of too-small pants; it guarantees discomfort and risks a bit of disaster. 

Why? 

Because the cost of BTL payroll services is not a static number. A packed schedule is inherently prone to errors of timing, and those errors can have serious consequences on your budget. Overtime laws and meal penalty guidelines, for instance, can rapidly increase your BTL payroll expenses, especially if you haven’t planned for them in advance. 

The key is to thoroughly troubleshoot your schedule during pre-production. You have to connect the wisdom of your production accountant to the expertise of your 1st AD to ensure that your schedule is tight but not too tight.

BTL Payroll Tip #3: Traveling? Hire local

If you’re traveling for a shoot, the benefits of hiring local are numerous and varied, but they’re particularly potent when it comes to cutting BTL payroll costs. 

While hiring local crew won’t reduce the price of BTL payroll services directly, it will reduce other crew-based expenses. The costs of travel, lodging, and local transportation will be minimized if not discarded entirely, freeing up room in your budget and relieving pressure from more direct cast and crew payroll expenses. 

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BTL Payroll Tip #4: Know whether you’re paying an employee or a contractor

The difference between hiring an employee and a contractor could grant big savings for your budget. Contractors are guaranteed fewer employment rights and come with relatively less burdensome tax obligations than employees, which ultimately results in lower costs for BTL payroll services when making a 1-to-1 comparison. 

However, be careful to avoid misclassification mistakes.

Misclassifying an employee as a contractor might reap budgetary rewards in the short run, but if it’s against the law within your conditions, it could result in serious long-term consequences. Producers found to be misclassifying employees could face steep fines. 

Fortunately, determining whether a new hire is an employee or a contractor is usually a straightforward process. If you already use Wrapbook to pay your cast and crew, you know misclassification is difficult, but still, always consult a legal pro. 

Wrapbook’s design does offer simplified compliance to help steer your production in the right direction. 

BTL Payroll - Simplified Compliance - Wrapbook
Drop-down union or worker types prevent common onboarding and payment problems before they can happen.

Note, the software does enable you to pay individuals as either employees or contractors. 

BTL Payroll Tip #5: Avoid expensive mistakes with better document organization

Working with cast and crew payroll means managing an awful lot of paperwork. If that involves physical paperwork, then it’s likely in a constant state of flux, often shuffling from hand-to-hand and folder-to-folder. 

Most production teams struggle through some form of this hot potato game every day. It’s still very much the norm.

It’s also risky. 

Accurate document intake and storage is a critical component of compliance because poor organization can lead to unnecessary costs…

A single missing contract, agreement, or tax form could cause financial problems in the form of fines or other (expensive) legal actions. And in terms of payroll documentation, payments might run the risk of delay, and crew’s timecards will almost certainly require resubmission.

When dealing with any cast and crew payroll service, the best way to avoid errors is to take advantage of the strongest organizational tools available for every task, from document intake to long-term storage.

So try solutions that organize documents per job, per employee. 

The production companies who use Wrapbook’s digital startwork feature benefit from the automatic collection of their crew’s critical onboarding documents, and how the software associates each doc directly with the individual crew member’s profile

BTL Payroll - Store Crew Documents - Wrapbook
Individualized profiles guarantee that crew documents are never lost or misfiled.

Crew’s tax forms and crew memos stay saved so you don’t have to keep asking again and again. Wrapbook’s document storage tab then enables production teams to share, view, and manage that paperwork from one place, at any given time, on a project-by-project basis. 

Everything associated with that crew member will be accessible. If you ever need to pull an I-9 or other important doc down the line—say for an audit—it’s a click away.

Too many mistakes come from disorganization, but luckily, most of these mistakes are avoidable. So regardless of what payroll software you use, ensure you're overly organized when it comes to your people’s paperwork.

BTL Payroll Tip #6: Integrate crew onboarding with your payroll 

Not all crew payroll costs are measured in dollars. Minutes, hours, and days spent on payroll tasks are often more valuable than what a budget can accurately describe. 

BTL payroll services traditionally separate the tasks of onboarding and paying below the line crew, despite the fact that the two processes are intimately linked. Production teams are expected to pick up the slack and connect the dots manually, an additional labor that can take up an enormous amount of time and energy. 

What can happen when these processes are separated?

It's harder to spot and correct payment mistakes

If there are any mistakes made early on, say, on tax documents, and the systems aren’t connected, those mistakes are likely harder to spot–and so, harder to correct.  

Slow timecard submissions and approvals

Same thing for approvals. If the crew's tax info isn’t connected to their payroll info, when you go to approve their submissions and discover there is an error, you’ll have to stop what you’re doing and go back and adjust before running payroll.

Have to remember more than one login

If you’re using a few tools, you’ll likely need a few logins. When you’re working with tens of crew members and your accountant, that can complicate things.  

What could be gained when onboarding & payroll come together? 

If and when an onboarding error slips through the cracks, it’s easier to fix when all of the relevant info is in one place. 

It's easy to make timecard corrections, submissions, & approvals 

When timecard approval and submission tasks are directly connected to onboarding documents and procedures, crew members often get paid faster. 

To save time & headaches, ensure your systems are connected from the beginning 

While traditional payroll forces production teams to re-enter employee info and resubmit timecards to correct a single error, Wrapbook’s integration of onboarding and timecard management ensures that you never have to start over from scratch.

BTL Payroll - Easy Timecard Approvals - Wrapbook
Edit individual timecards without holding up the batch. Select just the timecards that are ready with the check of a box.

By bringing everything together in one place, tailored tools within Wrapbook increase the efficiency of cast and crew payroll, enabling your team to spend more time on work that adds meaningful value to your production. 

BTL Payroll #7: Speed up rehiring

It’s not uncommon for production companies to work with many of the same crew members multiple times in a given year, particularly in the fast-paced world of commercial production. Traditional cast and crew payroll services require that those crew members be hired from scratch over and over again for each individual shoot. 

Imagine the time that could be saved by minimizing redundancies in onboarding and speeding up the rehiring process as a whole.   

BTL payroll solutions like Wrapbook leverage database management to demolish duplicate work. Wrapbook’s integrated, company-specific crew list database enables production teams to rehire with the click of a button.

An integrated crew database cuts onboarding back-and-forth to a bare minimum.
An integrated crew database cuts onboarding back-and-forth to a bare minimum.

Individual crew member profiles store digital startwork forms automatically, eliminating the need to start paperwork from the beginning each time. 

BTL Payroll Tip #8: Learn from your network

Cutting costs for below the line crew isn’t straightforward. Often, the best advice comes from people’s experiences. So don’t be afraid or too proud to ask what other production teams do. 

In the interim, we can share a few production companies' views on how they approached payroll with us. 

Because while producing takes way more than good software, in any craft, the importance of using great tools for the job cannot be overstated. 

Cast and crew payroll is no exception. 

Skim through Wrapbook’s customer success stories. They demonstrate the power of software in real-world production environments. 

Wrapping Up

Below the line crew payroll doesn’t have to bust your budget. Smart strategy and the right tools can help mitigate unnecessary time drains and costs to boost your production’s efficiency. 

If you’re interested in learning more about optimizing crew onboarding and payroll, review our onboarding guide

To see Wrapbook in action, take a look at our recorded demo.  

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

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About the Author

The Wrapbook Team

The Wrapbook Team consists of individuals who are thrilled about building modern software tools for creators. We’re a team of compassionate and curious people dedicated to solving complex problems with sophisticated solutions. You can find us across the U.S. and Canada.

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