February 2, 2023

How to Run Payroll for Commercials

Loring Weisenberger
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Running commercial payroll can seem like an administrative hassle.  It’s also key to a successful production. Efficient payroll management is critical to a producer’s relationships with cast, crew, and even clients.

To get your next shoot on its feet as fast and easily as possible, we’ve put together this handy guide. Let's check it out.

What is production payroll for commercials?

On a feature film or television production, payroll management can stretch out over months or even years. On a commercial, however, the entire  process must be compressed into just a few weeks. 

From pre-production through post, commercials are put together as quickly as possible to minimize costs and meet clients’ deadlines. The simple reality is that commercials generally require less than a week of shooting. As you can imagine, this puts extra pressure on the process.

Along with everything else you have to do, production companies need to worry about tax compliance. A failure to maintain tax compliance can result in stiff penalties. If your production does not meet tax law, small errors can evolve into expensive payroll mistakes

The good news is, it’s perfectly manageable with the right personnel and technology.

Who handles it on a set for commercials?

On set, the members of the production team manage this process. The bulk of the work will usually fall to the production coordinator, producer, and the UPM. Of course, accountants are also involved.

On set, the process is all about the physical tasks of distributing, collecting, forms and processing timecards.

Before and after the shoot, it's is all about organization and communication. This is when people get paid, and when you need to mind your tax compliance. To help that work proceed smoothly, production companies hire payroll companies.

With that detail in mind, let’s dive into our step-by-step guide to managing the process.

1. Find a payroll company

It’s so important to find a payroll company as early as possible, so you and your team can focus on the real work of producing a commercial.

We'd be remiss to not mention Wrapbook- a smart production payroll platform that connects your entire team—accounting, production, cast, and crew—in a single, easy-to-use interface. By streamlining the production workflow, teams wrap faster, saving days of extra work and labor.

We’ll talk more about some of Wrapbook’s  features for commercial production as we work through later steps.

How to Run Payroll for Commercials - Wrapbook - Overview
Get ready for your next shoot fast with Wrapbook.

Alternatively, if you’re working with an established commercial production company, chances are they already have a working relationship with their preferred company. In that case, you’re in luck. A pre-existing relationship will save you time and energy in pre-production.

2. Secure production insurance

Production insurance is both important and complicated. Many companies elect to secure DICE insurance policies to help cover multiple shoots in a single year. To secure the exact coverage your shoot requires, reach out to an insurance broker licensed in your production state. We won’t dig into every possible coverage in this post, but it’s crucial that we mention workers’ compensation insurance.

Workers’ comp is a specialized insurance type that covers workers who are injured or become sick as a direct result of doing their job. It’s an incredibly important piece of your insurance puzzle because it protects both your workers and your production company.

For example, if a grip stubs their toe moving a c-stand or an office PA burns themselves with Starbucks’ finest, a workers’ compensation policy would cover their medical bills and any necessary payouts. In contrast, choosing to forego a workers’ comp policy would leave you and your production company vulnerable to both unexpected costs and legal action. Without it, your company could be on the hook for medical bills, lawsuit payouts, fines, and other related expenses. 

While most production insurance is purchased from a separate insurance company, payroll companies often handle workers' compensation. On one hand, this is only natural. The amount of payroll you run partially dictates the price of a workers' comp policy. On the other hand, it also forces production companies through the inconvenience of working with multiple vendors to secure similar products. 

Wrapbook, however, is a one-stop solution for both. By combining intuitive software with around-the-clock dedicated brokers, Wrapbook provides producers with all the tools they need on a single platform.

To get a quick estimate of your next production’s insurance needs, check out our intuitive quote builder.

3. Budget your labor costs

Budgeting is critical to the financial success of any shoot. In the commercial world, there’s less time to shuffle line items around to make room for unexpected expenses, and clients generally don’t appreciate surprise overages. 

The key to budgeting is to remember the variety of expenses that impact payroll. Then you build in wiggle room. You’re not just budgeting for wages. You also have to consider the potential cost of items like overtime, meal penalties, workers’ comp, and payroll fees.

Estimate your costs with Wrapbook’s labor cost calculator.

4. Correctly classify your workers

Are you workers considered employees or independent contractors? The question seems simple but it’s more complex than you might expect.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 10-15% of employers misclassify at least one worker as an independent contractor. Misclassification is a crime, punishable by serious financial penalties.

To avoid, make a point of correctly classifying workers from the start. On the short-term shoots, certain crew members tend to think that having an LLC and a rentable piece of equipment automatically makes them a contractor. That’s not necessarily the case. 

It’s up to your production team to know the rules, but you can check out our state-by-state list of worker classification tests to get ahead of the game. 

How to Run Payroll for Commercials - Wrapbook - Generate Reports
The consequences for misclassification can be severe. We'll help you get it right the first time.

You may find that your crew consists of a healthy mix of both employees and contractors. While that’s not a technical or legal problem, it might require extra back-and-forth with your company. With Wrapbook, producers can pay employees and contractors alike with just a few clicks.

5. Onboard your cast and crew

Once the foundations of your payroll process are laid, it’s time to onboard your people! The primary task of onboarding is collecting the correct startwork documents for your production state

The fact of the matter is that most production companies still onboard their crew wrong, clinging to inefficient and insecure processes that are woefully out of date. This is particularly problematic on commercial productions, where producers have to crew up ultra-fast and often work with the same crew members from shoot-to-shoot. Analog onboarding procedures on commercial shoots create repeat work that wastes time, effort, and cash.

Meanwhile, Wrapbook keeps onboarding and payroll on the same platform, connecting all of the key admin processes in one. Send digital tax forms, signatures, NDAs, and crew deal memos in a flash. Cast and crew can't fill out a timecard if their forms aren't filled out, saving teams the headaches of having to track crew down.

How to Run Payroll for Commercials - Wrapbook - Onboarding.jpg
Production companies benefit from digital startwork to streamline the entire onboarding experience.

The elimination of paperwork increases security by ensuring that documents are never lost, damaged, or stolen. Dedicated Wrapbook profiles enable repeat crew members to be hired again at the click of a button, removing the requirement for both you and the worker to undergo onboarding from scratch every single shoot. 

6. Collect timecards

At the end of a typical commercial shoot, crew members rush to the production office to fill out timecards. It’s necessary, chaotic, and clumsy. As much as a set decorator wants to get home as fast as possible, they also want to get paid. 

Most companies today have nixed the paper timecard. It's an inherently flawed process as they can be easily lost or damaged, and to compete for jobs, processing by hand wastes too much time.

Production companies who've switched to Wrapbook, can pay workers, track expenses, and generate on-demand reports, while workers can submit timecards and track pay from any device. Digital timecards are automatically ingested, and smart fields detect many errors before they even happen. Production teams can search, review, and approve timecards with just a few clicks. 

How to Run Payroll for Commercials - Wrapbook - Simplified Approve Timecards
Approve, edit, or decline timecards in seconds.

Using the Wrapbook mobile app, crew members can submit timecards from their smartphone at their own discretion, from anywhere, at any time. Seeing where their check is, eliminates a ton of back-and-forth emails.

7. Run payroll

After timecards are collected and approved, it’s time to get your people paid. For commercials, the wrap period is generally as short as possible.

As a result, timecards must be approved and submitted to your company as quickly as the production team can. You’ll then have to wait for the paymaster to finalize and issue any payments.

The exception to this rule is, of course, Wrapbook

How to Run Payroll for Commercials - Wrapbook - Run Payroll
Wrapbook empowers producers to run payroll without going through a paymaster.

Wrapbook doesn’t charge any per-run fees, giving producers the flexibility to run separate batches at separate times with no extra cost. Wrapbook only charges a fraction of the payroll you actually run, so you can put more money back into your business. 

Wrapping up

Payroll for commercial productions requires strong organization, attention to detail, and an ability to process work at a faster-than-average pace. Wrapbook’s commercial features can upgrade your team’s toolbox for greater speed, efficiency, and security all the way from prep to wrap. 

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Last Updated 
February 2, 2023


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.

About the author
Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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