February 15, 2023

How to Run Film Payroll: A Practical Guide for Producers

Loring Weisenberger
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Learning how to run film payroll is neither simple nor easy, but it is incredibly important. Just like an engine, the process has a lot of moving parts, each with its own place and purpose. The consequences of performing even one task incorrectly or inefficiently can cost your next shoot major time and money.

To help you avoid unnecessary expenses, we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of the process, covering each of its essential components. Along the way, we’ll show you how hiring the right payroll company can make tasks easier and keep your production running as smooth as greased lightning.

How does film payroll differ from other types?

Film production is a unique industry. Therefore, film admin processes must operate differently to meet its unique demands. Let’s start by talking about three characteristics that make it different:

1. Film payroll is short-term, temporary, and cyclical

For most businesses, paying employees is a simple process. It’s set up once and proceeds on a regular, scheduled basis. Film, however, is short-term and cyclical by nature. Personnel are paid by the shoot, and each shoot lasts only a few weeks or months. 

For each new job, productions have to rinse and repeat the entire process from scratch. If it’s an independent film, that often means incorporating a new production company for each new project.

2. It requires knowledge of multiple unions

Learning how to run cast and crew payroll for film production requires learning how to balance regulations set by multiple unions. SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, the DGA, the Teamsters, and more all maintain their own sets of rules. On a union set, production must simultaneously accommodate each and every one of them.

3. It requires knowledge of multiple states’ tax codes

Geographically-speaking, most businesses are static, based in one place with one set of tax and labor regulations. Film productions, however, can change from state to state. More importantly, the rules can change with them. 

This is critical because state tax and labor regulations vary considerably from place to place. Overtime laws, wage notice requirements, startwork, and more can all shift when you cross state lines. Productions must manage these regulations for each state in which a production shoots, adding a fresh layer of complexity to an already complex process.

This fact underlines a general theme for this article. The difference between running payroll in the film industry compared to other industries tends to be more complicated. It requires extra diligence and more intense organization, performed at a faster pace on a more frequent basis. 

How to run film payroll 

Now that we understand why the process is different, let’s talk about what makes it tick. Below, we’ll break down the major components of the process one by one. We’ll also delve into how companies can handle many of them to optimize production. 

Please note that this is not a step-by-step guide. Some of these tasks can be performed simultaneously at a given time, while others must be managed over the long-term course of a production. The circumstances of each film and its designated workflow will determine the exact order of operations.   

1. Find a film payroll company

To kick off the process, you’ll need to find and get set up with the right company. Film payroll companies are essential because they handle tasks that would otherwise be a huge burden to an individual production.   

As even a quick search will demonstrate, there are a ton of film payroll companies out there, and they all seem viable at a glance. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to make sure a company is the right fit for you.

Wrapbook is a smart production payroll platform that connects your entire team—accounting, production, cast, and crew—in a single, easy-to-use interface. With our film payroll services, companies can pay workers, track expenses, and generate on-demand payroll reports, while workers can submit timecards and track pay from any device. With digital onboarding, automated timecards, and built-in union compliance, Wrapbook makes payroll easier, faster, and more secure.

2. Secure insurance

Early in pre-production, you’ll need to secure the right production insurance. Workers' compensation—your payroll company usually provides a critical part of your insurance mix—for extra fee.   

Most film payroll companies limit their offerings to workers’ comp, forcing you to work with a separate insurance company to meet the rest of your coverage needs. Wrapbook, however, provides a full range of insurance policies and services. Our dedicated, around-the-clock brokers can help you build an insurance package precisely tailored to your unique requirements.

Wrapbook offers short-term insurance for as little as $500. To get a quick estimate for your production, check out our intuitive quote builder

3. Budget labor costs

As with every facet of professional film production, you need to budget your costs in advance. Without an accurate budget early in the process, you’re more likely to incur overages later on, when you’re less equipped to fix the problem. 

You can price out your total labor costs with Wrapbook’s free calculator. The calculator provides an in-depth breakdown of estimated expenses to help guide your budget strategy. 

4. Onboard cast and crew correctly

Onboarding is the process by which productions officially hire their personnel. This is when you collect and organize startwork documents from each of your crew members, enabling your production to pay them in full compliance with tax law. We can further break the process into a few essential tasks. 

Correctly classify cast and crew (employees vs. contractors)

When onboarding your team, it’s crucial that you correctly identify whether they’re an employee or a contractor. The difference between the two is important for compliance with U.S. tax and labor regulations. Misclassifying either worker type is one of many expensive mistakes, resulting in fines and other costly consequences. 

Most business silo wages for employees and contractors into completely different payment systems, ensuring safety through separation. Film productions, by contrast, must integrate separate processes for paying employees and contractors into a single system. 

Payments for employees and contractors are managed side by side. This makes it even more critical for productions to understand the worker classification requirements in each state.

Paying multiple workers classifications with traditional companies can be cumbersome, but Wrapbook’s intuitive interface makes it easy.

Gather the right startwork documents from cast and crew

The heart of onboarding is gathering startwork documents. These documents are key to running film payroll in full compliance with the law. 

Exact startwork requirements will vary from state to state, but a typical startwork packet will include some combination of at least the following documents:

In the production industry, physical paperwork still reigns supreme. As a result, the onboarding process at most production companies is woefully slow, inefficient, and labor-intensive. 

Paperwork must be physically generated, collected, processed, and filed by hand, document by document, repeatedly for every single shoot.

To be honest, most film payroll companies offer little support for the onboarding process. They want you to take care of the paperwork on your own. Fortunately, Wrapbook is a major exception to the rule.

How To Run Film Payroll - Wrapbook - Onboarding
The secret to great film payroll is to start at the beginning.

Wrapbook’s digital startwork features automatically collect critical onboarding documents and associate them directly with individual crew member profiles. The process is faster, easier, and more secure. Your team can customize which startwork documents to collect and skip the perils of physical sorting altogether. 

Keep accurate records 

A critical stage of tax compliance is keeping accurate records, a process that begins with the documents collected during onboarding. While the exact laws vary by state and circumstance, record-keeping is always a legal requirement. 

A failure to maintain adequate records would cause serious problems in the event of a lawsuit or audit. On top of that, keeping solid records just makes good business sense.

With many traditional film payroll companies, you’ll have to handle most of the record-keeping yourself. You’ll need to create your own filing systems for pertinent employee and expense information. 

Wrapbook, meanwhile, makes record-keeping easier than ever. 

Wrapbook’s automatic document storage features optimize organization from the very beginning of each project. Critical documents are filed as soon as they’re submitted, automatically indexed, and searchable within your production company’s centralized dashboard. Production teams can then share, view, and manage documents at will.

Workers can likewise enjoy increased organization, with documents like their own cast and crew W2s being sent directly through Wrapbook.

How To Run Film Payroll - Wrapbook - Document Storage
Document storage isn't boring. Document storage is crucial. Never underestimate it.

Wrapbook brings all of these features together to form a power production management tool that revolutionizes the onboarding process. With Wrapbook, you can experience onboarding the way it was meant to be.

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5. Collect timecards

As each pay period draws to a close, productions must collect timecards from their crew. This should be a straightforward task, but it often causes errors. 

Most productions still use physical timecards, which forces a messier-than-necessary workflow. Physical timecards are vulnerable to damage, loss, and general disorganization. 

Production teams also have to be extra diligent in catching omissions and errors during the collection process. If a mistake slips through the cracks on a physical timecard, it will be difficult to both detect and correct down the road. 

The innovation of digital timecards can help production teams overcome many of these challenges. Wrapbook’s timecards, for example, connect directly to your production’s onboarding and payment systems, streamlining the entire process.

How To Run Film Payroll - Wrapbook - Simplified Timecards
Leave paper timecards in the '50s where they belong.

As with startwork, digital timecards are collected automatically by Wrapbook and can be submitted from anywhere. Software automatically catches most input and calculation errors before they ever happen. 

If a mistake is made, Wrapbook’s timecard management tools enable teams to perform corrections quickly and without holding up an entire payroll batch. Wrapbook keeps your film payroll running as seamlessly as possible under any circumstances.

Calculate work hours and wages

Once timecards are collected, production teams can begin the work of processing them. In a perfect world, production teams could approve timecards with just a glance. In the real world, not all crew members are great at math (or penmanship). 

That’s why one of the most essential skills for processing timecards is simply knowing how to calculate hours worked. It might seem basic, but mistakes are made more often than you’d think. 

When mistakes are made during work hour calculation, productions pay the wrong wages to their employees. If the wages are too little, you have an understandably angry crew member and a problem that needs to be fixed ASAP. 

If the wages are too much, you have an unnecessary expense, a potential budget overage, and not a lot of options for rectifying the situation.

While it’s not a feature supplied by every payroll service, companies like Wrapbook can take the stress out of payroll calculation through automation. 

Wrapbook takes the headaches out of timecards with real-time hours-to-gross wage calculations, automatically tracking gross and net pay as well as any deductions, along with built-in union calculations for SAG, IATSE, Teamsters, and DGA.

Ensure your timecard approval process doesn’t waste time

Once you’ve reviewed your timecards, it’s time to officially approve them. This process will vary according to your choice of payroll company, so it’s critical you select one that meets your production’s unique needs.

With a traditional service, you’ll start by sending them a batch of timecards, usually via e-mail or a proprietary online system. You’ll then have to wait for a paymaster from the company to approve your timecard batch. 

Paymasters are busy and may not get back to you right away. When they do respond, they may discover an error. 

In that case, they’ll send the entire batch back for editing, even if the issue is on a single timecard. Your team will have to correct the problem and resubmit the entire batch. 

This process will repeat until, eventually, the paymaster approves your batch and starts paying your crew.

The above workflow is clunky and tedious under even the best of circumstances. Recognizing this inefficiency, Wrapbook scraps the typical timecard approval process and replaces it with a workflow better suited for the modern production environment.

How To Run Film Payroll - Wrapbook - Timecard Approval
Approve multiple timecards with just a few clicks of the mouse.

Our end-to-end integration of the pipeline ensures that you only do the work that’s necessary and never have to start from scratch. 

With flexible approval features, your team can edit, decline, or approve as many timecards as you need when you need to.

6. Comply with wage and work hour laws

Tax and labor regulations can vary dramatically from place to place. To avoid lawsuits, productions must maintain compliance at the federal, state, and even local levels. What’s more, laws at every level are always changing. Productions must put in the work of staying up to date.

A big part of compliance comes down to processing timecards and paying crew meticulously… VERY meticulously. You can’t just slap a crew member’s day rate on a check and toss it in the mail. Production teams must thoroughly check each timecard and payment to make sure it adheres to laws regarding overtime, meal breaks, minimum wage, and other relevant topics.

The good news is that tax compliance is the bread and butter of the best entertainment payroll companies. It’s their job to remain as in-the-know as possible about any regulations that might affect you.

For example, Wrapbook’s cast and crew payroll software is built for confidence in compliance. Whether you’re paying union or non-union workers, Wrapbook is kept up-to-date with the latest regulations to make sure you pay them compliantly. The service is designed to keep your production in good tax standing with as little effort as possible, allowing you to focus on the real work of production.

7. Distribute funds

Once timecards are approved, the moment to disburse payments arrives. If a production company plans to handle every step on its own, they’ll have to physically issue and send payment to each member of the cast and crew. 

This is time consuming, so be sure to plan ahead and submit payments within your state’s pay period requirements.

If you’re working with a traditional company, the act of distributing funds to your cast and crew will be largely out of your hands. Once a submitted batch has been approved by the paymaster, the payment process will begin.

They’ll send checks, direct deposits, or some mixture of the two on their own timeline. The task is no longer on your team’s plate, but it’s also no longer under your control. 

Wrapbook is not a traditional company.

How To Run Film Payroll - Wrapbook - Payroll
We even included a little celebration icon. It's the little touches.

Wrapbook offers transparency and flexibility during the payment process. Whether you’re sending checks or making direct deposits, producers can run batches with the click of a button and monitor payment statuses through the platform. Likewise, cast and crew are automatically notified when a payment is made and can track the status of their pay through their personalized user profile.

Access on-demand reports

In any industry, on-demand access to company cost data can help owners make smarter business decisions. In the world of production, however, this information usually isn’t available.

If you’re interested in fringes or other specialized cost reports, you’ll have to request them directly from your paymaster. Their options will be limited, and they’ll only get back to you on their own timeline. This slows you down and elevates your risk of unexpected budget overages.

But Wrapbook can provide advanced film payroll cost reports on demand. With a few clicks, users can access dynamic data at will. 

How To Run Film Payroll - Wrapbook - Reports
Access your data... I mean... It's your data.

Producers are empowered to take a deep dive into their costs whenever they want, whether it’s in the heat of production or years down the line. 

Withhold and file taxes

As far as the IRS is concerned, filing payroll taxes is the primary concern of all film payroll services. These taxes are determined by an employee’s wages, but they’re paid by both the employee and the employer. 

If a production company withholds or pays the wrong amount, the federal government will have… questions. Therefore, knowing how to calculate payroll taxes is an essential skill. To avoid fines and other penalties, you’ll need to spend substantial time and energy to get it right the first time. 

Fortunately, film payroll companies can take the grunt work of tax filing out of your hands. With Wrapbook, you can not only save hours (or days) processing payroll, but you can also breathe deep knowing that the IRS won’t show up at your door. Wrapbook takes the minutiae of this admin work off your shoulders, so that you can put more energy into producing films.

8. Communicate clearly with cast and crew

A little bit of information can go a long way towards healthy relationships with your cast and crew.

Frankly, most companies don’t help much here. If a crew member has a question, your production team will frequently have to refer to them to the paymaster. Getting information from them is considerably harder.

Fortunately for the entire production community, the Wrapbook mobile app is changing this equation.

High-profile production companies like SMUGGLER are using the app to streamline crew communication. Crew can onboard onto new projects, fill out timecards, and see when their payments will be processed from anywhere at any time. Crew members don’t have to wonder when they’re getting paid, and they don’t have to wait around on set to fill out paperwork. 

Best of all, SMUGGLER’s production teams no longer receive a deluge of questions. All the info their crew needs is right there in the app.

Ultimately, mobile solutions like the Wrapbook app are a win-win. Cast and crew love the transparency. You’ll love the increased productivity. 

9. Stay up to date with new laws and industry trends

Keep your workflow running faster, easier, and ahead of the curve. Monitoring the latest information is the best way to continually optimize your operations.

Here at Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources and information to producers and their crew. For the latest developments in the production industry, keep an eye on our events page and our directory of top resources for filmmakers. If you’re interested in more film payroll essentials, check out our guide to payroll compliance 101

Wrapping up

Film payroll is complicated, but you can make it a whole lot easier by using the right company. With Wrapbook, you gain all the advantages of a traditional payroll service without the traditional inefficiencies.  

To see how, check out the demo here.

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Last Updated 
February 15, 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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