Production accountants and their teams are the unsung heroes of production. It’s their responsibility to make sure actors and crew are properly paid each week. That the permit fees for the killer location are paid. The camera rental was paid for.
Everything your project needs, from equipment to costumes to location fees and more, goes through them. It pays you to know how to speak their language.
To help you do that, Wrapbook recently sat down with Tammi Haynes, a production payroll accounting professional with over a decade of experience. As a production payroll accountant, Tammi reports to the production accountant, otherwise known as a key accountant. The productiona accountant oversees the entire accounting department.
If you’re a producer looking to hire an accounting team for the first time, or if you just want to improve your working relationships with this vital part of your production crew, this article is for you.
Tammi Haynes is a production payroll accountant. Her first job with a production accounting team was as a clerk on M. Night Shyamalan’s 2013 feature After Earth. She’s been part of the industry since then, working her way up to the role of payroll assistant and then payroll accountant.
She has worked on feature films, limited series, streaming shows, and more. A few of Tammi’s favorite projects on her IMDB include the final season of 30 Rock, Uncut Gems, and HBO’s Crashing. Since 2015, she’s mostly worked on HBO projects.
Her primary responsibility is making sure everyone on a production – from actors to crew to writers – is paid correctly every week.
“I tend to think of myself as one of the most important people on set, because like, Julia Roberts could be the star, but I'm making sure that Julia Roberts gets her paycheck.”
Tammi walks us through a few things she wishes all producers knew to maximize efficiency in working with their accounting teams.
As a producer, your role is typically to hire a key production accountant, who will then usually bring in their own team. On larger projects, the studio will sometimes be tasked with hiring the key accountant who then hires their own team.
Key accountants often bring the same clerks, assistants, and payroll accountants with them from project to project. However, each of these individuals is a freelancer. This is similar to how a cinematographer or any other department head might bring their own team from project to project.
Finding a key accountant who is the right fit for your project and working style is crucial. We asked Tammi what questions to cover when scouting production accountants.
“Definitely ask them about their experience. If they've worked on similar projects, [ask] how their relationship was with the producer on those projects that are similar to [yours].
[For example], if you're hiring people for a low budget feature, and you have someone that's never done low budget features, they're gonna be in for a rude awakening. It's very different from doing a big feature for a studio. It's not easier because you have no studio support. So it's very, very different. So you know, you want to try to find someone that has that kind of experience.”
It’s typical for production accountants and the members of their teams to learn on the job, rather than having formal accounting training. Many don't hold CPAs, as it’s a different kind of accounting from production accounting. That's why getting a clear picture of their work history is so important.
Maybe they lack experience or haven’t worked on a project similar to yours in the past, but still seem like a good fit. In that case, consider if you’ll have the capacity to provide them with extra support and time. They may be doing some learning on the job.
Try also to get a sense of what their rapport was like with the previous producers they’ve worked with. What was the communication cadence? Do they prefer in-person, email, Slack, or something else?
Remember that as with any other member of the crew, you’ll be working with them for weeks, potentially months, at a time. A good working relationship is essential.
Finally, since your key accountant will be leading their accounting team, get a sense of their people management skills. Does their leadership style seem to align with yours? Are they able to talk about specific ways they support their team to do their best work?
Once you’ve hired a great key accountant, it’s time to bring them into your project. There are a few best practices to follow to set your accounting department up for success, whether it’s just one person or a larger team.
Tammi advises bringing your key account on at least 8-10 weeks before production begins.
“We always try to push for as much prep as we can get, so we're in a good place when the crew comes on… As soon as your budget allows, bring us on or maybe move some money around and bring us on sooner…
It's not gonna hurt you to have your accounting team on as early as possible… So we can start doing things right from the beginning, instead of like somebody else doing it.”
If payroll accountants are brought in too late, for example, non-experts have to cover their prep work. Tammi says this usually results in having to spend time re-doing the work that was done in their absence. Save your production time-consuming mistakes and let your accounting team handle it from the beginning.
Production accountants and production payroll accountants are hard to find. The industry is currently seeing a shortage of qualified production accounting professionals. Their jobs are also very demanding.
“Pay them what they're asking for. Whatever producers think we're worth, we're worth more. It's a very hard job. There's not a lot of us. You know, there's one person doing the payroll for an entire show.
And, you know, to me, that's, that's an MVP right there. Because if the payroll accountant is out sick, bad things happen. You gotta try to hobble along, and the crew is a little bit understanding, but they still want their paychecks.”
Invest in your production by investing in your accounting team. Ask around about production and payroll accountant rates at the beginning of your project’s budget creation process. This is particularly helpful if you’re new to hiring accountants. Then, respect your accounting team’s contributions by budgeting appropriately to pay them a fair rate.
Production accounting teams are often terminally understaffed. This can lead to an overworked and potentially burnt out team.
As you’re scouting key accountants for your project, ask them how many support team members they will need. And if it’s in the budget? Give it to them. You’ll make up the savings in the payroll mistakes you avoid.
“The key accountant should be able to tell you what size staff they need. And trust their opinion and experience on that, because… a lot of them, they've done these jobs before, they know how many people they need to be successful. So try not to shorthand them. You know, we need help.”
Your accounting team is not the place on your production to cut corners with the budget. The last thing anyone wants is for production to come to a standstill. And that’s exactly what can happen when an understaffed accounting team results in a missed bill or interrupted paychecks. So trust your key accountant to hire the staff they need to keep things running smoothly.
It can be hard to remember in the hustle of set life, but your accounting team is working on short timelines. Just like you. Because of this, it’s important to prioritize getting back to them on questions in a timely manner.
“Just trying to be available to the payroll accountant, when they have questions about the payroll is so helpful, because we're on such a tight deadline.”
If any budgetary, financing, or payroll issues arise that would impact the ability of your production accountant to do their job, inform them as soon as possible to avoid larger issues down the road.
And then there are approvals. Paycheck delays can sour morale on a set fast. To avoid them, be sure to regularly set aside time to sign your payroll approvals.
“When we have the payroll ready for you to sign… As soon as you possibly can please sit down and start signing that payroll like get your approvals in so that we can keep this process going… That's the best when they just sign the payroll when it's ready. I know it's not always possible, they're doing stuff, they're on set, they're answering other people's questions. But, you know, set aside a couple hours to go through the payroll, make my life easier.”
If something does come up and you’re not able to answer a question or approve payroll right away, that’s okay. Your accounting team is ready to adjust and help you. But they can’t do that if you don’t communicate regularly with them.
“Be communicative with payroll, whether you're on text, or Slack, or some kind of chat of some sort, just let them know, like, ‘Hey, I'm not going to get to this for x amount of time.’ So we can plan and work on other things instead of just waiting… [And] we don't want to be annoying and… keep asking over and over.”
Because your accounting team isn’t on set, they’ll rely on you as the producer to let them know what’s happening there.
For example, if someone submitted a timecard saying they left work at 9pm, but you know from being on set that they actually had an early wrap and were able to leave at 7pm, let your payroll accountant know.
“There's no such thing as too much communication with your accounting team. Tell us everything.”
Your accounting team wants to help you and make sure the production is on track. All you have to do is keep them in the loop! Clear, consistent, and timely communication is your number one tool for collaborating effectively with your team.
Tammi has some no-nonsense advice for producers regarding a paper versus digital accounting set up.
“If I was on a show and they told me I had to use paper… Well, I wouldn't. I wouldn't have taken the job to begin with…
[My] advice to producers [is to] get on board with the digital systems because they're here to stay. And even if things are a little bit bumpy, it's so much better. It’s more secure than all the paper that was floating around.”
Digital tools make work easier for people all across your team, including your production accountant. For example, Wrapbook offers digital tools for all phases of your production, including production payroll and cost tracking.
Know that your production accountant may have a preference when it comes to payroll software, and Tammi advises trusting their preference.
“I would tell producers… to trust their accountants to choose the right payroll company, and therefore software that's getting used… If your key accountant really has a preference, let them pick because they have a preference for a reason. They might have good relationships with that company… Because they [are] in those systems every day, we know that software.”
In addition to the software, you’ll need to provide laptops. Keep in mind some accountants prefer PCs to Macs because of software compatibility, so be sure to ask.
As a payroll accountant, Tammi also makes use of non-accounting software like Adobe and DocuSign, as well as Google Workspace.
You should also plan to provide your accounting team with a virtual phone system. That way, production team members can ring their cell phones when they’re working remotely. Virtual phone systems also allow accounting team members to keep their personal numbers private.
You hired a production accountant because you’re not one! It’s okay to admit to not having the expertise of a production accountant. Ask questions when a particular issue or need arises and rely on your production accountant as an expert in their field.
Professionals like Tammi have years of experience and are there to help you find the best, most efficient solutions. Trust them, and don't be the producer who’s constantly pushing back.
“I've worked for a lot of really great key (accountants) that have producers just fighting them on everything. And it's like, we're working together… We want to get through this job together. We don't want to go over budget either…
So just give your accountant some trust to do their job. My advice to everybody in production is stay in your lane. You know, people know their jobs. So let them do it.”
Assuming good intentions and respecting everyone’s roles will lead to positive, productive working relationships.
Production accountants and their teams don’t typically work on the set. They’re also on the more administrative side of production. Because of this, there can be a perception for crew members that the accounting team works for the studio.
That’s not the case. In fact, many production and payroll accountants belong to the same unions as crew members.
“If there's no money, no one can do any of their jobs. And… you could say, you know, if there's no electrics, there's no lights, you can't film anything. But if we don't pay the bills for the lights, then the electrics can't do their jobs… A lot of it comes back to the accounting department. And I just think that keeping that in mind, gives us… a little bit more respect for what we do. It's hard work.
People tend to think of us as working for them [the studio] when really we're part of the crew, too… We're all in this together to make this thing… We all want to be successful together.”
As a producer, you can ensure that your accounting team feels included and respected. Make it a point to include them in team camaraderie.
If they are remote, get creative about this inclusion. This can be as simple as taking a few minutes to fill them in on whatever wild thing happened on set today.
A little explicit acknowledgement can go a long way toward making sure your accounting team feels the appreciation they deserve as part of your crew.
A big thank you to Tammi Haynes for sharing her advice with us!
You can read more about how Wrapbook provides digital tools that allow production and accounting teams to collaborate better.
If you don’t have the budget to bring on a production accountant yet and are considering doing your own accounting work on your next project, you can get a sense of what’s involved in managing production cash flow here.
Scouting production locations? We’re breaking down 10 states with considerable film tax breaks so you can get the most bang for your budget buck.
Wrapbook's newest resource is our podcast, "On Production," which features experts in the field and tips on how to navigate the production world. Check it out!