Production accountants are important. Very. Very. Important.
However, it’s not uncommon for even seasoned professionals to feel a little lost when discussing the minutiae of exactly who the production accountant is, what they do, or why they’re job is so vital to the filmmaking process.
In this post, we’re diving deep to get the answers you need, as we break down the 20 most asked questions about production accountants.
Let’s start with the basics.
In any professional field, an accountant is an individual hired to maintain and communicate financial records. And while that description may sound simple, it implies a huge range of potential tasks that might include anything from basic small business bookkeeping to auditing the many income streams of a major corporation.
In other words, “accountant” is one big, broad term used to describe a whole host of zoomed-in, highly specific jobs.
These exact same points also work for the term “production accountant,” but there is one massive factor that differentiates it from the herd: production accountants get to work on productions.
In the simplest terms, production accountant is a professional who monitors and manages the finances underlying every phase of bringing a movie, television series, or even a commercial to life.
Depending on the production, it can be a complicated job that requires a diverse collection of skills, which brings us directly to our next question…
In general, all production accountant responsibilities contribute to the process of managing money, but the day-to-day tasks of the job largely depend on the size and needs of the specific production they’re working on.
In pre-production for a studio film, the production accountant will usually help build the budget from the ground up, but a micro-budget indie film might have to leave that task on the lonely shoulders of its line producer.
During production of a network television series, the production accountant will manage payroll and make sure the expenditures of each department remain within budget, while a non-union web series might instead rely on its production managers and coordinators to ensure that everyone gets paid on time.
Through post-production on a major commercial, the production accountant will help actualize and audit the budget to confirm that all the money went where it was supposed to go. A series of social media ads, however, may depend on its producer and limited production staff to get them through wrap.
The specifics of the job can vary dramatically, but the basic rule is that anything remotely involved with the management of funds falls at least partially within the production accountant’s purview.
Technically, a production accountant is an entertainment accountant by nature, but the reality is that there’s a huge variety of accounting jobs in the entertainment industry as it exists today.
If you’re searching for what separates most entertainment accountants from the role of a production accountant, education is the first place you should look, but not the kind you get in school or university.
As is the case in any profession, experience is the ultimate form of production accountant education, and because a production accountant manages funds in the incredibly complex world of media production, they need to experience the ins and outs of that process firsthand.
The basic financial knowledge of a production accountant is the same as that of any entertainment accountant, but there are few accounting jobs in the entertainment industry that fundamentally require on-set experience.
Of course, not all sets work exactly the same way.
Film and TV production accounting both require the same “Production Accounting 101” sets of knowledge and experience, but it would be misleading to suggest that there are no differences between the two.
The most fundamental contrast between them is almost too obvious: the schedule.
Film production accountant jobs might last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, but they all revolve around a single project with finite beginning and end points. Television accounting, on the other hand, contends with a single project broken up into multiple episodes, as elements of pre-production, production, and post-production all happen simultaneously.
You might understandably assume that TV production accounting is therefore more complex than it would be on a feature film, but that’s not necessarily the case. The challenges of both television accounting and film production accounting will change on a shoot-to-shoot basis.
Production accountants primarily work with the pivotal players in a show’s production department. They’ll need to be in touch with the producer, production manager, and line producer on a regular basis.
However, if production accountants deal with any issues connected to a production’s finances, that means they’ll also have to deal with any people connected to a production’s finances. A production accountant may need to coordinate with studio representatives, payroll companies, and even other department heads on occasion.
Despite the shy, quiet stereotypes that people tend to imagine when they think of any number-crunching profession, high-functioning social skills are a must for earning a production accountant salary.
Production accountants belong to…
The accounting department.
That seems like a no-brainer, yet it is worth pointing out. Production accountant responsibilities can run such a wild, diverse range that the line between the accounting and production departments can occasionally seem impossibly thin, but they do have separate concerns.
Clear communication is imperative on any set, and a good production accountant knows when their voice is or is not necessary.
Because the production accountant oversees payroll administration, they technically work with everyone on the crew.
But it’s important to remember that being an entertainment accountant is not a physical production role. It’s unlikely that they would have to coordinate directly with gaffers, key grips, or PAs on more than the rare occasion.
To illustrate, when a major American studio is making a movie in Germany, you can bet that at least one production accountant will be on location. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll be anywhere near the set when cameras start rolling.
While being a production accountant might open a curtain on the intricacies behind getting a movie made, film production accountant jobs probably won’t be a great fit for any aspiring professionals who want to get their hands dirty.
Ideally, every project would have a production accountant on staff.
Film production is a complicated process that requires a lot of moving parts to come together very quickly and, later, break apart just as fast. A film accountant salary is usually higher than average precisely because it guarantees that someone qualified is making sure that the whole ordeal happens as safely as possible from a financial perspective.
A production accountant makes sure that people are paid on time, that the production doesn’t break the bank, and that everyone remains in good standing with the law. Their presence offers a clear benefit to any crew and, in a perfect world, no production would be without one.
In reality, however, not everyone can afford to pay a production accountant salary.
Because accounting is a specialized profession, a basic, qualified film accountant salary might simply be out of budget range for your microbudget feature film. If that’s the case, don’t worry. Many productions have survived and thrived under similar circumstances.
The important thing is to use common sense and honest self-reflection to determine whether or not you and your production staff have the experience and capability to handle the job without them.
But be careful not to overestimate your expertise. There’s a reason why many films and television shows employ not only a production accountant but also an entire department to support their work.
Production accountants are often forced to juggle many critical tasks at the same time. Larger film and television productions usually employ whole departments of production accountants and production accountant assistants to keep everything running smoothly.
If you’re wondering whether or not you need to hire several production accountants for your shoot, the best course of action is to ask for advice. The experiences of other producers who’ve worked on similar projects can be an invaluable source of guidance, and your choice for key production accountant will almost certainly have an opinion on whether or not they can handle the workload on their own.
It’s no secret that filmmaking is a word-of-mouth industry.
The best way to find a trained professional who’s worth paying that sweet production accountant salary is to simply ask. Producers, line producers, and production managers all love little more than recommending their favorite people for work, so why not take advantage?
It gives you the opportunity to expand your network, build current relationships, and vet new crew members before you invite them onboard.
Like most crew jobs in filmmaking, production accounting is a freelance profession. While production accountants are frequently hired for months or even years at a time, they’re almost always working on contract for a specific project or series of projects.
Of course, exceptions are possible, particularly if you’re working on a long-term basis with a studio or single production company.
Production accountants, like many others working job to job in the industry, should consider incorporating a loan out company to make the most of their income streams. Speaking of which…
Production accountants are frequently paid in flat amounts, instead of the variable day rates that many crew members enjoy, but the exact numbers vary wildly according to market, production size, and the qualifications of the individual.
A production accountant salary might range from below $1,500 per week for a green accountant on an indie feature up to an annual six figure income for a seasoned entertainment accountant working on large features and television.
As a general rule, a larger project means larger production accountant responsibilities, which in turn means a larger production accountant salary.
Accounting jobs in the entertainment industry are some of the only entertainment jobs anywhere that don’t necessarily require CPA status.
It’s paramount that a production accountant be familiar with both the process of bookkeeping and the underlying theory of accounting, but they don’t need to learn about either one in a formal classroom setting.
Taking Production Accounting 101 might provide valuable production accountant education, but experience is the ultimate qualifier for any job in the entertainment industry. More than anything, a production accountant needs to understand how to implement their knowledge of bookkeeping and accounting under the real-world constraints of film production.
Every production and its corresponding accountant will have its own tried and true accounting software. Many accountants use Quickbooks, in which you can easily add accounting codes to every line item expense and realize budgets. Still others use the OG accounting software, Excel.
However, given the the unique nature of production accounting, you’ll probably need to be familiar with budgeting software. This will allow you to adequately size up whether departments are coming in over or under budget.
In addition to budgeting software, production accountants will often have to know entertainment payroll softwares, like Wrapbook. Wrapbook automatically generates reports for production accountants, keeping a digital log of every payment processed by a production in real time.
And given that Wrapbook allows you to stay compliant at the lowest cost to executive producers, it’ll be more likely that production accountants will need to learn Wrapbook.
Becoming a production accountant requires, first, a background in the basics of bookkeeping and accounting, followed by a working resume that illustrates how well you can apply those basics to real situations. In other words, becoming a production accountant simply requires that you acquire skills and use them until you have evidence of your own proficiency.
It’s a classic example of “learn, practice, master.”
The larger the production, the more intensely your qualifications will be scrutinized by producers, financiers, studio representatives, and others before you’re brought onboard, which means you’ll have to be constantly strengthening your resume through new, more varied, and more challenging experiences.
Of course, before any aspiring production accountant reaches that point, they have to face a much more fundamental question.
Working as a clerk or production accountant assistant is the best way to start learning the know-how any professional production accountant needs, but that may be easier said than done for many.
The truth is that, like nearly every job in the entertainment industry, there is no straightforward path to entry. You have to acquire the basic skills any way that you can (whether it be in a class or on the job), then demonstrate them publicly any way you can (usually, on the job).
After that, it’s a matter of hitting the bricks to expand your network and taking advantage of opportunities as they come.
The most reputable professional organization for production accountants is the National Association of Production Accountants.
The National Association of Production Accountants “has been established to educate and guide members in the policy and procedures of Production Accounting in the Entertainment Industry.” Similar to other organizations like the Producer’s Guild, NAPA provides an array of invaluable resources, like educational materials, training courses, and the support of their community.
They even provide unique certification tests through which freelancers can prove that they have the experience and knowledge necessary to work in the accounting department on a professional production.
The lifestyle of a production accountant is characterized by bursts of intense activity punctuated by periods of relative calm between gigs. It’s a freelance career, and it comes with the ebbs and flows that all freelance careers entail.
If you’re looking for a job with the normalcy of a 9-to-5, production accounting is probably not for you. Rather, it’s for detail-oriented professionals who are prepared to put in some serious overtime when the hustle and bustle of making movies is pushed to its limits.
The life of a production accountant does come with significant challenges. In addition to the intense hours referenced above, professional production accountants also have to deal with a lack of job security and the sometimes bizarre schedules of film production that can strain even the strongest of relationships.
On top of that, production accountants fill a role of high importance, which means that they sometimes experience substantial doses of high stress. Production accountants are constantly on call and are frequently the bearers of bad news, a task no one enjoys on a film set.
So is being an accountant hard? The short is answer is a clear and resounding “yes.”
But, as usual, the short answer doesn’t show us the big picture.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but even the blindest of beholders could see why the right kind of person might be attracted to the role of a production accountant. A far cry from the dry, number-crunching slog that many envision, production accounting can be a gig with high pay, high importance, and its own brand of thrills and chills.
Becoming a production accountant is definitely not a job for everyone, but it makes perfect sense for those chosen few.
Plus, you get to make movies.
Next time you’re thinking about production accounting, drop us a line. Wrapbook’s easy-to-use system streamlines payroll and heightens organization to make the accounting process a breeze.
And if you’re interested in learning about other entertainment careers, check our deep dive into the 20 most asked questions about entertainment lawyers.
At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.
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