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Do the Math: Production Accountant Shortage Equals New Hollywood Careers

“Accounting is usually not the way in” to the film business, says Nancy Rae Stone of the California Film Commission.
January 17, 2024

As seen in The Wrap.

Breaking into Hollywood is all about who you know, right? But Nilson Salvador, a San Ysidro resident working in the finance department for the city of Chula Vista, knew exactly no one in the entertainment industry in 2022 when he came across a LinkedIn post about the California Film Commission‘s Pilot Career Pathways program, which was offering a new production accounting course online.

“Applications were going to close like the very next day or so,” Salvador told TheWrap. The LinkedIn post, he said, “gave me all the right words: ‘Are you interested in film? Do you like numbers?’ I’m like, ‘yes to all!’”

The 32-year-old no longer makes the nine-mile commute from San Ysidro to Chula Vista, near the Mexican border in San Diego County. Instead, since April, he’s been on the road to Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank. He’s already worked his way up from assistant analyst to production incentives analyst, helping producers to cut costs through state tax credits and other incentive programs.

He makes the 150-mile trek once a week, staying in a hotel Tuesday through Thursday. The sacrifice has allowed him to work on DC Comics superhero films like “Black Adam,” “Blue Beetle” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” as well as the limited series “The Flight Attendant.”

Salvador is helping to fill a longtime shortage of production accountants in Hollywood. The boom in streaming TV shows during the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the demand for specialized accounting talent familiar with the production process, as well as the ins and outs of state tax credits. The shortage has prevented some productions from getting off the ground, an industry source told TheWrap, while offering a little-known opportunity for people to find their way into Hollywood.

Production accounting is substantially different from the usual jobs offered to Certified Public Accountants. While universities teach basic accounting, film schools are unlikely to be connected with the accounting department, David Offenberg, an associate professor of finance at Loyola Marymount University, told TheWrap.

“It’s also gig work, so there is not a large corporate apparatus to train at the entry level,” Offenberg said. “That means training happens on the job by the accountants and their assistants, who are working crazy hours while on set and don’t have much time for training.”

Mark Goldstein, president and CEO of Entertainment Partners, told TheWrap that not only did the pandemic cause an increase in demand for content, but many production accountants became part of the so-called Great Retirement and never returned to the profession after the pandemic ended.

Goldstein estimated that about 25% of production accountants have retired, while production demand has increased by about that same amount, creating a “significant gap.” Reports of a downturn in peak streaming may reduce the number of productions, but Goldstein expects the demand for skilled production accountants will remain high.

Nancy Rae Stone, deputy director of the California Film Commission’s Film and TV Tax Credit Program, said the shortage of accountants with specific knowledge of production finance intensified with the pandemic-inspired increase in streaming. But, she added, that problem has always been there for the industry.

“There is definitely a shortage, and if you think about people wanting to get into the film business, accounting is usually not the way in, not something that kids go to film school to become,” Stone told TheWrap. “There is no clear path to becoming a production accountant. When I was an independent producer, finding a really well-qualified production accountant was one of my number-one hires.”

As she transitioned to work with the Film Commission, the shortage remained apparent. “I would get calls constantly, ‘do you know a good accountant?’” she said. “It was really becoming clear to me that we needed a track, we needed a training program for accountants.”

Stone added that accounting jobs in Hollywood are not just for numbers nerds. They can provide some of the glamor enjoyed by producers, directors and actors.

“When they go on location, all of their expenses are paid for,” Stone said. “It’s a big plus — even if [a production] on location hires a lot of local crew, you want to bring your own accountant, someone you can trust.”

I would get calls constantly — ‘do you know a good accountant?’

One more potential perk: While an accountant is unlikely to be tapped to, say, star as an accountant in a movie, understanding the dollars can lead an accountant up the corporate ladder or into other areas of filmmaking.

“Someone who starts out as an accountant could wind up being a finance executive at Warner Bros.,” Stone said. “And certainly some of them have become producers, because they understand the numbers and budgets and how schedules are put together.”

Production accountant salaries can vary as widely as movie budgets, with reported annual salaries ranging from $21,000 for an independent film to $114,500 for work on a big budget tentpole film (and, as is true for above-the-line talent, the range can go much higher depending on the project).

IATSE Local 871 supports production accountants, assistant accountants and payroll accountants, as well as script supervisors, continuity coordinators and the Allied Production Specialists Guild. However, not all production accountants are members of the union local.

In December, production accountants working in New York and New Jersey reached an agreement with Netflix to be recognized as members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 161. Goldstein told TheWrap there are currently thousands of production accountants working in the U.S. and globally, though more are still needed.

The Career Pathways program, created to introduce underserved communities to below-the-line industry jobs, added an eight-week online accounting program in 2022 and got 114 applications for 30 slots from seven different California counties. The Comission plans to begin with another group of students in February.

The California Film Commission’s production accounting course is only one of several courses designed to show students the money, so to speak.

Entertainment Partners, which provides production technology systems for the industry including payroll, workforce, management, residuals and finance — including accounting — offers production accounting courses via its EP Academy (the company also owns the Central Casting database).

Netflix offers several training and outreach programs in production accounting, including the six-week online course Payroll 101. Others, including Warner Bros., have connected via the Film Commission’s program.

Another recent effort to groom more production accountants comes from Stage 32, a membership organization providing webinars, classes and labs for the entertainment industry. The company recently launched a global certification program for several below-the-line categories, including production accounting.

“While speaking with film commissions, studio executives and independent producers over the last few years, they have made it crystal clear that the dearth of qualified production accountants has caused issues with getting projects off the ground,” Sam Sokolow, Stage 32’s director of education, told TheWrap.

Meanwhile, others like Salvador are making unlikely leaps into the entertainment industry through production accounting. Juliette Calderon, 29, is a graduate of the Film Commission program and has a new job at Warner Bros. as a production incentive analyst. She is not sure where it might lead. Already, Calderon has provided services on the “Riverdale” spinoff “Katy Keene: Season 1,” the miniseries “Lisey’s Story” and the movies “Don’t Worry Darling” and “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” (also known as “Magic Mike 3”).

The Whittier native, who still lives in her hometown with husband Victor and their two young children, had been working different jobs in corporate accounting. She decided it was time for something new. To her, Whittier was too far away from Hollywood to ever connect with the industry — until she became familiar with the Film Commission course.

A lot of us didn’t know this was a profession you could pursue.

“A lot of us didn’t know that this was a profession that you could pursue,” Calderon told TheWrap. “My kids are 8 and 7, they’re kind of in that sweet spot where they’re becoming their own people. And it gives me that opportunity to say, you know what, they don’t need me as much anymore. They’re in school full time. I need to do something for myself. “

Calderon said she completed her Bachelor’s degree last year. “No matter what, even if I completely fail, and I don’t end up in the industry, I know I can still be something,” she said. “But I want to try this.”

With artificial intelligence at the crux of Hollywood’s recent union strikes, is the production accountant profession threatened by AI? Entertainment Partners’ Goldstein thinks not.

“The production accountant role requires nuanced decision-making,” he said via email. While AI can help to automate routine tasks, “real-time adaptability and problem-solving/critical thinking are essential parts of the production accountant role that cannot be replicated by AI.”

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