Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a production accountant
As seen on the LA Times.
Mark Goldstein, president and CEO of the film production services company Entertainment Partners, says one role in Hollywood has been in particularly high demand in recent years, and no, it can’t be filled by the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy or Daniel Kaluuya.
“I get a call every day [asking] ‘Can you help me find a production accountant?’” Goldstein said.
The scramble for production accountants stems from a couple of factors. The arrival of multiple new streaming platforms created a hunger for new shows to fill their pipelines and fend off competition. But the pandemic slammed the brakes on the system, shutting down many productions and forcing others to cobble together ways to film remotely. Now, with filming back in full swing, the pent-up demand for content has led to a dearth of trained crews. Those who manage the money are no exception.
Another factor is that many finance specialists retired during the pandemic, Goldstein said, exacerbating the shortage. “It’s an issue that the industry is definitely grappling and challenged with, in a big way,” he said.
So opportunities abound for people with an interest in and an aptitude for budgets and filmmaking. And the good news is, you don’t need to be a certified public accountant to get into this lucrative role.
For advice on how to start a career as a production accountant, The Times spoke to Goldstein; Aaron Williams, senior vice president of production finance at MRC Entertainment; Paul Steinke, senior vice president of production of finance at Walt Disney Studios; Hilary Wagner, senior vice president of production finance at CBS Studios; and Melissa Lintinger, senior vice president of production finance at NBCUniversal’s TV Studios. Here are some of their insights.
Who becomes a production accountant?
“I cannot emphasize enough the need for strong production accountants in our industry,” said Williams. “In addition to long-term career opportunities, production accountants also receive competitive salaries, fringe benefits and nontraditional working conditions that now enable some accountants to work remotely or travel internationally.”
One popular misconception in the industry is that to be a production accountant, you have to come from the accounting industry.
Not true, according to some of the top finance professionals The Times interviewed.
“It’s really different,” Goldstein said. “The CPAs of the world are dealing with generally accepted accounting principles. The production accountant on the set is really just managing the budget that’s related to it and the expenditures that are being spent against it.”
Production accountants come from a variety of backgrounds and enter the field with diverse skills, said Lintinger. You could have an accounting and finance degree, or you could have a liberal arts degree, said Steinke.
Often these roles are filled by those fresh out of high school or college who have a love for the entertainment industry, the professionals said. You just need to have an inclination for business and finance.
“Production accounting is a fulfilling path for those with analytical skills and, equally important, a passion for collaboration, leadership and problem solving,” Lintinger said. “You’ll never be bored."
How do you get started?
Typically, your first six months will involve shadowing and learning the ropes as a clerk, also known as a third assistant accountant.
“You’re learning about production in that first role,” said Steinke. “It’s a critical role.”
Duties include filing, handling mail, auditing expense reports and learning to work with the digital technology that is used on the finance side of Hollywood.
Learning the inner workings of each department on a film set is an important foundation for a production accountant.
“Just by processing a purchase order and attaching it to an invoice, you’re learning about what that department is buying, selling and renting,” Steinke said. “That is all going into your head.”
Like many roles in Hollywood, entry-level opportunities on productions often come from networking.
But given the shortage of crew, studios such as Walt Disney, services companies such as Entertainment Partners, and the California Film Commission have dedicated resources to train a new generation of accountants who specialize in show business.
The California Film Commission is slated to launch a production accountant training course as part of its Career Pathways program in the fall. The course aims to prepare entry-level workers from underserved communities for careers in production.
Entertainment Partners launched its own academy at the start of the pandemic. It includes courses that teach basic accounting principles and an introduction to the different needed skills, including how to do budgeting and scheduling for the movies.
Goldstein said they created the training program early on because they saw a need to attract people to the industry.
Walt Disney’s internship program also offers similar opportunities. The studio will be working with the Georgia Film Academy in Atlanta, diversity and inclusion organizations, and local colleges and universities.
What are the career paths?
After you pay your dues as a third assistant accountant, you can become a second assistant accountant, who is tasked with day-to-day purchase orders and invoices. Second assistant accountants also work with the production’s accounting systems and start to learn about managing the costs of the production.
The next step is first assistant accountant, who tracks and manages daily spending on such things as labor, petty cash and per diem expenses, while also dealing with vendor costs, such as for materials, locations and stages.
One step higher up the ladder is the key production accountant, and that’s where you start managing the budget, maintaining financial records and ensuring the entire production is going to come in on time and on budget.
This is a leadership position that oversees the first-, second- and third-assistant accountants. The key production accountant works directly with the director and producers, reporting to them daily about how the production’s spending compares to the budget, which shoots might have gone over budget, and how to correct those variances to make sure the costs come in as forecast.
And if there are multiple locations for the production — for example, shoots in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta at the same time — there is often a production controller to manage the separate accounting teams.
A production accountant could eventually go to work at a studio as a finance executive, who is responsible for several projects in production simultaneously. The executives oversee the key production accountants, making sure they are managing the finances of their shows properly.
A vice president of production finance is responsible for several shows, as well as all the finance executives working in the division. The head of production finance would work with all the leaders of the studio.
“What’s really exciting right now is, because there’s so much production ... they are constantly needing people with experience,” said Goldstein. “So you can accelerate through that career much faster than two or three years ago.”
You can also move to other areas, Steinke said.
“Many former production accountants have gone on to earn significant roles within our industry, becoming successful producers and even heads of production at major studios,” Williams said.
It is a great training ground for line producers, who manage daily operations of a production, Lintinger said. “Production accounting is a terrific way to enter production and is a steppingstone to learn about the inner workings of production,” she said.
Others have been able to move into directing and other creative roles.
How do you make money? (And what kind of money?)
“Today, salaries for production accountants are at an all-time high,” said Williams, “which is warranted not only due to the high demand, but also given the ever-increasing complexities [of the job], almost always involving tax subsidies, enhanced studio reporting, and the heightened risk of fraud in today’s environment.”
Production accountant salaries can run from around $70,000 to $500,000 a year, depending on the the size of the budget, as well as the size, location and type of production, according to Williams.
But the salary comes with a tradeoff: the long hours common in the entertainment industry. Film and TV crews can work 12- to 14-hour days, or even longer.
Typically, the assistants supporting the production accountants start at approximately $1,000 per week and can earn up to $3,000 per week, according to Wagner.
Those working on location tend to get paid more.
How is this career different than it was 10 or 25 years ago?
One big difference is the impact that tax incentives have had on production. With all the offers of rebates, grants and credits encouraging filmmakers to bring their shoots to different locations, shows are now filmed around the world — wherever makes sense for the script and the budget.
That means that production accountants also need to become familiar with the implications of these incentives. The production accountant team typically travels with the production.
“The career is always changing,” said Steinke. “You’ve got to learn the hiring practices, the taxation, the way of working in that particular country.”
What’s some good advice?
If you want to get into Hollywood’s financial world, now is the time to do it, Goldstein said.
Start with taking courses in production accounting or budgeting, he suggested.
But just because being a production accountant is a job with a big focus on numbers does not mean interpersonal skills aren’t important.
“In fact, working closely with colleagues and developing relationships is how you learn the craft, advance within a production accounting career, and possibly transition into other career opportunities within the film and TV industry,” he said.
The first job production accountants get will be an entry level role, where they’ll be required to wear many hats within the team.
“Being willing to step up, show real interest in learning, accomplish the tasks efficiently, solve problems and work collaboratively will help bring value to the accounting team,” Goldstein said.
This will help you move up the ladder.
“It’s important to remember that the more you work and the more people you work with, the more you will learn,” he said.