4 Reasons You Don't Want to Be a Production Accountant or Line Producer
Thinking about a career in production accounting? I’m not one to sugarcoat things. It can be a rewarding job, but it’s not a glamorous life of parties, red carpets, and flirting with actresses.
Before you sell your car, move to Hollywood, and start working for free, let me illuminate the big reasons you don’t want to be a production accountant or line producer.
Production accounting isn’t a glamorous life of parties, red carpets, and flirting with actresses.
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#1 People Can Be Terrible
A director I knew would say, “People. They’re a problem.”
Dealing with crew can be a giant pain in the ass. Crews are made of transient labor. They come and go from movie to movie, so they only have loyalty to the people who hire them.
The crew aren’t beholden to accounting except to get themselves or their vendors paid. They will not make your life easier. The best ones will do the bare minimum to comply with your process. The worst ones will actively add bullshit to your life.
For example, I once had a guy who refused to choose an ethnicity on his start form. Instead of choosing a box or checking “other” like a normal fucking person, he drew and checked his own box that he labeled “Racist.” I have no idea why, but it forced me to chase him down to do it right so I could move on.
The executives are another matter. They’re vision-less and perpetually frustrated because they can’t hack the hard work and long hours working on the crew.
You see, executives want to make movies, but they’re too chicken to take the leap and work for free to meet the right people, work shitty jobs, and make shitty pay. I can’t tell you how many tedious, degrading tasks I suffered through when I was a production assistant. But I wanted to work in feature film production, so I did the work I was given and did it well and did it with a fucking smile (no matter how shitty the job).
Executives don’t want to deal with all of that, but they still want to screw around with creative people. They want to stick their nose into the film production process even though they have zero training or skills to add value.
On the crew, we call them “suits” because they dress ridiculously. They show up on set in their loafers and $3,000 suits. Who the fuck shows up to a production line like that? Everyone else wears shorts, T-shirts, and tennis shoes. Suits suck.
#2 There’s an Absurd Amount of Paper
In a world that’s racing to do everything digitally, the film industry works its ass off to use as much paper as possible.
Most departments get some petty cash to spend, which means they have to turn in receipts to justify their purchases (especially if they want another stack of cash to spend). Every receipt is another piece of damn paper that needs to be documented, filed and stored.
Like I said, the crew don’t give a shit about the finance people. They need to tape their receipts to paper if they want to get paid, but they’ll do so in whatever manner suits them. Electricians use electrical tape. Camera crew affix their receipts with the colored tape they use to mark actor positions. Wardrobe people sometimes attach receipts to paper with - I’m not even joking - safety pins.
Beyond the receipts, there's still a shitload of paper. There are dozens of different kinds of documents and metrics that production accountants have to review and approve every day. We have to cross the T’s and dot the I’s on everything.
#3 The Government is a Pain
Those of us in finance don’t give a shit whether someone on the crew turns in paper to support their charge.
Seriously, I do not care what the crew buys. Honestly. I just want to write the check and get them out of my office so I can get my reporting in to the producers and the studio. If they want to spend a thousand dollars on god-knows-what, so be it.
But the government doesn’t see it that way.
The government doesn’t want the crew spending money on cigarettes or booze or hookers or drugs. Generally these aren’t legitimate purchases unless the script calls for them (but booze can usually be had from product placement and drugs are easy to fake and you never need real hookers).
Since the government doesn’t like those kinds of purchases, the studio doesn’t like them either. We could get in a lot of trouble if the government/IRS decides to audit the production company.
Basically, if the government doesn’t like it, the studio doesn’t like it. If you show up with a document from an executive who says I should give you $1,000 for a hooker - great. Enjoy your hooker. But without that sign off, I don’t have the authority to pay for your hooker.
But this means people assume that we (those of us in finance) are the assholes who won’t reimburse their charge. As if I’m some miserable jerk who just wants to make their life impossible.
#4 You’ll Deal with a LOT of Larceny
In my experience (and I have said this for decades) there’s a reason some people work in film production. It’s because they aren’t qualified to work in any other fucking business and that no other business will put up with the shenanigans we see in production. They’d be kicked out in a heartbeat because some steal constantly.
The film industry certainly isn’t the only industry to deal with larceny, but there’s more opportunity for theft than many other industries.
I once worked on a popular family-style TV show. (I don't want to say the name, but you've probably seen it.) One day the lead carpenter stopped by my office and told me to let him know if I needed any work done at home. He promised to bring some guys to help - paid for by the studio.
I didn’t think much about that offer until later when they turned in their time cards and expenses. They wanted to be paid for 10 carpenters working eight hour days and a shit load of materials that were never used for the show I was on.
(In fact, the set was finished years ago during the show’s first season. It needed minor upkeep, but not 400 hours/week worth of work for 20 straight weeks.)
After some investigating, I realized they were doing side work and charging expenses off on the show. Their earlier offer was a quid pro quo. If I approved the fraudulent documents, they would paint my house or something. The fucking nerve!
That brazen kind of theft is rare, but it happens in little doses all the time. People throw in little receipts for personal items all the time, and there’s really no way for us to know the difference. Clothes are popular. People are always using production companies to expand their wardrobes.
Sadly, the finance guys end up with targets on our backs because we won’t approve certain reimbursements. We don’t have any heinous motivations to deny reimbursements, but it’s our job to ensure a charge is paid out for good reason and are intended for use on the in production.
It’s Not All Bad…
Hopefully I haven’t made you terrified about a career in film. Once you get past all the bullshit I explained above, it’s definitely rewarding.
What do I like about it?
For one, working in film is like being a serial entrepreneur. Every time you make a movie, you have to create a company, hire staff, build an infrastructure, and bring people and materials together. It's like starting a business over and over for every piece of content you create.
It’s incredible to watch a film start small and grow rapidly. It’s magic to witness a back lot in Wilmington, North Carolina turn into six blocks of New York City because a group of people executed on a common goal.
Sure, it can be a little repetitive. But it's satisfying to create something that exists. You made it. You were a critical part of turning words on a page into something people can engage with and enjoy. You can play it for your family and say, “I helped make this happen.”
To me, that’s profoundly fascinating and rewarding.
And you don’t have to be a creative to enjoy it. If you have any kind of logistical or entrepreneurial spirit, you can use that passion to give creative people the tools, space, and money they need to do as much as they can.
Furthermore, I genuinely enjoy the finance part of film production. When an account is off by some measure of dollars (or even pennies), I enjoy the reconciliation process of putting your head down, collecting data, and figuring out the discrepancy. Then I get to go to some executive and say, “Here’s where your money is leaking and here’s how to either stop it or journal it away.”
And even though I bitch about some of the people, there are plenty of incredible, honest, hard-working people in film production. You’ll run into them throughout your career as you move from one project to another. You’ll both be a little older, but it will feel like running into old friends.
One time I worked on a film with an old friend. At the time, I didn't know he was on the crew. He played a little prank on me by sending his receipts with a note attached that was intended for someone else. The note instructed his assistant to collect some discarded receipts from the Home Depot parking lot to fill the gap in his missing petty cash. The note also said, “make sure you get the ones without tire marks so they won’t know you got them off the parking lot.”
When I saw the note, I thought this guy was trying to steal from the production! My antenna went up and I was determined to get to the bottom of the theft. When I called construction, only to laugh when I realized I was talking to an old friend that I had not seen in years who was pranking me. Those are the kinds of memories that stick with me.
Is production accounting (or working on a film crew in any capacity) right for everyone? No, of course not. There’s plenty of egos, bullshit, and drama. But all-in-all, I’ve found it personally and financially rewarding.
Want to get into production accounting? Follow these steps to work your way into the industry.