Although working in production accounting requires a very specific set of knowledge and skills, there is no one route into production accounting. Polling production accountants uncovers a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences which have led them to the role.
However, people who have worked their way up the ranks almost unanimously talk about the importance of earning your stripes. By this they mean gaining the required level of experience and proving they can do the job before moving up to the next role.
It is very rare that people start their career in production accounting without first doing the role of assistant production accountant. This is critical because one of the most defining aspects of the job is its unpredictability and the emphasis on problem solving. Experience in the role allows you, over time, to be able to identify quickly how the latest curve ball will impact the budget and schedule, whether it’s something to worry about or not and how best to proceed.
The traditional route
Starting as an accounts trainee
The most traditional route into production accounting is to start as an accounts trainee or as a clerk in the department. An accounts trainee is responsible for data entry, processing cheques, filing and auditing petty cash envelopes. Some of these roles are unpaid and short term, with the idea being that both parties can see if the job suits the person.
Entry roles might require the person to scan invoices and file them as instructed for the entire length of the production. Although this may seem dull, you will be learning about the types of suppliers and purchases that are common to productions, the systems for filing, and the role of the production accounting team within the larger production.
A big part of the culture of film and television production is to see if people in more junior roles can carry out the job without much supervision and if they have a ‘can do’ attitude. These qualities are very valuable because when something unexpected happens on set, the more senior members of the team need to know they can rely on the rest of the team to keep the department ticking over.
The value of proving you are self-motivated and upbeat cannot be understated. Someone who has made a good impression is usually offered a job, or will be given a strong reference if there are no openings on that production.
Assistant production accountant
The next step from accounts trainee or clerk is to move into the role of assistant production accountant. The move from accounts trainee to assistant generally happens when the accounts trainee has consistently shown the ability to work on their own and do their job with consistent accuracy.
An efficient accounts trainee who has begun to be able to anticipate how best to support the team and has been taking initiative such as offering to do additional work or asking for additional challenges is often seen as ready to move up.
However, the route through the department depends entirely on the size of budget and whether it is film or television. On a smaller production, there is likely to be one assistant production accountant rather than many. As such, this move will require a wider understanding of production as the assistant may be have responsibilities across many areas such as payroll, accounts payable and petty cash.
On a medium-sized production, the new assistant would be taking on a more specialised role, such as being solely responsible for the administration of petty cash. On a larger production, when you move up from accounts trainee or clerk, you are likely to join a team of assistant accountants, whose seniority is noted by moving toward first assistant production accountant.
Each of the assistant production accountants will have responsibility for a specialism such as petty cash, payroll or accounts payable. The first is likely to manage the team of assistants, ensure that work has been done accurately and report to the production accountant or financial controller/head of finance.
Typically people stay in the role of assistant production accountant for several years, working on several productions. Again, progression is considered when the person is able to do their job without support.
Being consistently accurate and capable of dealing with various challenges demonstrates that you understand the theory behind the work and that you are able to adapt to challenging situations. Having formed strong working relationships with colleagues across the production as well as with suppliers is also a common measure of competency in the role.
The increase in seniority in the move to production accountant is quite large. As a production accountant, you are responsible for the accuracy of the spend to date and be able to estimate future costs.
The production accountant ultimately ‘signs off’ the cost report every week, so must be able to say with authority that all documentation is in order and everything has been accounted for. Some people choose not to progress to a new role but rather develop their skills and experience in their area of specialism and progress by working on increasingly complex or larger productions.
In small-budget television production, unofficial mentoring is a particularly effective means of developing the skills needed to progress from assistant production accountant to production accountant.
In some cases, an assistant production accountant might work under a senior production accountant doing the full breadth of the accounting work for a small production, but with the senior production accountant providing an overview of the work and ensure that everything the assistant does is accurate.
In such situations, the assistant production accountant can take on increasing responsibility until they have gained sufficient experience that they are capable of making the step up to production accountant. The major broadcasters often provide in-house training for staff as well.
However, mentoring among freelancers is rare in the film and television industry as workload is significant and the risk associated is considerable. Mentoring is almost non-existent at the feature film level due to the size of the budget and complexity of the schedules.
The role of production accountant requires analytical and strategic skills and experience as well as very strong interpersonal skills such as high level people management. The role also requires a sophisticated understanding of how a production works and how film and television are financed.
Production accountants can take on small production jobs working from their own office. They might also work primarily in post-production, which often allows for somewhat shorter days and more predictability as the production is no longer running.
On medium-sized television productions, there may be a senior production accountant overseeing multiple assistant production accountants and who is ultimately responsible for the final sign off of the rest of the team’s work.
On a feature film, the head of department is likely to be a financial controller who will have several production accountants working on locations and a team of senior assistant production managers overseen by a first assistant production accountant or a production accountant.
Experienced production managers sometimes will move into production accounting as production managers and line managers create and work with the budget throughout a production.
People also move from production accounting into production to roles such as production co-ordinator, production manager, line producer or producer depending on the level of experience you have developed. Understanding the financial side of production is very valuable for someone working in the production team.
In some cases people with formal accountancy backgrounds move into production accounting. It is important to note, however, that in almost all cases entry into the production accounting department starts at the role of assistant production accountant regardless of age or previous experience in other industries.
In rare cases, someone with extensive accounting experience might begin at a production accountant level but the value of experience working on a production cannot be understated.
Other possible routes
Working on set
Any role on a production will allow you great insight into the kinds of challenges faced on productions. As such people often move sideways from working in anything such as craft services to any of the more creative departments such as the art, design or costume or even from assistant director roles.
People who have moved from these ‘on set’ roles speak of liking the more office-based nature of production accounting and that while the hours are long, you consistently work during daytime hours.
Starting as a runner
Production accounting sits within the wider production team and there is significant overlap between the two teams’ work. Starting as a runner in the production office is a common route into production accounting.
Working closely with the production accounting department allows a person to understand how the activities of other teams impact the budget holders. Various departments on set have a petty cash to enable them to purchase items quickly so as to not hold up the production.
On a short shoot, the volume and speed of spending is remarkable. Working in the production team offers an understanding of how challenging it is to make sure the production accounting team is aware of every purchase regardless of time constraints. Experienced production accountants speak of the value of being able to say that they worked in a junior role in a different department.
Having paid your dues coming up the ranks also means you’ll understand where your colleagues are coming from, what motivates them and how to work with them effectively.
Working as a portfolio accountant for a broadcaster
Working for a broadcaster can be a very effective way to develop skills and experience in production accounting. The production accounting department works differently from freelance production work as production accountants are responsible for a portfolio of productions ranging from children’s programming, to factual to comedy and drama.
This is often referred to as ‘slate reporting’ or as ‘portfolio accounting’. Depending on the organisation and size of the production, the production manager is ultimately responsible for developing, managing and forecasting the budget.
In this case, the production accountant has a more generalised role reporting and tracking the finances rather than decision making. This environment can allow for increased mentoring opportunities and career development.
Whilst career progression in the film and television industries is usually based on experience; the rate of progression within production accountancy can also depend on the qualifications obtained.
Due to experience being such a valued way of gaining knowledge in this occupation, qualifications are generally considered desirable but not required. However, it is worth knowing that some areas of the industry value qualifications more than others.
For example at the upper level of the industry, heads of finance in corporate roles (permanent employment in production companies) are generally qualified accountants with a proven experience in company and commercial accounting.
Freelance senior production accountants or financial controllers on large films must have an excellent track record in large film productions, in order to be approved by the production's various financiers.
If you are ambitious and see yourself wanting to progress to this level, it is worth considering doing this training early in your career as experienced production accountants with the training suggest that having this level of understanding of accounting is valuable throughout your career.
How to get started
Most productions run complex budgets on very tight timescales. Budgets can run in the millions, and production is counted in weeks. With so much at stake, producers and production accountants hiring new assistant production accountants are much more comfortable hiring someone with relevant experience and ideally a strong reference from someone they know. How can you break in if you don’t have the full package of a reference and relevant experience?
Having a bachelor of arts degree or a vocational qualification in accounting will demonstrate that you have basic bookkeeping skills. However, you can gain skills and experience through working, for example as a cashier, a bookkeeper or in a junior financial administration capacity. Knowledge of film budgeting and scheduling software is definitely an advantage.
Chances of getting a job are greatly increased with previous experience in film or television production. Starting as a runner on a production will allow you to make connections with members of the accounting department. It also gives you an opportunity to prove that you are reliable and dependable, and a reference like this can open lots of doors.
Once you have a few experiences under your belt, you can approach the Production Guild about membership. Producers and production accountants looking to hire a new assistant production accountant will first look to see who is available on the Production Guild’s supplementary list so this is a great way to start your career.
- The Complete Film Production Handbook, Eve Light Honthaner, Focal Press; 4th edition (21 April 2010)
- Get A Career In Showbiz Accounting, By Amy Fontinelle, investopedia.com