The inside track
The film and television industries are exciting places to work, but they are also highly regimented and hierarchical environments with distinct protocols.
Film and television production is a very dynamic and complex process, with large numbers of people working in teams towards a common goal. To ensure that order is maintained in such an environment and that teams work efficiently with each other, productions operate with clear expectations of each person and team.
This is usually referred to as set etiquette and understanding what behaviours are expected is very important.
Some tips from the professionals
When you are just starting out in the industry, learning what is expected can be a lot to take in. So the following section offers advice from experienced and high profile financial controllers, heads of finance and production accountants about some of the behaviours and obligations specific to production accounting – and their more general expectations when they are looking for a new member of their team.
Not all of this will be relevant in all cases, but work in production accounting requires you to be adaptable, as each job will be different, so it is worthwhile keeping all this advice in mind as you look to progress.
Production behaviours and obligations
Learn the language
Experienced production sccountants who love their jobs speak about getting to a point in their careers when they don’t really see themselves as an accountant only, but as working in the film or television industry. They work in the industry but with a specific skill with numbers.
To be a valuable member of a larger team and get the most out of your own job, you need to learn all about production. Learning about the other people on the production is invaluable too. Being able to speak the language of each different department will give you instant credibility.
It takes time to develop this knowledge, but understanding that each department sees itself almost as being a different world means that you can learn to anticipate the different ways each department has of managing their money and of viewing their budgets. Understanding these subtleties will allow you to tailor your approach to everyone you deal with.
You’ll begin to ask yourself: does that department tend to purchase things and forget to notify anyone? Does this department always keep their invoices so it’s OK to be a little more laid back?
Know how your role fits into the bigger picture
Film and television productions are exciting to work on because they are so fast paced and everyone is working together with a common aim. On a production, a range of departments are responsible for contributing to the overall outcome.
It is critical to understand what other departments do and how you fit into the bigger picture. It’s important to understand how your work affects other people on the production. Good communication skills are key and experience of working well with other people is a skill that will impress in any interview.
Know how your work impacts other people
Productions range from a few weeks to a year and a vast amount of work must be done in that timeframe. In order to work smoothly, each individual’s work must be completed to schedule and any delays will have a knock-on effect on other people’s work. You’ll make friends higher up the food chain by ensuring your work is delivered on time and to specification.
See how your attitude affects the rest of your team
It’s also important to ensure that when things don’t go to plan that you help to problem solve and that you stay positive so that you aren’t contributing to the problem. A positive and can-do attitude is something that builds a team and ensures they can deal with anything that comes their way.
One experienced production accountant said “Everyone in the production accounting department interfaces with different members of the production, so I can’t have anyone being grumpy or resentful. I need a can-do and happy team who can work the hours to make the deadlines whilst doing it accurately and efficiently.”
Experience in film and television production is critical
Production accounting is as much about production as it is about numbers and finance. There is a huge amount of jargon particular to work on production and knowing how a production works is critical. Nothing can break a budding reputation faster than being asked to do something and having to ask what the ‘honey wagon’ is or not knowing what a ‘hot set’ means.
Similarly, not understanding and acting in line with set etiquette can even leave you unemployed and without a good reference. It’s important to note that the size and type of shoot may require different ways of doing things. Maintaining this structure is critical to ensuring that a large shoot doesn’t descend into chaos.
Likewise, knowledge of production is critical to budgeting. Trying to set up a budget along typical accounting lines will go very wrong because production budgets need to reflect the realities of how film and television is produced. For example, a production budget may have as many as 20 budget lines for travel, reflecting the various departments and locations and their individual need to travel.
Understanding how production works also means you can spot inconsistencies in the budget or in the spending. Such as if the line producer has 10 weeks of an offline editor planned, an experienced production accountant will check if they have factored in the cost of the edit suite too.
Being able to spot inconsistencies and anticipate costs comes with experience. While the accounting side of the work isn’t necessarily creative, the decisions about how to spend the budget will be based on the creative output.
A good production accountant needs to understand the creative process to ensure that the forecasting is accurate.
“I’m a production accountant and am halfway through my diploma in accounting. It’s a huge help to me but I’m glad I started in post-production accounting as my diploma wouldn’t have prepared me enough to do my current job. We’re talking about a whole different way of thinking and of processing. Production accounting is project based, not year-to-year or about profit and loss. It’s a whole different logical process than corporate accounting."
Manage your relationships
Before going on set, you should know what any given crew member does, what they are responsible for and how they work. Knowing what they will need from you and what you will need from them is critical and you need to be prepared to answer any of their questions to answer why you have done what you’ve done.
Being unprepared can damage your credibility and the trust that others have in you. Managing these relationships is a critical part of being a production accountant.
You need to be passionate
Working in a production office means working in a fast-paced, dynamic and often loud environment. A typical work week on production is at least 60 hours and often six days a week.
This can increase with seniority as getting on top of your work often means getting started before the production team starts their day. A lot of production accounting work is fire-fighting and problem-solving and being organised is critical, so starting early can give you that edge.
Work on productions is usually freelance, unless you work for a major broadcaster. Freelance work means working intensely for short bursts of time, without guarantee of the next job. Holidays are only possible once you’ve wrapped.
This style of working isn’t for everyone but it is a very exciting environment to work in, and people who work on productions usually really love what they do. Experienced production accountants refer to these factors and say that people coming new to the profession need to be passionate about the job. Many experienced production accountants refer to being able to see when someone is passionate and when they see this, it makes them want to help the person progress.
Despite the pressures there is plenty to be passionate about in this job - the perks are many and when production accountants speak about what they love about their jobs, it’s the opportunities for adventure, for travel and for the unexpected that they reference.
“Whilst production accounting is definitely not all glamour, what you can have in the industry is so beyond what you can experience in the 9-5 corporate world. You get to travel to incredible places, see incredible things and work with incredible people. That’s where the passion is. It’s the never knowing what’s around the next corner.”
It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to work as part of a team and going to the screening of the final product can be a big pay-off. “It’s so rewarding, after three months on set, to go into the screening and sit there with a whole room of people watching this film. Seeing the parts that make people laugh, cry…. lose themselves in the story. I don’t go to the screening to watch the actual film – I’ve probably already seen it hundreds of times. I go to the screening to watch the audience experience the film. The feedback from the audience is amazing and it’s what makes me love what I do.”
Sure... but what does passion look like?
A great way to demonstrate your passion for the industry is to sit in on cost report meetings as an assistant production accountant. Over time, this helps you learn the different ways to make the film/television programme and how to problem solve will mean that the more productions you work on, the more answers and solutions you can offer.
Another way to show your enthusiasm is to learn how to read production call sheets, schedules and cost reports so you can begin to anticipate what will happen each day and what the cost implications will be.
Take advantage of the opportunities that come up. The production accounting department works during the day; if there’s a shoot happening in the evening, go after work and check it out. It’s important to follow set etiquette and protocol of course and make sure to check that it’s ok to be on set!
A production accountant said “The buzz on set is fantastic. Going out and seeing what is being filmed is brilliant. You go to drop off the mail or pick up invoices and suddenly you’re in the middle of The Huntsman’s forest surrounded by what looks like a real world but it’s inside a giant shed!”
Production accountants are desk-based and work really hard. But this doesn’t mean you should lock yourself away in a corner. In fact, many experienced production accountants say that it’s the people who can work in a loud environment, apply attention to detail and stay open to opportunities that succeed in the long run.
One production accountant said ‘I always say that flappy ears are the best asset for a production accountant to have so they can hear what’s going on, can feel involved and can anticipate what’s going to happen next!’
Demonstrating that you are interested in the wider production, reading scripts, developing relationships with people outside the team, being interested in helping to solve a situation when bad news hits the production office and expressing interest in what’s happening on set are all ways to show your commitment to and passion for the role.
Consider the logistics
It is important to note that most production work is based at Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree, Leavesden, Longcross and Ealing so being based in London is a good idea if you want to work on production. You need to have a full driving licence as well as your own transport as most studios and location bases are not easily accessed by public transport.
Similarly, productions can be based elsewhere in the UK or abroad so you should expect that the commute to work might exceed an hour each way or that you may need to be based abroad for periods of time.
It’s not about you, it’s about the production
With work running to tight schedules and large numbers of people working together, it is critical to have a good sense of humour, be resilient and have strong interpersonal skills. Together the various departments have to problem solve and need to be able to rely on each other to meet the end goal.
There will be times when everyone is on edge and if you can remain focused on the bigger picture and stay light-hearted, you will be seen as a highly valuable team player. The more senior people on set must stay focused on the task at hand and one of the greatest contributions a more junior team member can make is to avoid being negative.
The excitement of having pulled through a hard day and everyone working together to achieve something is truly inspiring and people who love this kind of work find this aspect of the job very satisfying.
Accounting behaviours and obligations
Understand who you are accountable to and what they expect from you
Understand the implications of where the funding is coming from and know what the financing bodies will expect in return. If there are specific funding streams, you will need to produce an audit to explain how the money was spent. Systems need to be created in advance of spending to flag or highlight relevant spend. Some examples of these funding bodies include:
- Creative England
- UK Tax Credit
- Irish Film Board
- Welsh Film Board
- International Co-productions
The production accountant also needs to know the importance and role of the completion guarantor. The guarantor may be checking to see if the minutes shot to date add up to the cost so far, so you need to declare everything and provide them with weekly reports. If you are working on a big feature, the studio may also have a guidance manual to comply with.
Filing is critical
You also have to be highly organised or, as one experienced production accountant says, ‘like a good cook keeps their kitchen clean by washing up as they cook, a good production accountant has to file as they go, pay the invoice and put it straight into the file, possibly to never look at it again… but always in alphabetical order in case you do.’
If you don’t file your work as it comes in, you risk not being able to find things if you need them again and spending far more time searching than you would if you had filed it. It might seem to be a less significant part of the job, but mastering it is critical to success.
Before you start working, learn about filing systems and develop your own. Know what works for you so you can be efficient and consistent. However, you need to be able to adapt to the filing system when you start a job, so it is good to be able to identify patterns and processes quickly and understand why they are used. Filing something in a way that no one else can use will quickly get you into trouble. Likewise, avoiding filing is problematic.
Experienced production accountants talk about drowning in paperwork – you need to be able to access something immediately so you can update or add another piece to the file. It seems like a small aspect of the job, but it can make or break a production accounting department. Being able to adapt quickly will pay dividends.
Identify the process
Learn the jargon and about the various systems for abbreviating the descriptions of costs. Some senior production accountants have preferences for standardising descriptions when entering costs.
This allows anyone coming in and looking at the system to be able to quickly identify a cost and match it to an invoice. When you begin a job, it’s important to identify what the senior team members prefer. It’s crucial that even if you haven’t had a chance to learn about the different systems that you are willing and quick to adapt to utilising the existing system.
The ability to forecast depends hugely on the quality of the bookkeeping. If there are inconsistencies in the way that information is entered, it can affect the accuracy of the system.
Soft skills behaviours and obligations
Where control and creativity meet
The role of the production accountant is not to make creative decisions about how to spend the budget, but to report on how the spend is going and to be able to understand what costs are associated with the running of a production.
A production accountant must be assertive but also diplomatic. Sometimes a production accountant will need to tell their line producer that the costs associated with doing something will mean they won’t be able to afford something else.
While the decision isn’t in the hands of the production accountant, the responsibility for maintaining the budget is. This can be difficult, but diplomacy, readiness to smile and a determination to get there in the end will all make it much easier.
On productions, reliability is key
When production accountants talk about hiring a new assistant production accountant, or helping an assistant production accountant progress to production accountant, something that comes up again and again is ‘trust’.
Production budgets are often very large and spending happens quickly and by lots of different people simultaneously. Line producers and senior production accountants need a production accountant who is reliable, efficient and has a demonstrable track record and experience. These are the elements that create trust.
In production, it’s often said that it’s not just who you know but that you’re only as good as your last job. It is critical that you are reliable and a prime way to demonstrate this is to do what you say you will and to the standard you agreed. It can be difficult in a highly pressurised environment when everyone wants you to react immediately.
Being reliable is about being able to assess a body of work, know if it is possible to do in the time frames being requested, where it fits in your list of priorities and to deliver on this. If it really can’t be done, you need to say so and stand your ground.
Good experienced production accountants ask for the time they actually need and list reasons why – it can be very difficult but it will ensure in the long run that people know they can trust you. It’s worth noting however that good production accountants rarely say 'no' and will work very hard to be sure they can usually do the work that is requested of them, even if it means staying late.
Be up front
As you develop more in the role and gain experience and knowledge, you will also gain confidence. As you are learning, acknowledge what you do and do not know. Don’t let ambition to progress get in your way of being sure you understand what you need to do.
In film and television, ‘I don’t have the answer you need but can get it for you’ will get you further than getting caught out blagging it. The more experience you have, the more respect you’ll get… and the more respect you have the more experience you’ll get.
Experienced production accountants agree that everyone makes a mistake sometimes and that problems are part of a day’s work. Everyone knows that the volume of work can get the better of you.
So it’s best to get your facts straight and then alert someone higher up so it can be fixed if something you’ve done has gone wrong. Almost anything can be fixed if the team knows about it right away, but if something isn’t dealt with early, it can quickly escalate.
This is a place where the highly organised person is celebrated
Work on production is fast paced. To keep up, you need to be able to continually prioritise your work, to identify what needs doing first. The production accounting department provides support such as payroll services to the whole rest of the crew.
When production accountants speak about payroll, they say that if the crew isn’t happy because they haven’t been paid, they won’t work – and without crew, production stops. This demonstrates the urgency of meeting deadlines.
Over time, you must learn to be able to identify which of simultaneous requests need to be addressed first, and what is required to do the job well. Learning to complete tasks to specification and in order of priority will make you much more efficient and highly valued part of the team.
It’s all in the detail
Production accounting is about attention to detail and accuracy while working to deadline. Small imputing mistakes can make a big difference to whether a budget tallies up or not.
Learning to review your work, catch errors and notice inconsistencies will make you a valued production accountant. One production accountant said ‘where you put the decimal point can obviously make a very big difference!’
Think outside the box
Production accountants often sum up the work they do as problem solving. ‘I absolutely love what I do. I love working hard, I love the hours. I love the analytical aspects. I don’t get bored even though the weekly process is the same, because it’s all about problem solving and asset management.’
The production accounting processes themselves are pretty standard, but the volume of the spending, the rate at which money is spent, the number of people you’re paying, the urgency set by the creative process and creative people and the fact that you’re always working under new circumstances conspires to make it all very challenging to control.
Knowing what solution will work best comes with experience and understanding of the production process. “There is always a new way of doing things – when you feel stuck, there’s always a solution.”
Follow instructions carefully when applying for a job
When hiring for an assistant production accountant job, a production accountant will look to see if you have filled in the application form correctly. Any typos or missed instructions will show that you haven’t spent the time reviewing your work. A production accountant will see this and question if you can work well under pressure or if you aren’t concerned with accuracy, both of which are critical for the job.
Do your research and get in touch
Watch the credits of your favourite television shows and note down the name of the production accountant and production company. Do a bit of research about them and write them a letter asking advice on how to get started in production accounting. Sometimes production companies have an opening and need to hire someone. Your letter might just happen to come at the right time!
Start as a runner
Starting as a runner on a production will teach you about set etiquette. When applying for jobs as a runner, it’s important to be flexible. Runners often don’t get paid much (if at all) for their first job. Think of it as a way to prove that you are a reliable person. Once you’ve had experience on a production, chances are very high that you’ll make connections that lead to more employment.
Another great place to start – at the end
In this industry, it’s often said that the best way to learn is on the job and that some of the best learning comes from making mistakes. A good way to achieve this is to start working in post-production so that you can learn from what has happened on a production. You can see how any problems were identified and resolved and you can learn without so many of the time-related pressures of being on a production.
If possible, before you get your first job, learn the accounting software packages inside and out. Play around with them and figure out how they work. Ideally find a situation where you can press all the buttons and tabs and see what happens in real time.
This way, not only will you avoid spending your early days learning to use the software but if something unexpected comes up during a job, you’ll know how to fix it. You need to be able to adapt and use the software and processes this production will be using even if you’re better at another one. Another good idea is to find out who can answer questions about the software so you know where to turn if you get stumped.
Know where you want to go
Choose your moments but don’t be afraid to ask colleagues about what they do in their role and let people know you are interested in a production accounting role. Production accountants say they are hesitant to promote someone who isn’t ambitious because a lot of people really like being assistant production accountants and actually don’t want to move up. Having these conversations is a good step to help you develop in the direction you want to go.
Do your homework before you start working
People in the film and television industries say that once you’re in, you won’t want to say no to a job very often. So production accountants higher up the career ladder recommend that if you have time, learn as much as you can before you start working because once you’ve started, you’ll likely be very busy.
For example, learn about the relevant HMRC payroll guidelines, understand who can be paid what. Know basic tax compliance, such as what you can claim VAT on and what the proper payroll procedures are. Having this under your belt will be a great asset!
Take responsibility for yourself and your work
Production accountants almost unanimously speak of needing their team to be courteous, prompt and to take responsibility for their work. If you are consistently arriving at work late, someone else will have to pick up your work, answer your phone, and deal with the queries coming in for you. Nothing says ‘not a team player’ as consistently being late for work.
More resources – links
- Set etiquette and the chain of command on trewaudio.com.
- Straight talking set etiquette advice from Ron Dexter (ASC)
- Information about expected hours and pay for a production accountant on the Production Guild website.
- The A–Z guide to film set etiquette on The Black and Blue