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    5 Production Accounting Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

    An experienced production accountant should have a finger on the pulse of the entire production; collecting information from all departments, reporting on past spending and projecting future costs. It is a delicate dance.

    One wrong move — one mistake — and suddenly you’re over budget or missing a large chunk of money.

    Here are 5 common mistakes production accountants can make, and importantly how to avoid them. 

    ❌ Not keeping track of budget changes

    At times, you’ll be managing multiple budgets, which means you’ll need to balance budget projections with an eye for detail. One important piece of advice is to intimately know the entire film production process, and tap into that knowledge base as you work through the budget.

    You should always red-line every revision made to your budget. I learned this the hard way when working as a first-time production accountant on a pilot for a major studio.

    I was a newbie and under the gun. 

    It was nearing time to lock the budget so the line producer pulled up a chair alongside me and fired off things to add and remove in rapid succession. I mistakenly wasn’t keeping track of these changes. 

    And with one keystroke, nearly $200,000 disappeared from the budget.  Miraculously, we met our target number. We locked the budget, and I didn’t give it a second thought.

    ✅ How to avoid this mistake: Keep your original budget and make edits only to copies.

    Always, always, always keep your source material. Red-line it. Keep those changes all the way through to the end of the production. Because this $200,000 was deleted from post production and by the time I discovered the omission, we had finished shooting. The budget had long since been locked. 

    Your original budget file should remain pure and untouched. Each revision should be a new file, and you should have a naming convention as revisions are created. This will allow you to easily see what changes were made and when. 

    One person should “own” the budget, and I would suggest it be you; the production accountant. Give your producer or UPM a hard copy, allowing them to mark it up or sit with them and mark out their changes yourself. Budget meetings where everyone takes their own notes is very beneficial too, as it gives everyone a voice in decision making.

    I’ve also worked with producing teams on multiple projects. We had a system where we passed “ownership” from one to another. Even then, I always saved each pass as a separate file.

    Everyone is protected and should a line item be unaccounted for in post and folks are looking for someone to blame, you have a paper trail to fall back on.

    ❌ Inability to adapt and stay curious

    Entertainment production is fast-paced and ever-changing. Production accounting needs can change with little warning.

    Filming locations and schedules may shift. Actor availability coupled with ever-changing weather can create a perfect storm. Anything can happen. 

    That is why I encourage production accountants to remain curious and learn to pivot when necessary.

    If your producer says, “Hey, we're shooting outside, we have 3000 extras, and it's gonna rain.” We have to pivot, right? We can't shoot that. How much will it cost to push that scene to another day?

    ✅ How to avoid this mistake: Always have a plan A, B, and C… and don’t be afraid.

    While in pre-production, start thinking about how you pivot should certain outcomes come to fruition. Make sure to identify your pads and anticipate where you might need additional funds.

    What will you do if payroll overtime is creeping over budget? 

    How will you handle unrealistic or expensive requests from directors or producers?

    That said, you can’t be afraid of the unknown or to take a different approach.

    Don't be afraid to say, ‘Well, I've never done this before, producer. I've never budgeted 3000 people in a crowd exterior before. Give me information on that… How do we deal with that? How do we budget and how do we control those costs?” 

    ❌ Failing to fight for the right tools and staffing

    At the beginning of your career, you may not know what you’ll need to successfully complete the job. This can easily lead to you not having the proper team or accounting tools needed for the specific production you’re working on, leading to far bigger problems down the line.

    Some production companies may try to force you to stick to a smaller staff or not enough prep or wrap. 

    Every production, whether for TV or film, is going to require a varying number and type of staff members, budgeting, software, or even payroll company.

    The main mistake that arises for production accountants in this situation is not fighting for the right tools and staffing.

    You need to be able to advocate for any resources that can support you and your team’s demands.

    ✅ How to avoid this mistake: Talk to your peers.

    Why go it alone? Speaking to your peers, regardless of your career level, will help you fully understand what you need to ask for. 

    Let’s say I’m working on a $120MM series. If I reach out to some peers to get their take, I might ask, “You've worked on those types of series. How many people did you have in the accounting office? How did you set up your accounting office? What tools do you need?”

    It also goes a long way to stay up-to-date on current trends, read about new software, take courses, and constantly hone in on your skills. 

    Of course, if this is your first go around as a production accountant, you may not have the long-serving expertise to immediately determine what resources you need to request. 

    ❌ Neglecting to provide adequate training on accounting software

    As a production accountant, you’ll be working with various departments.

    Beyond the typical production and payroll accounting staff, these “extended teams”, from the art department to transportation, will require access to your chosen accounting software, like our GreenSlate paperless platform. Different departments will be pulling their POs right out of the system.

    A common mistake you can make is not empowering their use of the software, through adequate training. 

    That's where departments are going to initiate POs as well as submit their time cards. They're going to be working in the same app with you. How do you empower the other departments that are going to be using it? How do you educate them? And how do you monitor them and make sure they're doing it properly? Because that hasn't been the way in the past.

    ✅ How to avoid this mistake: Create processes that can be used across departments.

    Some payroll companies and production accountants still rely on paper workflows that require manually transferring key financial information into software systems. If you go the more digital route, you can’t assume that every person working on production is well-versed in newer tools.

    The teams may make errors when switching over to more current systems. 

    You must have a plan in place for how you’ll address this gap in collaboration, including creating processes for all departments to follow. Doing so may include having training sessions, easy-to-follow guides, and communicating directly what information is needed from departments, whether it relates to purchase orders to payroll.

    ❌ Unable to accept help

    Working in the entertainment industry requires a certain level of know-how and confidence. However, I’ve seen firsthand how overconfidence can hinder a production accountant from fully understanding their role, regardless of whether they’re brand new to the industry or an established professional. 

    Once, a second assistant using GreenSlate for the first time declined to receive training even after repeated offers. 

    During another production, someone working on their third or fourth show with the company remained rigid when it came to converting their information within the app. 

    He didn't understand how downloading in a CSV file format would have been more beneficial than then creating a PDF.

    They were seemingly unable to overcome the fear of vulnerability, unable to accept help— another typical mistake other accountants may face.

    ✅ How to avoid this mistake: Accept help and never be afraid to admit when you don’t know something.

    No matter what role you serve in a production, you will never know everything. 

    Many mistakes can easily be avoided simply by asking a peer or senior staff member for assistance. Being open and willing to always be able to learn something new, a new process, a new way of doing things is really valuable.

    Additionally, many companies such as GreenSlate, offer training webinars that you can attend, for free, at any time.

    The best production accountants are those who check their egos, recognizing that there are numerous ways to get the job done. With each project you work on, remain curious and seek out innovative approaches, regardless of the status quo.

    There's always a better way, and we should be looking to find those.

    ➡️ Looking for your next production accounting job?

    We can help.

    At GreenSlate, we understand the importance of streamlining, including helping you land your next production role. Feel free to upload your resume and subscribe for the latest on open accounting roles.

    Topics: Accounting

    Brett Gantt

    Brett Gantt is Senior Vice President, Head of Accountant Relations at GreenSlate. Gantt has over 20 years of production accounting experience with industry-leading content creators from studios to streamers, including Netflix, HBO (now Max), and ABC, and most recently independent powerhouse A24.

    April 29, 2024

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