Production accountant John Gaskin relates the skills and experience required to manage the business and creative aspects of film production.
There is skill, creativity and good old blood ‘n’ guts involved with directing the money in film production, with reputations at stake and careers on the line for more than just the producers and directors. Even in this turbulent financial climate, we still hear of budgets raging wildly out of control. Ever been curious as to how that could happen, or how to prevent it? Who’s watching the shop? Well, (gulp)… I am. The production accountant/auditor.
Money is a hot topic anywhere, but especially so when addressing a creative and business collaboration. Accounting bores the creatives, and their financial blind spots annoy the business executives. So, how do we get the two sides of the trench cooperating?
There are a few tried-and-true accounting techniques which compare the actual shooting process with the schedule and film budget. This entails a rapid-fire cataloging of the costs, which include labour, expenses and overheads committed and paid. Then there are detailed procedures of categorising actual costs by labour/ equipment/overheads and measuring them, line-by-line, with the approved budget. All of us film production accountants know these daily and weekly techniques and we dutifully ply our trade to inform our producers and financiers of what’s happening. Nobody shout Eureka. Chaos still occurs. Let’s examine two factors senior to the details: Headology and Directing the Money.
Headology is a term that was created by one of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld characters, Granny Weatherwax. For the uninitiated, headology is basically using words and thoughts to get people to do what you want, without any spells or potions. In our case, I’m using the term to represent the ways and means used to generate the creative spirit and collaboration that is right for a film project. In filmmaking, those who know headology recognise the value of directing the money, and do it intuitively.
For those of you who have experienced one or more facets of successful filmmaking, you will always
see at least one individual who is a master of headology. My best examples of its application are the two features that I did with director Ron Howard; they were hands down two of the most enjoyable productions I’ve worked on, and it was indisputably because of Ron’s skills in getting cast and crew to do what was necessary.
In filmmaking, nothing happens without a corresponding effect on the film budget. Here is an interesting maxim: without knowing what is right or needed, and just following a set of rules to direct the money, headology inadvertently falls into place. As a corollary, anybody who knows headology is aware that, to some degree, performance is measured by your skill in directing the money.
My best example of successful directing of money is Disney; their longtime VP of finance has been doing so with an iron fist for over three decades. I cringed and debated under those rules, but ultimately bought into them, as their worth became very apparent with use over five or six feature film productions.
In my experience on 45 film and television projects spread over 25 years and 5 countries, I can say that the times I was in trouble with unapproved cost overruns were when the top end (defined as one or more studio executives, financier, producer or director) were without skill in headology nor directing the money, period.
I won’t be so superior as to instruct you on the nuances of headology, however, I can say with confidence that a study of the way Ron Howard runs his set, and how he has a strong interest in the budget, will carry you a long way down that path. I have observed several successful headology actions which I can share with you; how you bring those into your arsenal is something for you to ponder.
I previously said that by following the techniques of directing the money, headology would inadvertently fall into place. Now I’m entering a field that I’m qualified to expound on, but, as promised, I won’t get into the details of hot costs, day costs, worked hours and pay hours, etc. Just ask the film accountant for the cost of an average day of shooting and for the labour cost of each consecutive hour of overtime. With a little practice you can use those two factors alone to direct a large part of the money.
Assuming that you are, or have ambitions to be, a director, producer, line producer, film production accountant or unit production manager, here are the characteristics and attitudes that I have observed of those who repeatedly avoid financial pitfalls during the production of a feature film:
1: If the decision that you’re about to make doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Don’t try to convince yourself.
2: Demand that department heads take responsibility for their departmental budgets. Making decisions for them is counterproductive.
3: Always acknowledge a person’s existence. It creates positive energy.
4: Defuse messed-up situations by stating the truth exactly, then get on with it.
5: Respect the financiers who have placed their trust in you.
Directing the Money
1: Know the terms within sections, categories and line items of your budget, e.g., below the line, camera department, camera rentals respectively.
2: Clearly state your right to apply the savings you create through efficiencies against those costs not budgeted, e.g. work the crew fewer hours than budgeted, then use the savings for a crane shot that was not budgeted.
3: Insist on being informed of the number of worked hours in the budget and keep score, e.g., the number of worked hours budgeted for the grips and electrics.
4: Insist on having access to the film accountant. A director may want to have a producer accompanying him/her.
5: Ask the film accountant for a printout of the day cost, i.e., cost of an average day of production. Review it and clear any terms and rates with him/her.
6: Habitually direct your creative concepts towards a parallel concept of directing the money available per the approved budget.
7: Ask for a copy of the film production’s weekly cost report. This is the report sent to all the financiers, studio execs, bonding company, etc. Read any narrative on the covering memo to prepare for any potential explanations demanded of you in your capacity. •
John Gaskin is a film production auditor of 25 years experience, and is the instructor of film workshop and live online training webinars. John is also author of Walk the Talk, a book used by non-accountants to understand how to ‘direct the money’ in film production. To learn more, visit John’s website at www.talkfilm.biz or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org