Many people want to gain financial qualifications so they can go down a particular career path, maybe in the City or doing a specific job at a bank or financial organisation. But training in these areas can actually lead to many different industries. We hear from three people whose accountancy skills have taken them to the silver screen.
The Production Guild of Great Britain recognised winners for their contributions to the UK film and TV industry in September at its 2018 Awards. Among those celebrated were the production team behind actor Woody Harrelson’s directorial debut, and people involved with small- and big-screen hits such as Superman, Nanny McPhee and The Detectorists. But the awards also recognised people in the background, such as production accountants—a vital part of film and TV production management, responsible for a wide variety of tasks such as calculating finances, preparing schedules and budgets, checking spend against budget and much more.
Assistant production accountant
Winner: The Production Guild Spotlight Award, sponsored by Pinewood MBS Lighting.
After an early career in leisure and tourism accounting, Ruby shifted her focus to film and TV in 2012 when she joined the Production Guild Assistant Production Accountants Training Scheme (APATS) supported by Creative Skillset. Since graduating, she has forged a strong path into her new production accounting career, demonstrating impressive levels of support to teams she has worked with over the past five years.
Starting out as a trainee on RED2 (DC Entertainment) and Sky Atlantic’s The Tunnel, Ruby quickly moved on to assist on Disney’s Cinderella before becoming Payroll Accountant on Marco Polo 2 (Netflix). She progressed to first assistant accountant for On Chesil Beach (Number 9 Film/BBC Films), during which time she dedicated her spare time to progressing her accounts knowledge by continuing studies with CIMA—the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.
She has since worked as construction accountant on Aladdin (Disney) and is currently first assistant accountant on a major feature in pre-production.
What were you doing before you became interested in production accounting?
Before joining APATS, I was working as an assistant revenue accountant for a leading holiday park company and had just completed my AAT qualification. My interest in production accounting only began when I decided to watch the credits of a film when bored at home on rainy Sunday afternoon.
When I saw ‘production accountant’, I knew it would be something that would perfectly fit my skillset and my personality.
Tell us about your experience of APATS—what was it like and how did it benefit you?
Without APATS I don’t think I ever would have found a way into the film industry. Everything I’d read about getting into production accounting was pointing towards knowing someone who could get you in the door. I knew nobody at all. So APATS gave me that opening that I needed. It was also great to go in with five other people and having a mini professional network right from the start.
The thing I most enjoyed was the opportunity to be set up with three placements, working under the tutelage of some very experienced and highly regarded production accountants who have all been a huge inspiration to me. Through each of them I was taught best practice and given great exposure; it was the best kick start I could have asked for. I built a lot of contacts in that time and the exposure we were given from the Production Guild to other accountants when they were crewing up and looking for assistants to join them after we finished the course was amazing.
What do you see as your biggest achievement so far?
I think it has to be my role as construction accountant on Aladdin. I sat with construction away from the accounts department and was encouraged to treat it as my own mini production, looking at the construction manager as the UPM. I did everything to do with the construction accounting function from cost reporting and budgeting in MMB, to generating the crew timesheets and doing the filing.
The construction manager and I worked really well together, and the financial controller was very happy. Well, enough to have me as his first assistant accountant on his next show at least!
What differences are there between working on a TV production compared to a film?
With high-end TV being so popular now, both of my TV jobs have fallen into the HETV bracket. In my experience so far, it’s been the budget size that’s has made a difference. On really high-end TV it feels more like a big-budget film. You deal with a limited number of crew. Some people you won’t exchange so much as eye contact with. On smaller-budget shows (my smallest in fact being a film), you know everyone by name and it feels very much like a flash in the pan. You prep quickly, you shoot quickly and then you’re wrapping and it’s over. That show in particular I could have done start to finish twice in the time I’ve spent just prepping my latest project!
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Working with such varied characters and personalities in a way that you rarely experience in a typical accounting role. I enjoy teaching others to expand their knowledge and confidence in themselves and in their own roles.
Where do you want to be in five or ten years’ time?
Working in production finance/accounting in South East Asia, whether that be freelancing or in-house. It’s a real emerging area for productions and I would love to be part of that development.
What would you say to anyone interested in working in production accounts?
Just do it! If you’re prepared to put in more than your average ‘9-5’ then you’ll get much more back than a ‘9-5’ job. My advice though is to not rush. Learn the industry, ask questions, take an interest in what’s going on around you. That’s what I think makes a good assistant accountant—someone who sees the bigger picture. I come from an accounting background, but I wouldn’t be able to do the job I do now without having these few years of industry experience behind me.
John & Marija Sargent
Founders of Sargent-Disc Ltd (the largest provider of payroll and production management software and services to the UK film and TV industries)
Winners: The Production Guild Contribution to the Industry Award, sponsored by Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden.
Throughout careers that have spanned over 45 years, John and Marija have played a crucial role in transforming the financial reporting and management processes for UK productions of all sizes. John began his career as a location accountant working up the ranks to production controller, while Marija started out as an assistant production accountant.
They met during the Yugoslav shoot of Fiddler on the Roof and married the same year. Recognising the need for an efficient and reliable payroll service, which understood film-industry demands and legislation, they founded Sargent-Disc together with their US affiliate Disc (now Entertainment Partners) in 1986. They also developed and launched a range of services and software designed specifically to manage production-office processes. John was the chairman and honorary treasurer of the Production Guild for a number of years, and as leading payroll experts, John and Marija have given their expertise to advise industry bodies and government, helping to build a sustainable UK industry.
They are both respected for having nurtured several generations of production payroll and accounting talent, by sharing their knowledge and experience with those at earlier stages of their careers. The business is now run by their children, Lara and Laurence.
You’ve worked across five decades of the UK film industry. How has the production-accounting landscape changed in that time?
Marija: It’s changed a great deal. From manual accounts it has become more complex with computerisation. Productions have taken advantage of automation, which allows for greater detail in reporting.
John: Cost reports are now distributed electronically rather than paper versions, which provides a more up-to-date set of data.
What do you enjoy most about your role within the UK’s film & TV production industry?
Marija: I’ve always enjoyed the variety, working on different productions and meeting new people.
John: No two shows are ever the same; each has its own specific requirements and different crews, so one never works with the same personnel on a frequent basis.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Both: The success of Sargent-Disc.
Why do you feel it’s important to provide support to those who are new to this industry?
John: This is an industry that thrives on innovation, but also relies a great deal on knowledge from more experienced peers.
What’s your advice to anyone starting out in production accountancy today?
Marija: I think training is of great importance, but also listening to advice. Computers make the job easier, but without knowledge of how a production works it’s difficult to progress.
John: Keep an open mind and never be afraid to admit your ignorance. It’s knowing where to find the information that’s really important.
How do you manage working together as a family?
Marija: We’re a close family and enjoy working together. John and I shared an office for years and have managed to stay married! Lara runs the production side, allowing John to concentrate on running our companies. Laurence developed our current payroll system and runs our Digital Production Office® programming team, which has added a whole new dimension to our business.
What are the major opportunities and challenges facing UK film and TV production accountancy today?
Marija: The film and TV industry has grown beyond recognition in the years we’ve been working in it. The PGGB training schemes have given opportunities to many talented young people. It’s a great but demanding job, requiring long hours and sometimes tedious work. It is, however, rewarding to have been part of a greater picture when the production is completed and to know that you’ve helped achieve it.
John: The number of productions has increased significantly and as long as we maintain a competitive incentive system, our industry will continue to grow. We need to provide adequate training to young accountants in the future to support that growth.