There are people who want to be actors and directors. There are people who want to be studio executives and producers. Few people outside the industry itself, however, realize there’s a role in the entertainment business that calls for a skillset bridging both worlds.
Netflix wants to change that. And it wants USC Marshall and Leventhal students to lead the way.
“We’re trying to show you the door into production finance and production accounting,” said Laurence Franks ’91, director of production finance for Netflix. “We need to increase the pool of accountants to staff the volume of shows we’re going to be producing at Netflix.”
Organized by USC Marshall’s Undergraduate Career Services office, 40 students (out of nearly 200 applicants) were invited to attend a Netflix “bootcamp”: a two-night panel discussion held on campus March 28 and April 3 to learn more about the fields of production finance and production accounting.
“The decisions I’m helping to drive directly impact the production." --Michael Carlin '00
Along with a catered dinner, Franks brought members of his team, from productions spanning the breadth of Netflix offerings, to speak about their roles and backgrounds.
Panelists included Kristin Johnsen, production accountant for The Ranch; Iain Paterson, line producer, Stranger Things (Season 1-30); Michael Carlin ’00, senior manager, production finance features; Whitney Lucci, manager, production finance indie features and Charles de Bernier, manager, production finance series.
Think of each movie, TV show, original series or animated special as its own startup company. They need capital to make their “product,” but also have an interest in being cost effective. Think of the studio (in this case Netflix) as the investor or venture capitalist. They have an interest in keeping things on budget and making a profit.
Production accountants work on set, creating a workable budget in tandem with the director and producer, and account for every penny of that production’s budget. Production finance professionals work with the studios to oversee the larger budget picture.
It’s an extremely important job, if not exactly in the spotlight.
In what is perhaps a unique collaboration, however, production accountants and financiers work in tandem with the creative team to create a workable budget.
Say a movie gets the green light. One of the very first things to happen is breaking down the script scene-by-scene to estimate costs and create a budget.
For example, a scene calls for four SAG actors in a car with one talking dog. How much will the car cost? The stunt driver? How about the animal’s handler and trainer? Which unions come into play (Teamsters? DGA?) Where is the scene being shot? Are there tax incentives for shooting in Canada vs. Los Angeles? Can you shoot the scene in a diner instead of a car? Which choices optimize the budget while staying true to the story-telling?
“The decisions I’m helping to drive directly impact the production,” said Michael Carlin, who graduated from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts as a cinema production major.
Indeed, he says, “a budget, done well, is an illustration of a plan of what is achievable.”
Most people not directly involved in the industry aren’t aware of these roles. Most people end up in production finance or accounting through circuitous career routes, and others by sheer accident, said Franks.
“Most fall into it. You graduate, you go work at an accounting firm or a bank, and then you stumble into production finance. And once you’re in, it’s a great career. But we want to put talented people in the pipeline much sooner than that.”
He hopes to work with USC Marshall to create a class in production finance and accounting. But first things’ first. Let the students know the field exists and is hungry for young talent.
“Bootcamps” like this are a win-win, says Kira Dalton, associate director of undergraduate career services.
“A lot of our students express an interest in working in the entertainment field but have a hard time understanding the nuances of the departments and functions that are specific to the film and TV space that are also aligned with the skills they have acquired as a business student,” she said.
For someone like Franks, he gets access to young financial talent that he can bring into the field early. “It can take years to learn all the vagaries of production finance,” said Franks. “But if we can get young people with a finance or technical education in early, we can train them to really have an impact.”
He also wants to diversify the ranks of production finance and accounting professionals. “The more diverse your staff, the better your ideas and the better vetting of those ideas is possible,” he said. “It’s critical to our success.”