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Local man likes film business

Ross Michaels began his career at 18 as an actor/performer in New York City, but now is a film and television accountant living in Hollywood Hills.

Originally born in Toledo, Ohio, his 18 years of experience include work on films such as, “Friday Night Lights,” “Paycheck,” “Titanic,” “Great Expectations” and 22 television series including, “The Equalizer,” “Northern Exposure” and “Law ‘ Order.”

Michaels performed on Broadway, off-Broadway, Children’s Theatre, Summer Stock, regional theaters and international productions where he also worked as a stage manager.

Later, Michaels was stage managing off-Broadway, when the leading actress required a few weeks off.

Instead of collecting unemployment, a friend discovered the overworked accounting staff on “The Equalizer” needed help and suggested Michaels for the job.

His accounting career “began to blossom” as he learned how to use petty cash, accounts payable, purchase orders, financial coding, episodic budgets and payroll, Michaels said.

After a year on “The Equalizer,” Universal Television offered Michaels another job as the production accountant on “The Street.”

“I learned that variety is a strong survival tool,” Michaels said. “Work in entertainment accounting provides prolonged employment, as some of my past career choices hadn’t.”

Most of the work is acquired by word of mouth through friends, former co-workers, local film commissions and studio production departments.

“My training in theater gave me several ways to find more work,” Michaels said. “It was easy to network and learn what series or films were coming into town, then get my resumé to the right office before filming began.”

Entertainment accounting is one of the first departments to be hired on a project.

“Once you find the right team, you will try to hold onto them as long as you can,” Michaels said. “I know accountants who have had the same assistant working with them for several years.”

As a production accountant, Michaels has acted as a financial liaison between the producer, the production manager and the studio.

“You must have open lines of communication with the production manager and/or producer and your department heads to know where to pull savings from in order to pay for additions, without going over budget is an accounting gift,” Michaels said.

Most of an accountant’s life set the payroll and review the cost report with the production manager and/or producer on a weekly basis.

The budget entails all costs required to make that particular movie by the writing, producing, directing, filming, editing and then getting the final product completed.

“For example, what if you have to film in a location where there is no local film crew? You will then have to pay to fly, house and per diem each and every one of those cast and crew members,” Michaels said. “Almost every first budget you compile is too expensive. I just try to incorporate everything the script and creative team asks for, yet remain flexible enough to accommodate any minor adjustment.”

Sometimes Michaels must fine tune a budget from the studio and decide if the production will be filming on a sound stage with facility costs or in actual locations requiring police, traffic security and port-a-potties.

The movie industry uses Movie Magic Software to create budgets and schedule script editing.

“It’s important to use simple tools when you have to quickly revise a budget on the spot,” Michaels said.

When he prepares the budget, he contacts the local film commission to get the quotes the crew has on their received payment in the same location as the last film.

“The more detail in filming, the longer your production period will be,” Michaels said. “The more locations, the longer your wrap will be.”

On “Titanic,” there were 154 filming days and accounting worked in 24 departments for three years, covering three countries — the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Cost reporting is another big responsibility of the production accountant, who must be able to predict financial changes and report them.

“You have to know when someone is spending too much or hasn’t been spending enough or holding back their costs,” Michaels said. “You get better with experience.”

Michaels is currently working as an accounting associate for the upcoming film, “Glory Road.” This is Michaels’ 18th feature film project.

“I still enjoy being an accountant to this day, so I probably won’t be falling back on my acting career soon,” Michaels said. “Initially I set out to be a performer — to act, to sing, to dance and to entertain. I feel I still do that today, just not on stage.”

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