As the founder and CEO of Castifi, I often get asked about my own experience working in the production industry. After college I started as a tax accountant before joining the production accounting team at NBCUniversal. I worked on shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “State of Affairs”. I have also produced and directed smaller projects, giving me exposure to every facet of physical production.
My passion for the industry goes back to my earliest days. I was a “Techie” in drama class at my high school, and ran sound for all of the musicals. I loved the energy and creativity. As I began working on more professional projects, my experience taught me that as the budgets of projects grows, so does the complexities of managing expenses and payroll in real-time.
As a Production Accountant, you’re a problem solver and a detective searching for the truth in numbers. Hired by the Line Producer on studio TV shows, you’re often expected to have immediate answers for difficult to calculate questions, such as “what are our current hot costs?” After a few years of dealing with the existing process, and fed-up from regularly working 12-14 hour days, I decided not to hop onto another project.
My Desk in 2015 making payroll edits for Background Actors
While trying to figure out my next move, I realized the major issues with physical production operations stem from one core issue: that there is no central nervous system acting as the source of information. Meaning, key documents like deal memos, timecards, and production reports aren't connected and information has to be manually inputted repeatedly. Lacking was a program that stored all necessary data and leveraged information across multiple departments. As soon at I realized this, I couldn't understand why this already happening? Because to this day, all documents in production live on paper. The information they contain flows from paperwork to spreadsheets, breaking down many times along the chain as a person (often tired) is manually entering information. I searched for a solution and found nothing, and that's when I decided to be the person to bring the change to my fellow crew members.
At our onset in 2016, we started with streamlining the hiring, on-set management, and payroll for Background Actors on film sets. Why? From an accounting perspective, managing day players like Background Actors is one of the more painful jobs as it requires sifting through 100s of physically completed documents.
From that starting point we created a pre-boarding technology stack that checks employment eligibility, social verification, and portfolio work in real-time. Starting with smaller projects like music videos, we eventually were implemented on studio projects such as “CBS’s Seal Team” where we streamlined the hiring of 3,000 Background Actors.
Since then, we’ve expanded to handling the entire cast & crew, supporting the industry’s top production companies with our suite of production tools and enabling them to leverage data through the entire production process. Real-time hot costs that save on hours of manual entry? No problemo.
I’d like to share some of the ways I use Castifi as a filmmaker, in hopes that it will help and encourage other productions to try something new, save paper, and run a 21st-century operation.
Pre-boarding is a newer concept but one that will undoubtedly become an industry-standard within the next 12 months. Often underutilized, it is the key to running a better set. As a producer, it helps you keep your rear covered by collecting and analyzing data upfront - always a good idea, especially when you’re hiring people to work on a film production set where there are inherent workers' compensation risks involved.
Through Castifi, our pre-boarding process forces everyone who works on set to complete a deal memo, W4, I9, and any additional policies (Sexual Harassment, Drug & Alcohol Policy, etc) before production begins.
Going through this process upfront protects crew members and producers equally, and allows you to see everything at a bird's eye view. From seeing a visual map of your crew, dates where there will be more cast on set, and automated consistency across documents, the entire production team stays on the same page throughout the entire production. It’s that central nervous system idea I talked about earlier. The more in sync everyone involved in a production can be, the better the project unfolds.
That’s why the first thing we do when we're starting a project is to get everyone onboarded to the same system. Having all the logistical information in one place from the beginning helps everything run smoother down the line, even when there are last-minute changes. Putting in the time upfront to get everyone comfortable using the platform and aware of where they can find essential information sets the team up for joint success.
When I’m working on a project as a Line Producer, I spent a lot of time ensuring we had captured the right “look” for our talent.
Being able to search a digital database of actors, enter in search specifications like shooting location, gender, age, and/or special abilities, and seeing who matches those requirements, is available, AND what their past professional behavior has been like is a HUGE time saver. It gives my production team a relieving sense of control, helping minimize one of the many uncertain factors that can go into any shooting day.
Chosen talent can be easily shared with the AD team as picture pick galleries via a link, making it incredibly easy for them to make selects.
Something that was always difficult to deal with as a Production Accountant was last-minute adds to payroll. I remember countless calls from production, demanding payment for people we had no idea even worked. As we began to investigate, more often than not, we'd find out that somehow their start work and timecards never made it to our office. Without a central system, and everyone so busy on set, it was common for things to fall through the cracks, or for time to be taken up trying to track down missing information.
Using a digital management platform gives producers the ability to track what information is missing, and closes the gap between what is happening on set and what gets translated to the production office. This is not only more efficient, but it helps eliminate errors that can arise from the traditional game of telephone that is typical form of communication on set.
Don’t get me wrong, as a prior accountant, I have a special place in my heart for a well-organized spreadsheet. However, when there are 30+ spreadsheets to keep track of, excel and google sheets have their limits.
Crew lists, call sheets, PRs, and timecards are all individually vital documents to any production, and yet they also all share similar information, often repeated from day to day, that needs to be written out every time. It’s a total time suck!
When we use Castifi on a project, the information (for example, the crew call times) gets entered into the platform once and then is automatically applied to all relevant documents.
This helps us stay organized and concentrate on the finer details because our brains haven’t been dulled from inputing the same call time over and over.
I remember the first time we used Castifi for the production report while helping out on a friend’s short. We realized we already had all the information we needed to pull hot costs and determine if the project was still on schedule simply because the data was finally living in one centralized location. Being able to make real-time decisions off actual data was empowering.
At the end of the day, no film or TV show would get done without a schedule. At the very minimum it’s the roadmap we all follow, and it’s always the first place I start when I’m working on a project. Being able to adhere to a good schedule is key, especially from a budgeting perspective.
So many decisions, from hiring background actors, sourcing extra PAs for a big day, locations, wardrobe needs, etc. are determined by the schedule. When I was building Castifi, this was one of the first tools I integrated into the system.
From my production experience, I know it’s never easy when scheduling changes occur and how it can effect the entire project. For this reason, it was important that we build this feature to to be adaptable. knowing we can adjust and communicate scheduling changes in real-time across the entire chain of command during production has helped switch gears faster and stay on track.
I hope this was informative and actionable. If you were to walk away with anything, I hope that it's comfort in the fact that the executive and founder at Castifi understands the nuances of the production world. I'd also love to hear from you. How do you currently use Castifi? Is there a paperwork process during production that you think could be improved? We’d love to hear from you!