Cinema and Media Studies Motion Picture Accounting
by
Mark Garrett Cooper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0105

Introduction

Accounting measures and regulates social conduct. This makes it more broadly interesting than the basic math it typically employs. Accordingly, accounting has drawn the attention of historians, sociologists, economists, legal scholars, scholars of business and management, and even literary critics, in addition to generating a specialized literature by and for professional accountants. Because motion picture accounting organizes aesthetic practices on an industrial scale, it would seem especially ripe for multidisciplinary investigation. For a century at least, detailed cost estimates have informed and inspired creative choices about what appears on screen. Indeed, it seems the US film industry was an early and aggressive adopter of standard costing methods, in which budgets help manage production from the initial planning phases through distribution. Similarly, by 1920, Hollywood had developed one of the most distinctive features of motion picture accounting, the “income forecast method,” which relies on a theory of audience taste to depreciate the economic value of the films in a studio’s inventory. Internationally, accountants manage a complex system of production incentives designed to attract business, promote national culture, and sometimes advance alternatives to the commercial mainstream. For these reasons and others, motion picture accounting challenges familiar narratives that pit the art of motion pictures against the business of producing, distributing, and exhibiting them. Despite the richness of this topic, however, a research community has been slow to develop around it. Work in English on industries outside the United States is notably lacking. Even with respect to the mainstream US film and television industries, no comprehensive history of accounting practice exists; most general introductions to the topic describe procedures contemporary with them. Work in the loosely associated academic growth fields of media industry studies, cultural economics, and business history occasionally engages accounting practice, and salient examples from each of these fields are included here. A proper overview of these areas would, however, exceed the brief of this bibliography, which aims to energize work across them by encouraging interest in accounting as a research problem. Consistent with that aim, the bibliography does provide key entry points to the historical and theoretical literature on accounting systems, which may be less well known, particularly to researchers in the humanities. Similarly, beyond the general introductory sections, accounting problems central to media industries, as opposed to national, historical, or critical categories, organize the bibliography. For example, rather than a section on “globalization,” readers will find work on the development and function of international accounting conventions and work on systems encouraging the dispersal of production. Finally, although any researcher investigating this topic will find journalism an important resource, the bibliography generally eschews news stories in favor of more substantive, synthetic, and argumentative resources.

General Overviews

Most general discussions of motion picture accounting occur within overviews of the organization, financing, and business operations of the mainstream US film industry. This only makes sense—absent a basic understanding of the business, it would be impossible to grasp the distinctive features of its accounting practice. In the last decades of the 20th century, the expansion of nontheatrical markets for films (television, home video, etc.) and the growth of transnational multimedia conglomerates significantly complicated an already complex business. Recent worthwhile overviews of film accounting consider the whole media landscape. They also typically focus on financial accounting—which relates production, distribution, and exhibition to show profit or loss—rather than on managerial accounting—which guides producers’ decisions about resource allocation. Comparing the economics of all forms of entertainment, Vogel 2011 (the 8th edition) provides a definitive overview and devotes a chapter specifically to accounting for film and television. The volume anticipates graduate students in economics and management as its primary readers; although generous in explaining terms specific to entertainment industries, it assumes knowledge of general business terms and concepts. Vogel addresses a broader audience in his essay on movie accounting in Moul 2005; that essay is, however, less detailed and comprehensive. From different perspectives, Daniels, et al. 2006 and Goodell 1998 provide complementary overviews written for those working in the industry or aspiring to do so.

  • Daniels, Bill, David J. Leedy, and Steven D. Sills. Movie Money: Understanding Hollywood’s (Creative) Accounting Practices. 2d ed. Los Angeles: Silman-James, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written primarily for writers, actors, and other talent, this book focuses on how revenues are accounted and distributed and how profit participation agreements are structured. It contains some information about production costs and budgeting as well. Many basic accounting terms and procedures are explained, and a glossary is included. The second edition provides improved discussion of residuals.

  • Goodell, Gregory. Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept through Distribution. Rev. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.

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    A how-to-guide for producers, Goodell’s volume sometimes considers accounting procedures specifically but is most useful as an explanation of the complex context in which they occur. Includes detailed chapters on budgeting and appendices with sample budgets.

  • Moul, Charles C., ed. A Concise Handbook of Movie Industry Economics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614422E-mail Citation »

    Written for a broad scholarly audience, this collection of essays introduces key aspects of the industry past and present from a range of disciplinary perspectives. Most of the contributions hold some interest for a student of motion picture accounting, and the volume includes a chapter specifically on the topic by Vogel.

  • Vogel, Harold L. Entertainment Industry Economics: A Guide for Financial Analysis. 8th ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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    Since 1986, this text has been a definitive introduction to the business of entertainment for students of economics and management. Chapter 5 deals specifically with financial accounting in movies and television. Includes generous references and a glossary.

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