Tales From the Payroll Trenches

Every movie, TV show and commercial needs them: Now the unsung heroes of Hollywood dish about how they deal with two-bit criminals, pushy entourages and wannabe tax dodgers.

When The Perfect Storm was shooting a dozen years ago, second-billed Mark Wahlberg wasn't yet a full-fledged Hollywood star. But if you were on the set back then you could be forgiven for believing that he was, given the size of his entourage.

"The stories are true," says a payroll executive who worked on the production. "He absolutely had an entourage already. All his friends from Boston were on the payroll -- a driver, a bodyguard, a personal assistant. No -- two personal assistants. It was embarrassing paying one particular guy, because he looked like a thug."

But at least it provided a decent story to tell, which is unusual for employees in the mundane payroll-services industry. These accountants, labor experts and collection of paper-pushers might be involved in one of the least sexy areas of the entertainment business, but it's also one of the most critical.

"We're the unsung heroes," says one not-so-modest payroll executive. Says another: "If the payroll industry disappeared, production would stop."

Productions typically hire a payroll-services company as soon as a project is greenlighted. At that point, the company will juice up its productivity and accounting software, issue timecards, figure out tax incentives, help to mitigate on-set safety risks in order to manage the cost of workman's compensation insurance and engage in a thousand other tasks.

Then, of course, they'll issue weekly paychecks to everyone working on the production. Afterward, they tack on a 0.5 percent fee and bill the studio for repayment. For TV shows the fee can be a little bit more, and on commercials it can run as high as 2 percent.

"You're floating millions of dollars for a week at a time," one payroll-services executive says.

A payroll company will typically issue from 600 to 1,200 checks a week for a single major-studio film, in some cases amounting to hundreds of millions dollars over the course of the production.

"Our logo is on the paycheck, so we have a lot of good will wherever we go," says Mark Goldstein, CEO of Entertainment Partners, the biggest of about 10 primary payroll-services companies used by Hollywood's film and TV studios. Among the films Goldstein's firm is working on now are the next installments of the Spider-Man and Men in Black franchises.

Payroll in the entertainment business is a hugely complicated matter, with labor and tax laws varying state-to-state and with rules from some 100 different guilds and unions to follow. So it's a testament to the industry that mistakes are so few that payroll services can fly under the radar, with a few exceptions, of course.

Radio personality Howard Stern, for example, once derided Entertainment Partners on air for sending him a residual check for a project he never worked on. Goldstein says the ribbing, though, was undeserved, because his company sent the check, meant for a different Howard Stern, to union officials who mistakenly forwarded it to the shock-jock.

Then there was the time a now-defunct payroll company issued a check for a negative amount of money to a crewmember. "It literally said 'minus' on the check. I keep a copy of it in my file of weird stuff," says one payroll executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity, as do most in the industry, given the privacy laws that surround compensation.

Another time, says the executive, he was on location flipping through the paychecks he was about to distribute. "We just saw name after name that wasn't on our payroll. Finally, we opened an envelope and the wrong movie was on the check. I said, 'Oh shit,' and was in a bit of a panic. The payroll-services company mixed up two films."

The same executive says that, even in the digital age, some who work on movie and TV sets insist on old-fashioned paper checks over direct-deposit, which can be a tricky proposition in remote areas. And they better get paid on time.

"High-profile talent can be pretty demanding," he adds. "How a director of photography making $22,000 a week can run out of money just because his check is a few days late is beyond me."

The industry made its biggest news in recent memory three years ago when the firm Axium International filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and was unable to issue checks to production crews. Trustees even demanded that some actors return money that was deemed "avoidable preferential payments."

Fortunately, that sort of thing is rare. In fact, more often (though still rare) it's a production that goes bust and leaves the payroll company holding the bag.

"Once somebody completes a time card with our logo on it, we pay them," Goldstein insists.

Even A-list actors are required to submit time cards on occasion for accounting purposes. For Message in a Bottle, the late Paul Newman worked two weeks and hauled in $10 million, according to a payroll official on the 1999 film. "We cut him a check for $5 million one week and $5 million the next week. We joked that we never put so many zeroes on a check before."

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There's usually no need to withhold taxes for stars, since most big names are corporations.

"That's how Wesley Snipes got in trouble. His accountants allegedly didn't pay his taxes," says the executive.

Another exec used to keep a wall of shame of entertainment industry time cards. For example: One crewmember wrote on his last time card before his project wrapped: "I have raped (sic). Please mail check."

Not surprisingly, the payroll industry is populated by private companies that won't share financial details. Suffice it to say, the two biggest, Entertainment Partners and Cast & Crew Services, cut checks running to the billions of dollars annually.

"You can make millions in the payroll industry if you can keep your clients, who are always shopping around," says Vicki Zamora, a senior vp at PES Payroll. "I can feel my client's pain when they desperately need a check to get out. If we're talking about an actor, it's too much money to get lost in the mail."

"People just look at their check and think, 'how nice.' But there's a whole industry that went into that," says Eric Belcher, a senior vp with Cast & Crew, the company James Cameron used for Avatar.

Like others, Cast & Crew started out small in 1976 on commercials and music projects, "literally paying people out of the trunks of cars," before building a reputation -- and the necessary cash -- to tackle TV shows and movies.

Like a lot of businesses, the industry slowed down during the financial crisis, but Entertainment Partners, which is owned by its 650 employees, says it is hiring again.

Beyond what's typical in the industry, Entertainment Partners also sells its guide, The Paymaster, that lays out wage guidelines for the hundreds of jobs in film and TV. The most recent one is 467 pages long and is so detailed, it devotes 10 pages alone to compensating background actors (aka extras).

For the record, they earn $139 a day, but can earn $14 more if they endure a little smoke or get wet. If they're asked to bring their own skis, bike or golf clubs, they get $12 more. Pets are worth an extra $23 and a tennis racket, skateboard or binoculars are worth $5.50.

Extras and other lower-level help, in fact, can be a source of entertainment for payroll employees.

"I get a lot of people who say, 'but I don't want to pay taxes.' Well, you have to, dumb-ass," says one payroll executive. "Another guy didn't want to fill out his I-9 form. 'In 20 years in the business no one has ever made me fill one out,' he says. I told him, 'I know you, dude. I worked with you two years ago at Warner Bros. and you filled one out.' "

On the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact, an extra who refused to supply his Social Security number wasn't paid. "So he comes in the trailer and he's got a gun. We paid him and reported him to the cops," says a payroll executive.

In the James Caan/Halle Berry football movie The Program (1993), extras were issued vouchers that they exchanged for cash.  "A shrewd grandmother and her gang of relatives counterfeited the vouchers and came through the line multiple times," says a payroll exec on the film.

After noticing they cashed 20 more vouchers than they issued, they changed the colors of the vouchers each day and caught the culprits.

"They threatened us, and the police told us they'd handle it from there."

Unsung heroes, indeed.             

THE MONEY HANDLERS: 5 Leading Payroll Companies

Caps Universal

  • Established: 1991
  • Locations: Three states; based in Culver City
  • Services: Payroll for commercials, extras, live venues, music tours, film, TV

Cast & Crew Entertainment Services

  • Established: 1976
  • Locations: Nine states, two Canadian provinces; based in Burbank
  • Services: Payroll, residuals, workers' comp, labor relations, production incentives, software, software training, Accountant Resume Program

Entertainment Partners

  • Established: 1976
  • Locations: Nine states; based in Burbank
  • Services: Payroll for productions, commercials, casting, music; production employee resources; residuals and talent payments; more

The Maslow Media Group

  • Established: 1988
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Services: Media payroll services, camera crews, video production staffing, government services, media department management

PES Payroll

  • Established: 1994
  • Locations: Six states; based in Burbank
  • Services: Payroll for features, TV, commercials, music videos, extras; production accounting; production employee services

WHAT PEOPLE DO FOR MONEY

Payroll executives are responsible for cutting checks to hundreds of employees with unusual titles who work in movies and TV. One executive admitted to being flummoxed, though, when his payroll-services firm was asked to issue a check to a "fluffer."

Turns out, a fluffer's job is to keep a male actor sexually aroused in between takes.

"I never saw the fluffer," the executive says. "It might have been the producer's girlfriend, for all I know."

Unfortunately, the executive wouldn't divulge the film -- beyond saying it was a mainstream title.

Fluffer is one of those rare jobs -- along with aardvark wrangler -- not cited in The Paymaster, the massive publication from Entertainment Partners that lays out minimum weekly salaries for hundreds of production workers. Here's a sample:

  • Wigman class 1: $1,382.75
  • Registered nurse: $1,391.43
  • Key hair stylist trainee: $1,534.60
  • Junior publicist: $1,564.87
  • Still photographer: $1,832.19
  • Greensman gang boss: $2,075.19
  • Best boy: $2,159.71
  • Teacher-welfare worker: $2,543.09
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