Member Spotlight: CPA Robert Fingerman on “Controlling the Madness” of an Indie Film Set
Name: Robert Fingerman
Discipline: CPA and Business Consultant
Arts Circle Member Since: 2013
As a CPA, what led you to working on film productions?
After I graduated college, I worked for CPA firms and got my CPA certificate and license. I took a job with a New York City-based firm (now Prager Metis, then Prager and Fenton) and I did not know in the interview that they were deeply involved in the recording industry in the 80s. And their job for these recording artists, while they were also a traditional accounting firm, was to manage their finances, to audit their record deals—this is when people actually made money in the recording industry—and to go on tour with them and administer the books, pay per diem, collect revenue, account tickets and control the madness.
So that got me into the entertainment industry. When I left that firm, I started out on my own, and I started getting calls from the managers and the lawyers that were dealing with these recording stars, asking me if I knew anything about the independent film business. It was about 16 years ago. And I said, yes, that I felt that it was very close to tour accounting, in that you’re administering a budget from a remote location, obviously a lot less money, a lot less drugs, a lot less sex and a lot less rock and roll. But other than that, similar. So I got into this business as a full production accounting firm that went onsite with films. I think my first film was The Technical Writer (2003). And it was the first film that Tatum O’Neal did after she kicked the cocaine habit, wrote a book and divorced John McEnroe. It was produced by one of my real estate clients and he knew I had something to do with film. And so we went on the road and filmed it and it went to Sundance.
What does “controlling the madness” entail, both in your work with bands and in the independent film world?
Well, as you can imagine, going on tour with rock and roll groups the madness is the talent themselves and the fans and the energy that these groups have. On a film set, it’s more the unanticipated chaos of a shoot, where there’s people who are in control—directors, producers—and then there are acts of God happening unpredictably. And one of the big differences between independent film, especially now, and the studio films is A) lack of experience, B) lack of resources and C) a tremendous amount of multitasking. People working on independent films on smaller budgets assume many roles. When it comes down to the actual filmmaking process, it’s an extremely chaotic situation for them, all around.
Which member of the crew are you usually working most closely with?
It depends. Our clients are producers. Our clients are line producers and production managers who recommend us. Our clients are directors who recommend us and who bring us on. So people recognize a need for an accountant, then we’re brought in. Usually when we meet somebody, we stay with them long-term throughout all of their projects. They’re usually working on two or three a year and hopefully have many years of being involved in projects. So our clients are a wide range—distributors, financiers, banks, government agencies, film commissioners. We deal a lot with distributors and casting agents and production companies and writers, actors and then we’re in other businesses. We’re in theater and we’re in music and we’re in gaming and we’re in disruptive media and internet content providers now. It depends. People needing business guidance advice on this ever-changing business—that’s our specialty.
How would you characterize the most successful relationships you have with filmmakers?
I think the most successful ones are the ones where producers or filmmakers ultimately reach their goal in a period that it doesn’t consume their life and that they are still able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. This is an industry where success is unpredictable. Will there be financing? Will the project be green-lit or picked up? There’s no timetable. There’s no recipe. Some have great projects, but they’re not capable of moving to the next level. Some don’t have the financial or personal life that allows them to hold out until it finally happens. It’s unlike any other job because you have put so much into it. And there’s no better scene of happiness and joy than when it finally works out.
Lawyers and accountants, we have businesses that provide us a normal family lifestyle and an income and we can feed ourselves. [Independent filmmakers] are living a very disruptive life, chasing a passionate dream and constantly being told to get a real job. So you end up being the cheerleader too. They need someone to talk to to validate what they’re doing [and answer questions]—am I really in the right spot? What am I doing wrong? Why is it not happening for me? How come that guy did it? And so on and so forth.
How did you first get involved with Film Independent?
I am definitely a person who joins as many organizations as possible. It helps me with my business. I’m also one of the few people that do what I do; I don’t have a lot of competition. I think we met Film Independent at Sundance. I invited them to a dinner, a few of the people. We developed the relationship. I became an Arts Circle member. I went to the Spirit Awards with them. And then I met [Film Independent President] Josh [Welsh] and [Arts Circle Manager] Jennifer [Murby]. We just recently sponsored a large cocktail party in Manhattan and we’ve done that several times. And I get a lot of business through their member services brochure.
And I also do a lot of mentoring with different groups throughout the country–incubators, we call them. Filmmakers come and for either a fee or non-fee, learn their trade in an educational scenario. I’ve been brought in many times to lecture and discuss the business side of film and I also do a lot of public lecturing at universities and at film festivals.
What’s the difference between what you do and what a typical accountant does?
I’m not a stereotypical accountant. Accountants have a certain lifestyle and they work hard. Somehow, just through luck, I’ve had the opportunity to work in an area within my accounting degree that is different and enjoyable. And it’s really energized me as far as moving forward in this industry. I think if I were more of a typical accountant, doing the drudgework day in and day out with more traditional clients, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I wouldn’t be happy, I’ll tell you that much. It’s good when you enjoy what you do for a living. It’s a unique situation. I’m sure that’s why a lot of people stay in film. It’s certainly not for the money or the lifestyle; It’s something you enjoy. So if you can do what really energizes you and you have fun at it and you’re being paid and you can support a lifestyle, you’re blessed.
Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger