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Entertainment Partners: Tackling the Changing World of Entertainment Payroll

Cutting a check used to be a pretty simple task. But in today’s media and entertainment industry, there’s nothing simple about paying everyone involved in a production.

Enter Burbank, Calif.-based Entertainment Partners (EP).

With a history dating back to the 1970s, EP has become one of the go-to companies for all things payroll, covering residuals, tax incentives, finance, and other integrated production management solutions for the entertainment industry.

Ron Cogan, VP of communications for the company, spoke with the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA) about the challenges facing Hollywood and payrolls today, the success of the company’s casting arm, Central Casting, and the mistakes media and entertainment companies make when it comes to getting everyone paid.

MESA: What are some of the unique challenges in the payroll space for media and entertainment companies, and how are Entertainment Partners’ offerings uniquely situated to tackle them?

Cogan: It is incredibly challenging to pay production workers in the entertainment industry space. Projects can involve both union and non-union members. For union members, there are so many different unions involved and there are many different requirements for each – when a meal break must occur to avoid penalties, how long the turnaround period must be before someone can be called back to the set, at what levels and when the pension, health and welfare benefit contributions must be made, and on.

In addition, the rules are constantly changing. Due to the project-based nature of production, employees are frequently being hired on and completing multiple jobs per year. We maintain close relationships with all the unions and guilds and have the expertise to handle all of this accurately and efficiently for our clients, so they can focus on getting the best possible product up there on the screen. Then after a project is done there is an entirely new arena of residuals tracking and payment – there are decades of contracts at play at any given time and it takes a team of experts to stay on top of these obligations and be sure they are handled precisely. So there is a lot more to paying productions than anyone might suspect, and the price to pay for errors can be costly.

That’s why our clients rely on us – we make sure everyone gets paid on time, correctly, and in compliance with all regulations.

MESA: What changes has Entertainment Partners seen lately in the way of production incentives offered by various states and countries, and how has Entertainment Partners positioned itself to help clients make the most of them?

Cogan: Nobody creates just one budget when they are planning their production –the expansion of production incentives has made it necessary to research many locations to determine how to create the most cost-efficient production while delivering the maximum results. We bring productivity-enhancing solutions at every step in this process, starting with consultation to help our clients choose the best locations for their needs.

We are in constant contact with film commissioners and legislators so we always have the most current information. We also offer administration services beginning with budget preparation and vetting, incentive application filing and document submission, and tracking of all expenditures that qualify for the incentives. In fact, if we are doing your incentive administration work we will know how much money you will be getting back and we will actually be able to front you that money when you need it the most – during production, rather than requiring you to wait to get it sometime in the future. We can provide an important component of the finance package on a project.

Add to that our Web-based database of all incentives and qualifications and no-cost published incentives guide and it becomes clear why we became an essential partner in production planning.

MESA: Entertainment Partners also has a casting arm. Can you share some details about this offering?

Cogan: Central Casting recently celebrated 90 years of service to the industry, having been established in 1925. We are the largest and most respected provider of background talent in the industry and the list of people who got their start with us: Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt, Eva Longoria, Kelly Clarkson, Adam Lambert spans the history of the industry. Beyond maintaining the largest database of background talent available anywhere, we provide a number of differentiators that have made our clients remain loyal year after year. We personally train everyone before they are ever placed on a show, so they are well aware of the expectations and protocol when they arrive on a set.

We also are the only background casting company who also offer payroll services for the background actors, so if you use another casting agency you will need to find someone else to payroll the background talent. Differences such as this are the reasons our clients asked us to branch out of the Los Angeles area and serve the production communities in New York, New Orleans, and Atlanta. We are also about to rollout a new casting system, utilizing the latest advances in technology to make the process much more efficient for our clients, our teams, and the talent we cast.

MESA: Can you share some of your favorite examples where companies in the M&E space made especially effective use of Entertainment Partners offerings?

Cogan: The Affordable Care Act was primed to be a major headache for the entertainment industry so we got in front of it prior to implementation. Clients who try and manage this on their own risk incurring significant financial penalties. This is another area where we not only developed an ACA-compliant out-of-the-box insurance product specifically designed for the needs of the industry, but also devised management reporting services and data tools to simplify the process.

The industry came to look to us as a solutions provider — particularly in the realm of technology. We are now partnering to reinvent how a very paper-heavy, inefficient back office process operates. From tracking and submitting hours to digitizing document management and offering state-of-the-art cloud-based closed-loop security features, our clients are using our offerings to streamline, modernize and reimagine their workflows. The number of man-hours, reams of paper, and duplicative processes that have been reduced by the production industry through effective use of our offerings has been staggering, and we have many more solutions that are coming in the next few years.

MESA: What are some of the biggest mistakes M&E companies make in the areas of payroll, taxes and insurance, and how has Entertainment Partners helped address those problems?

Cogan: Honestly the number one mistake is probably trying to do all of this on your own. Or trying to cut corners by using providers who lack our depth of expertise and range of offerings. Especially for our independent clients, the advantages to partnering with us and getting the benefit of the industry’s leading labor relations, tax administration, incentives, and payroll solutions teams far outweigh the costs of our services. One error can have real financial impact on a production – why would anyone want to risk that?