Hollywood accounting (also known as Hollywood bookkeeping) refers to the opaque or creative accounting methods used by the film, video and television industry to budget and record profits for film projects. Expenditures can be inflated to reduce or eliminate the reported profit of the project, thereby reducing the amount which the corporation must pay in royalties or other profit-sharing agreements, as these are based on the net profit.
Hollywood accounting gets its name from its prevalence in the entertainment industry—that is, in the movie studios of Hollywood at a time when most studios were located in Hollywood. Those affected can range from the writers to the actors.
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Hollywood accounting can take several forms. In one form, a subsidiary is formed to perform a given activity and the parent entity will extract money out of the subsidiary not in terms of profits but in the form of charges for certain "services". The specific schemes can range from the simple and obvious to the extremely complex.
Three main factors in Hollywood accounting reduce the reported profit of a movie, and all have to do with the calculation of overhead:
- Production overhead: Studios, on average, calculate production overhead by using a figure around 15% of total production costs.
- Distribution overhead: Film distributors typically keep 30% of what they receive from movie theaters ("gross rentals").
- Marketing overhead: To determine this number, studios usually choose about 10% of all advertising costs.
All of the above means of calculating overhead are highly controversial, even within the accounting profession. Namely, these percentages are assigned without much regard to how, in reality, these estimates relate to actual overhead costs. In short, this method does not, by any rational standard, attempt to adequately trace overhead costs.
Because of this, net points which are a percentage of the net income (i.e. gross income minus expenses), as opposed to a percentage of the gross income are sometimes referred to as "monkey points". The term is attributed to Eddie Murphy, who is said to have also stated that only a fool would accept net points in their contract. Actress Lynda Carter on The Late Show with Joan Rivers commented "Don't ever settle for net profits. It's called 'creative accounting'."
Many insist on "gross points" (a percentage of some definition of gross revenue) rather than net profit participation. This practice reduces the likelihood of a project showing a profit, as a production company will claim a portion of the reported box-office revenue was diverted directly to gross point participants.
Art Buchwald received a settlement from Paramount after his lawsuit Buchwald v. Paramount. The court found Paramount's actions "unconscionable", noting that it was impossible to believe that 1988's Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America, which grossed US$350 million, failed to make a profit, especially since the actual production costs were less than a tenth of that. Paramount settled for $900,000, rather than have its accounting methods closely scrutinized.
Producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker filed a breach of contract lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court on March 26, 1992. Uslan and Melniker claimed to be "the victims of a sinister campaign of fraud and coercion that has cheated them out of continuing involvement in the production of the 1989 film Batman and its sequels. We were denied proper credits, and deprived of any financial rewards for our indispensable creative contribution to the success of Batman." A superior court judge rejected the lawsuit. Total revenues of Batman have topped $2 billion, with Uslan claiming to have "not seen a penny more than that since our net profit participation has proved worthless." Warner Bros. offered the pair an out-of-court pay-off, a sum described by Uslan and Melniker's attorney as "two popcorns and two Cokes".
The estate of Jim Garrison sued Warner Bros. for their share of the profits from the movie JFK (1991), which was based on Garrison's book On the Trail of the Assassins. The case was settled in 1999, with Garrison's estate receiving a "very small settlement."
Winston Groom's price for the screenplay rights to his novel Forrest Gump included a 3% share of the profits; however, due to Hollywood accounting, the film's commercial success was converted into a net loss, and Groom received only $350,000 for the rights and an additional $250,000 from the studio.
Stan Lee, co-creator of the character Spider-Man, had a contract awarding him 10% of the net profits of anything based on his characters. The film Spider-Man (2002) made more than $800 million in revenue, but the producers claim that it did not make any profit as defined in Lee's contract, and Lee received nothing. In 2002 he filed a lawsuit against Marvel Comics.
The 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding was considered hugely successful for an independent film, yet according to the studio, the film lost money. Accordingly, the cast (with the exception of Nia Vardalos who had a separate deal) sued the studio for their part of the profits. The original producers of the film have sued Gold Circle Films due to Hollywood accounting practices because the studio has claimed the film, which cost less than $6 million to make and made over $350 million at the box office, lost $20 million.
Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings, and his studio Wingnut Films, brought a lawsuit against New Line Cinema after an audit. Jackson stated this is regarding "certain accounting practices". In response, New Line stated that their rights to a film of The Hobbit were time-limited, and since Jackson would not work with them again until the suit was settled, he would not be asked to direct The Hobbit, as had been anticipated. Fifteen actors are suing New Line Cinema, claiming that they have never received their 5% of revenue from merchandise sold in relation to the movie, which contains their likeness. Similarly, the Tolkien estate sued New Line, claiming that their contract entitled them to 7.5% of the gross receipts of the $6 billion hit. According to New Line's accounts the trilogy made "horrendous losses" and no profit at all.
Michael Moore sued Bob and Harvey Weinstein for creative accounting to deprive him of his share of profits for the film Fahrenheit 9/11. Eventually, Moore reached a settlement with the Weinsteins and the lawsuit was dropped.
A WB receipt was leaked online, showing that the hugely successful movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ended up with a $167 million loss on paper. This is especially unusual, given that, without inflation adjustment, the Harry Potter film series is the second highest-grossing film series of all time both domestic and international, behind only the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 remains Warner Bros.' highest grossing movie ever.
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I hired my own bookkeepers to keep a watch on everything. Hollywood bookkeeping can be very suspect.
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"By the way, you called net profit participation points yesterday 'monkey points.' What's the origin of that, do you know?" I asked Eddie [Murphy] as I started to pick up my papers. "Well, it's like 'stupid' points. Stupid to take the points." "Won't be any net profits?" "You sit there with your points going, 'Eeeh, eeh, eeh, eeh, eeh.'"
- The Late Show with Joan Rivers. Fox Network. Air date: February 9, 1987
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