Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Accountants in film

Thanks, Hollwood. Thanks a bunch.

I spent the better part of a decade on the front lines of film as an assistant director/producer, loving the work and collecting anecdotes of remarkable places, people and experiences. I considered myself fortunate to have one of the most interesting jobs going.

And then, for fairly standard reasons, I decided I needed to get out. Uninteresting twists of fate meant that I soon began training as an accountant. A few years on, here I find myself still.

There is a marked difference between the responses you get from telling someone you're a filmmaker, and telling them you are an accountant. At parties, where there used to be expectation, now there is pity. Because of Tinseltown, we accountants are variously perceived as pedantic, idealistic, immoral or (worst of all) boring. Maybe Hollywood just doesn't like accountants. Given that Hollywood has produced some of the most dubious figures this side of the Sarbanes-Oxley act, I'm not surprised.

Did you know, for example, that according to Paramount Pictures, Forrest Gump, the most successful film of 1994, with a box office of $677m worldwide, did not make a single penny of return for its investors? Or that My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which took almost 50 times its production budget of $5m in the United States alone, somehow made a net loss of $20m? The one which  really blows my mind is that The Lord of the Rings, the most financially successful film trilogy of all time at $2.9 billion worldwide,  made "horrendous losses" according to production company New Line. The mind truly boggles. So does the taxman.

Thus Hollywood is more creative with numbers than scripts - all but one of the top ten films of 2012 and 2011 were sequels, remakes, or direct adaptations, and the last was The Smurfs - so it is understandable that accountants are sometimes painted as the bad guys. It is therefore worth pointing out the few films in which accountants are a bit more colourful (beware of spoilers):

The Untouchables


Al Capone gets put away for tax evasion by bean-counter Oscar Wallace, aided ably by Kevin Costner and the inscrutable Sir Sean Connery. The Mounties may not approve of the Untouchables methods, but the audit approach managed to get done what the Bureau could not. True story, too.

Midnight Run

So, the funny one in this film is the bookkeeper. Charles Grodin is as acerbic and withering as they come, playing a mob number-cruncher who has jumped bail, being brought in by bondsman Robert De Niro. Upstaging De Niro takes some doing, and it is a rare treat to see Grodin carving acid lumps out of the erstwhile Don Corleone as they trek across the country in trains, planes and automobiles.

Stranger Than Fiction

Will Ferrell is a metronomic IRS investigator, who refuses a gift of cookies from baker Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom he fancies but is obliged to audit, lest it be misconstrued as a bribe. He does, however, start a relationship with her, so perhaps his ethics are not so exemplary. Also, he may in fact be mad.

Lethal Weapon 2

Joe Pesci is Leo Getz, possibly the most annoying character in movie history. Nevertheless, he observes some of his obligations as an accountant, having blown the whistle on his former employers, some moustache-twirling South African types claiming "diplomatic immunity" as if it were "bagsy" rules on the playground. Getz also pops up in Lethal Weapons 3 and 4, although mercifully he gets shot in one, and has an uncomfortable trip to the dentist in the other.

The Shawshank Redemption

The crowning glory for accountants in film. Long ranked as the greatest film ever made on the  IMDb, our hero is Andy Dufresne, a bank clerk unjustly condemned to life in prison for the death of his wife. Andy's first big moment comes when he cuts his fellow prisoners a big break, and a few bottles of ice cold beer, by giving the guard some sound tax advice while teetering on the edge of a very high roof. He finally gains his freedom and gives the tyrannical warden his comeuppance, by exposing the prison's systematic corruption and embezzlement, while making off with most of the proceeds. Personally, I choose to overlook this final little peccadillo; Andy has suffered a lifetime of unwarranted hardship, so I'm cheering as much as the next man by the time he sees Red on the beach in Zihuatanejo.


However, almost all of the above films are works of fiction. The truth, when spectacular, is often much more sinister. For a look into the heart of darkness, see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the story of  one of the most cataclysmic Chapter 11 bankruptcies in history, and how "The Big 5" became "The Big 4". Or check out Margin Call, ArbitrageRogue Trader. While these are certainly investment-driven stories, it was the accounting that nurtured the beast...

Seriously. Accounting: not that boring!

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