A Discussion with Joan Debow about a Women Owned & Operated Entertainment Payroll Business
By Carol Patton
It just doesn’t get any more complicated than operating a payroll service for the entertainment, production, and advertising industries. Most of us can’t for the life of us get our arms around it in scope especially when you consider every client and their needs are different, guidelines and rules change regularly, and each client brings not only what they do, but the corresponding union(s), the performer(s), and the multiple government roles including insurance to the table all of which need to be satisfied. Who could or would intentionally want to tackle a situation like that?
However, if you are a producer, production company or advertising agency and you don’t have an accounting department the size of Price Waterhouse you need this service and its attention to a myriad of details most creative types do not want to think about.
It must be a daunting task, but to find out more about it, I knew the person to talk to was Joan Debow, an Account Manager for ARTPayroll and in the biz for over twenty-five years. ARTPayroll is a woman owned and operated entertainment, production and advertising payroll service that serves the country with multiple locations from their headquarters in Tamworth, New Hampshire.
According to Debow, ARTPayroll, “Acts as employer of record for tax and workers compensation insurance purposes for temporary employees, i.e. actors in commercials, industrials, movies, and live theater, and also for crew for all types of production. We advise and consult on Union contract compliance for example SAGAFTRA, American Federation of Musicians, IATSE, ACTR and Actors Equity. We provide Broadcast Business Affairs services including estimating production and residual costs, commercial traffic and network clearance of commercials.”
ARTPayroll provides these services for ad agencies, recording studios, production companies, producers of movies, commercials, industrials, live production, live music contractors, small legitimate theaters, even companies that hire crew for trade shows, etc.
Emily Erskine is the president and owner of the company. Joan describes her this way, “Patient, and gentle. Knowledgeable and experienced. She’s very intelligent and has an incredible eye for detail. She has been in the business for a long time and has a vast memory bank of anecdotal and historical contract knowledge.”
Joan continues, “This is absolutely crucial in the area of contract expertise and it’s practical applications. She is very responsible and sensibly cautious. We disburse a lot of our clients’ money and we need and want them to know it’s secure with us. Emily is very attentive to the security and soundness of ART and has fostered it’s safe growth in an ever more complicated arena.”
ARTPayroll goals are to tailor their services to meet their client needs within the purview of their business. Joan says that includes “becoming our clients’ ally while assisting them with their payroll related business matters. This often includes attending to an infinite number of details and matters that have some scary financial and legal ramifications making our clients’ job easier. ART’s motto is ‘Complete Support From Start to Finish’.”
A typical day in the life of Joan Debow and her Account Manager counterparts in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, California and New York, starts with assisting with the talent costs starting at the story-boarding process, production and all the way through the media plan. “I estimate costs for a specific job or I may be asked to project the costs of an entire annual campaign. I’ll advise clients on ways to cut costs and stay in compliance within the requirements of the contract. I process the talent contracts by computing the hours while abiding by the complicated wage provisions. There are complicated overtime and night premiums and scary things like ‘Meal Penalties’.
“You really need to know the ‘when the moon is blue’ intricacies of the contract to pay people correctly. Productions have many varying degrees of difficulty in this regard. Once computed, I enter them into our computer system which pays the talent, but also sets them up in a program to process residual payments as the commercials go into use. I interpret client media plans, and process the appropriate residuals payments on the basis of that information. I field and negotiate resolutions of union claims and talent contract disagreements. Some where in all of that I talk to many, many first time movie producers about payrolling their lowbudget movies (which I then payroll, which is more an act of support to newbies in the community than it will ever be lucrative).
“I talk to many producers hiring union talent for commercials and/or industrials for the first time. This is a lengthy process because it requires a thorough vetting of their production so nothing that costs money in a union talent budget is overlooked. Since they’re doing it for the first time this requires clarity and patience on my part, and theirs, so as to keep them from being overwhelmed, giving up, and running away! It can appear harder to pay talent than it really is. When a producer has decided to produce ‘union’ it’s because they are looking for something by way of performance, but it is more expensive and requires a financial commitment. My job is to help make that as easy as I can and also help the client be as informed about their responsibilities as they need to be, to uphold this legal agreement they have made with the talent,” that’s all in a day work says Joan
Clearly it takes extraordinarily special people to do this expansive, all encompassing, yet intricate work. Joan uses words like “Hard-working, steadfastly gentle and consistent to describe MaryJane Beattie, an ARTPayroll Account Manager in New Hampshire. “Very smart, kind and dedicated…wise beyond her years,” is what she says about Jonele Desperalta who works in Long Island, New York.
About Melissa Ferraro who does traffic, commercial clearance, and account management Joan says she’s a woman of few words meaning it as a compliment, has a mind like a whip, super quick and super efficient. Melissa works on the North Shore in Massachusetts.
Account Manager in Los Angeles, Shira Uslander, is another extremely smart and careful young woman who has come to ART in the last two years and jumped in full force with some of their largest and most demanding accounts. Her words are intelligent, detailed and very hardworking. Boryana Marquez, Account Manager also in LA is the newest member of the team. Experienced in the Commercial Contracts arena, this is no small thing since the contracts are very complicated. “Efficient, attentive and kind with her clients. Very pleasant and easy to talk to. A really good fit for ART.” according to Joan Debow.
The rest of the team Tracy Edwards, Susan D’Agostino, Jonathan Brady and Pamela Havell are all in Tamworth, New Hampshire at ARTPayroll’s headquarters.
Owner Emily Erskine, has this to say regarding staff, “Recently, I had a client share with me that he has worked with a many number of payroll services, but really wanted to work with us because Shira, his main account rep was nice, funny, not easily flustered and a pleasure to work with. This is the type of response that I typically hear regarding other staff as well.”
In addition to all the efficiency factors according to Joan, “You also really need patience because if you ask anyone who knows they will tell you the contracts can be frustrating and confusing. I was mentored by ART’s founder Jim Deaderick and in time I gained a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of the commercials, industrial/ non-broadcast contracts, and a little about the theatrical contract.
While ARTPayroll appears to be quite client-centric, if your are a performer you are provided with the ease of mind that you will be paid properly under the law or union contract. Performers receive the benefits of employees such as tax withholding, FICA contributions, unemployment and workman compensation insurance. And you have secure online account access to all of your ART payroll records. Plus a friendly, helpful staff willing to answer your questions with the belief that helping the artist saves their producing clients the added work of addressing those needs.
Speaking of questions, here’s one for the books: “We’re going to have a live goose in our White Sale commercial and we need to know what we have to provide and pay the goose? Is there a Union for geese?”
“Thing is, there sort of is a ‘union’ for animals. It’s the Humane Society, and the SAG and AFTRA contracts do have provisions about the humane treatment of animals along with provisions for humane treatment of actors, singers, dancers and stunt performers.” I knew Joan Debow was the person to talk to. She has all the answers and all kinds of odd-ball details stored in her head, a vast computer system, a super secure hard-working website and a great company network, to boot.
Carol Patton is the founder and publisher of IMAGINE. Her company goals are to grow the industry, keep the film tax credits she introduced to New England intact and get the word out about New England as a great place to produce.