How a Hollywood Art Director Does Money

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Sarah is a 38-year-old television art director in Los Angeles.

So, Sarah, tell us a bit about your finances.

I’m an Art Director (which is a union position) on TV shows. At this point in my career I’m making about $2,500-$3,000 a week in salary and another $100-$200 for my kit rental. Basically the show rents my computer, software, printer, camera etc. from me. It is up to me to have a working system. At the end of the year I get a W-2 for the salary and a 1099 for the kit rental. The range in payment has to do with the type of show, and the contract the producers negotiated with the union.

At the end of the season everyone on the show gets laid off. Seasons vary, sometimes you do 22 hour-long episodes and work for 10 months, sometimes you do nine half-hour episodes and you work for two months. You generally know when your last day will be when you start a show.

I work for an average of three shows a year. Last year I had a total of about eight weeks in between shows. Some people just collect unemployment between shows, but I am lucky enough to have a side gig that hires me back whenever I am available. It pays about $1,300 a week, so it’s way better than the $450 a week that you get in California for unemployment.

We get a few paid holidays a year, but you have to work both the day before and the day after a holiday to get paid for it. Every production I know closes down over the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s Day, so only the people actually working on special Christmas programming get paid for those holidays. I get a two-week unpaid vacation. All told, I took about five weeks off last year without pay.

Everyone I know tries to preserve a large fund for when they are laid off. I have about $8K in savings that I won’t spend except for living expenses if I am unemployed. It’s not an emergency fund for like if my car breaks down—that is a separate account.

I haven’t done my taxes yet, but I think I made about $120K last year. I rent an apartment, my car (2009 Ford Focus) is paid off, and I have about $30K in student loans.

For comparison’s sake, I used to know some production assistants in LA who were making, like, $40K a year. Did you go through that stage too, en route to your current income? Or did you start out higher because of your art director background? What’s the career path here?

I was really lucky in that I only spent about three months as a PA and then got hired as the Art Department Coordinator for a show. The Coordinator is a union position too, but it is a different local—at that point I made $800/week.

When I interviewed David Melito about his Hollywood accounting career, he said that a lot of people come to Hollywood wanting to be actors or directors and then transition into other parts of the entertainment industry. Did you want to be an actor/director, or did you always want to work in the art department?

No, I never wanted to be an actor or director. I have a BFA and an MFA in theatrical set design. When I went to grad school on the West Coast I knew that I would end up transitioning into TV/film from theater.

Oh, fantastic.

I spent about three years as a freelance theater designer in between undergrad and grad school. Those were the starving years for me. When I graduated with an MFA I was ready to start making some money.

So without going into specifics you can’t share, what type of work do you do? Is it digital, practical, are you doing set dressing or effects or…

I am the first assistant to the Production Designer. He or she conceives of the sets, makes some sketches and I oversee all the people who make them real.

I spend a lot of time talking to the drafters, graphic designers, painters and carpenters. I think the corporate equivalent term is middle management.

It is a really big team that makes things that are imaginary look real.

So let’s talk money. When you graduated with your MFA you wanted to earn money. Did you know what the world of Hollywood production money was like? The low starting salaries, unemployment gaps, etc.?

I was pleasantly surprised how big the jump was from Coordinator to Art Director. I knew that people made  “real money out here, but I didn’t have that great a concept what “real” meant.

The unemployment gaps were expected. Working in freelance theater was not too different in that regard.

So you started working in LA, got this big salary boost, and suddenly realized you were in the  “real money group? Or is there another  “even realer money group above you?

I’m right in the middle of what people make in production. Writers, Producers, Directors, the Director of Photography, some department heads (and the Production Designer) make more. Lots of people make less.

I’m just talking about union jobs, by the way. When you work non-union, everyone makes less.

Did you imagine you’d live a specific type of lifestyle when you moved to LA—and did reality match your expectation?

I feel like I make a great living, I can afford to travel, I can pretty much buy anything I need when I need it. If there is an unexpected expense it does not throw me into a tail spin.

But I didn’t realize how crazy expensive the housing market was/is here. I’m from Colorado and we would complain about how real estate was so expensive there. In Los Angeles, a two-bedroom cottage can easily be a million dollars. That makes rents high too.

What’s your living situation like?

I rent a two-bedroom apartment. I live by myself—no roommates for the last four years! It is close enough to the beach that I can walk there if I am really motivated, and I have a dishwasher and an ice maker!

No washer/dryer in the apartment, though. I’m still hoarding quarters.

Nice! So about what percentage of your income goes towards basic living expenses/bills, what percentage goes towards savings, what are you doing with regards to retirement, and what percentage do you get as discretionary money?

So, talking after-tax: about 50 percent to basic living expenses/bills (includes rent, utilities, food, clothes, internet, entertainment subscriptions, phone, gym, car insurance, gas, haircuts), 5 percent to student loan repayment, 7-8 percent to charity, 9-10 percent to retirement savings, and 10-15 percent to general savings—that gets diverted on months when union dues are paid or something goes wrong. Health insurance is through the union, so I think of union dues as a health insurance premium, it’s pretty low, about 2 percent of monthly take home. I have a pension through the union as well, but I expect the details on that will change before I am ready to retire.

So that leaves about 15 percent for discretionary?

Yes, about 15 percent (that includes travel, gifts, special meals out, non-subscription entertainment, splurges).  What generally ends up happening is that I save more than 15 percent any given month, but then go on a trip and spend that money all at once.

Do you feel like you earn  “enough?

Yes! I would love to earn more—there are always more tiers. But I feel really lucky to have a fun job that pays me well.

What are your financial and career goals for, say, the next five years?

I would love to buy a fourplex. Live in one apartment and rent out the others. I would also like to up my charitable giving to a full 10 percent.

Become a landlord! they have cookies!

I would plant an avocado tree and all the tenants would have free avocados!

You would be the best landlord ever. Okay, last question: what financial advice do you have for people wanting to go into the entertainment industry?

You will be laid off—plan for it. Figure out how to apply for unemployment, that means you have to know all your employers for the last two years. You will have dry spells, and those of us who are still here found a way to get through them. Keep all your receipts, you can write-off a lot of expenses like movie tickets, internet, cable, and Netflix.

No job on a production is beneath you. The guy sweeping the floor is union and makes $75K.

We all start out as PAs—be nice to your PAs when you have a better job, they will be your bosses in a few years.

Photo credit: Christian Haugen

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