Capital assets generally include items of significant value that are owned for longer than a year, and used in operations. Spending on production can vary widely from show to show and company to company. If you are spending significant sums in these areas, it’s worth exploring this issue.
Let’s take the example of an opera company that has adopted an accounting policy of capitalizing its sets and costumes and amortizing them over 7 years, based on the fact that it draws from a “canon” of works, and therefore remounts shows from time to time.
One way to look at capital assets is as a deferred expense. You pay all the bills in Year 1, but (through amortization) you recognize the expense over the estimated useful life of the asset (in this example 7 years), so that each year of use bears its proportional estimated share of the cost (in this example 1/7 per year).
The argument in favour of capitalizing and amortizing sets and costumes would be that you expected to use them actively over the estimated 7 years, either in your own shows or as rental properties.
Let’s work through the accounting effect, step by step. In the first year of adopting this policy, you would record your sets and costumes as assets, not expenses. This would have the effect of improving your bottom line. You would of course need to record one year of amortization expense – that is, 1/7th of the purchase price. The remaining 6/7ths of the expense would be postponed to future years.
Onward to Year 2, and a new year of programming with (potentially) a new group of directors and designers. Will those artists be content to reuse Year 1’s sets and costumes? It seems likely that, in most cases, while they may reuse some “stock” items, they would prefer to create something new and different. In that instance, the company would incur new expenses for set and costume purchases. Once you set up an amortization policy, you need to follow it -- so you would amortize Year 2’s production items in the same way. Financially, the result would still feel pretty sweet, because in this year you recognize the cost of 1/7 of Year 1 purchases plus 1/7 of Year 2 purchases... but you can see where this is heading.
By the time you hit Year 7, the bottom-line advantage has disappeared because you've got seven active amortization cycles. You're also saddled with a certain amount of extra bookkeeping – and, more importantly, production expense becomes difficult to interpret. Imagine looking at the Year 7 income statement. You know for a certainty what your box office revenue was, but because related expenses and revenues are no longer matched within a fiscal period, it becomes trickier to interpret the financial result. The set and costume expense in Year 7 does not capture the cost of Year 7 shows, but rather 1/7 of the costs for each of the previous seven years.
The real "bottom line" to this story is that you can't out-run expense. You need to recognize it sooner or later. Our opera company might have been tempted to adopt the amortization policy as a gambit to improve the bottom line at a point when things weren't going well – but over the longer haul this approach doesn't put you any further ahead.
Now – let’s look at the other side of the coin. If you expense sets and costumes during the year of the show for which they were created, expense recognition is clear. That's very helpful for the purpose of evaluating financial results. But, it's also true that companies, especially larger companies in the opera and ballet worlds, DO remount productions and rent productions to other companies. If you don't amortize the cost, those future uses have no cost attached to them – and the financial statements for those years could be seen as misstated by the amount of expense that perhaps should have been attributed to them.
Expensing items in the year of the production means that companies may own a lot of stock – sets, costumes, props, etc. – that's not acknowledged on the balance sheet as an asset. However, that is how the set and costume expense is typically handled, in the experience of Young Associates staff.
The question for management is which treatment best reflects the company’s financial results? And, which treatment best applies generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) such as cost-benefit and materiality? Managers need to evaluate whether the advantage of matching revenue and expense recognition outweighs the possible misstatement of future bottom lines.
This would be an excellent topic to discuss with your accountant.
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