So, You Want to Be a Production Assistant?
A production assistant (P.A.) is the entry-level position on a film crew. P.A.s provide support and assistance to almost all areas of the production, and can also work for specific departments -- which can be of great advantage to you when you're getting started. Your varied experiences with different departments can help you decide in what department you may want to specialize and make connections with crew members in those fields. Although the following is by no means an all-inclusive list, here are a few examples of what your duties as a P.A. could include:
- Set P.A. - Works for the Assistant Directors but in effect works for all departments by taking information (usually from the A.D.s) and passing on information. Other duties regularly assigned to Set P.A.s include: Supporting the set through Lock-ups, managing Extras; helping in company moves or crowd control; collecting paperwork and out times for the production; passing out scripts and schedules; escort actors to and from their trailers; deliver film to the airport or the production office; and help load and unload equipment.
- Art Department P.A. - Assists with office duties; runs errands; may assist with construction of props or set dressing.
- Wardrobe P.A. - Assists Costumers; labels costumes; may organize costumes for laundering; runs errands; assists with collecting costumes.
- Location P.A. - delivers contracts; puts up signs to direct workers to the set; makes and distributes maps to locations; cleans up locations after filming; runs errands.
- Long hours
- Low wages
- No health insurance
- Will work outside in bad weather
- Freelance, no job security
- A lot of travel and yet P.A.s are rarely housed
- Time off between jobs
- Two free meals a day while you're working, plus snacks, soft drinks and all the water you want
- Chances to see places and meet people you would never get to otherwise
- The job is never boring
- Don't have to dress up to come to work
- With talent and hard work comes promotion
- Previous experience is not necessary (you will be told what to do and how to do it).
- A dependable car is an asset. P.A.s can do a lot of driving. If you have a good driving record, keep it that way, it can keep you employed.
- Have voicemail or an answering machine, and make your outgoing message short and professional. Avoid the silly message, as it can make a bad impression on your potential employer.
- Have a cell phone, keep it with you at all times, and put the number on your résumé. If they can't find you, they can't hire you.
The must-have qualities of a P.A.:
- Dependable - Most important of all the skills. Do what you're told, keep your word.
- Punctual - Which actually means be early.
- Flexible - Adapt easily and respond to change. Don't repeat your mistakes.
- Clear - Communicate verbally or in writing in a concise and explicit manner.
- Calm - Be the source of reason and don't panic.
- Attentive - Listen and follow directions precisely.
- Professional - Have a cheerful attitude, respect others and dress appropriately.
- Resourceful - Think on your feet, say "yes" and find a way to make it happen.
- Vigilant - Anticipate problems, keep eyes and ears open.
- Brave - Don't be afraid to ask when you don't know something.
- Responsible - Take the job seriously and own up to your mistakes.
- Resilient - Have a thick hide. Sooner or later, you're going to get yelled at, whether or not you deserve it. Don't take it personally -- get over it -- everybody else does.
A P.A. doesn't have to have a college degree in any particular area of study, though it can be helpful. With or without a degree, you greatly increase your chances of being hired if you have a usable skill and a lot of enthusiasm. You may have made straight A's in college in directing, lighting and editing, but the fact is: Production companies don't hire beginners to direct or edit -- they hire them as P.A.s.
On the other hand, time spent in film school, or making films or videos on your own, connects you with other people with similar goals, making them good contacts for the future. There are many courses in high school and college (helpful to a career in production), including film/video production and theater. Learn as much as you can about the technical side of theater (lighting, makeup, set construction, etc.). Much of this knowledge is transferrable to film production. Other worthwhile studies, depending on your interests, include computer graphics/animation, art, photography, sewing, carpentry and metalworking.
Almost any professional skill can be used to some degree in film production: accounting, interior design, architecture, engineering, fashion design, music, computer programming, aviation, hairdressing, welding, catering, even first responders training... it's a long list.
- Weather - Office P.A.s usually work indoors, but Set P.A.s spend most of their time out in the weather. Be prepared. Dress appropriately for spending time outdoors, no matter how rotten the weather might be. Shorts and T-shirts or pants that can get dirty are the norm, and closed toed shoes you can run in are a must! At the minimum you'll need a reliable waterproof rain jacket. Even on dry days a production may make artificial rain and you'll be the first one assigned in it.
- Hours - Very, very long -- sixteen-hour days are common. You will not have any social life while you're working on a film. Willingness to work long hours without complaining is essential to success.
- Job Mobility - The necessary skills for a P.A. are the same anywhere. You can build your resume wherever there is production work. That being said, you may need to travel to an area with greater production work possibilities to build your resume and find work, so read on….
- Travel - P.A.s are almost always hired as "locals" and production companies do not pay hotel/living expenses for locals. However, if you have a friend or relative who will house you in another city, you can always apply for a P.A. job in that city, as a local. When you do, be sure to show a "local" address on your résumé, indicating to producers that they won't have to pay to put you up.
- Job Security - There isn't any. Most P.A.s are self-employed freelancers, so real job security does not exist. Once the job is over, it's over. You depend on your good job performance, professional reputation and networking to bring you the next job.
- Advancement Opportunities - Great! Most crew members started out as P.A.s and moved up through the ranks. Of course, once you're known as a P.A. you're more likely to be offered P.A. jobs than other positions. However, low-budget films are often the solution, offering the chance to move up the ladder on higher positions than you'd qualify for on a big-budget film. Also, you may also consider letting crew members know of your interest in moving into their department, in case an opening occurs down the line.
How much you earn depends on the job and your experience. On paying jobs, P.A.s are typically paid by the day, with the rate varying between $50 and $250, depending on the budget of the film.
You may find that on many low-low-budget films, the crew and actors are not paid; they're just working for the experience and to build their résumé. Other films might offer "deferred payment," which means that you get paid when, and if, the film ever makes a profit. That day might never come, so you shouldn't expect to receive any income from a deferred payment contract. But you may want to consider these unpaid jobs because they can provide you with hands-on experience and introductions to film professionals.
Very important: Many production companies will withhold your income taxes, but some may not. For any paycheck you receive that hasn't already had your income tax deducted, you're going to have to pay federal income taxes. Be prepared, and set some money aside to cover the taxes.
Take a look at the "Crew Calls" on the Texas Film Commission's Job Hotline for a list of film and television projects currently hiring in Texas. The information is updated often with new projects, so keep checking back. Check with local filmmakers, production companies and rental houses/sources, film societies, non-profit organizations as well as other members of the film community to see what's in the pipeline. From there, research and follow-up on leads to find the work.
There are many resources available on the topic of working in film production. Search the Internet, library, bookstore or online bookstore to help you find appropriate resources. Listed below are a few suggestions that have specific information for PAs.
- Breaking & Entering: Land Your First Job in Film Production by April Fitzsimmons, (Lone Eagle Publishing Company, Los Angeles, 1997)
- Film Crew 101: Tips, Tricks & Secrets for Success from Motion Picture Professionals by Peter Clarson. (Clear Blue Sky Press, Waxahachie, Texas, 2007) www.filmcrew101.com.
- Get a Reel Job by Phillip Nemy, (Angel's Touch Productions, Woodland Hills, CA) www.reeljob.net
- The Production Assistant's Pocket Handbook by Caleb John Clark. To download a free PDFcopy, visit online at www.noendpress.com/caleb/edtech/index.php.
- So You Wanna Work in Movies at www.cineman.co.uk.