This article comes from the now defunct “Film Student Blog.” I still think it’s useful, so I thought I’d backdate it and toss it to the web again. It used to get a lot of traffic.
It’s right about time to be scrambling for a summer job and for a film student, there is no better job than being a set PA on a studio project. PAs work long, stop-and-go hours, aren’t paid well, and are generally demeaned by most of the crew — but the amount of experience you can get is mind-blowing. It’s also a great way to start yourself off with a small network of good contacts.
First, a little job description. A production assistant does what people in the industry call “jumping on grenades.” In other words, you will practically risk your life in an effort to solve problems that no one else can solve (or wants to solve). It mostly involves getting things: coffee, a lighter, batteries, Advil, a TX-90 6″ hex screw… that type of thing. But because of the versatility of a PA, they are one of the most important parts of a movie crew. Working as a PA, you will do at least one thing that will save the entire production from complete failure and disaster. How about that for your resume?
PAs are constantly bossed around by almost every department, but for the most part, they technically work in “Production” directly under the Key PA or Second Assistant Director. That being the case, working as a PA is an important component to eventually getting into the DGA or becoming a successful director.
Even though the production assistant is technically an entry-level position, actually getting a legitimate (paying) PA job is difficult. There is a huge amount of competition from other students and recent graduates. But there’s definitely a few things you can do to make sure you’re the one who’s working this summer. And if all else fails, get a job at Starbucks and write a screenplay instead.
If you know people
Because if you don’t know people, you’re pretty much screwed. Don’t get scared yet – you probably know someone who’s connected, but you don’t realize it. Even that cocky grad-level student producer (the one who always says, “Hi,” but doesn’t know your name) can probably hook you up.
Here’s why you need connections: PAs get hired on a whim. Good productions rarely put out a classified. If they do, they probably hire all the PAs before you’ll even read it. That’s because the best PAs are connected enough to find out about a production before you read about it on Craig’s List.
The main factor here is loyalty. Production Coordinators (who normally hire PAs), have a reliable handful of workers who they call every time they need them. The trick is becoming a part of that handful or the back-up for that handful. And for that, all you really need is one good production (so you can get friendly with the Production Coordinator). And all you need for one good production is one good contact.
First of all, don’t be afraid that you’re going to “waste” a contact. You aren’t “using” the person. You don’t have to save your connections for one good favor. People expect to get this call — just do it.
Now down to the nitty-gritty. You’ve got your contact. What do you do? What do you say? It all depends on how legit they are. If it’s a good friend or a lower ranking person (PA, 2nd AD, APOC) just ask them if they know about anything that’s crewing up soon and get the production’s contact info. Meet for a cup of coffee or something and keep touching base.
If you’re lucky enough to know a big-shot, you have to handle things more carefully. It definitely comes off as demeaning to call a VIP only to ask for a lowly PA job. You need to butter them up a bit first. Try to get into their office for a 15 minute meeting. Pitch it as an “informal interview” — tell them you want to use their infinite experience to inform your summer job decisions (which you probably do anyways). Talk with the person for a bit about your aspirations and ask for some advice. You want to subtly coerce them into offering you a little job — and if you play it right, you might even get a bigger job than you expected.
If you don’t know people
If you “don’t know people,” go back and read the section about “knowing people.” You are going to exhaust yourself for no reason if you don’t at least try to milk some connections first.
And, as a last resort, do it cold. There are a few good resources for finding what’s in pre-production and production right now, and that’s where you should start. Probably the best place: the trades. Look in Variety every Friday for film, and every Thursday for television. The Hollywood Reporter does film every Tuesday (that’s the issue that lists the date as Tuesday through the following Monday), and television the first and third Tuesday of each month.
And here are the best websites:
Here’s the trick to the websites. Most of the time, the ad will not read “Great chance to PA on a big studio action flick with Bruce Willis and Michael Bay! Please apply!” The Production Coordinators I know normally stay really low-key and discreet. It will look like a sketchy independent film. I guess it’s just to mess with people.
Okay, so between those resources, pick out about 30 viable productions and get all the information you can. Again, you’re trying to get in touch with the Production Coordinator. Here are two ways to do this once you have the numbers and addresses.
Probably the best idea is to just walk right into their production office. You’re going there to hand-deliver your resume. The person at the front desk (an office PA) is probably going to tell you that they’ve already crewed up, which is probably true. Try to give them your resume anyway, in case they need back-up. They are going to throw away your resume when you leave. Who knows.
If the person says they’re still crewing up, try to meet the Production Coordinator as long as you’re there. It might turn into a mini-interview. In fact, you might even get hired right on the spot (like I said, PAs are hired on a whim).
Your other option is to call or email. Get them your resume. Follow up in a few days. Then, again, a few days after that. Pray. It’s much easier to get turned down this way.
No matter what you do, be as friendly as you can to everyone, especially that office PA who will answer the phones or greet you at the door. Soon, that person might be your co-worker, but more importantly — that person is probably going to read the resumes and pick a few PAs (because everyone else is too busy). So, make small talk, and remember names. Do your mother proud.
If you don’t even live in LA or New York
If you don’t live in LA or New York, it’s going to be tough. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to cold-call until you get an on-location shoot where the production will fly you in and put you up, but rarely would they go to that much trouble just for a PA. They normally opt to hire locally for on-location shoots.
Your best bet is trying to work on a mini local production. Try to get in touch with your state/city film/television commission/association… they might be able to help you. Even if you’re working for free on a fitness program on public access, you’ll still gain valuable experience. In fact, in an intimate setting like that, the director might even know your name.