Production assistants perform a variety of tasks for film, television, and video producers and other staff members. They must be prepared to help out everywhere, ensuring that daily operations run as smoothly as possible. Some production assistants may perform substantive jobs, such as reviewing scripts, but others may primarily run errands. They must be willing to work hard and keep long hours at times, since tight production schedules require full days. An agreeable temperament and willingness to follow instructions and perform simple tasks are very important skills for work in this field.
Production Assistant Career History
In the early 20th century, as motion pictures were first developing, the roles of director and producer were combined in one person. European filmmakers such as Georges Melies and Leon Gaumont and New Yorker Edwin S. Porter directed, filmed, and produced very short movies. The first woman to become a director and producer was Alice Guy, who started the Solax Company in New York in 1910.
The film industry settled in Hollywood and began to consolidate in the first two decades of this century, as jobs were differentiated. Major studios assembled large staffs, so all stages of production from conception to financing and directing could be performed within a single studio. Twentieth Century Fox, for example, would have producers, writers, directors, and actors on staff to choose from for each film. Small producers were forced out of business as major studios grew to have a monopoly on the industry.
In the 1950s the dominance of major studios in film production was curbed by an antitrust court decision, and more independent producers were able to find projects. Changes in the United States tax code made independent producing more profitable. At the same time, the growth of television provided new opportunities for producers, not only for television films, but news programs, weekly entertainment programs, sports broadcasts, talk shows, and documentaries. More recently, the video industry, particularly in the areas of music and education, has opened up even more production jobs.
The industry is becoming increasingly international; many foreign-made films and videos are now financed by Americans, and a number of American motion picture companies are under foreign ownership. Currently many producers work on a project-by-project basis. Independent producers must be good salespersons to market a project to a television or movie studio and to other financial backers. They will try to involve popular actors and media personalities with the project from its inception in order to attract a studio’s interest. Studios hire production assistants to facilitate the work of the producer and other staff members.
Production Assistant Job Description
The work of a production assistant is not glamorous, but production is the best place to learn about the film and television industries. All hiring, casting, and decision making is done by members of production; they are involved with a project from the very beginning through its final stages. The producer is in charge—he or she is responsible for coordinating the activities of all employees involved in a production. Producers oversee the budget, and they have the final word on most decisions made for a film or television show.
The responsibilities of production assistants (PAs) range from making sure the star has coffee in the morning to stopping street traffic so a director can film a scene. They photocopy the script for actors, assist in setting up equipment, and perform other menial tasks. The best PAs know where to be at the right time to make themselves useful. Production can be stressful; time is money and mistakes can be very costly. Assistants must be prepared to handle unforeseen problems, smooth out difficulties, and help out as quickly as possible.
Duties may include keeping production files in order. These files will include contracts, budgets, page changes (old pages from a script that has been revised), and other records. The documents must be kept organized and accessible for whenever the producer may need them.
Production assistants may also have to keep the producer’s production folder in order and up-to-date. The production folder contains everything the producer needs to know about the production at a glance. It is particularly useful for times when a producer is on location away from the studio and cannot access the office files. PAs make sure that the folder includes the shooting schedule, the most recent version of the budget, cast and crew lists with phone numbers, a phone sheet detailing all production-related phone calls the producer needs to make, and the up-to-date shooting script. As new versions of these forms are created, PAs update the producer’s folder and file the older versions for reference.
PAs may also be in charge of making sure that the producer gets the dailies, the film shot each day. They schedule an hour or so in a producer’s schedule to watch the dailies and to make related calls to discuss them with other staff members.
PAs perform a number of other administrative and organizational tasks. They make travel reservations, arrange hotel accommodation, and arrange for rehearsal space. They run errands and communicate messages for producers, directors, actors, musicians, and other members of the technical crew.
PAs who work in television studios for live shows, such as news programs and talk shows, record news feeds, answer phones, operate teleprompters, coordinate tapes, and assist editors. They assist with booking guests and arranging interviews.
Production assistant is the lowest position on the film or television crew. It is an entry-level job that gives someone interested in film and broadcast media the experience and contacts to move into other areas of the industry. PAs often get stuck with undesirable tasks like sweeping floors, guarding sets, or finding a particular brand of green tea for a demanding diva. However, a film, television, or video production would not happen without production assistants on the set or in the studio.
Production Assistant Career Requirements
To work in the film or television industry, you should have an understanding of the artistic and technical aspects of production, as well as a broad knowledge of the industry itself. Take courses in photography, broadcast journalism, and media to learn about cameras and sound equipment. Take courses in art and art history to learn about visual composition, and English to develop communication skills. Business and accounting courses can help you prepare for the bookkeeping requirements of office work.
There are no formal education requirements for production assistants. Most people in the industry consider the position a stepping-stone into other careers in the industry. You will learn much of what you will need to know on the set of a film, following the instructions of crew members and other assistants. Though a film school education can’t guarantee entry into the business, it can give you an understanding of the industry and help you make some connections. Many film students work part time or on a contract basis as production assistants to gain experience while they are still in school. There are more than 500 film studies programs offered by schools of higher education throughout the United States. According to the American Film Institute, the most reputable are: Columbia University in New York City, New York University, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Southern California. You may choose to major in English or theater as an undergraduate, and then apply to graduate film schools. There are many good undergraduate programs in film and video with concentrations in such areas as directing, acting, editing, producing, screenwriting, cinematography, broadcast engineering, and television. Some people break into the business without formal training by volunteering on as many film productions as they can, getting to know professionals in the business, and making valuable connections in the industry. Your chances of moving up, however, are better if you have a college degree.
Production assistants need agreeable personalities and willingness to follow instructions and perform simple tasks. You need to catch on quickly to the things you are taught. Organizational skills will help you keep track of the many different aspects of a production. Great ambition and dedication are very important, as getting paying jobs on a production will require persistence. Also, you will not get a great deal of recognition for your hours of work, so you need a sense of purpose and an understanding that you are “paying your dues.” A love of movies, video, and television and a fascination with the industry, particularly an interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking, will help you keep focused. Though you need an outgoing personality for making connections on a production, you should be capable of sitting quietly on the sidelines when not needed.
Exploring Production Assistant Career
There are many ways to gain experience with filmmaking. Some high schools have film clubs and classes in film or video. Experience in theater can also be useful. To learn more, you can work as a volunteer for a local theater or a low-budget film project; these positions are often advertised in local trade publications. You may also be able to volunteer with your state’s film commission, helping to solicit production companies to do their filming in the state.
Students interested in production work should read as much as possible about the film and television industry, starting at a school or public library. Trade journals can be very helpful as well; the two most prominent ones are Variety and Hollywood Reporter. These resources will have information about production studios that will prove very useful for prospective PAs. The Rundown has information on the television news industry as well as career guidance information. If you are interested in video production, read Studio Daily.
Production assistants are hired by film and video production companies for individual projects. Some assistants are employed full time in the main offices of a production company or as personal assistants to producers or executives. Production assistants can also find full-time employment at television studios.
Look for internships, which may offer course credit if they are unpaid, by reading trade journals and contacting film and television studios. You can also find production opportunities listed on the Internet or through your state’s film commission. To gain experience, you may have to work for free on some of your first productions to make contacts within the industry. Since this is an entry-level position, opportunities will open as other assistants advance.
Production assistant positions are usually considered temporary. After one or two years, production assistants have enough experience to move into other jobs, and there are numerous choices, depending on their interests. They may wish to go into editing, camera operation, lighting, sound, writing, directing, producing, or performing. All of these areas have a hierarchy of positions that allow a production assistant to work his or her way up to the top jobs. A production assistant can, for example, become a line producer, who works closely with the producer, signing checks, advising on union rules, and negotiating deals with studio personnel. An associate producer performs similar work. To become a producer or director requires years of experience and hard work.
Because working as a production assistant is the starting point for most professionals and artists in the film industry, many people volunteer their time until they make connections and move into paid positions. Those assistants who can negotiate payment may make between $200 and $400 a week, but they may only have the opportunity to work on a few projects a year. Production assistants working full time in an office may start at around $20,000 a year, but with experience can make around $65,000. Full-time production assistants may belong to the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which negotiates salaries. Experienced script supervisors, production office coordinators, and continuity coordinators have the opportunity to join Local #161 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Its members may earn more than $180 a day when working for a production company.
According to Salary.com, production assistants earned a median annual salary of $25,502 in 2006. Salaries ranged from less than $20,397 to $31,942 or more annually. The U.S. Department of Labor lists the annual median salary in 2005 for secretaries and administrative assistants, who have many job responsibilities similar to those of production assistants, as $26,670. Salaries ranged from $17,050 to $44,120 or more.
Those working on a project-to-project basis won’t receive any fringe benefits, but those employed full time with a production company can expect health coverage and retirement benefits.
A film set is an exciting environment, but the production assistant may be treated poorly there. With a positive attitude, energy, and a desire to be useful, PAs will earn respect from the production department.
There are unwritten rules that should be followed. A production assistant who works for the producer or for the studio can be seen as an outsider in the eyes of the director and the creative team, so PAs should be respectful and well behaved. This means that production assistants should be quiet, stay out of the way, and avoid touching sets and equipment. If a production assistant behaves as a guest, but remains helpful when needed, he or she will earn a good reputation that will be valuable for his or her career advancement.
The work environment will vary; PAs may be required on location, or may work mainly in the studio. Production assistants must be willing to work long, demanding hours. Film productions are typically off schedule and over budget, requiring dedication from all those involved. Production assistants and other crewmembers often go days without seeing family members.
Production Assistant Career Outlook
There will always be a need for assistants in film and television production. However, since it is such a good entry-level position for someone who wants to make connections and learn about the industry, competition for jobs can be tough. Fortunately, production assistants usually do not stay in their jobs more than one or two years, so turnover is fairly frequent. PAs will find employment anywhere a motion picture, television show, or video is being filmed, but significant opportunities exist in Los Angeles and New York City—the production hubs of the industry. There may be opportunities at local television stations or smaller production companies that produce educational and corporate videos.
For More Information:
- American Film Institute (AFI)
- American Society of Cinematographers (ASC)
- National Association of Broadcasters
- National Cable and Telecommunications Association
- Producers Guild of America (PGA)