How to Be a... | How To's | Local Industry | New England

How to Be a PA

1 Mar , 2009  

Written by David Willis | Posted by:

A production assistant’s survival guide to finding and keeping film work in New England.

You’ve just graduated film school, or maybe you’ve just set out like the gold diggers toward California. You figure you will crank out a script that will blow doors open or direct a short film that will have agents lining up outside your Studio City apartment. Then you get off the plane and realize the taxi driver has the same plan. That’s when you start to thinking about flying back to New England and if you are fresh out of film school — or just wanting to break into the movie making business — that job will most likely be working as a freelance production assistant (PA). This is a guide based on my own experiences in the field.


Your number one problem (unless you find a coveted contract job with salary) will be finding consistent work to pay the bills. Being a PA is not glamorous, but it does have the benefit of giving you a guided tour through different areas of production, which will help you decide which direction you want to go in next. Once you get to know people you will start getting calls for productions and have to search less and less, but here are some websites that will keep food on your table:
All of these have daily updates on jobs in Hollywood and throughout the United States. Perhaps the greatest resource for jobs that will be ongoing and pay well is the UTA job list. Unfortunately it is only sent to production companies, but many people forward it to friends. Ask around. Find someone who will add you to the forwarding list. This is how you find out about jobs on studio lots not posted on the above websites.

For you to be successful you will need a clean, professional, and concise resume in pdf format and a friendly, confident, and subtle manner with your emails. You should be to the point, professional and polite. Always. The main thing is reading the ad in a way to try to anticipate what they are looking for. Depending on the tone, for example if they joke around in the ad, you may bring a little humor into your
response, but keep it professional. These people have to read a lot of these things and if your personality is reflected in your response you may rise to the top of the pile. Don’t be afraid to point out why you are the one for the job. In addition to the above sites, here is one that can help you just plain survive.


You are a PA. As such you are lowest on the totem pole. You will have all the jobs no one else wants. You will be first on the call sheet and be there long after others have gone. You will eat last.

Punctuality is the key to PA life. Never is this more imperative than on a film set. As a PA you will likely have to be on set over an hour before any other departments. Make sure you know where you are going on each day. No one will be interested in excuses for getting lost. As a matter of fact, buy a GPS unit. This will be the difference between a call back and sitting at home looking for work if you are new to the field. I
personally had an experience where a production coordinator drew directions on a napkin and as a result of me getting lost in a studio vehicle, I was not called back on a hit union show that could have meant years of work. Do not expect those above you to be able to walk you through everything. Being a PA requires common sense and self-direction. Like the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

Look busy. Learn to use your walkie. On one job I had, we were sponsored by Nextel. Cell phones were far superior to a walkie in that situation. Do not abuse privileges like this with personal phone calls etc. If you don’t know what you are doing, fake it. A few hours later you will have put it all together anyway. The main thing is that no one ever sees you with hands in pockets, sitting down, standing around, or anything else that looks lazy. The fact is that the production coordinator sees you with a big dollar sign over your head. If you are standing there taking in the sights they may consider cutting you from the payroll and putting the $100-150 per day they pay you in a more useful place. I have seen this happen and know how to avoid being the weakest link. Pick up trash, replace trash bags, help move equipment, etc, but remember to ask before touching grip equipment or art department or props etc. These people have their own staff to do this and you stand the chance of actually being chastised for interfering. Always ask about anything that isn’t obvious grunt work.

Show initiative whenever possible. This is part of being a good employee in any scenario, but especially as a PA. On one music video set I was able to set myself apart from other PAs by taking bottles of water out of the cooler and walking around and passing them out. Those lights are hot and crew members don’t always have that extra minute to run to craft services. When you find tasks for yourself it motivates those standing around to do the same. This raises your chances of a call back from the production coordinator and makes for a more efficient group on set. Even knowing where to stand can make a difference. If you truly have nothing to do, be as close to where the action is as you can without being in the way. You want to be the one seen first and be able to provide support any way you can.

Eat last. I learned this one the hard way. My first time on a film set I assumed that when the food line opened, it was time to eat. Only after tripping and getting eggs all over myself in front of the entire crew did a producer chastise me up and down for being rude enough to eat first. On most sets cast and upper level crew will eat first. This means that you as a PA will probably be asked to stand in line and order meals wrapped to go, then carry them to actor’s trailers or to the director and their staff on set. Only after all other departments have eaten will you eat. Get used to it.

DO not gossip. The temptation may be there. Be the bigger person. On sets you will find situations where people like to talk badly about how others work, how the director doesn’t know what he’s doing, how the actors are terrible, or a number of things. Do not put your two cents in. You do not want to be associated with any member of the crew that is bringing a negative work ethic to the set. These are the people who start mutinies and they can prevent you from getting calls if you are in cahoots.

Attitude is everything and it is important to develop relationships with those who have the power to hire you back. That being said, do not spend time chatting people up on set unless you can do it while you work efficiently. There is a time and a place for everything. On a long shoot you will all become like a family, on a short one not so much, but in both cases there will likely be chances to get to know each other better. A lot of people will head out to IHOP or Denny’s after a late night. Do not say no. Hang out, go to the parties, accept invitations. If you don’t make friends you will not get calls.


So you’ve gone to the wrap party and the people who need your card and resume have it. Take the extra time to send a brief email telling them how much fun you had and that you hope to work with them soon. Beyond that it is important not to bother people about work. If things get desperate, as in being tossed out on the street desperate, make some calls, but until that day the best strategy is to stay in touch through email, Myspace, or Facebook.

Like them or hate them, Myspace and Facebook have become powerful communication tools that most people in the industry are using. I had an interviewer once ask me why I didn’t have a Myspace because she had ran my email address through a search and come up with nothing. After working there, and starting a Myspace profile, I was eventually told that it is common practice for people to search you on Myspace. Interviewers use the contents of your page to make character judgments about you prior to you ever setting foot in the office. Obviously this means that if you do have a Myspace or Facebook people in the industry will be looking at it. Do not post pictures of last weekend’s kegger or other material that will represent you poorly. After all, your goal in all this is to prove you are a professional worthy of promotion. You should apply this aspect to anything that will be viewed by potential future bosses.

When contacting people you hope to get work through, you don’t have to debrief them about your life as much as ask about theirs. Most people working on film sets are operating under an extreme amount of pressure. Be the person they can vent at but save your own venting for friends and family. I find this works because sadly people are fairly centered on their own problems. The main thing is a random hello message or an invitation to a party, or out for drinks, is exactly what’s going to get you work. Asking for work never works. The goal is to be the first person that comes to mind when they need someone. They aren’t going to hire you if in between jobs you are blowing up their phone daily.

It may take several projects to get in good with a group of people that fits you. Keep going until you don’t have to look anymore. Look for the work that you feel will lead to more work. For example, a non-union show that has potential to “go union” during production is a lot more valuable because it is a gateway into I.A.T.S.E. which can provide steady work and benefits as well as higher day rates. When the phone does ring, if you aren’t booked for the dates in question do not say no. You never know who you will meet or where it could lead. Even if you are busy, take the work and bank the money because there are going to be weeks when no one calls. Be active in searching for work. I found out that even something as simple as having email on your cell phone can make the difference between you being hired and the next person they call, simply because you responded to their email as soon as it was sent. If you work hard and make lasting friends you won’t go hungry. Once you have your foot in the door, making the jump to a higher department is as easy as interviewing for their entry level positions.