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The Horrible Life of Production Assistants and How to Fix It


Ed_David
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The film industry is constantly changing – we all know that.  But the thing that doesn’t change – the PA life – and it mostly stinks. Underpaid, overworked, abused mentally and physically.  Almost as timeless as filmmaking itself.

Production Assistants.  They are the low people on the totem pole – the entry job into filmmaking.  You don’t need a resume.  Just get recommended by a friend and have a smile and please be on time.

PAs do many things.  Some are assistants to the director or producer, or the production manager, or the first assistant director.  They can do equipment runs, drive a van on nonunion shoots, do coffee runs, cable wraps, assist departments, do crowd control, lock down streets, get releases, just about everything.

They aren’t protected by any union and at the end of the day, they usually make minimum wage, which is sad to me because they do this on shoots where everyone else is usually paid well.

In New York they make about $100 to $200 a day on a commercial shoot.  Sometimes up to $300 a day.  But they work on average 14 hours a shoot day.  They get there 1hr to 1.5 hours before “call time” and stay till the end – including wrapping out, and many times driving home the crew.

So that’s around $7.14 a day which is lower than minimum wage in NYC which is $8.75 an hour in 2015.

I was a PA on set for about six months and in post production for about two years.  I did a bunch of stuff.  Drove a van. Picked up gear.  Picked up coffee.  Got yelled at about getting a bad walkie talkie – and by a DP who called me “Ed Wood and a pain in the ass” and gaffers and grips (never wrap cable unless you ask them first) – but overall I had it pretty easy. Being a post production PA is a lot easier – it’s a controlled environment.  Not as potentially chaotic as being on set.

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories.  The worse happened this year – I heard of a PA who died driving – don’t know if it was after a long shoot day or after the job wrapped.  I have heard stories of a PA delivering the stools of a producer to fed ex – his feces, packing them up and mailing them off. And just the usual stuff – getting berated by assistant directors, directors, and producers.  Not getting paid after the job.  And of course just working very long hours and no overtime.

There are a lot of stories if you ask around – but the thing is for me, I wish someone would look out for them.  Take Mad Max – Fury Road – $145 million dollar Hollywood production – and the PAs made $60 a day.  Link here.  

Why is this?  Why do people think PAs deserve to work long hours and get paid below minimum wage?  I think it’s because “that’s the way it is” – they just go with the flow.  Also most PAs are starting out – they aren’t going to complain and organize because they don’t want to be seen as being a “bad sport” – they want to start their career in film.  But the thing is, someone then has to say something about this.  And many people have.  And now, why not, I’ll go for it.

Here’s things I think could improve the production assistant’s way of life.

1.  Make sure PAs are paid for overtime work.  There is no reason they aren’t.  They aren’t the “producer” – and even producers should get paid overtime.  Why shouldn’t everyone get paid for the hours they put in?  If you don’t want to charge for overtime, fine, but if you do charge for overtime, you should be paid.  I know the justification is that the pick up and drop off days are usually half days at full pay – but still, why not just do overtime and negotiate a rate for the pick up and post day that’s the same.  Legally all people need to be paid for overtime in the USA – so why can the film industry get away with this?

2.  Make a group or website that sets a standard for PA rates.  This could be any website – or blog.  I say, and why not, the PA day rate on a commercial should be $200-300 a day for a 10 hour day.  Overtime at 10-12 at time and a half.  After 12 double time.  Turnaround time 12 hours or minimum.  Just like the standard is for everyone union member unless you want to do on a 12 hour day then double time after that.  Why not?  Why not give PAs a living wage as they “climb the ladder” – what is really the harm in that?  If they have more money, they can give back more to the economy and other things. Pay their rent.  Not have to live three hours away or move away.

3.  Put PAs into departments – like camera PA, lighting PA, production PA, etc etc.  Have it more specialized – makes them more productive and know what to do.  I think a lot of time on set, PAs can receive no marching orders.  And I’ve worked with PAs who work so much better when they are under the command of a smaller department.

4.  Today’s PA is tomorrow’s Boss.  So why not treat them well.  They may soon be hiring you for the next gig.

The film industry sets a high standard of decency and fairness.  We DPs are part of a community of sharing information and helping others – we are storytellers – we help get people’s messages across to so many. We are a very nice profession – full of really amazing, caring, lovely people.  I love my co-workers so much.  So many of them make me laugh.

So why not look back at the ones starting out try to help them?

I love when people are happy and positive on my sets – when people want to learn and don’t feel like they are being taken advantage of.  The energy of every crew member really helps.

At the same time, a bad apple hurts the collective energy. So let you help me.

There is nothing better on any set, than at the end of the day, when you feel like you and your co-workers help create something beautiful or meaningful, and all did it together – where everything comes together. I want everyone to feel that pride – everyone – the craft service person, the security guard, the medic, the PA.

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The film industry is constantly changing – we all know that.  But the thing that doesn’t change – the PA life – and it mostly stinks. Underpaid, overworked, abused mentally and physically.  Almost as timeless as filmmaking itself.

Production Assistants.  They are the low people on the totem pole – the entry job into filmmaking.  You don’t need a resume.  Just get recommended by a friend and have a smile and please be on time.

PAs do many things.  Some are assistants to the director or producer, or the production manager, or the first assistant director.  They can do equipment runs, drive a van on nonunion shoots, do coffee runs, cable wraps, assist departments, do crowd control, lock down streets, get releases, just about everything.

They aren’t protected by any union and at the end of the day, they usually make minimum wage, which is sad to me because they do this on shoots where everyone else is usually paid well.

In New York they make about $100 to $200 a day on a commercial shoot.  Sometimes up to $300 a day.  But they work on average 14 hours a shoot day.  They get there 1hr to 1.5 hours before “call time” and stay till the end – including wrapping out, and many times driving home the crew.

So that’s around $7.14 a day which is lower than minimum wage in NYC which is $8.75 an hour in 2015.

I was a PA on set for about six months and in post production for about two years.  I did a bunch of stuff.  Drove a van. Picked up gear.  Picked up coffee.  Got yelled at about getting a bad walkie talkie – and by a DP who called me “Ed Wood and a pain in the ass” and gaffers and grips (never wrap cable unless you ask them first) – but overall I had it pretty easy. Being a post production PA is a lot easier – it’s a controlled environment.  Not as potentially chaotic as being on set.

I’ve heard a lot of horror stories.  The worse happened this year – I heard of a PA who died driving – don’t know if it was after a long shoot day or after the job wrapped.  I have heard stories of a PA delivering the stools of a producer to fed ex – his feces, packing them up and mailing them off. And just the usual stuff – getting berated by assistant directors, directors, and producers.  Not getting paid after the job.  And of course just working very long hours and no overtime.

There are a lot of stories if you ask around – but the thing is for me, I wish someone would look out for them.  Take Mad Max – Fury Road – $145 million dollar Hollywood production – and the PAs made $60 a day.  Link here.  

Why is this?  Why do people think PAs deserve to work long hours and get paid below minimum wage?  I think it’s because “that’s the way it is” – they just go with the flow.  Also most PAs are starting out – they aren’t going to complain and organize because they don’t want to be seen as being a “bad sport” – they want to start their career in film.  But the thing is, someone then has to say something about this.  And many people have.  And now, why not, I’ll go for it.

Here’s things I think could improve the production assistant’s way of life.

1.  Make sure PAs are paid for overtime work.  There is no reason they aren’t.  They aren’t the “producer” – and even producers should get paid overtime.  Why shouldn’t everyone get paid for the hours they put in?  If you don’t want to charge for overtime, fine, but if you do charge for overtime, you should be paid.  I know the justification is that the pick up and drop off days are usually half days at full pay – but still, why not just do overtime and negotiate a rate for the pick up and post day that’s the same.  Legally all people need to be paid for overtime in the USA – so why can the film industry get away with this?

2.  Make a group or website that sets a standard for PA rates.  This could be any website – or blog.  I say, and why not, the PA day rate on a commercial should be $200-300 a day for a 10 hour day.  Overtime at 10-12 at time and a half.  After 12 double time.  Turnaround time 12 hours or minimum.  Just like the standard is for everyone union member unless you want to do on a 12 hour day then double time after that.  Why not?  Why not give PAs a living wage as they “climb the ladder” – what is really the harm in that?  If they have more money, they can give back more to the economy and other things. Pay their rent.  Not have to live three hours away or move away.

3.  Put PAs into departments – like camera PA, lighting PA, production PA, etc etc.  Have it more specialized – makes them more productive and know what to do.  I think a lot of time on set, PAs can receive no marching orders.  And I’ve worked with PAs who work so much better when they are under the command of a smaller department.

4.  Today’s PA is tomorrow’s Boss.  So why not treat them well.  They may soon be hiring you for the next gig.

The film industry sets a high standard of decency and fairness.  We DPs are part of a community of sharing information and helping others – we are storytellers – we help get people’s messages across to so many. We are a very nice profession – full of really amazing, caring, lovely people.  I love my co-workers so much.  So many of them make me laugh.

So why not look back at the ones starting out try to help them?

I love when people are happy and positive on my sets – when people want to learn and don’t feel like they are being taken advantage of.  The energy of every crew member really helps.

At the same time, a bad apple hurts the collective energy. So let you help me.

There is nothing better on any set, than at the end of the day, when you feel like you and your co-workers help create something beautiful or meaningful, and all did it together – where everything comes together. I want everyone to feel that pride – everyone – the craft service person, the security guard, the medic, the PA.

​$100-$300 a day for a PA ?!

Lucky you.

In Hollywood (unless its a big studio film) PA's make between $25-$50 buck a day. 

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I'm not sure I can reciprocate this sentiment, but I'm guessing my experience, or perhaps just my perspective, is different. Here in Denver, I pay my PA's $100-300 a day, depending on the shoot. My business is modest, but that's right on spec with most any production in town, and I firmly believe in paying my crew appropriately. I also occasionally act as a PA for friends shoots for the same rate, sometimes for no fee at all. Personally, I know I expect focus and hustle when I'm paying, and exude these same qualities when I'm the low man on the totem pole, but I've never mistreated a PA, and never really been terribly mistreated when I've played that role. It's certainly an unsung position, but I dunno, my friend. I'm actually rather fond of the moments I've had in the past playing the part of a PA, and all that it entails. In a business that is so savagely saturated in over-inflated egos, sometimes our own, it's a very straightforward and humbling role. Pay attention, anticipate, move fast, and be thorough. I dare say it's downright good for you. Heck, I tended bar through film school, and though I made more money, I'd have jumped at the chance for regular PA work. I think it's pretty awesome you had that chance, and looking though your work, I'd say it benefited you greatly. You've some fine work there, my friend. Consequently, if you're ever in a pinch, I'd PA for you in a heartbeat. Sans union and all. =]

As for the Fury Road PA's, perhaps I missed it, but I didn't see anything in the article you listed that mentioned the wage of the film's PA's. I did see mention of the wages for the extras (locals), which was $12-59, a day, which looked low, until I looked up some info on Namibia's economy. Namibia's per capita wage is only $8,200 a year, which already sounds low. But then I read on and find out  that roughly 90% of it's population live on $2 a day, which is crazy low. Now factor in that these extras are not even wage earning adults, but school-age boys, and I gotta say this kids made some pretty good money (in practical reference) being part of a movie that many would have paid to be part of. Not a bad deal at all.

 

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Yes I agree and there are more laws to protect against unpaid interns than ever. But just the same pas should be paid overtime. The unpaid internship i dont agree with either. That was a big issue in the nytimes years ago because giant corporations were all doing that. Who could afford to pay them.

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