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"Made in NY" PAs Offer Advice, Share Success Stories About Breaking into the Entertainment Industry

BWI's Mara Prater, "Made in NY" PAs Deshawne Jackson, Drew Rivera, Tsahai Wilson, and Anna Wong.

August 20, 2010 - Long hours and grunt work are all in a day’s work for a production assistant, the entry level position on a film set, but it’s also the gateway to a career in the entertainment industry. For New Yorkers interested in pursuing a career in production, a group of talented graduates from the “Made in NY” Production Assistant Training Program assembled on August 17 at the Harlem Stage to share their experiences and explain what it takes to succeed in the business.

“Made in NY” Production Assistants: A Peer-to-Peer Discussion took place as part of the Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting’s continuing “Careers in Entertainment” series. The free panel was presented by OFTB and Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, in collaboration with Harlem Stage, to give interested New Yorkers the opportunity to hear firsthand accounts about the realities of breaking into the industry.

Developed in partnership between the Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting and Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, the “Made in NY” PA Training Program prepares diverse New Yorkers for entry level positions on sets and in production offices. The training, which is free, takes place over an intensive four week period. Following successful completion of the program, PAs also receive two years of job placement. Since its inception in 2006, more than 230 “Made in NY” PAs have been certified and have collectively earned more than $4 million working on over 1,000 productions.

Mara Prater, the associate program manager who oversees outreach and recruitment and provides vocational counseling to trainees and graduates, shared the qualities they look for in candidates to the highly competitive program: personality, how they present themselves day to day, and the intuitiveness to take initiative are some of the key traits that make a person stand out.

“Successful graduates have that personality, drive and commitment,” she said. “This is a job that requires you to stand in the rain, throw away garbage, and get coffee for fourteen hours a day and to do it with a smile.”

After serving in the US Marine Corps for four years, Deshawne Jackson was more than prepared for the working conditions in the production industry. When he couldn’t continue his studies at film school, he found he was able to get hands-on training through the “Made in NY” PA Training Program. “They teach you what you need to get your foot in the door,” he said. Since the program, he has found his niche working in reality television and most recently was sought out to assist talent on the upcoming reality TV show “Millionaire Matchmaker.”

During the program, the trainees learn a variety of skills that will be useful to them when they get to set, like how to use a walkie talkie, proper set etiquette, and how to conduct yourself on set as a newbie. “Everything I learned in the program, I have used in real life,” said Tsahai Wilson, who interviewed for a season-long job on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” on the same day she was certified as a “Made in NY” PA. She was hired that very day. More recently, she has worked as an associate producer and production manager for various reality programs.

“It is a freelance industry so you’re constantly networking,” said Anna ‘Itty’ Wong. “The program trains you how to conduct yourself.” Wong, who was hired by a production company days after completing her training, has already been promoted twice in the last six months and is now an associate producer. “Having the extra confidence is a huge part of networking.”

“I like to meet five to ten people on each new project,” explained Drew Rivera. “Networking is ninety-five percent of the job.” Rivera commuted two hours every day from Staten Island to attend the training program. Since graduating, he has traveled out of the country twice with production crews and has worked on commercials, feature films, TV shows, and reality shows, in addition to several live events.

When moderator Julianne Cho, from OFTB, asked what it’s like to be a PA, Wilson said, “You’re going to have long hours. It’s similar to the military; they will test you all the time. You’re entry level but you’re an important part of the team. People are always watching you.”

“On top of discipline, a huge asset is adaptability,” added Wong. “You’re on your feet and around all different kinds of people. The better you can adapt, the better you’ll succeed.”

An important lesson that Wilson has learned is that no is not an option. “If you have to say no, you give them options,” she said. “You do what you have to do to get the job done.”

The panelists also shared the types of productions on which they like to work. Jackson favors reality TV. “It’s quick and to the point,” he said. “You travel a bit and it’s quick paced. I like seeing new things.” Rivera likes working on live events, like award shows. “You feel the energy of the live audience.” According to Wilson and Wong, working in reality television is also a good way to advance up the ladder and work across different fields of production.

Prater and the “Made in NY” PAs emphasized that it’s important to understand the realities of working in production. It’s not always glamorous. You need to be thick-skinned because, according to Prater, “you might get yelled at.” It’s all part of understanding that success comes gradually. “You’re not going to be working at [a fast food place] today and tomorrow you’re making a million dollars,” she said, but if you work hard and keep positive, you will advance over time, as the panelists own career paths demonstrated.

Part of the program includes life coaching. BWI’s staff provides resume help, stages mock interviews, and offers advice on how to think positively when under stress. The program has also developed into a family; the panelists noted how they rely on each other and know they can turn to each other when they need help. They often hire fellow graduates when they need PAs themselves for various projects.

They’re also working on advancing their own careers. In ten years, Rivera would like to be a director. His next step is to work toward becoming a first assistant director. Wilson has directed a short film and wants to direct features while Wong would like to see her name on various different projects. Jackson plans to work his way to become a cinematographer “so I can shoot romance films for African Americans. [The entertainment industry] is an equal opportunity employer. You can get a fresh start,” he said.

The PAs all agreed that the “Made in NY” PA Training Program has provided them with experiences they would otherwise never have had. “The program was a life changing experience for me,” said Rivera.
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