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Real New Yorkers Share Real Stories about Breaking into the Film and TV Industry

The latest "Made in NY" Industry Series panel took place at Brooklyn Public Library.
January 19, 2012 - At the latest talk from the “Made in NY” Industry Series, an audience gathered at Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza to learn about the realities of breaking into the film and television production industry. Moderated by Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment Commissioner Katherine Oliver, the panel featured a frank discussion about what people can expect when they’re just starting out in their careers.

A production assistant is the typical entry-level position in film and television, and almost everyone in the business starts out as a PA. PAs run errands, order lunch, make copies, stand outside in all kinds of weather and do any other task assigned to them on set or in a production office. “It’s about doing what no one else wants to do,” said Terrell Merrill, a graduate of the “Made in NY” PA Training Program.

The program, developed in partnership between the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, prepares diverse New Yorkers who otherwise do not have any connections in the industry for work on film and TV sets. The free program lasts four and a half weeks and includes intensive hands-on training on what to expect on the job.

Merrill remembered on one of his first jobs he heard an assistant director ask a PA who wasn’t a graduate of the “Made in NY” program for a ‘hot brick.’ Because walkie-talkie jargon is something every “Made in NY” PA learns, Merrill knew the assistant director wanted a battery for his walkie talkie while the untrained PA went to find an actual brick. It’s having that kind of knowledge prior to getting on set that makes Merrill and his fellow “Made in NY” PAs a cut above the rest.

Nick Thomason, the production coordinator for the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” listed the kind of qualities every PA should possess: be hard working, self-motivated and capable of working on your own. “We shouldn’t have to remind you to do the same task every day,” he said. People skills are key as is being polite, and the most important thing is to be on time. “You will be fired if you’re not on time,” he said.

Katy Finch, the director of the “Made in NY” Training Programs, added that being on time means being fifteen minutes early, not walking through the door at the time you’re expected. PAs also need to have a valid driver’s license.

The panelists recommended that if you want to break into the industry you should tell everyone you know about what you want to do. “It’s a big city with a lot of connections,” said Thomason. You never know who knows someone who can get your foot in the door. Also be willing to work for free on low budget projects. Once you’re on those projects, let your co-workers know what you want to do, get their contact info and stay in touch with them after the production is over.

Terrill, for example, interned on “Dirty Money” during his last week of training with the “Made in NY” PA Program. They liked him so much that they brought him back in a paid position. When that project finished, the coordinator called him up for other jobs. “I kept getting calls,” he said.

An important reality to understand going into the production industry is that it’s freelance: people go from job to job. “You have to be prepared to not work for four months,” said Thomason. “You have to budget your money.”

Finch agreed. “For the first four years, I had other jobs. I did a lot of dog sitting, personal assisting, catering. If you sit at home and apply for jobs, it’s likely you’ll get frustrated,” she said. The key is to get out there and keep networking.

Some PAs may get also frustrated doing menial tasks and working in the production office because they want to be out on set, but it has its advantages. “I learned a lot making copies,” said Thomason. You also get to watch every department in action in the office and get an idea of what area you want to pursue. It also has the benefit of being inside, especially on a cold New York City day out on location. “I get to be warm and inside,” joked Terrill, who’s worked previously as an office PA and wants to work his way up to production secretary.

The panelists also recommended having a one page resume, submitted preferably as a PDF. “List your best jobs, the things people would recognize,” suggested Thomason. “And look it over 20 times,” added Finch. A resume with a typo or a comma in the wrong spot immediately gets placed in the rejected pile. If you don’t have many film credits to your name, production coordinators and those who hire PAs also look for experience working in customer service or in restaurants.

There are a number of common misconceptions about working in the film industry that the panelists noted. The first is that you spend all your time hanging out with superstars and that you make lots of money. The money is good, said the panelists, but it needs to last until you get your next position. Another misconception is that everyone on the crew has creative input on the project. There are typically only five creative positions on set. The majority of roles focus on logistics and organization.

The final words of advice came from Merrill. “Don’t be late, and don’t give your input on anything.”
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