Those who have followed this blog for any period of time know that I have spent the better part of the past year writing seeking viable employment opportunities in Film Production. And as my handle suggests, I live in New York. The great thing about living in New York is that Film Production is at an all-time high given various generous production incentives. While Los Angeles complains about loosing film work, NYC has been gaining it, at a steady rate. So you might consider moving here to try and get your foot in the door based on such optimistic news. This article is all about why you should probably try your luck elsewhere to start out. And I write this article with the utmost respect and gratitude for all of our hard working men and women here in NY as a native New Yorker myself. They do great things for the business at large. But I know that even they would recommend you try elsewhere first.
Now, it’s no question that breaking into film requires a combination of luck, a little bit of a connection (where possible) and a TON of hard work. You will face many more rejections than affirmations, and that is the case with anything in life. But presumably you already understand this, so I will skip the lecture. I will break down a list of reasons why New York is NOT a good place to try and break into the film industry without much prior experience. And while breaking into film is very hard, I will explain why in New York, it is even harder. The conclusions are based upon my own experience, research as well as feedback from other film professionals based in NY (and elsewhere for comparison).
1. NY Production Assistants are NOT entry level workers.
When you think of a PA, you think of the lowest on the totem pole — the place where everyone gets their start. And of course you would be right, it is by definition an entry level position, one where previous work experience is not necessarily required. But as the conundrum goes, to get experience, you need experience. OK, so on that, New York is EXTREMELY competitive, it almost goes without saying. Many PA’s working on studio films are in excess of 30 years old. Why is that? Because they get consistent work through connections and have no desire to move on from $150-200/day, which is enough for many working Production Assistants living in the city. Nothing wrong with that. But how does this affect you, the entry-level guy? You will RARELY if EVER be hired over these people, unless they call out one day and you get called/successfully walk-on (more on that to come). A simple scan of the current list of Productions in NY shows that several PA’s are all credited on the same films. There is no need for a production coordinator to train someone new when they can hire some 35 year old who’s PA’d for them since 2003. Contrast that to film hubs like New Orleans where according to friends who have PA’d down there, the average age is closer to 25.
2. There are production incentives to hire Lower Income people as PAs.
What? Yes, this is actually something which has increased over the past decade here in the city under Bloomberg’s film commission. In an effort to favor lower income folks, the city creates more generous incentives for productions that hire low income graduates of the city film commissions ‘production assistant training program.’ While this is great for low income folks from the Bronx etc. it doesn’t help the kid sitting on $100k of film school debt who wants a shot too.
3. New York has “Unionization” for PAs. Not a real union, but it functions the same.
411 lists are more or less useless on the entry level side of things here in NY. The reason is that studios and production houses here in New York have what I call “internal hire lists.” Take a friend of mine for instance…This friend is a working Production Assistant for several television shows in NYC. She is not low income, but her father knew a coordinator with an affiliate of Warner Bros. TV prods. in New York. She was able to immediately try her hand on set, and was quickly re-hired over time. While she had to bust her ass on set, the reward was worth it — she has priority hire because of employee credentials. What are “employee credentials?” After you work on the set of a studio’s TV/Film production, they give you employee benefits here in NY. Many production houses consider you a “contract employee.” These people are able to pursue things like health benefits, and training at the production houses expense. It is the closest thing to a “Production Assistant Union” without actual unionization for it functions in almost the same way.
For example, my friend is an “employee” of Warner Brothers even though she isn’t working at present and is freelance, just like any other kid PA off the street. The main advantage of this system is that PA’s are hired from this internal list of “contract employees.” And before you say this is the norm across the country, it’s not. While it is somewhat in practice elsewhere, places like New Orleans etc. still predominantly give a fair shot to ALL who advertise their services on their local film commission site or 411. New York just so happens to be more protectionist given the amount of people who move here to grab a shot at entry level jobs. To create a tier to prevent competition for status jobs (Studio TV/Film work) they create a barrier to entry for those people while increasing incentives like internal references for folks like my friend. As a result they face less new competition for “status jobs.” The new people will be left to do mostly commercial work, student film work or if lucky, indies.
And so the system of “contract employees” is more or less unionization. It functions the same way as “union v. non-union” hires as seen at higher levels of crafts/guilds in the business. Most studio films or TV shows will NOT deal with “walk-ons” out of preference for these internal hires or what my working friends and I call “union PAs.” Which brings me to my next point….
4. Walk-ons are next to impossible in NYC and even harder on Long Island.
Walk-ons. Surely you have heard the term before. It refers to people who knock and enter the coordinators trailer on an open set. The goal is to introduce yourself to the coordinator, the person responsible for hiring PA’s and to hand them your resume in the hope of a future hire. Since they usually have a preferred crew list, the goal is to offer your help upon need, like if someone calls out etc. While this might sound like breaking and entering, the practice of “walk-ons” have always been apart of film-set culture. Coordinators expect it because it is almost the only way to introduce yourself to them with few exceptions. And it is because they expect “walk-ons” that they lock their doors, ALWAYS.
Elsewhere in the country, a coordinators trailer is usually open, especially since PA’s frequently need to enter etc. However, along with the prevailing attitudes towards protectionism previously alluded to (“union PAs” v walk-ons etc.), they provide keys to NY PA’s and prevent outsider from entering. This was affirmed to me by my friend who works on NY studio projects. While you may think it is a security issue, it’s not. Los Angeles, the second largest city with much higher crime rates, NEVER locks the trailer. Not once have my friends out West encountered a locked trailer. Here in New York, I’ve never come across one that isn’t locked. And on Long Island, the streets are shut down, so it’s not as open a set to even get near it as they often have Nassau Country police volunteering security (which is a no-no for the police by the way accord. to NYS & police union laws, but they do it bc they want to watch).
The way around this you ask? Well, since I am a smart-alack, I enjoy working my way around obstacles. The way I have handed off my resume is by walking up in my business clothes and asking PA’s to speak to the coordinator, and DO NOT say it is because you want to PA. When they give me attitude or protest (which they will since all PA’s are scared you will take their job) you act like you BELONG there. Act as if you’re a studio rep or someone from the office without saying you are, just DO NOT reveal your true intentions. If you can talk to that PA as if you’re higher up on the totem pole (respectfully but assertively) without lying, DO IT. It has worked many times for me, and coordinators appreciate the ingenious of it. Except for one who told me literally to “fuck off, I don’t have time for this right now.” No offense taken, it happens. And if you don’t like the word “fuck” I consider you choose an entirely different business from the get-go :P.
The other way around this is to walk-on during the lunch or crew break half-hour. Crafty is set up along the street and is open-access. I’ve seen some nice productions even feed the homeless whatever they have left over. Just yesterday I did that, and talked with a bunch of PA’s and asked them how they got their jobs etc. acting as if I wasn’t interested (I work in finance, naturally). And of course, most were over 30, internal hires with loads of experience. “This is my 5th film in NY this year,” one 32 year old NY Film Academy graduate said.
Breaking into film anywhere is extremely tough. Getting in is the hardest part, and once you’re in you will be forced to do loads of stressful grunt work before you even begin to realize any advancement. You will be yelled at, ridiculed and be required to work incredibly long hours on overdrive for low pay. You must do this all WITHOUT complaining. In fact getting hired, more than just your work experience, comes down to whether or not people want to even be around you for 12-14 hours a day. So always smile and if you’re like me, crack some jokes (appropriately, and never about the industry) and be down to earth.
Now while I’ve gotten work here in NY, I’ve never gotten onto a film or TV show. And that is because beyond what my article alludes to, the NY Film Industry has a reputation around the country. This reputation is that of being very protectionist and in some circles they are even seen as somewhat arrogant/pretentious. I will not use the term arrogant or pretentious as some have espoused, but I will absolutely agree with protectionist. And it’s pretty understandable why they are protectionist. NY has a wonderful crew base of very talented people. It is among the entertainment capitols of the world and as such requires even those at the entry level positions to be at the top of their game.
In knowing all this I would say you may have better luck in New Orleans or Atlanta to start. Build up your credits, find a good base of connections and ALWAYS talk it up with coordinators and stress your great personality — it absolutely matters. But ABOVE ALL ELSE, NEVER COMPLAIN AND WORK HARDER THAN ANYONE ELSE. I once got up a 4AM in NY, flew to LA and went straight from LAX to the studio lot for a music video shoot on 4 hours sleep and stood on my feet for 12h and did lock down during lunch, having another PA bring me my lunch — NO lunch break, busting my ass. And guess what? The producer gave me their business card and offered to be a reference to me and said “[I am] sad that you don’t live in LA.” AND THAT is how you get work in this business. And while NY may be very hard to break in to, the great thing about working in film is that it is truly an international business. So best of luck to all in a similar position, keep your heads up and never stop trying!