If you are like most producers, during some phase of pre-production or principal photography on a feature or television show, your day likely started before you even got out of bed. Emails incoming, texts chirping, calls buzzing and the moment the alarm goes off your attention goes to them, answering the call of duty before you’ve showered. You get through your morning routine, responding to texts in between teeth brushing and putting on deodorant, and rush out the door heading to the production office so your day can officially “start.”
The day is consumed by more emails, texts, phone calls, meetings, scouts, show and tells, ornery agents, complaining crew and the UPM once again mentioning that a fifth cast trailer is financially and logistically unlikely. Eventually, the demands for your attention slow. At least long enough for you to take a few bites of the now soggy Southwest chicken salad that has been on your desk since lunch, five hours ago.
There is a knock on your office door, sigh, what emergency do you need to solve now? “It’s open” you say, expecting it to be the production designer insisting that a build of the mausoleum set will work much better than a practical location. But instead, you are greeted by a bright-eyed, smiling face. You know this person. They greeted you when you rushed into the office while on the phone, they were the one who asked for your lunch order earlier. You glance at your desk and realize a new box of your favorite pens appeared, and vaguely recall this person putting them there. When the director of photography came in with a “we need to talk” face, this person brought in a chair for them to sit on. Your email inbox has a new message with a subject line that reads CAT GROOMERS IN WINSTON-SALEM and remember you had asked where you could take your cat while on location, and here was a list of the top four places. This happy, eager person at your door is the office production assistant. “I have your pink script revisions,” they say as they set them on the corner of your desk. “Would you like me to get you some coffee?”
While they are likely not your first (second, third or twelfth) hiring priority, and you may not even be involved in the process of selecting them, finding and grooming solid office PAs will be one of the most impactful long-term contributions you can make to the film and television industry. They are a crucial component to the production team. Here are a few things to consider about office PAs:
THEY GET ALL THE SH*T DONE The office PA is an unsung hero on a production, without them everything on the show can seem exponentially harder. The office PA is the one filling in all the gaps, making sure the little stuff gets done so that everyone else can focus on bringing the story to the screen. Are the offices unlocked? Has the coffee been made? Is the production meeting set up? Has lunch been ordered? Have the schedules been copied? Has the cooler for the scout been prepped? Who’s answering the phones? Are the sides done? Did the hard drive make it to editorial? The office PA does ALL THE THINGS that need to get done. Since this is an entry level job, the likelihood of this being someone’s first job in the industry is high. They are the ones learning the in’s and out’s of production from a granular level and they are the ones who often go on to make the best producers.
YOUR INFLUENCE IS EVERYTHING How you operate as a producer can have a significant impact on your office PA and in turn the future of the film and television industry (what?!). People learn by example, by watching how others conduct themselves, how they handle tense situations, how they treat people, their dedication to the job, ways they communicate, etc. In production hierarchy, at the top sits the producer and eyes are always on them. Whether you realize it or not, whether you care or not (but really, you should care), the office PA is taking it all in so they can one day be you. How do you want to train the next generation of producers? Hopefully as kind, considerate, honest, pragmatic, inclusive leaders who make the industry better.
THEY ARE LEARNING ON THE JOB PA as in “production assistant” as in “assistant to the production as a whole.” In the entertainment industry production assistants are considered entry level. Many Office PAs are hired with little to no advance knowledge about film and television production. Even those who may have gone to a fancy film school will not have learned the nuances of production office operations, though hopefully they at least know production basics! Office PAs need training, just like anyone doing any other job on the show. Thank your production coordinators who have been doing this for you for years, for free, as part of their job because, well, someone’s gotta show them the ropes! So while your production coordinator is trying to get the office set up, order equipment, furniture, office machines and supplies, set up distribution and filing systems, coordinate cast and crew travel, liaise with insurance and production accounting, assist the UPM with searching for and vetting crew, ensuring all departments have what they need to do their jobs, and a myriad of other things the production coordinator handles way behind the scenes, they are also having to train the office PA. Luckily, there is now a solution to the training: Keys to the Production Office is the first ever film and television production handbook dedicated to the role and responsibility of the office PA. It is designed to be used on the job as a practical “how-to” guide for succeeding in the production office. Every aspect of the work is meticulously outlined, so having a few copies in the office will definitely come in handy. This book makes it possible for an office PA, and other office staff, to improve their work while performing the job. Time is money and allowing your production coordinator to spend time on more pressing matters, rather than training staff, could save the production money. As a producer, it’s part of your responsibility to ensure your office PAs are equipped to fulfill their job responsibilities.
WHY YOUR PRODUCTION COULD BE AT RISK The office PA is the face of the production. They are the one greeting visitors to the office, answering calls, picking up from vendors and generally offering assistance to anyone on the production who needs it. Now, consider how much information and access an office PA has on a production. They literally hold the keys to your production office, scan and copy documents with confidential information on them, answer and transfer calls from VIPs like; actors, agents, studio executives, the director, sometimes have to transport VIPs like actors, agents, studio executives, and the director. They can eavesdrop on private conversations (whether intentionally or not), they handle production cash, p-cards and sometimes personal producer information. That’s a lot of responsibility for someone in an entry level job who the production coordinator may have met once during the job interview! The office PA is the inner working cog in the entire production machine. You need them to do the job and you need to trust them in the job. Taking the time to properly train office PAs on appropriate interactions and being a professional in the workplace can avoid the spread of mis-information, confidentiality breaches and potentially unfavorable exposure for the production.
CAREER TRAJECTORY IS LIMITLESS The amazing thing about working as an office PA is the opportunity to see all of the departments in action, work with them, and be involved in their day-to-day. Because of this, an office PA can more readily identify what career path they might be interested in. This is also a good time to explore multiple career paths. Being one of the first people hired onto a show and one of the last to be let go in wrap, office PAs have exposure to the full spectrum of the production operation. They also have access to almost every department. Once they choose a path, there is no place to go but up. Encourage your office PAs to ask questions, meet the crew and learn (but also get the job done!).
PRODUCERS SOLVE PROBLEMS We wrote this book because both of us got our start in the industry as a PA and worked our way up through the production office. Our productions have spanned across the nation, from major production hubs like Los Angeles and New York City to Indianapolis, Indiana and Bartlesville, Oklahoma. For every pilot, every season of a TV show, and every feature, we hired interns that needed a summer job, and office PAs looking to get their start. We’ve devised countless ways to train new office PA’s. There was an office to be run and without office PAs, we would have had to do all the work! Want to help someone get started in the business? Give them a sense of the job by sharing this blog: How to Become an Office Production Assistant in the Film and TV Industry. After reading it, if they are still wide-eyed and wearing a big grin, they may just be your next office PA. At the end of the day, we are all there to get the show done. So, why do office PA’s become the best producers? Because just like the office PA, there are times when the producer has to fill in the gaps, and sometimes this means they have to make the coffee. For more information visit www.keystotheproductionoffice.com
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Jennifer A. Haire is a Line Producer and DGA Production Manager with global feature film and television experience. Proud to be a “Fighting Pickle,” she earned her BFA in filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her commitment to the industry includes serving on the Board of Directors for the Producers Guild of America, IATSE Local 871, and launching international Production crew training and Production safety education workshops.
Gilana M. Lobel is a New York-based Producer and DGA Production Manager. A graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking, her experience with the Production Office comes from working on major feature films and television shows in various capacities. She is dedicated to telling diverse stories and creating a more inclusive work environment by collaborating with industry organizations to encourage upward mobility in film and television.