Dollars and Sense

Dollars and Sense

Everything I’m about to tell you is based on my time working in the New York film world, so if you’re based anywhere else, take my words with a grain of salt. Los Angeles in particular seems to be a different beast entirely. They don’t even have bodega baconeggandcheeses and I cannot fathom a life there.

Hollywood has unlimited money. I’ve said this before, to this same audience, in fact. And it’s true. Even now with the strikes, you can’t convince me otherwise. Even though the studios are crying about the numbers and their stock options, there are still a lot of millionaires running around. The studio heads make at least eight figures a year. Executives who, I promise you, don’t work half as hard as their assistants.

We should all be talking about money. In every industry, but in film especially. There are so many obvious abuses of power, that one way to combat it is transparency. Talk about how much you make, how much your set partner makes, how much your boss makes. Solidarity in wage equality is the strongest stance employees can take against a corporation.

When I was in film school, I asked about money. If I was going to sink a quarter of a million dollars into my education, I needed to know if there would be a return on my investment. I was met with silence. I took to the Internet. Silence again. There’s really not a lot of information out there detailing how much money production workers make. So I’m going to tell you.

A disclaimer: I’m New York-based and always have been, so these figures may differ from what’s going down in Los Angeles. Hopefully it’s comparable, as New York and L.A. are both wildly expensive cities to live in, but I really have no clue. Also, there are always exceptions to the rules. The lawless indie film world might take a PA and make them a Producer on the very next project, but what I’m about to tell you is the standard for union work.

Most likely, the first job you will get in the industry is that of a Production Assistant. PAs are the lifeblood of a production. PAs do all the running around, the bitch work, the lock ups, the fetching and retrieving. Every department has them, including the actual set itself, and they are invaluable.

They, along with the Assistants (Director’s, Producer’s, Showrunner’s, etc.), are the only non-union workers on a union set. PAs in New York make minimum wage and sometimes a little more, depending on the project. An average of $16/hr comes out to about $220-250/day, factoring in any overtime. I distinctly remember netting $881/week for years.

PAs make about $16/hr and Assistants make anywhere from $16-19/hr. What’s confusing is that many PAs are completely green in the business. However, nobody would ever hire a newbie to be a Showrunner’s Assistant, let’s say. It could be different if you have a contact who can hook you up, but I didn’t. Personally, it took me four years of PAing before I had enough clout to be hired as an Assistant. And even then, I was to assist the director and the producer for $1200/week flat. Oh yeah, that’s the other kicker: PAs must get overtime; Assistants might not.

The most interesting shift for me when I jumped from PA to Assistant was how people viewed me. A lot of oohs and aahs, especially from strangers. I changed my job title to “Director’s Assistant at A24” on LinkedIn, mainly as a social experiment, and my page blew up like I was a Kardashian. Even the PAs would marvel a little at my position. “How’d you get this job?” “Did you know the director beforehand?”

The thing is though: I was making way less money and working way more hours. 80 hrs/week divided by $1200 is about $13/hr, before taxes. Illegal in most states, certainly in New York. No benefits, no health insurance. Which begs the question: where were my labor laws? I could have, quite literally, made double my salary flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Instead, I worked on an Apple TV project and got screwed. On the record, they’re the cheapest company going. So why all the smoke getting blown up my ass?

The mentality in Hollywood is that you’re lucky to be there. No matter what. Remember in The Devil Wears Prada where everyone kept telling Anne Hathaway to sell her soul because a million girls would kill for her job? That’s exactly how it is in Hollywood.

Shut up and do as you’re told because there’s a line of folks back there hungry to stab you and take your place.

Julia Roberts screams at you in front of 250 people for getting her the wrong crackers? You have to cut up your rich-and-famous director’s lunch every day into bite-sized pieces before he eats it? A producer has his finger in your face and his enraged spittle is flying onto your lips as he reams you for not repeating “rolling” on an MOS close-up at the end of a 26-hour shoot day?

You’re the luckiest girl in the world. You’re in the movies.

One time as an Assistant, I asked for an extra dollar to compensate for a 2-hour daily commute, and the UPM laughed in my face and said, “Not gonna happen. This is your dream, isn’t it? You’ll work for anything.” I should have kicked him in the shins, said ‘fuck you, clown’ and stormed out the door. But he was right.

I liked the work of an Assistant, mostly. Not so much the tedious coffee grabbing, but the moments where I felt like an important cog in the machine. I made creative decisions that were seen in the final cut, I made script edits, I had power. Largely unseen and uncredited power, sure, but that didn’t matter. It felt like important work and I was good at it. But the politics and the shit-eating and, most importantly, the lack of proper monetary compensation shut that door for me.

I would still take an Assistant job for the right person or the right project, but overall, I can’t be entering the second decade of my career still making minimum wage and without health insurance. By no means is that a rule or a judgment on those who choose to stay, but for me personally, I hit a wall where that stopped being an option.

If you ever hit this wall, the next step is to pick a department—Camera, Props, Costumes, Set Dec, Art, Grip, Electric, etc. Ideally, you will have already PA’d in that department, but if not, now you must. I don’t know anyone who has jumped right to a union Set Dresser, for example, without first PAing in that world.

After you take a few PA gigs in your chosen department, make some friends, and earn a solid name for yourself, you can apply to join your union. Each union differs, but most require some letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and a portfolio or resume. And a registration fee, always. Sometimes a few hundred, sometimes a few thousand. Each department, some combined with others, has a local IATSE union that makes up the national IATSE umbrella. Once you join either IATSE or a Guild, you will receive benefits. Health insurance, pension plans, retirement options, and labor protections.

If you want to have a career in film, joining a union is a must.

I was lucky enough at this crossroads to have a footing in the Wardrobe department. That was the first department I PA’d in when I started working union jobs, and I had a good grasp on the logistics of how it all ran. I liked the work fine, and I had friends there. I put my hours in and worked hard, and eventually was accepted into the IATSE Local 764 Wardrobe Union.

Each local union has a different contract with different Minimum Basic Agreements, so the rates vary from department to department. Generally, as a union production worker, you’ll earn anywhere from $40-100/hr, with department heads and above-the-line folks making more. That’s a big margin, I know, but differing skillsets and union strengths decide those numbers.

For example, Local 798 (Hair & Make-Up) require their members to be fully licensed Cosmetologists and Estheticians, pay a $3,500 registration fee, and have completed 180 days of paid work; all in addition to their regular portfolio and resume. Heavy requirements at the outset, sure, but once in the union, they make around $1000/day.

Also, your day rate will vary depending on the studio you’re working for. Remember when I said Apple TV were the cheapest sumbitches? A Costumer on one of their shows may make $53/hr, and on an HBO movie make $59/hr. It all depends.

As a Costumer, if I work on set, I make more money. Not because my rate changes, but because there are pre-calls, meal penalties, and overtime that will garner me a fatter paycheck. If general crew call is at 7 a.m. but the actors need to go through the works (HMU, Wardrobe, and Sound) before that, I might have a 5:30 a.m. pre-call. Then, technically, my minimum 10-hour day would start 1.5 hours earlier, ensuring overtime. So, where I would originally start my overtime at 5 p.m., now it starts at 3:30 p.m. If they wrap at 8 p.m., I just made 5 hours of overtime, at 1.5x my hourly rate.

There are also things called “meal penalties.” Not every department has equal compensation here either, but we 764 folks love meal penalties. If we’re late to break for lunch because we’re still working (lunch is mandatorily 6 hours exactly after general crew call), we get money. If we’re extra late, those penalties compound. In Wardrobe, you’re usually late to lunch because you’re dressing and undressing actors so they can eat first. (By the way, we often pass out lobster bibs to the background actors during lunch, which I think is a cute ‘n fun detail.)

Other than set, my other option is to work at a costume shop off-site. The work done there is to prepare the clothes for when they go to set. It’s less money but a concrete 10-hr schedule in a determined location, which means less variables to schedule my life around. Other departments have shops where they build things, like props and construction, and it’s entirely possible to have a lifelong career in film while never stepping foot on a set.

Once you’re in your department, you may want to work up to Department Head. Or not! Usually the only difference there is a few more dollars an hour and a lot more responsibility, which might not be worth it for some. Not everyone wants to be the boss, and figuring out where in that pendulum you fall is a crucial first step to career happiness.

If you don’t particularly take to any one department, and feel that you would thrive as a circus carnie, you should try to become a Set PA. Set PAs on big-budget projects typically have experience, since the point of the job is to make the set run as smoothly as possible, but there are always openings for one or two greenies. From there, you can work on your DGA book and log enough hours to join the union on the Assistant Director track. The track goes: Set PA, Key PA, Second Second AD, Second AD, then First AD. Obviously, depending on the size of the project, there can be more than one of each of these roles, and even some half-steps in between.

Similarly, if an office environment is more your bag, then a Production Office PA is the job for you. That track goes: Office PA, Secretary, Assistant Production Coordinator, Production Coordinator, and then you can jump to Line Producer and Unit Production Manager.

If you want to be a Producer, it’s this office track you’ll want to focus on. A loophole that some don’t know is that the Locations Department is also a direct route to becoming a UPM. Start PAing there, become a Location Assistant, then a Unit Location Manager. From there, it’s an almost-lateral move to becoming a UPM.

If you want to be a Director, you might think the set track or assisting is the way to go. While there are plenty of Directors who started as ADs and Assistants, there are plenty more who never even stepped foot on a set before their own. If you want to be a Director, direct. That’s it.

Same with writing. Yes, you can be a Writers PA, then Writers Assistant, then Staff Writer and then, often, some producorial role. This is a common track for television. But for film? Just write something great, and the rest will follow.

So if you need to convince your parents, your spouse, or yourself to go for a career in film, I hope this helped. Any skillset you can think of is applicable on a film set; woodworking, sewing, cooking, driving, engineering, painting, plumbing, accounting … absolutely every option is available to anyone willing to put in the work.

You don’t need a degree, you don’t need connections, you don’t need anything except your own willpower and work ethic. You can carve out an exciting life for yourself with a solid salary, interesting coworkers, and sometimes, pretty cool special effects.

This is your dream, isn’t it? Don’t let anyone stop you from making it a reality.

*Feature photo by Karolina Grabowska (Pexels)

Writer and local menace. Currently working in costume shops around New York. For press and inquiries, reach me at my couch.
More posts by Sommer Rusinski.
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