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TOUGH MONEY: Entertainment

Starting at the Bottom

For production assistants, the work is often trivial, the hours long, the pay minimal. But it's a good way to learn the ropes.

March 24, 1997|DAVID R. OLMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alone on a Manhattan street corner late one night, Kurt Hathaway, a greenhorn production assistant eager to please a demanding movie director, faced a daunting task.

His assignment: Secure enough on-street parking spaces near the next day's shooting location so the director, talent trailers and assorted muck-a-mucks could park without aggravation the next morning.

His equipment: two purloined police barricades, a ball of string and all the ingenuity he could muster.

As cars pulled from their spaces, Hathaway stretched the string across the barriers, and when another space opened up, he moved the barriers further down the block. "I secured 2 1/2 blocks worth of parking spaces," he says.

The payoff: "When the director showed up the next morning, the first thing he said was, 'Wow, we didn't need that many spaces.' But he was definitely impressed," the North Hills resident recalled of his experience working as a production assistant in the mid-1980s.

The daily lives of production assistants working in the entertainment industry are filled with odd and unpredictable challenges like those Hathaway faced. Commonly known as "PA," the title is a catchall term for entry-level positions at movie studio offices or on film, video and television production crews.

PA jobs often start out as unpaid internships, and even the money for paid positions can be meager, ranging from $50 a day to a less-shabby $275 or more for some TV commercials. Finding jobs can be difficult, the hours are long and unpredictable, and the work is unsteady. The jobs can be trivial, even degrading--making coffee, photocopying scripts or picking up the director's dry cleaning.

At its worst, an assistant's dream job--the one that was supposed to launch his meteoric rise to top studio executive--can turn into a nightmare. That was the idea behind the 1995 film "Swimming With Sharks," in which an outrageously abusive Hollywood producer (played by Kevin Spacey) terrorizes and humiliates his young assistant.

On the other hand, assistants' jobs often provide invaluable opportunities to learn about the entertainment industry and gain experience that eventually leads to better things.

"These jobs have an enormous value as far as finding out what there is to know about the business," says David Permut, a veteran Hollywood producer who began his career in the 1970s as a "totally incompetent" production assistant.

"There is no way you can learn certain things in the classroom like you can on the movie set," Permut says. "You can learn and absorb knowledge like a sponge on these jobs."

Permut used the experience he gained working on nonunion film productions--where job functions are not governed by strict rules--to move up to other jobs. For example, when an assistant director called in sick one day, "the production manager came up to me and said, 'Do you know how to change film?' I said sure, even though I had no idea."

But Permut says he asked questions and figured out how to do it.

Often, no prior experience or specific training is needed to land entry-level production assistant jobs, though some producers give an edge to film school graduates or others who have some basic knowledge of the industry.

Personal contacts--that is, who you know--are critical to landing interviews with production managers who can hire you, industry veterans say. Permut, for instance, says he got his first job through a tennis partner who was a production manager.

One organization that does offer formal help for people seeking PA jobs is the Production Assistant Assn., run by Philip and Lezette Marcus. Their group offers training classes--$79 for a four-hour session covering "the basics, studio procedures, logistics and the nuts and bolts," Philip Marcus says--and job-placement assistance.

Marcus describes his Beverly Hills company as a clearinghouse for studios, production firms and producers looking for production assistants. Demand for production assistants is strong, and "because most people don't remain PAs for longer then two or three months . . . there's a great need to replenish."

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Marcus and others say there are some personality traits that producers and directors look for in assistants.

"There are enormous pressures in these jobs," says Permut. "A good PA is somebody who is honest, responsible and has good people skills. And someone with a sense of humor."

Andrea Trueman, a production assistant from Riverside, believes the skills she picked up working as a Las Vegas dancer, firefighter and stagehand have helped her in PA jobs.

"It takes flexibility, a positive attitude and the ability to have confidence in yourself that whatever job you're given, you can do [it]," she says.

Production assistants say their jobs have meant doing everything from emptying trash cans, buying two dozen roses for the director's girlfriend, rounding up extras in Chinatown for a Vietnam War-era movie or driving unsuspecting actors onto location at a nudist colony.

While the sheer variety of tasks involved in PA work can make it fun, a downside can be production outfits that allow assistants to be treated like subhuman life forms.

"A lot of people feel that to make themselves better they need to stomp on the people underneath them, because they know there are 100 people behind you who want the job," says Arlyn Grant, a freelance producer in Claremont, Fla.

Low pay, verbal abuse and demeaning tasks are parts of the job PAs must accept--up to a point--in order to get the experience they need to move on to something better.

What's important, people who have worked as PAs say, is that the job offers a chance to learn valuable skills, not just one trivial task after another.

"If the production company drags you on week after week having you run for doughnuts or buy coffee, it's not worth it," Marcus says.

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