The Minimum Wage and You

Several readers have asked how I think LA’s minimum wage increase will affect PAs. Well, it means we’ll get paid more. There’s a whole bunch of caveats to go with that, though.

First of all, the $15 an hour minimum wage you’ve been hearing so much about doesn’t take effect until 2020. I would hope anybody who’s a PA now won’t still be in five years. Maybe if you’re reading this as you starting in film school, you’ll get $15/hour.

Most PAs make $10/hour now, or $700/week (8 regular hours plus 4 hours at time-and-a-half, times 5 days). The new minimum represents a 50% pay raise, or $1050/week. That’s nearly what a union production secretary makes. Which is great! Right?

Well, look at it from the studio’s perspective. Are you suddenly worth 50% more? Maybe, maybe not. Remember, manpower is the most expensive thing in any production budget. A sharp increase will mean they’d either have to cut back on the number of PAs they hire, or cut back on the hours.

One easy solution is for offices with three PAs to reduce that number to two. Sure, the APOC and production secretary will probably have to pick up some slack, but the studio doesn’t care.

Or, they might mandate no overtime, and send PAs home after 8 hours. Which means you’ll have more free time and approximately the same pay… which doesn’t sound so bad, really.

But let’s think a little further down the line. What about that hypothetical film student I mentioned earlier? This is all good news for her, right? Again, maybe.

Another way to look at the minimum wage is that it makes it illegal for an employer to hire somebody who’s worth less than $15/hour. You may think your fancy college degree means you’re totally valuable, but let’s ask a salty old grip what he thinks a wet-behind-the-ears kid who’s never set foot on a Hollywood sound stage is worth.

On most shows, there are three types of PAs: the one with tons of experience; the must-hire whose related to somebody higher up; and the newbie who managed to impress the coordinator with her grit and moxie.

I'm gonna make it after allllllll!

My first day on the show was uncomfortable.

If she can only hire two PAs, guess who falls off that list?

With this new minimum wage, there’s no valid option between $0 and $15. Looks like you’re going to have to intern for a while.

And here we get to the really awkward part of this post.

Proponents of the minimum wage aren’t exactly proud of its history, if they’re even aware. That’s because its original purpose, like that of trade unions, was to keep minorities, specifically blacks and immigrants, from entering the workforce.

Breaking into any business is difficult without connections, and historically, minorities have few. This is why things like affirmative action exist– to help minorities enter a field that is otherwise closed to them.

At $15 per hour, a show is only going to want to hire experienced PAs. How are you going to get experience? Interning. And thanks to the Black Swan law suit, the few legitimate internships that are available require college credit.

You’re no longer working for free, you’re paying to gain experience. And guess who is under represented in colleges? Once again, minorities.

I’m not saying that this new minimum wage law is motivated by racism, but there is such a thing as unintended consequences. Most internships are going to go to wealthy kids who can afford to go to film school in Los Angeles (or one of the few other production cities), and additionally have the free time to intern between classes instead of, say, working to pay for rent and tuition.

The entry level positions will then go to those who have interned. It’s the old born-on-third-base issue.

This isn’t a new objection, by the way. Here’s Walter Williams explaining the problems in 19fucking85, before I was even born.

One final note– the two biggest production payroll companies, Entertainment Partners and Cast & Crew, are based in Burbank. When you work on a show, they are technically the employer of record. Does that mean the city of Los Angeles’s minimum wage law doesn’t apply, even if I’m working at, say, LA Center Studios?

I have no idea. Hopefully an accountant out there can answer that one.

Tl;dr: the new minimum wage will be good for some people, bad for others. I don’t actually know if it’s sound public policy, but the issue is a lot more complicated than “Letz pay poor ppl more lolz!”

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Outdoors in L.A.

Wow, people were not pleased by yesterday’s post, where I criticized a fellow PA for getting the lunch order wrong. To be fair to me, this conversation didn’t happen outside my head. Sometimes I write these imagined conversations out on TAPA for your amusement, but clearly I failed in this regard.

Takeaways for readers that don’t have anonymous blogs–

  1. Don’t be mean to your fellow PA.
  2. If someone doesn’t ask for something you think is standard, maybe ask to confirm they don’t want beans or cheese or whathaveyou?
  3. Lunch is free. If it doesn’t make you go into anaphylactic shock, deal with it.
  4. Don’t fuck up the producer’s lunch.

Moving on.

The anonymous reader (who happens to provide us with the UTA joblist) wrote in:

You mentioned you hike a lot.  Where do you hike?  I used to hike Angeles Forest and Castaic Lake but haven’t in years, but always looking for other hikers to hike with.  ​

Sometimes, Los Angeles can feel like one giant freeway at rush hour.

TAPA Trivia: I'm actually in this photo.

And you thought “mattress in lanes” was the weirdest Sig Alert.

But the truth is, there are lots of green spaces in the city, including one of the largest urban parks in North America– Griffith Park. It’s over 4,00 acres.1 There are spots in Griffith Park that you wouldn’t even recognize as being in the middle of a major metropolis–

It's almost... TOO quiet.

Seriously, you can’t even hear cars.

There’s a bazzilion trails through Griffith Park, not to mention sites like the Griffith Observatory, the Hollywood Sign, and tunnel to Toontown.

Oh, my God, I just realized that 'Toontown' sounds like 'Coontown.'

They took the sign down, though…

What I’m saying is, I never hike the same trail twice. I just grab some friends and go. Sometimes, we find an old, bandoned zoo that’s probably haunted, and sometimes we find a tranquil teahouse. You just never know.

This weekend, if you’re tired of being cooped up in a dark soundstage, why not get outside and go exploring?

I tear up a little every time I read this.

This, but with less snow.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I don’t know how big an acre is, but that seems like an awful lot.
Posted in On the Job, The Industry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

There Are No “Standard” Toppings

Hollywood is the only industry that I’m aware of where the employees expect their employer to feed them. Lunch at the very minimum, and probably breakfast, possibly dinner,1 and snacks throughout the day.

And I love it. I basically don’t do any grocery shopping between August and April when I’m on a show. Free food is the best food.

But as an office PA, a good amount of your day is spent dealing with other people’s food.2 Taking orders, placing orders, picking them up, and most importantly, making sure your order is correct.

Yesterday, we ordered Chipotle for lunch. Since we’re not fully staffed yet, rather than order family style, the coordinator told my fellow PA to get individual orders. I, like everyone else, placed my order– chicken burrito, white rice, cheese, lettuce, fajita veggies.

About an hour later, the PA returned with lunch. I eagerly unwrapped my burrito– chicken, white rice, cheese, lettuce, fajita veggies… and beans.

INT. PRODUCTION OFFICE – DAY (FLASHBACK)

TAPA takes a bite out of her burrito, wrinkles her nose. Something isn’t right...

TAPA

Why are there beans in my burrito?

OTHER PA

It’s a burrito. Duh.

TAPA

I understand. But I didn’t order beans.

OTHER PA

Burritos always come with beans.

TAPA

I wrote down the things I wanted on my burrito. Beans were not on that list.

OTHER PA

You should’ve said, “No beans.”

TAPA

I didn’t write “No cyanide.” Is there cyanide on this burrito?

OTHER PA

Oh, come on. Cyanide is not part of the standard burrito order. A burrito is meat, beans, rice, and cheese wrapped in a tortilla.

The PRODUCTION COORDINATOR enters, holding a burrito with one bite taken out of it.

COORDINATOR

Did I get the wrong burrito? I didn’t order cheese.

Listen, everybody has their own idea of what is the “normal” way to eat something, whether it’s a burrito or a hot dog or french fries. But someone else might have a different idea…

Now, I’m just a lowly PA, so who cares if I got the right order? And our coordinator is a nice guy, so he just shrugged it off. But if that PA had gotten the producer’s order wrong, he would have been screamed at. Get an actor’s order wrong, and they’ll send you back to the restaurant.

The solution to this is simple: order what you’re told. If someone expects beans and doesn’t get them, well, show them the lunch order.3 It’s their dumb-ass fault for not ordering what they actually wanted.

And while we’re talking about food, always, always, always ask for sauce and dressing on the side. For one, it doesn’t travel well. And they always put on too much or too little. Plus, sauce is one of those things that restaurants themselves add without necessarily mentioning it on their menu.

“BLTs always come with mayonnaise. That’s standard.” Fuck you. They’re not BLTMs.

Anyway, my broader point is, if you give someone lunch with an ingredient missing, they’ll be annoyed, but at least they’ll eat. If you bring them food with something they’re allergic to, or just find gross, they might not eat it. Then they’re hungry and annoyed, which is not a good combination.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Known as “second meal,” for you newbies.
  2. Set PAs occasionally do, too, like when an actor has a weird call time, miss crew lunch, and are owed their own lunch before second meal arrives.
  3. You did write down the lunch order, right?
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Recharge Your Batteries

I’m always looking for new ways to be useful on set. Anticipating the needs of the cast and crew is the best way to keep your job, and get hired in the future.

So, when a fellow PA suggested I keep a portable phone charger in your ditty, I thought to myself: “Duh! Why didn’t you think of that before?”

If you’re on stage, there’s probably a million places to plug in your phone, except… you’re on set. You shouldn’t be using your phone. You can probably plug your phone in at the AD trailer, but that limits your mobility, which is kind of the point of a cell phone. I can think of at least a dozen times when my phone was out of juice, and I was nowhere near a place that I could charge it.

An office PA might have less use for a portable charger… unless she’s on a run, when you’re expected to be using your phone all the time. A cigarette lighter adapter can be useful if your car doesn’t come with a USB plug, but you might find yourself in a circumstance where your car shouldn’t be running.

Those are all reasons a portable phone charger would be useful to you. But that’s not the point. The point is to make yourself useful to others. When the producer’s phone dies, and you’re the one with the immediate solution, he will remember your name.1

Turns out, there are a lot of different external battery packs. So, I did a little research, and I’m passing it on to you, dear TAPA reader.

The two numbers to pay attention to are the capacity (measured in mAh) and the output (measured in A, so that’s not confusing at all).

It seems to take about 2,000-3,000mAh to charge an average cell phone. That’s why I’d recommend something in the 10,000mAh range; remember, you’re not going to charge just your phone. (On this same subject, it’s handy to get a charger with more than one USB outlet.)

For the output, you absolutely want a battery pack that is at least 2.0A, per outlet. This (basically) measures how fast it will charge your phone. 1.0A is common, but is slow as molasses. The price difference is negligible, but the speed difference is noticeable.

(Don’t worry about getting a pack with too high of an output. Smart phones have a way of regulating that, so they don’t explode.)

One of the best deals I found was this 11,000 mAh USB battery charger, because it also comes with a bunch of cords and adapters for most any kind of phone. Again, you may have an iPhone, but the lead actor might have an Android.

Personally, I bought this 10000mAh charger, because it also has a solar panel. Solar panels charge incredibly slowly, it’s true. I go hiking a lot, and in an emergency, it will still power your phone (and its GPS, hopefully).

If you’ve found a better portable charger, let me know in the comments.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. For at least a week.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Sometimes, You’re Wrong

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about giving yourself extra time to complete tasks:

Whenever you’re given something to do, you need to factor in “shit happens.” If you think you can get something done in five minutes, say it’ll take ten. If you think it’ll take an hour to get across town, say an hour and a half.

A.J. (of Hills Are Burning fame) recently commented:

One caveat to the “shit happens” buffer is if you’re a best boy and are asked how long it’ll take you to wrap out for the night if they’re worried about turnaround or permit times. If you say an hour and a half and end up being tail lights an hour later, sometimes they get pissed because they “could’ve had time for one more shot.”

Every department probably has some variation on this. For an office PA, it’s the question of when to pick up lunch. Order too early, and it’s cold by the time lunch rolls around; too late, everyone resorts to cannibalism, and you return to an production office that resembles 28 Days Later.

I love this movie, but a "rage virus" is kinda dumb.

I ordered my burger animal style. Did you get it animal style?

This is, unfortunately, a hazard of living in a universe where time moves in one direction. You can’t reliably, unerringly predict the future.

And sometimes this means that, when you try to give yourself a little wiggle room, you might give yourself too much wiggle room. As AJ pointed out, the higher-ups will be upset by this, even though, really, you made a sound, measured decision.

In a way, I empathize with the hypothetical producer in AJ’s example. She doesn’t care about process; she cares about results. And the result was a spare half hour that could’ve been used to improve the show.

There’s no real advice to be had here. Even with years of experience, you’ll miscalculate like AJ or I (hypothetically) did. The only option is to accept that you are a fallible human, and that, sadly, doesn’t count for much in the producers’ eyes.

You’ll just have to take the chastisement, and promise to not make the same mistake again.

Posted in On the Job | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Personal Lighting

Germainicorn1 replied to the PA shopping list I created–

This a great point, and I wish I had mentioned it earlier. Obviously, a headlamp would be useful if you’re lugging around a big crate or cooler. Probably more often, you’ll use it when doing paperwork outside of your trailer at base camp.

The electricians will generally have work lights set up at night, but you’re not the only person they’re trying to light up. It’s more important that the lead actor can see the label on the coffee maker than you can read the extras’ skins. (Also, the extras in question may, inadvertantly, be standing in the way of the light.) A headlamp will ensure you can read every tiny word on the page.

Still, for PAs, I actually recommend getting both a headlamp and a flashlight. For one, I just don’t like wearing anything on my head unless I have to. It’s uncomfortable.

Just as importantly, the light isn’t necessarily for you. Sometimes, you need to point something out in the distance to someone, in which case a flashlight that can be focused will come in handy. Sometimes, it’ll be your job to direct people through the dark, like when you’re on location in a rural or wilderness area.

What kind of flashlight do you recommend?

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Awesome name.
Posted in On the Job | Tagged | 1 Comment

The First Time You Get Paid For It

Lauren writes in:

How many things/what sort of things did you have on your resume when you started applying for PA jobs?

PAing my be the bottom rung of the ladder, but unless you know somebody, your first day on set will not be paid.

Before I ever applied for a real PA job, I worked on at least a dozen student films. Through work study, I had experience managing the school’s sound stages, maintaining equipment, and covering the front desk. I also interned every summer for three years.

Even with all of that, I couldn’t get a paid job. I PA’ed for free on three independent movies. They were not very good movies, but I learned a quite a bit that film school never taught me, and I made lots of friends.

Guess who got me my first paid gig?

As usual, everyone’s story is different. I know a guy who somehow landed a producer’s assistant job right out of college. The producer’s company shot five movies during his tenure there; he asked to work on set for each one. When he left the company to become a set PA, he didn’t put “Assistant to Big Shot Producer”; he added five set PA credits.

He’s a 2nd AD now.

My general rule of thumb is, at least half of your resume should be film and television credits. Early on, many of those will be student films; that probably means you’ll get unpaid gigs. Do enough of those, and eventually someone will pay you.

Posted in Finding a Job | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Names Are Important

Did you catch the mistake in the tweet I responded to yesterday? No? Here it is again:

Who the hell is Jerry Bruckenheimer?

His name is Jerry Bruckheimer.

Not pictured: Jerry Bruckenheimer.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t notice the misspelling at first. It’s easy to miss, since it’s almost correct. But I promise, someone at Bruckheimer Films sure would spot it right away.

I grant you, a name shouldn’t be important. It’s just a word that signifies the person, but it’s not the person himself. CJ clearly meant the powerful and talented Hollywood producer pictured above.

That doesn’t matter. People assign talismanic value to their names. You can remember everything about a person, their physicality, their whole life story, but if you forget their name, they’re insulted.

Spelling their name wrong is almost as bad.   It’s especially bad if their name is easily Google-able.

Not to pick on CJ, but copy/paste is your friend.

The issue isn’t so much lack of knowledge, but over confidence in your knowledge. As David Mitchell1 puts it in one of his soapbox videos

Is this terrible, snobbish discrimination against people who just don’t happen to be good spellers? Well, no, I don’t think so. If you’re a bad speller, surely everything you send should be spelled2 perfectly, because, without the arrogant assumption you don’t need to look things up, you’d look everything up.

I’ve been your friendly neighborhood TAPA for a couple years, now, and I still double-check “ananymous” every now and again.

Don’t be too confident in your spelling, especially with names. Even a simple name like “Price” might be spelled “Pryce.”  And if you misspell Jonathan Pryce’s name on the cast list, you’re going to catch hell from the producer.

Not because he read the cast list, mind you, but because Pryce’s agent will, and he’ll call the producer to complain. The producer has better things to do than check your spelling.

Which is why you should do it, first.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I had to check whether his name was spelled with one L or two.
  2. I refuse to write “spelt,” which I’m sure is what Mitchell said. My ancestors fought and died in the Revolutionary War so I wouldn’t have to end a past-tense word with “t.”
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

There’s No One Way to Make It

C.J. tweeted at me:

Film school is a topic that comes up often on this blog. There are some good reasons to go to film school,1 but a degree isn’t one of them. As the OG TAPA put it:

Being a filmmaker, from the biggest producer to the lowliest PA, is not like being a doctor or engineer.  If we screw up, nobody dies.2  You’ll just end up with a bad movie or TV show.

Because of this, there’s no need for a film board or cinematic bar association that certifies you as a filmmaker.

There is, unfortunately, no clear path to becoming a producer. I often refer to PAing as the bottom rung on the Hollywood ladder, but really, it’s the first step on a long, winding hike that could lead to a tangle of brambles or a beautiful vista.

Because I like looking down on people.

My current favorite spot in L.A.

The only sure-fire way to become a writer, director, producer, or actor, to get above-the-line, in other words, is to just do it. The trick is, getting someone to pay you for it.

This involves not just creating a quality project, but getting people to actually see it. That’s where networking comes in. Networking can begin in film school, it’s true; but it can also happen on set, at film festivals, or just any random coffee shop or bar in L.A.

The truth is, you never know. You need to recognize that there’s really no advice I, or anyone else, can really give you about how to reach your career goal. There’s too many factors. Film school might help you; it might not. Whatever your situation, don’t worry about it. Just keep plugging away.

Eventually, if you’re talented, hard-working, friendly, and a little lucky, you’ll probably make it as a producer. Maybe.

I hope.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. Click on any of the preceding links to read them.
  2. Nobody dies on a responsible set, anyway. There are dangers, and dangerous people, in this business.
Posted in The Industry | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

One Subject Per Email

The One Subject Email

You probably noticed people are busy. Like, all the time. Even when they have a moment to relax, they’ll probably spend that moment whipping out their cell phone and checking Reddit.

I’m not criticizing or praising this trend. It’s simply the way life is now.

You need to deal with this fact when you send out emails, especially ones from which you need a reply. A long, rambling email isn’t going to read well on a tiny screen. And, just as important, Instagram is just a click away.

But worse than a long email is a long email about seven different things. No one is going to process all of that, because again, they’re busy, and you’re boring.1

If you send the UPM a provisional crew list for approval and tell him where his new parking spot is and ask what he wants for lunch, you’ll be lucky if he tells you the ham sandwich belongs in the electrical department.

Break your emails up. Each email should be about one thing, and one thing only. Tighten that information up as much as humanly possible, to ensure the recipient reads the whole thing.2 If at all possible, ask only one question.

Also, for the love of God, write a clear subject line.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)
  1. I don’t mean you you; I mean, work emails in general.
  2. Pro tip: If the email fills the window on your desktop browser, it’s too long.
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