Will Production Assistants Be Next to Unionize?

An industry insider explains why PAs should band together for collective action

March 20, 2019

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The heart of the film industry is unionized labor, with its members paid well above the minimum wage. Indeed, the average hourly wage for a union member in the film industry in 2017 was almost $35 per hour.1 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most get paid almost 40 percent more than others in the same job in different fields. For example, an electrician on films earns an annual mean salary of $77,470, whereas an electrician in construction services can expect an annual mean salary of $57,030.

The exception to the rule? Production assistants.

“Production assistant” is a title that spans a variety of job descriptions. In the most reductive sense, a PA is a helper, someone who can go from keeping set quiet during takes to handling payroll paperwork and managing actors’ workflow. It may not be as glamorous or exciting as the work of cinematographers or wardrobe artists, but PAs' contributions are as just as critical to a shoot’s success.

I know this well from my experience as a PA on more than thirty features with budgets ranging from less than $1 million to more than $100 million. I’ve also held many other on-set positions from working as an assistant director and script supervisor to director. My experience on both the top and bottom of the on-set hierarchy has given me a crystal-clear understanding of how essential every piece of the puzzle is.

Why, then, are PAs not treated with the same respect and care as the rest of the film industry?

Supply, supply, and still more supply

In an industry famous for a highly unionized labor force, there’s a glaring gap in the protections extended to this group of workers. Part of the reason lies in the qualifications expected of a PA — there are none. With no specialized skills required, anyone can get started in film as a PA, and there are enough people who want to join the industry that the supply of available PAs more than meets demand.

But the idea that they don’t provide substantive value to a film’s production is pervasive throughout the field. It’s also wrong. I’ve seen a PA who was in charge of talent be the only person capable of convincing a huge movie star to come out of his or her trailer and finish a scene due to the intimate relationship they’d built over the course of the shoot.

Me, I’ve been asked to put myself in harm’s way to keep a car or group of belligerent and drunk New Yorkers from crossing the shot. And I’ve been stationed in burning structures and at dangerous heights to cue millionaire actors with impeccable health insurance. Point being, PAs can be put in situations where they’re personally responsible for protecting a day of shooting from failure. Responsibility is great, but the issue is that the production’s expectations of your level of accountability aren’t reflected in your compensation. PAs are expected to handle anything but aren’t properly protected. 

PAs can be put in situations where they’re personally responsible for protecting a day of shooting from failure. 

Let me give an example: A man I know who was a PA on a $100 million-movie was instructed to transport the canisters that held the film shot that day to a processing center, a common ask. As he was getting out of the van, one of the canisters fell, broke open, and exposed the reel within it. The accident meant a million-dollar shoot day involving airplanes would have to be re-shot. The PA was fired and put on a no-hire list. 

Should he have been responsible for such a big task? Should he have borne all the possible negative consequences without personal protection?

Time and money

But as the only unprotected laborers on most sets, production assistants can be easily exploited, such as the length of a shoot day. On most union sets, the standard schedule means the crew works six hours before breaking for lunch. Afterwards, the crew works another six hours. Anything after that is overtime, which means union members are paid time and a half.

Production assistants, who arrive an hour before crew and stay an hour after most leave (both of which aren’t even counted as work hours) usually don’t receive overtime pay until being on set for fourteen-and-a-half additional hours. So, because shooting another day is significantly more expensive than paying overtime, it’s common for sets to extend beyond twelve working hours, which means that the production company gets two-and-a-half hours of labor out of their PAs without having to pay overtime. If they were backed by a union, this loophole wouldn’t exist.

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Another common issue on large projects is payroll and financing. Sometimes films will withhold paychecks until additional financing is secured, which affects all crew members. Unionized workers don’t have to worry as much, though, because their unions will ensure they receive pay one way or another.

But PAs in the same situation can’t guarantee that they’ll ever see their money, which can be financially devastating because their rates are already so low. For context, a PA’s pay is a daily rate reflecting a thirteen-and-a-half hour work day. Over the last eight years, I never received a day rate higher than $200 (before taxes, mind you), which equals to $14.50 an hour. Several times I was paid as low as $75 or $5.50 per hour. This is obviously below minimum wage but is protected through the unique payment structures productions use. Overworked and underpaid quickly becomes the motto of this work.

Ways to fight back

Must these abuses be endured to get a foot in Hollywood’s door?

Not necessarily. There are non-traditional responses to unethical labor practices, such as forging strong alliances with superiors. (Perhaps this is less a non-traditional response than it is simply a survival tactic common among, well, humans.) PAs may not be unionized, but their direct superiors — assistant directors — are. ADs are protected laborers capable of fighting for PAs’ wages, overtime pay structure, and fair treatment on set. Because ADs are ultimately responsible for the logistical execution of a film, they understand every single moving part of a film set, and they know that one weakness in the chain of labor can have far reaching negative effects. They understand better than anyone the importance of a team (typically composed of three to ten people) of highly experienced PAs capable of enacting the above-and-beyond tasks I mentioned earlier.

I worked on a $2 million music video once where they hired all first-time PAs to save a little money. The amount of time it took to explain to the PAs their basic duties set the whole shoot back to the point where execution became impossible. The shoot was forced to shut down and reconvene the following week, when they hired a proper PA team and shot the video in a single day with little difficulty.

So, with stories like these proliferating throughout the industry, if you can prove yourself invaluable to a team leader, that person often advocates your fair treatment. In my five years as a PA, I always tried to work for the assistant directors who let me know they valued my contributions. I knew that if I had a grievance, they’d have my back. 

Although an alliance with your superiors is the most effective way to gain protection, it isn’t always possible. You may not get along with them, or they may already have other PAs whom they favor. You might have to try a more extreme course of action: publicizing the labor conditions you’re working under. It is, of course, unpleasant and nerve-wracking to approach producers with what are essentially threats. But there really aren’t that many recourses for PAs to resolve what, for other classes of workers in the movie business, would be labor violations.

Films are high-risk, high-reward ventures, and their success is partly dependent on public perception. That vulnerability can be weaponized against producers and financiers in extreme cases of mistreatment. I was forced to take that tack as a PA on what would become a $5 million union movie. After working twenty-five consecutive fifteen-hour days, I was told, along with the rest of the crew, that due to lack of funding, the film would withhold our last two weekly paychecks. That translated into twelve of the twenty-six shoot days, nearly half of the total money we’d earn on the month-long job. My unionized colleagues were generally frustrated but unconcerned. They were confident that their unions would ensure they got paid.

 It is, of course, unpleasant and nerve-wracking to approach producers with what are essentially threats.

Neither I nor the other six PAs knew if we’d ever receive payment, though. After two weeks of waiting, I got very upset. I was, as most people who work as a PA, living hand to mouth with no benefits of any kind. With absolutely no idea of where my next job would come from, learning that 50 percent of your monthly income may not materialize is disastrous. Unlike most of my colleagues, I couldn’t rely on my next job to provide me with a wage that would insulate me from the loss of two weeks of pay. So I used the only leverage I had: the movie itself.

At that point, the producers had already spent $3 million on a film they couldn’t afford to lose or have tarnished in any way, and I had played an undeniable, albeit modest, role in its development. In a world where movies can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, $3 million may not seem like much, but it’s nothing to sneeze at, either. So I reached out to the director who also happened to be the executive producer and told him that I was going to write an article about failed labor practices and cite him and his film as a direct example of how things can go wrong. Within two hours, me and the other PAs were wired the payments directly into our bank accounts.

While my actions were effective, higher-ups didn’t appreciate them, and they would certainly never hire me again. So, if you were thinking of following this course of action, navigate it carefully. Consider the amount being withheld from, what difference it can make for you, and weigh that against the possibility of not being rehired by any of the crew on that particular film.

It’s important to note that, in a gig economy, having a consistent base of people who’ll hire you can sometimes be more valuable than money. In this instance, I was so financially desperate that I had no option, and none of the people who had hired me for this job were regulars of mine so I had what felt like little to lose. Luckily, soon afterwards I found an AD who really appreciated me and continued to hire me for a long time after. So I ended up with no regrets.

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Are unions the answer?

I would never have had to perform this regrettable path, though, if a union for production assistants existed. On set, you often hear about people who’ve attempted to unionize PAs, but there’s never been an effort successful enough to speak of seriously. The imbalance of supply and demand for entry-level positions in the film industry remains the biggest obstacle to unionizing PAs. The industry relies on the exploitation of poorly paid, overworked workers who allow others within the field to live well.

That said, working on set is a glamorous and seductive environment if you love film, and it provides an unconventional workflow that can sometimes be liberating and exciting. I’m no different from most anyone who works as a PA: I wanted to work in film and saw being a PA as my most realistic route, so I put up with unfair and illegal treatment at times. There were many times I felt like a fool, but I recently received funding for a feature-length film that I’ll be directing myself, and I would be lying if I said the connections I made in working on set for a decade weren't part of how I made that happen.

But as the labor movement across the country enjoys a resurgence in ways unlike its past — think here of the organizing of domestic workers  and the victories of teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Oklahoma, to name just a few — perhaps PAs can finally organize in a way that allows them to establish formal labor regulations to create a safe and professional working environment. They deserve it.

1 This statistic was reached by averaging the mean salaries of many of the unionized on-set positions tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sites that source their information from the organization. The positions reviewed include directors and producers, editors, camera operators, assistants in wardrobe departments, art directors, sound designers, make-up artists, and assistant directors. Additional figures for approximately a dozen other positions were pulled from Money.com and the BLS.

Eamon O’Rourke is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who's worked in film production for ten years. Eamon began his on-set experience as an actor and a production assistant, learning the ins and outs of the on-set workflow. He ran a music video company for several years, producing and directing dozens of videos and promotional content for clients ranging from small independent musicians to larger artists and institutions such as Schoolboy Q and Tommy Hilfiger. Eamon has since worked as a producer and assistant director for various film projects and is preparing to direct his first feature film.
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