Actionable Steps to Finding an Entry-Level Job in Hollywood’s Film and Television Industry
I take road trips when I can, but being a Production Assistant currently consumes most of my life. I wrote about what I do as a PA earlier. Now I’d like to write about how I became one.
I’ve turned this article into an ebook on Amazon! If you like what you read, please consider purchasing a copy. Full disclosure: It’s very, very similar to what’s in this article (with a few bonus sections at the end). If you’re interested, check it out on Amazon, here:
Finding an entry-level position in Hollywood is harder than you think. But thanks to my struggles and stupid mistakes, I’ve learned a few things to help anyone get started on the right track.
Most blogs that talk about becoming a PA just tell you to “network!” and “be persistent!” And although those two things are important, those blogs usually fail to tell you how or even why. I wanted to write something that went a little more in depth. In order to start off on the right foot in Hollywood, you also have to learn how the industry works. This post has nearly 5000 words, but I hope you find it just as useful and educational as it is long.
WHO THIS ARTICLE IS FOR:
- Students still in school.
- Recent grads trying to break into the industry.
- Any young person looking to switch careers and make it in Hollywood (but any age is possible).
- Anyone who just wants to read how it all works.
It’s been over two years since I moved to L.A. I’d say I officially made it “in” the business in early 2014 when I landed a PA gig on my first real TV show. I had had a lot of small (and unpaid) PA jobs prior to that, but never in major television. It took me longer than some to get this coveted entry-level position, but certainly less time than others.
My boss always likes to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” That saying definitely applies to getting into the entertainment business. There are so many routes someone can take to get to the exact same spot, it’s impossible to cover all of them. But for purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on a young person trying to get their first production assistant/entry-level job on a major film, TV show, or at a legitimate production company.
I surely did not know what I was doing when I first got here. I naively thought that because being a production assistant is the lowest position on the totem pole, it’d be an easy job to snag. I thought that because I was college educated and went to film school and worked on some short indie films back home, I’d be at an advantage in L.A. I thought that because I knew a few people living and working in the city, I’d be fine. Nope. After my fluke one month stint as an apprentice editor, I learned the harsh realities of finding a job in Los Angeles. I went into debt, got strung along at unpaid internships, and was weeks away from calling it quits and heading back home.
It was frustrating. I was definitely qualified to be a production assistant. It’s an entry-level position. I knew I could be better than many, if not most, of the PAs already working on shows. Why wasn’t this working out for me? I spent over a year struggling to find steady work. As I said in my first blog post, I was sleeping on air mattresses (plural, because they kept popping) for over a year before I could afford a real bed.
But last year, I finally got the phone call I was waiting for: “We’d love to have you on our team. Can you start Monday?” And that Monday I started working on a TV show at one of the major studios in Hollywood as a PA. I got my foot in the door.
Looking back, I made a lot of mistakes. I wasted so much time on things I shouldn’t have. I missed opportunities that were staring me in the face. I turned down a potentially great job because it wasn’t perfect! But in the end, it all worked out. I’m in the industry now. I can’t say with 100% certainty I will be safely employed for the rest of my life. But I feel confident that I have the know-how to keep afloat during the rough times. So now I’d like to extend my PA knowledge to you. I want to help the newcomers flocking to Hollywood avoid the rookie mistakes I made. My advice and my way are not the only routes to landing a job. But I truly believe they will give you a tremendous head start in understanding how Hollywood works and understanding how you can put yourself in opportune situations to land the job.
CHANGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
The way Hollywood works is not the same as how the rest of the world works.
BEING COLLEGE EDUCATED DOES NOT MEAN YOU DESERVE ANYTHING IN THIS BUSINESS.
Brutal, but true. In most fields, your college education is a major contributing factor in securing a job. Your training in school is supposed to give you the skills to competently work at a business right away. Sure, it’s not always that cut and dry, especially in today’s economy, but for the most part, it’s true. In the entertainment industry, a college education doesn’t guarantee you to a job right away, or even a job at all. Anyone, educated or not, can become a PA and work their way up to director, producer, editor, etc. Everyone has to start at the bottom. Everyone has to prove their worth first. Yes, there are exceptions, but your Director of Photography credit on that student film you made means nothing in Tinseltown. You can’t expect to land a DP position on anything major when you first arrive here. The credits just don’t transfer. It’s like trying to apply to a prestigious art school and saying you were the best finger painter in kindergarten. It doesn’t fly.
Don’t think having a formal education is completely worthless though. It can still be a huge benefit in jumpstarting your career. It’s just not a requirement 0r a guaranteed ticket in.
IT’S ALL ABOUT WHO YOU KNOW.
I used to hate this saying. I’d argue, “But I’m a hard worker. Doesn’t that matter? Why should ‘who I know’ limit me?” Sure, you can complain about how unfair it is or you can learn to play the game. I actually like this saying now because it puts me in control. Who I know helps get me jobs! I know that if I need to meet a certain person to get the job, it’s up to me to figure out how to meet them.
You don’t have to be friends with A-list actors and directors to get a job here. The best way, I’ve found, is meeting a friend of a friend. And everyone has a friend in the area you’re trying to get into. Build enough relationships with these people, and show that you’re a hard worker, and eventually someone will pass your name along to someone who’s hiring.
Also, once you’re already in the business you’ll love that it’s “all about who you know.” The people you work with become the people who hire/refer you for your next job. How great is that? You’re in total control of your success. This way of doing things is much easier than sending in a resume blind and hoping for the best.
A LOT IS ABOUT LUCK AND TIMING.
Sometimes getting the job is just about luck and timing. Some people move to Hollywood and within a week they land an assistant position to a top television producer. Are they the best person for the job? Not necessarily. The person happened to move at the right time. The producer happened to need an assistant at that time. And their needs just happened to line up. I’d say a big part of how I landed my network TV gig was luck and timing. It may not be fair, but there’s a lot you can do to make sure those doors of opportunity are always open.
ACTION STEPS TO TAKE
START HERE IF YOU’RE STILL IN SCHOOL
So I know I probably depressed you when I said having a college education doesn’t mean anything in this industry. And that’s true from the standpoint of entitlement and working your way up. But if you’re still in school, you do have a huge advantage. You qualify to apply for internships – internships at major, LA-based companies. Most of the good internships require you to currently be enrolled in school. And there are a lot of great companies looking for interns! If it’s possible, I highly recommend moving out to LA for a summer (or a semester) and applying to as many internships as you can. It’s expensive to live out here, but if you find the right internship, it can be absolutely worth it. These internships have major advantages:
1. They give you reputable L.A. experience, which is what you want on your resume. Getting a “Video Intern” credit at your local library back home isn’t quite as impressive as say, “post-production intern” at a LA-based company.
2. They give you direct contacts and future possibilities of employment in L.A. If your employers like you, they’ll want to hire you eventually. If not, they can still help you find work elsewhere through their contacts.
Here’s an example of just how beneficial L.A. internships can be. My friend Nick got a job right out of school. We had very similar skill levels and educations. The only real difference was that Nick had three solid L.A. internship credits on his resume. I had one credit from Michigan when I was a media center video intern. Nick’s internships were at a post house for music videos, a post house for commercials, and a small production company producing reality TV. All three were well-known names in the industry.
When Nick graduated, one of the companies offered him a position. And when applying for other jobs, he landed multiple interviews. Months later, we were talking and I realized we applied for many of the same jobs. How many interviews did I land? 0. I didn’t even receive a followup email. Nick was swimming in choices.
I know, other factors might have been at play. For example, it could have been good timing and luck, as I mentioned earlier. Or maybe Nick had a killer resume. But I’m confident that when companies are looking for an entry-level candidate, and they see you’ve worked for recognizable, established companies, your resume is going to go to the top of the pile.
It’s no surprise that internships help get you a job, but in this business, it’s the L.A. internships that really do the trick.
Look up your favorite companies and see if they offer summer internships. Also, don’t be afraid to use some of the more “generic” websites like Craigslist or Indeed to look for companies. They post many opportunities. Just make sure you always do your own research before taking any job. If you’re looking for an entertainment-based website that posts internships, I’ve had success using EntertainmentCareers.net.
START HERE IF YOU’VE ALREADY GRADUATED OR YOU’RE JUST STARTING OUT IN HOLLYWOOD
Hey, you can still get a job here too! You may not have the connections or a killer resume yet, but you can get them pretty quickly. Here’s what I suggest:
1. GET A PART-TIME JOB SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
If you’re moving out to LA, give yourself a set amount of time you’ll look for industry work, before finding a part-time job. If you don’t find work in that amount of time, take a part-time job, in any industry! Why? First, you’re giving yourself a set amount of time to focus on one thing and one thing only: landing an entertainment job. Second, a set time will keep you hungry during the search. You didn’t move out to LA to work at a grocery store, so you’ll be motivated to look harder as the days fly by. Third, you need money. Duh. And if you don’t find a job within your set amount of time, this keeps you from going into debt. As an added bonus, you’ll meet coworkers who might be in or know people in the industry. I made the mistake of looking for industry work, getting an unpaid internship (thinking it would turn into paid work) and going way too many months without an income. In my mind, the paid work was always just around the corner, so there was no reason to get a temporary job at TJ’s. Big mistake. Get a job and start making money. You can always quit when something better comes along.
2. USE CRAIGSLIST. IT CAN BE YOUR FRIEND
You can find legitimate, full-time work and/or small gigs that will lead to the full-time work right on Craigslist. Start by looking to fill up your weekends with PA work on small music videos and short films. Someone is always trying to make the next Star Wars on a $1 budget. There is a lot of crap out there, and it’s difficult to sort through it all, but I believe it’s worth the effort. If you have a halfway decent resume and you can convince the job poster that you’re a hard-working and dependable individual, these jobs are pretty easy to snag. The pay might be $50 a day, free lunch, or even nothing. But these gigs can lead to real opportunities. Many people will argue with me on this, but if you’re new to the industry or LA, working for free can still be beneficial. You may be working for free, but that doesn’t mean everyone else on the crew is. They may have connections and friends they can introduce you to. Or they’ll want to hire you for the next job, which will be paid. Craigslist is a great place to start filling up your resume and make connections quickly. A craigslist gig is actually what led me to my network TV gig.
A quick note about working for free: Only work for free if you’re learning something new and/0r it will help you advance. If you’re not learning anything to help you grow in your field, find something else.
3. SIGN UP FOR ALL THE FILM JOB SITES, EMAIL LISTS, AND FACEBOOK GROUPS YOU CAN FIND
Make it a daily routine to go through each site, multiple times a day, looking for new jobs you can apply for. Start here:
Some of the most popular job-hunting sites in the industry:
- StaffMeUp.com – This used to be my favorite. An entertainment job website/network that posts new jobs each day. Jobs range from PA to Producer and I’ve had good results with this website.
- Mandy.com – You’ll hear about this one a lot. New jobs are posted daily in a variety of crew positions.
- EntertainmentCareers.net – Mentioned earlier, it’s another well-known choice.
Follow your favorite companies and job sites. Many times they will post ads on their social media pages making it easy for you to see new jobs right on your news feed.
Also look for closed groups you can join such as:
- “I Need a Production Assistant” – You’ll have to request to join, but once you’re in, you can connect directly with whoever is hiring. Anyone can post a job, and since it’s a Facebook group, you can get a notification as soon as they post it.
- “I Need a Producer” – This group also posts PA positions for some reason.
There are plenty of these types of groups on Facebook. Spend some time looking through them.
EMAIL JOB LISTS:
This one can be tricky, because you have to find a way to get on the lists. This is where knowing the right people can help. Many schools have alumni email lists you can get on that send out regular job postings to a group of people. People love helping out someone who went to their school. First, find out if your school has an email list you can get on. If not, find a friend who can get on one and have them forward you the emails. Some may frown upon this, but remember, most job posters are sending out job opportunities via email in hopes that their network will bring in a good catch for them. In other words, they expect their emails to be forwarded. If not, they’ll say so.
Google “UTA Job list”. It’s one of the most well-known entertainment industry job lists not available to the public. Although a quick Google search will show you how easy it is to find. It mostly covers assistant and entry-level positions.
4. ASK THE RIGHT PEOPLE FOR ADVICE
People love to give advice and help others. Once you start meeting people in the industry, work on building your relationships with them and start asking them questions. Consider even asking if you can shadow them for a day. When I was on the hunt for PA work, I met an editor for coffee and asked him a list of questions about the business. I told him that I eventually want to become an editor and I’m just trying to get my foot in the door. He gave a lot of great advice: PA knowledge, how to move up, what to expect, etc. After our meeting, he kept his ears open for me and forwarded any job opportunities he received. We still keep in touch and he always knows 1. When I’m looking for work and 2. My ultimate goal of becoming an editor. This is what you ideally want all of your connections to know. If you have multiple contacts who know these two things about you, you’ll have your own personal job search team working while you sleep.
Also find forums and websites where you can ask general questions about the business. For example, there are many online communities for active filmmakers and editors.
Here are a few communities you can learn from and reach out to:
Many people who are already established in the industry are active in these kinds of forums. Spend some time finding ones that apply to you and ask for advice.
I also like anonymousproductionassistant.com. It’s not really a forum or community, but the author posts common questions and answers for people trying to get started in the business. It’s always really solid advice.
5. BE SMART. HAVE YOUR NETWORK DO THE WORK FOR YOU
If you already know people in the business, make sure you check in with them regularly and let them know you’re still looking for work. For example, if you met someone who has connections during one of your weekend Craigslist gigs (and they liked you), follow up with him/her. You don’t want to bother them, but you want them to keep your name in the back of their mind in case they hear of anything. Don’t check in more than once every month or two, though. This is a good strategy when your current gig is about to end too.
6. COLD CALL
If you’re interested in working for a company that doesn’t currently have a job posting: cold call. Go old school. Find an entertainment biz directory online that lists all the entertainment companies in your area. Print it out, and highlight all the companies you’re interested in. Call them up, one by one. Don’t email. Don’t make it easy for them to ignore you. Say who you are, what you do, and ask if they have any PA positions available. Be specific and confident in what you want. If they say no, ask if there’s someone you can send your resume to for later use. Again, if you can keep yourself in the back of their mind, when they are looking to hire, you’ll be one of the first people they think of.
This won’t work for every company. For example, you can’t just call up Warner Brothers and ask for a job. They’ll just direct you to their career website. However, for many smaller companies and production houses, they’ll be impressed by your boldness. Some may be annoyed, but who cares. Most won’t. And you need a job! If you impress them on the phone and follow through with your resume, you’re making their hiring process easier, and increasing your chances.
Note: If a job posting says “Please No Calls,” you do not call!
7. ALWAYS WORK ON GROWING YOUR NETWORK, 24/7
Make friends. Join meet up groups related to film (and not related). Be nice to everyone. Ask someone out to coffee. Befriend everyone you meet. Do things you wouldn’t normally do to make connections in the business. Everyone is a connection out here. The best way to find a job is to find a friend who’s in the business or knows someone in the business. The computer can only get you so far. You’ve probably heard it too many times already: It’s all about who you know. Networking is extremely important in any career field, but to land a job in the entertainment business, it’s probably the most important thing. Also, unlike most jobs which last years, if not decades, most entertainment industry jobs last months. You usually get hired for the duration of the show, film, or commercial, and once it ends, you’re looking for the next job. That’s why networking is so critical. If you don’t continue to build your network, you won’t have anyone to help you find a job when your gig ends. Networking never stops.
When I first moved out here, I had a job as an apprentice editor. Because I was new, and unsure how the industry worked, I didn’t go out of my way to connect with my coworkers. I heard horror stories of people getting fired for saying the wrong thing to the editors. I did my work well but I kept my head down. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t get to know anyone. When the gig ended, no one even knew I wanted to be an editor. I just left without making any connections. I was an idiot. It was only a month-long gig, but I had plenty of time to plant the seed. This was such a missed opportunity for me. Remember when I said I want to be an editor? This could have been a direct ticket in.
8. BUILD A TEAM ON THE SIDE
This not only helps you gain experience and build a network, but it’s also critical for you to be ready to go when an opportunity presents itself later in you career. If you want to be famous director, you should be directing stuff now. If you want to be an editor, you should be editing stuff now. You may make your living by being a PA, but you should be crafting your skill, in where you want to be, by making your own stuff. You never know when a great opportunity will come up. Be ready.
Get a team together and make your own stuff. People love to find a group they can regularly work with and rely on. Plus it’s just smart. If you need to find a team, consider joining a Meetup group like the LA Film Collective (active as of early 2015). They get together about once a month to shoot a short film. Every crew position is open for you to gain experience. There are a handful of Meetups like this one!
We live in a great time when making videos can be relatively cheap. Good cameras and equipment are affordable. We have sites like Youtube and Vimeo where you can promote yourself and gain a following. Take advantage of it all. The tradition way of moving up the ladder still exists, but so many alternate ways have opened up, too. If you’re doing things on the side, you’re just increasing your chances for success.
EXTRA: DON’T BE PICKY
Soon after I moved to LA, I landed an interview for a wedding videography company. I wasn’t very happy about it though, because I didn’t really want to edit wedding videos. After all, that’s not why I moved to LA. Using this logic, I decided to not even go to the interview. WTH, Randy!? I guess I was worried I’d get stuck there and be in the wrong field for too long. Never turn down an interview. You never know what will happen. Had I taken the interview and landed the job, I would not have gone thousands of dollars into debt, I probably would have learned a plethora of new editing skills, and who knows, maybe I’d have loved it. Things worked out eventually, but don’t be like me. If you are offered an interview or job, don’t not take it just because it’s not perfect. There are a thousand ways to skin a cat, remember? You can still get to where you want to go even if you start somewhere else.
Even though I said it’s all about who know, resumes are still used in this industry. It’s important that your resume is top-notch. I’m always amazed at what my bosses remember about me, months later, from reading my resume.
“Oh you worked on that ABC show right?”
“Hey, honor student, get me some coffee!”
Screw all the resume advice you hear from so-called experts. The entertainment business is different. Get rid of that pointless objective. Margin size doesn’t matter. Times New Roman font is just fine. Don’t write that you work well with others. You’re a functioning member of society. You better work well with others!
Here’s what’s important:
- Your resume should tell the reader exactly who you are at first glance. Don’t make them search. Get rid of unnecessary detail. A list of your credits and few personal details is a good resume in this business.
- List your job title. You don’t need to describe your duties unless it’s something unique. Those who hire a PA know what a PA does.
- List the show name, production company, and the network or type of media it was. Location and date are optional, especially if you have time gaps and no L.A. experience on your resume. But neither is a resume killer.
- If you are applying for a PA position DO NOT say you were a DP, director, or producer, on a student film. Drop that stuff. The L.A. film industry does not care.
- Film degree? Graduated with honors? Sure, keep it on there! People like to see you’re serious about the industry and know at least something.
- If you want to list your skills/attributes, keep it short and pertaining to the job you’re applying for. Heavy phone experience, going on runs, reliable car, personal laptop, and script or binder organization are a few good ones. Show them you already know what they’re looking for.
- Tailor your resume to the job you’re applying for. Do not just have one generic resume.
- Are you from the Midwest? You’re in luck. The stereotype in L.A. is that people from the Midwest are hard working and dependable. They like us here. Fit that info on your resume somewhere ;). Kidding. Kind of. But I did land my first major PA gig this way.
If you are lazy or incompetent you will leave this business as fast as you got in. Show your superiors you want to be there. Impress them. Make them happy they hired you. This is what keeps you employed. Hollywood is small and word travels fast. Don’t give anyone a reason to not like you.
There is no single, clear-cut way to break into the industry. However, I do believe that if you follow the advice given above, you’ll get in much faster – or at the very least, you’ll avoid my stupid mistakes.
If you have any questions, please go ahead and ask in the comments below. Or connect with me on social media:
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