How to Get Your First Production Job

5 Tips for getting a job in film – other than acting

by Robyn Coburn

I still write screenplays, but I don’t work in the Art Department of movies any more. Movie work is a time consuming – long days, long weeks – and emotionally absorbing, as is any arts practice worth pursuing.

The best piece of advice I can give to any person starting out is this: most of the time you will tend to stay in the network or milieu in which you start. If you start in low budget, you will tend to stay there. Therefore, especially if you are interning , try to work on the highest budget, most prestigious film that you can, regardless of how lowly the position. I can’t stress this enough – seriously. It is better to be a tiny fish in the big pond, than a big fish in the tiny pond from which there is almost no chance of escape.

Or to put it another way, if you are going to sweep someone’s floors for free, you might as well sweep Steven Spielberg’s.

Once you are on the radar as someone who works for free (other than students on official internships), you will not be called back, until they have another micro budget project. Don’t rely on any promises made about the “next one”. Unless you have a prior relationship like childhood buddies, my experience is that they will not fulfil that promise.

So on to the tips to help you get those first jobs.

1. Know someone already working.

This is why networking events are important, but I always found a personal introduction to be even better. Any time you have the chance to visit a friend working on a set or production office, do so. Your best bet is to know someone working at the mid-levels of your department, who might have the opportunity to recommend you when a hiring opportunity arises.

  • People will always hire someone with a recommendation ahead of a complete stranger.

Other than Production itself, most department heads essentially bring in all their people as a package deal. For example the Craft Service person will have his or her own assistants. Sound Mixers usually bring in their own Boom Operator and Utility person.

However you never know when someone might need extra help, so it is still worth sending your resume to the office. I have hired set dressers off resumes sent to the office – although I hired my immediate assistants from my own stable of people I knew or their recommendations. So direct most of your attention to forming relationships with people already in the business. In person give out cards, not resumes. Send your resume when invited to do so.

This can include working at or befriending vendors and suppliers. People looking for qualified workers will sometimes ask at the rental counter. Some places have notice boards where you can post your cards.

Bonus tip: learn the lingo. I once got a Production Coordinator job when I visited a friend working on a picture. The UPM had stepped out of the understaffed office, so I just automatically picked up the phone when it rang and said, “Production”. The UPM walked in at that moment, and offered me the job as soon as I had hung up from taking the message, saying that I had evidently worked in a Production Office before, which I had. Today I might not take the job – since it was a micro budget project – but it was an interesting illustration of how timing can work.

2. An Industry Format Resume and Cover Letter.

I have known Unit Production Managers (UPMs) who never look at the cover letter, but only the resume or CV of credits, and others who read the cover letter attentively. Interestingly, my experience with production offices has been that when people say they will keep your resume on file, they generally do, but only for the duration of the picture/principle photography. They keep them in case of emergencies, such as needing extra people for a day player job. (Individual Department Heads will keep the resumes of their own crews on file, so make sure you hand them an updated one at the end of any project.)

A lot of the information about resume formats is designed for people seeking work in business or office situations. This would be helpful only if you were applying for an office position with a studio or production company. However if you are applying for any production or post-production – actual filmmaking – job it won’t help.

First of all, please don’t put the “position sought” at the top of the page. Especially don’t write a jargon filled exposition about your long term goals in lofty language. (“An entry level position where I will be challenged to engage my people skills, make a meaningful contribution, and fulfil my creative potential, while having the chance to grow in the long term, rising to the top of the hierarchy in the industry.”) No.

Instead put the position – which should be appropriately entry level – after your name. (Eg: John Smith, Production Assistant/Runner) or alternatively the department in which you want to work (Eg: Martin Jones, Grip and Electric)

Always put your full, accurate contact information very clearly on the top of every page (although try to keep it to one until you really need more space for your body of work). This will be used for the Crew List later – essentially all the contacts for the entire crew. It’s great to have several methods of contact including home phone, cel phone, email and mailing address.

I tend to advise starting with relevant jobs ahead of chronology and to group type of project – features, television or cable – together. The fewer credits you have, the more you must rely on explaining responsibilities and skills from your other jobs or activities – but keep it relevant to filmmaking and the entry level position you are seeking. For example a job where you supervised 10 people is good to list, but the one where you worked as a messenger making timely deliveries is more relevant to the production runner job.

Special skills list – if you have few credits or little work experience, this is very useful – but they must be relevant skills, such as an ability to sew when applying for wardrobe assistant jobs. However if you can express them in the context of your jobs, I think that reads better. Maybe not. Once you have credits, the skills start to be assumed and that paragraph can drop off your resume – another big difference from standard business resumes.

Bonus tip: If you know someone in the business, get them to look over your resume for formatting before you start sending it out.

3. Display your passion, not your “knowledge”.

You are probably ambitious and hungry, and have dreams about winning Oscars and leaving an impressive body of work behind you. You probably want to direct. It’s a cliche because it is true. Almost everyone wants to direct when they first start out. It can be taken as read, and let alone.

You should always talk about how much you like filmmaking, what you hope to learn and being prepared to work hard. If you have been making video shorts, mention them in the context of your love of film.

Assume the people you are talking to have more experience and more knowledge than you do. Don’t brag or sound know-it-all. Don’t criticize people in the business, even if everyone knows their last picture was a turkey. If you are lucky enough to meet someone who worked on a bad movie that you have seen, don’t focus on problems. Here’s a useful phrase: “It must have been an interesting experience.” Then, especially if they seem uncomfortable with the memory, always ask what they are doing now or next.

Bonus tip: Be judicious on your resume. I once met a woman who was volunteering at Sundance (a festival or event can be a good opportunity to make contacts). She related that she had made over 50 short films herself over a number of years, and was still looking for her break into professional filmmaking. Unfortunately her extremely lengthy experience made her sound like a desperate loser, rather than someone desirable. After all, there must be something wrong if she still can’t get hired with that body of work. Obviously she was not putting her best self forward.

I was new myself then, but if I met that situation today, I would encourage her to only mention say, her last 4 or 5 projects – including any that may have won any kind of accolade. I would also suggest that she rethink the kind of position she was seeking. Having directed short films that no-one but your mother has seen, does not make you qualified to direct real movies.

But if your work happens to be genius – find a way to show it to people. That’s what You Tube is for.

4. Look for your next job, while you still have this one.

Your resume is a vital, growing document. It is OK, in fact highly desirable to look for your next gig while this one is still going. You simply put the phrase “in Production” or “in Post” after the title of your current picture.

Obviously you should search on your own time – evenings and lunch breaks. A PA has no down time during shooting. The best bet is to express your hope that you will be able to work with the company again. Of course this only works if you have done a good job – although there is also a bit of “the devil you know” in the business. Sometimes people who are difficult continue to be hired just because at least they are predictable, as against the unknown of a total stranger (See item 1).

Be tenacious. It will take time to get hired and start building your credits.

5. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money – but not too much.

If you are finding your leads from free sources, like postings to Craig’s List, chances are they are no or low budget projects. Real movies are listed in the paid subscription services, such as those offered on line by some of the union locals, and the industry journals like The Hollywood Reporter. They are worth subscribing to. If absolutely necessary, you can see THR at the library in Los Angeles, but perhaps not out of town.

  • If the picture is shooting in another country or State, you probably won’t get hired to travel – they hire locals for the crew in general – so maybe save your postage or fax time.

Have decent business cards printed. There are free cards – but if you go that way make your card completely plain with just your info on it. Otherwise your name will disappear into the all the hundreds of other people who gravitated to that cute image of a film spool. If you can have your own picture on the card, that will help people remember you.

On the other side of the coin, there are scammers out there, wanting a lot of money for special access to film listings or special hiring fairs. There are agencies for crews – but in all honesty the real ones, at least in the USA, are usually for creatives at the Department Head level – Cinematographers, Designers in different areas, some UPMs & Location Managers. Especially in Los Angeles, most regular crew would not want or need to be with an agent to give up 10% of their income. Just be cautious. If is sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

  • Don’t let anyone tell you that working as an Extra is a great path to production jobs. It can be fun and interesting, and a specialist career in itself, but it will not be seen as relevant experience for any crew position. Extras tend to have contact only with the low man on the totem pole – the PA assigned to wrangling Extras. There is a lot of waiting off in “Extras holding”, and little opportunity to observe set operations.

About courses and degrees – Caveat Emptor. Try and visit the premises and meet the teachers. I am always surprised at how little information many of these places put on line about their staff. Even the school where James teaches seems reluctant to post their faculty resumes – which is nuts because James has a ton of good credits, as do the Directing teacher and the Head of Production Design. If you can get the instructors’ names, check them on Imdb.com, and you will gain a good idea of their abilities. A school will be your first network – and definitely take advantage of any interning program, remembering that first piece of advice – 

…if you are going to sweep someone’s floors for free, you might as well sweep Steven Spielberg’s.

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About Robyn Coburn

In a career spanning more than thirty five years I have been a costume, scenic and lighting designer and worked in every kind of theater from community to educational to “broadway” style, both in Australia and the US. I was a freelance Production Designer of independent films before repurposing my life as a homeschooling mother and textile artist. Now I craft and write – “Crafting for a Greener World” column for Natural Life Magazine, screenplays and musings about creativity, alternative education and mindful parenting.

You can find my free creativity enhancing and reclaiming program at The Creativity Blast Blog.

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