What You Should Know as a First-Time PA

PA on set
Photo provided by D.J. Haye, film alum 2018.

How to Nail Your PA Gig

So, you landed a PA gig. Good for you! Getting on set is the first and hardest step in starting your career in film and building an authentic network. And that network is just as or even more important than the work experience itself. In the entertainment industry, the majority of vacancies are filled by people asking around for referrals. 

Set life can be crazy and the heavy hitters aren’t necessarily looking to hire someone that no one knows or can vouch for. Instead, there is a lot of “Hey do you know of a good production coordinator? You know anyone that does clearances? Looking for two PAs—anyone come to mind?”.

Inside Scoop on PA Etiquette 

So, now that you’re on set, it’s time to make a positive, lasting impression. Here are some things you can expect as a PA, and also ways to shine and get in good with those who are consistently working (and hiring). 

As a PA, your main job is to make everyone else’s easier. PAs are sometimes also referred to as “go-fors” or “day players”, as it’s a “go-for this” and “go-for that” type of errands job. This can be everything from coffee to props from the printers to a can of acetone at the hardware store. Expect a lot of these errands. Before the coronavirus pandemic, productions could place Amazon or Uline orders or any other huge vendor for quick-turn delivery, but a lot of big networks are buttoning up the front gates and are extremely particular about who they let on the lot. Some networks aren’t even allowing typical delivery trucks on the lot unless an officer of the company signs a Covid-19 waiver and/or the driver has been tested and cleared of being an infection risk. How likely do you think it is that an officer at one of these massive companies is going to sign a buttoned-up waiver? Slim to none. And getting it signed in time for a 24-hour delivery is out of the question. Deliveries like this simply aren’t happening on some lots. This is where you, the PA, steps in. Nowadays, you have to pick up a lot of online orders with curbside pick up, or just run to the store for any random item—and like, right now. So expect a lot of last-minute runs to go for this and go for that—the project depends on it!

Going for “a run” as a PA

Before you leave for a run, do a quick scan of all your stops with whoever you’re reporting to, and always ask if there is anywhere else they need you to go. Willingness and a genuine smile go a long way. Once you leave, return to set quickly. It’s annoying for a 2-hour run to take 4 hours, causing people back at set to wait on the goods to be delivered. This also makes people ask “I wonder if they took a break?”, which is exactly what you don’t want as you strive to prove your effectiveness and work ethic. Get cell numbers before you leave and text with appropriate updates, like “Just finished at the hardware store, headed back to set now, traffic is heavy, ETA 35 minutes.” This helps wonders for how the people back at set can move forward and plan, as a lot of the time, every minute counts. It also allows the team to add an additional stop to your round when you’re already out. As a rule of thumb, always check back in before heading back to set.

Handling Credit or Debit Card Transactions as a PA

On some of these runs, you may be asked to use someone else’s credit card, and that of the opposite sex. It’s really inconvenient to get turned away at checkout because you, Ryan, don’t look like Vanessa, whose card you have. Use self-checkout whenever possible as it’s usually faster and you can side-step the issue of using someone else’s card. It’s a veteran move

Ask Questions and Stay Busy

As a PA, you’re bound to have questions, and it’s important to find that person on set who is the right person to answer your question. There will surely be at least a couple of people on set happy to help, typically someone else that’s on the lower end of the totem pole with a paper job (like a coordinator). You don’t necessarily want to show how green you are, but you also don’t want to make assumptions and do the wrong thing, so if you can’t figure something out on your own, just ask. Just be sure to ask the right person (not the director), and only ask once.

Speaking of questions, you may not be familiar with the lingo and terminology that’s used on set. If it’s not obvious what it means, ask your pal and thank them for their help. You can rest assured that different productions have different lingos used—unscripted is sometimes different than commercials and they are both different from narrative shows or films. So don’t be sheepish, chances are that someone else doesn’t know what it means either. It’s okay to not know, just ask.

If you have nothing to do, clean something. And makes sure you’re cleaning behind the camera. Actually, just make it a rule to stay behind the camera at all times. That is your zone. Know it, own it, clean it. 

Keep Cell Phone Use to a Minimum on Set

Do not, repeat do not be on your phone unless it’s directly work-related. It doesn’t matter if everyone else is on their phone listening to music or on social media—don’t join in. You’re there to prove yourself and be available every waking second. You’ll also want to turn off audible notifications on your phone while on set. If you do happen to have time to kill, clean!

Your Job is to Make Everyone Else’s Easier

Be the happy, helpful person on set. Do not talk badly about anyone. At all. If you speak about someone, make it positive and real. Everyone would rather hear something positive over negative, and again—you’re the happy helpful person everyone can count on!

Overall, the most important thing a PA should know is that they are there to make everyone else’s jobs easier. Ask questions, be kind, happy and willing. When the project has wrapped, let people know that you’d love to work with them again, and to keep you in mind for future projects. Following these simple steps will have people excited to work with you again.