One of the most important jobs on a film set is that of a Runner PA, or “Set Runner”.
The set runner/runner PA is the link to the outside world while filming is going on. It may not feel glamorous to spend all day in your car going to grocery stores and rental houses when you could be working on set, but without picking up that piece of gear, lunch, or important prop… production could not go on! Also, here’s the reality: You’re being paid your day rate plus mileage to drive around and listen to music. It could be worse.
Clarification: In Europe, a “Set Runner” is the typical title for a production assistant. In the US, it’s a type of PA associated with going on runs, and that is what this post will be about.
The Set Runner position is entry-level, but it’s a foot in the door. Prove your competence with a little, and you’ll be entrusted with more responsibilities and opportunities. This guide definitely overstates the obvious — but it’s an attempt to keep you from making the same asinine mistakes that I did.
Keep track of your mileage.
Productions will reimburse you for miles you incur doing pickups. Keep track of all of the places you drive to, and the mileage between them. If this sounds like too much work or you’re in too big of a hurry, write a list of where you go (in the proper order) and figure out the mileage using Google Maps after the fact.
As of 2016, the current reimbursement rate in the US for business miles is 0.54/mile, but the IRS adjusts the rate annually.
Write down every item you’re asked to pick up.
This is pretty basic, but I’ve asked PAs to pick up 4-5 items, and they smile and nod — only to return with 3 of the items, and sometimes it’s a variation of the right item, but not the right item. Write everything down, including any helpful descriptors.
Make sure your phone is not on silent/vibrate!
This is the biggest problem that I run into when I send PAs on runs — I’ll try to call them and they never answer because their phone is still on silent!
When you’re on set, then yes, your phone is supposed to be on silent/vibrate. But when you go on a run, switch that ringer back on. 90% of the time, someone will need to get in touch with you to pick up something else, or to alter the initial order.
NEVER pay for anything out of pocket.
You should NEVER EVER pay for anything out of your own pocket or put anything down on your own credit card. Producers and production managers will do this on occasion, but as a production assistant, that is far beyond your pay scale. Before you’re sent on a run to pick something up, always make sure to have petty cash or a p-card, or ask if the producer has paid for the order in advance.
A producer may act offended if you ask for petty cash, as if you don’t trust them to reimburse you. Remember two things: 1) They are NOT professionals and you shouldn’t be working with someone like this anyway, and (2) explain you were once burned by a shady production company in the past.
If driving a 15 passenger van…BE CAREFUL.
On non-union shoots, occasionally the runner PA will be given a cargo van or 16 pass van to use instead of their personal vehicle. Be extra, extra cautious – especially in parking garages. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard about PAs driving the 15-pass into a low-ceiling parking garage and completely scraping off the roof. Or, worse, they somehow squeeze it only to be unable to get it out.
I once took a turn too sharply when parking a 15 pass and ended up clipping the back end of a car. Horrified, I left a note with contact information, and reported the incident to my bosses.
In the morning, we quickly learned the car owner was a Jimmy Buffett superfan who went absolutely ballistic– she even filed a police report against me. So, don’t be me — avoid the wrap sheet and take those turns nice and slow.
When picking up gear, ask for the gear list and walk through it with the rental house.
Camera gear is usually handled by the AC/DIT, but additional gear pickups are usually necessary over the course of a shoot. It’s very important that a gear pickup is done right the first time. As a runner PA, you want to get back to set as soon as possible, but don’t show up at a rental house and throw the gear in the back of your car. Do a quick walk-through to make sure all of the pieces are accounted for.
When picking up walkies, check for all of the accessories.
We were once on a shoot one hour outside of town in the middle of a large field; call time was 5am. I was the one that had picked up the walkies the night before. The guy who packed the walkie case showed me the walkies, spare batteries, and charging banks. And you know what happened at 5am the next morning? I realized with horror that the rental house FORGOT TO INCLUDE THE WALKIE ANTENNAS. Not only was it 5am in the middle of nowhere where walkies were essential, but it took a solid 3 hours to get the antennas. (You should never use a walkie without an antenna — it kills the walkie.)
Despite this mishap, I managed to get promoted beyond the PA ranks — but even today, I always double-check the walkie cases now to make sure the right amount of antennas, spare batteries, surveillances/hand mics, and charging banks are included.
Join rewards programs like crazy.
One of the best tips I was given came from the production coordinator I was working for: Sign up for every rewards program you can to gain additional perks for all those purchases you’re buying for production. OfficeDepot has a great one, offering 2% upwards to 10% back on all purchases. CVS, Kroger/Ralph’s, BestBuy, Michael’s are examples of others.
When taking a lunch order, write down ALL names and double-check the order on pickup.
On small shoots, it’s common for a production assistant to pick up lunch for everyone, which could be 5-15 people. It sounds simple enough, but if you don’t have a method of organization, it can get overwhelming very quickly.
When taking the order, add each name to each order. When you call in the order, ask the employee to write down the names on the boxes/sandwiches. (An even faster way is to number each order 1-10, and asked the employee to write the corresponding numbers on each order.)
On pickup, double-check the order with your list item by item. Nothing is worse than picking up a lunch order, bringing it back, only to realize the DIRECTOR’s lunch is missing.
TIP: Panera and Chipotle and dozens of other chains allow online orders, which can make your job even easier and the ordering process far more organized.
When picking up at a hotel, leave your car in the valet area and leave the flashers on.
Explain to the valet attendant that you’re just picking someone up and will only be a minute. They’ll usually understand– you both are there to do a job, after all.
When picking up at an airport, ask your boss how they’d like you to handle pickup.
Doing an airport pickup by yourself can be tricky as there are a lot of variables.
If it’s a crew member, you can usually wait in the cell phone waiting lot and just swoop in and pick them up after their baggage arrives. If you’re picking up any kind of big wig — executive producer, producer, director, actors, etc — they’ll expect to have someone standing in the baggage claim area, holding a sign with either (1) their name on it or (2) the name of the production company.
If you’re picking up a producer, they’ll be looking for time efficiency. Ask if they want you to fetch the car while they’re waiting for their bags and agree on where you’ll pick them up.
If you’re picking up an actor, they seem to need a little more hand holding (but there are exceptions). Help them with their bags and lead them to a spot on the curb and explain you’ll be right back with the car.
I’m not sure why airport pickups are so complicated, but they are. It’s best to ask your coordinator for their advice.
Have a grasp of FedEx drop off times.
This happens on almost every production– something needs to be FedExed overnight, but it may not be ready until after 7:30pm. For these scenarios, knowing the closest FedEx offices and the time of latest drop off can be EXTREMELY helpful. For worst case scenario, the FedEx drop-off at the airport is always the latest — it’s usually around 9pm, but be sure to check with your local FedEx first.
Don’t leave gear in your car overnight.
You may be sent home with a camera package the day before the shoot. It may be tempting to leave it in the car to save yourself extra work in the morning, but you should never leave gear or footage in your car. This is important for a few reasons: gear shouldn’t be exposed to extreme hot or cold temperatures, and you DON’T want the gear to be stolen.
Classify your car insurance as a business expense.
If you’re using your car for runs, then car insurance can qualify as a business expense. Call your car insurance agent to explain your job, what it entails, and count it as a write off.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a professional accountant — please run it past your accountant first.
Use Waze for crafty routes to dodge traffic.
The Waze app has been around for years, but it has re-emerged as a tool for navigating around traffic. It’s introduced me to back roads and surface streets I didn’t know existed. Being able to quickly navigate a city at rush hour is a valuable skill at any level on the production ladder, as time is always the most precious resource, whether you’re the executive or the runner PA.
Prioritize your runs appropriately.
You need to pick up a prop, lunch, and drop off someone at the airport. What is of utmost importance? Check the shooting schedule for the day, and consult with your coordinator to see if there’s a particular order. Can you do it all in one run, or is the prop needed immediately, meaning two separate runs?
Call if you have any questions.
This should be common sense, but I’ve been amazed at interns and production assistants that go on runs and make assumptions and decisions that they weren’t qualified to make, and it ended up being the wrong decision. If there’s ever a discrepancy or question, always call and ask — you’ll save yourself and the production a massive headache.
Get ready to do things you’ve never done before.
Being a runner, you may be asked to pick up items that you have zero experience picking out — anything from wood stain to kitchen knives to couch cushions for set decoration.
In the latest from the Freakonomics authors, Think Like a Freak (a fantastic book series, by the way — they teach methods of thinking and problem-solving that are very versatile for production), they argue “until you can admit what you don’t yet know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to.”
It’s fair to say, “I’ve never done this before, but I’ll figure it out” — but making an excuse to not do something because of your inexperience will not get you far in production. The fast paced world of film and television reward problem-solvers, and no two days are the same. If you don’t like new challenges, this isn’t the industry for you.
There are endless weird things a film set may ask you to have the answer to. Don’t make an excuse — figure it out.
Other Tips If You Work For Persnickety Producers
Every producer, production manager, and production coordinator is different. Some producers have a micro-managing style; others are confident and trust their hires to do the job. The micro-managers can be annoying as hell and make you second guess yourself, but when you’re a new PA, having a regimented boss is a great way to learn the ropes. Here are a few additional tips if you’re working for persnickety people.
When buying crafty, buy single-servings of everything if you can.
On small shoots, production assistants are usually tasked with buying food and snacks for the crew. This vital sustenance is also commonly known as craft services (or “crafty”).
This may be a personal preference thing, but avoid the large party sized bags of Doritos or Chex Mix when you’re asked to pick up snacks. Do you really want to eat a chip after five different hands have reached into that bag?
Most people who work in entertainment are fairly health conscious. An entire post could be written about “the perfect craft services list”, but some staples: almonds, individual trail mix packs (Emerald makes some great ones), gum/mints, beef jerky, KIND bars, water, and gatorade.
When picking up coffee from Starbucks, use the handy little lid plugs to keep the coffee hot.
I once had a very particular producer throw out the large Starbucks order I’d just picked up 15 minutes earlier because it had gotten lukewarm on my drive back. She sent me back to get the coffee again, “but this time, remember the lid plugs.” It was a bit obnoxious, but the added benefit? The lid plugs helped keep the coffee from spilling all over the floorboard of my car.
Tools for Being a Set Runner
There aren’t any tools necessary for being a set runner beyond a functional car — but if you want to be prepared, here are a few items that could help:
- Mileage app (or notebook): Keep a running total of the miles between each of your destinations as you’ll need to submit a log to production. (Example: Set to Chipotle, 5.5 miles roundtrip, Set to Production Office, 1.2 miles, production office to FedEx, 2.3 miles)
- Tarp, Dropcloth, or an old sheet (you may need to lay down muddy gear in your car)
- Fix a Flat – just in case of a flat tire on a run.
- Miniature White Board (for airport pickups)
Have you ever had to do production runs? What are YOUR tips?