The Truth about Being a Production Assistant: How Much Money Will I Make?

Locking up a door back in the day

Locking up a door doesn’t deserve a neurosurgeon’s salary

We all work to earn a living. For most of us that go into the film industry, we have career goals beyond that of simply paying our bills. Either we have those dreams, or we’re just stupid — otherwise, we would’ve found an easier avenue!

For the entry-level world of production assistants, the pay is meager compared to the union wages of your fellow crew members. But, as you will find, a lot of it will depend on what time of project you work on.

Day Rate vs Weekly Rate

For short-term gigs, PAs receive a day rate, with no overtime. For long-term jobs, you will still typically get a day rate, with overtime only kicking in after 14 hours. Occasionally, PAs get weekly rates, and you will get one set amount of money per week, regardless of whether you work a humane 60 hours or an inhumane 91.

man counting pennies

 

Music Video Rates for Production Assistants

There’s no set rule to music video rates; it will depend on how cheap the production company is that you’re working for. In the beginning, I made $200/day (with no overtime) on music videos, but the majority of music video shoots only lasted a day. Maybe there was a prep day, but usually not.

As I worked for more and more companies, the going rate was typically $150-$200 per day, with a few laughable productions offering a meager $125. Towards the end of my PA tenure when I was acting more as a 2nd AD, a few kind-hearted companies offered me $225 per day.

Reality TV Rates for Production Assistants

I haven’t PA’ed on too many of these, but on the few that I did, the rate stood between $125-$150 per day, $150 per day only coming after serious negotiation.

 

Movies/Scripted Television Rates for Production Assistants

One would think that movies with 20 million dollar budgets would find it within their hearts and wallets to offer their production assistants more than just bread crumbs, but that is NEVER the case. Unless you’re working on an indie movie for your friends, I found that the bigger the budget, the smaller my paycheck. On Country Strong, the rate was $130/14 hours. I was raking in about $500/week after taxes, after putting in 70 hour weeks. That breaks down to less than $10/hour.

On one television pilot, I was again on the horrible $130/14 hour pay scale, and we worked 91 hours in one week. After taxes were taken out, my paycheck didn’t even total $1,000. I cried.

 

Commercial Rates for Production Assistants

COMMERCIALS ARE KING. They are the cash cow of this business, especially for production assistants. Most pay $200 per day and have more manageable hours than movies or television. Likewise, commercials for big companies or products usually have a week-long shooting schedule, plus a week or two of prep (and sometimes one for wrap). That’s $1,000/week before taxes. Not too shabby for an entry level position!

First PA Paycheck

Posing with the first paycheck I earned as a production assistant

 

Can I Survive on a PA Salary?

Yes. The only time it got a little hairy for me was when the economy tanked in 2008, and every business in the country was closing their doors, including production companies.

However, it was easier for me because I chose to work in a mid-level film industry in a low cost city.  If you have a roommate, you can easily get away with paying $300-$400/month for rent. Food, gas, utilities are also cheaper compared to someplace like Los Angeles or New York City.

If you choose to move to a mid-market city to work in film and television, be prepared to stay at the production assistant level a lot longer. It’ll be easier to make ends meet while you work in the entry level, but since there are fewer television shows, movies, commercials filming, it may take longer to climb out of the production assistant level than if you were in a city with a ton of work, such as Los Angeles.

 

Taxes

Eventually, I’ll do a post about working in production and the business of taxes and writeoffs, but for now, for simplicity’s sake, there are two ways employers will pay you when you work in film production: via W2 or W9.

Disclaimer: While I have a business degree, I am NOT an accountant, so please consult a professional!

W2

W2 means you’re considered an employee of a company and are on payroll. Taxes are taken out in advance.

Let’s say you make $600 on a job and pay $100 in taxes. Beyond your weekly rate, your employers also have to pay taxes on your behalf, so they pay roughly $100 also. (That’s important for understanding how W9s work.)

W9

W9 mean NO taxes are taken out. You are not considered an employee of the company, you are considered an independent contractor or freelancer.

This means the production company pays no taxes for you; you pay no taxes up front.

However, when you file your taxes, a W9 means that you, as a self-employed individual, are responsible for paying self employment tax — which is effectively a combination of both the employer and employee’s tax contribution. So, if you receive that same $600 but on a W9, congratulations! You are now responsible for paying $200 in taxes.

30% of your total W9 salary is a good rule of thumb for estimating how much you’ll need to pay in taxes, which is a hefty chunk, and believe me, it hurts. Fortunately, independent contractors have the luxury of tax deductions, and that can help take the sting out of self-employment tax.

Summary

How much can you make per year as a production assistant? As I’ve said, it depends on the type of projects you work on. If you work on commercials 45 weeks a year at $200/day ($1000 per week), that’s $45,000/year, which is pretty good for an entry level job in any field. If you work on movies or television, you’ll probably make $625/week, for a salary of $28,125 per year.

Working in a mid-market town where most PAs work on a variety of projects, you’ll average around $30,000/year, provided there are enough projects in town to keep you steadily employed.

Further Reading: If you want to get a job in film, here’s a summary of posts with more tips. If you have any questions you’d like to see answered here, let me know.

. . .

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Author: Laryssa

Laryssa has spent 6+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. She writes about her experiences to help (and amuse) others. If she's not working, she's either traveling, reading or writing about travel, or planning travel. Follow , Twitter, or Facebook.

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42 Comments

  1. This article was very amusing and insightful! Thank you for providing this. As a recent graduate with a degree in communications who currently lives in the Caribbean and possibly moving to Texas or Colorado, this opened my eyes a bit. I actually want to work in reality television but it seems like commercials is the way to go. Thank you!

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you Resia! Congratulations on your recent graduation.
      Actually, a large part of what I do now is associate/ segment producer work for reality television. I LOVE it. It’s a unique world — fun and very fast paced (which not everyone likes). If you feel drawn in that direction, I would encourage you to go for it. 🙂

  2. How long should you wait for payment. What do you suggest if the production company never sends you a check.

    Post a Reply
    • Productions generally submit checks within the standard 30 day window. Most large companies that go through payroll send checks within 2 weeks. (On one rare occasion, I worked for a company whose policy was 90 days…NOT cool.)

      If it’s been more than 30 days, send a nice email inquiring about when they anticipate the check will be mailed to you. Sometimes production companies that don’t have the cash flow to justify timely payments will wait until they’re paid by their client, which isn’t cool, but could explain the tardiness.

      Reputable companies pay. The only time I’ve heard of people getting stiffed in this business is when the guy bailed town. If it’s been several months and you suspect they will never pay, there are options–such as small claims court, hiring a collections agency, notifying the better business bureau, etc.

      Good luck!

  3. Hi Laryssa, I find your article very informative. I am an aspiring writer, hoping to become to freelance about arts and movies. I currently wrote a blog post about how being a film crew pays and I used a bit of your information here. I listed your site as reference, hope you wouldn’t mind. Please kindly see my twitter if you want to read the post. I’ll keep checking out your blog, you write good stuff!

    Post a Reply
  4. Hello Laryssa,
    Excellent, and very informative article!!!
    I was offered a job as a PA for a news tv channel. Do you have any suggestion or opinion on this? I need your considerations ASAP since I have to give an answer. I have already a job at a university, but it is a part-time job. They (tv station) are offering me a 40 hrs/week job and the salary is 11 usd/hr.
    Thank you very much in advance.
    Marco

    Post a Reply
    • Congratulations on the job offer!

      To begin with the obvious question: Do you want to pursue a career in news production? The hours are stable, and probably more humane than freelance. You’ll likely get trained in several different areas as a news PA– audio, graphics, camera, and maybe editing (granted, the news realm uses different techniques in these fields than film/tv).

      If you haven’t worked in production yet and have struggled breaking in to the freelance market, this will give you a chance to gain some form of experience and boost the resume. In the meantime, you may decide you like the news format and want to stay with it. If not, you can leave after a year to pursue film and television.

      If you already are freelancing, even sporadically, and that’s the direction you want to pursue… I would turn it down. News is a different animal than freelance, and it’s an entirely different circle of people. Ascending the ladder in news won’t translate to movies.

      Then, there’s the money aspect… $11/hour x 40 hours a week = $444 before taxes — not horrible for entry level. But if you’re an established freelance PA that can work 4 days a week on commercials ($200 x 4 days = $800 before taxes), there’s no comparison.

      Best of luck!

  5. Laryssa, you said that you can make up to 45k/yr but how many weeks out of the year are you actually working/getting paid?

    Post a Reply
    • GM-

      (from the article): If you work on commercials 45 weeks a year at $200/day ($1000 per week), that’s $45,000/year.

      That is definitely on the high end, and it’s taking into consideration you’re only working on commercials (or other projects that pay $200/day). Most PAs work on a variety of projects and pay scales, so $28,125 – $30k (stated later in the article) is a better average.

  6. Thanks for this post. I really like the break down and honesty. I was fortunate enough to start commercial work fresh out the gate.

    I’ve actually just finished my degree in Landscape Architecture and that is my true passion. I’m one of the few PA’s who is enduring the long hours and meager pay for the money and of course it can be pretty adventurous. Lot’s of funny characters out here in LA. One day your on the beach, the next in Down Town LA, and the next in a Studio.
    Michael recently posted…Concrete TableMy Profile

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  7. Funny comments and observations. Overall still looking to become a PA.

    Post a Reply
  8. Wow, I’m wasting my time then being a production assistant at my local news station. The pay is only minimum wage with 25 hours a week and I’m having a really hard time getting my yearly raise. I’ll definitely be looking into new lines of work. Thanks for the article!

    Post a Reply
  9. Hi. I’m Faith , currently a senior in college I’m majoring in.. Radio & TV Production.. I want to work in the t.v field Im having a little trouble about what it is really want to branch into.. I wanted to do movies but with pay I don’t think so..would commericals be good to PA on?

    Post a Reply
  10. My first gig as a PA I am getting $500 a day. I guess it depends ont the company and budget.

    Post a Reply
    • Eh…I don’t want to say I doubt that, but…I doubt that.

    • What company was this? Seems suspicious.

  11. Thanks Laryssa your articles are very informative. I am in the running for 2 PA jobs one for a new reality show and another for an internet tv show. I have no idea what I will be offered in regards to pay but both jobs are amazing opportunities. I just hope its more then $400 a week after taxes. But thanks to your article I have a better understand of what a PA makes and how to be successful as one. I am actually in my last semester of Film/Television school so this really rocks if I get either one.

    Post a Reply
  12. Hi Laryssa,
    I can’t thank you enough for your excellent, informative, honest and often funny article!! I’m a Vietnam vet and wound up being selected from an interview where a TV commercial Director is starting a production assistant training “boot camp” specifically for veterans. This Director called me and said “to be honest we were expecting more like Iraq/Afghanistan (younger) vets but we were blown away with your positive attitude”.(sorry about the book!) Anyway thank you and could you tell me anything that might impress them??
    Thanks Again,
    John

    Post a Reply
  13. Hey great article! I’m looking to go from producing independent no budget films to working on majors. (Or budgeted films) PA seems to be the way to go. Since I’ve started my journey, I’ve found it tough to get 1 PA position! Any tips on who to talk to or how to get in touch with the people that hire PAs? Thanks in advance.

    Post a Reply
    • Hi David,

      That’s a good question! I wrote up a little post answering that question here, but the answers are pretty broad: needlegirlhaystackworld.com/how-to-get-a-job-as-a-production-assistant/ . Since you’ve already been in the independent/budget world, do you have any connections to people in your community that work other projects? Film communities are generally small, and there’s bound to be a little crossover. In the end, networking with people you already know is also the easiest way to get on projects.
      If that isn’t the case, then try film industry meet-ups, film festivals, or 48 hour challenges as a way to meet other people. Best of luck!

  14. Did you ever have to pay a processing fee to join a company?

    Post a Reply
    • Absolutely not!!

      I also never pay for anything out of my own pocket that the shoot needs (craft service, props, etc), unless I’ve worked with the company before and know they’re good for it.

  15. I just got offered my first freelance job in LA and they offered me transportation and accommodation. I’m still a little nervous since it’s my first freelance PA job, any advice you can give me? Also, how can I keep the ball rolling and the cash flowing in now so I can keep getting jobs and I don’t fall into the jobless funk again?

    Post a Reply
    • Sabrina, congratulations!! That’s a huge first gig. 🙂

      Since they’re offering transportation and accommodation, it sounds like it may be a traveling show? If so, our PA that traveled with us was expected to pull around all of the rental vehicles in a row by the main lobby doors prior to call time (to allow for easy gear load-in). Also, making sure the cars were cleaned and fully gassed up prior to each new day.

      Regarding the jobless funk…in the beginning, I continued to get jobs with people I was working with because they’d recommend me. Do a good job, have a good attitude, pay attention to your walkie, keep receipts and petty cash organized, always be early and never ask when you’ll be wrapped…and you’ll be in the top 2% of PAs!

      Best of luck!

    • Just thought to let you know that after making some phone calls and researching the whole offer was a big production fraud scheme! Apparently the company was hacked along with a few others and someone was posing as a manager and scalping for crew.

      I got out before committing to anything but was super shocked something like that could happen. Another thing to look out for in the industry now. If it looks too good to be true, it just might be.

    • Oh, wow, I am so sorry to hear that, but am glad you figured it out in advance!

      I’ve heard of schemes where the production company asks for money in advance, which obviously is a BIG red flag. Seems like a post may be needed to help identify these scams…

      Where did you hear about the job?

    • Odd thing was they emailed me first saying I replayed to an add. They didn’t ask for money at all. Only that they were sending me a check. I called the number saying I wasn’t even in the same state and he said they knew that that’s why the offer. They were literally paying for accommodation, transportation, and food along with my daily rate. I hadn’t gotten to any step where I might have had to leave any money in advance yet before I deleted the email.

      In fact, the second email they sent said the check they would send to my address would contain over 2500 dollars 500 of that would be for me as a down payment and the rest would be for the travel agent who would use the rest of the check to get me to California for the production. I just had to confirm by email.

      Then I just deleted it.

      Probably some giant human kidnapping ring. Very unsettling for a first try freelance experience.

  16. Hey,
    Love the blog. Question. What do I do with a production company that is giving me the run around. It was a commercial gig. For a very giant beer company. They keep saying they are sending my check this day and that day but nothing ever comes. I’m at my wits end here. Granted it’s not a lot to them but i have bills to pay. They are a decent size production company. Should I show up at their offfice? I call the “accountant” mo answer and no dice on getting an email back from anyone else. Some advice would be wonderful. Thank. -Gavin

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Gavin,
      How many days has it been since the job?

  17. It’s been well over 30 days. Memo deal was for 30 days.

    Post a Reply
    • Yikes. That sucks, especially if it is a reputable production company. Is there a way to find out if anyone else on the shoot has been paid?

      I’d keep calling on a daily basis, the nuisance of having to deal with you should resolve it…otherwise, you can report them to the better business bureau or take it to small claims court, and spread the word to your other crew members in town that they don’t pay.

      (Not that it justifies it, but in my experience, this happens when a production company has mismanaged their cash flow and haven’t been paid yet by the ad agency/record label/corporation.)

  18. I’m wondering why we don’t just band together and get better wages? What is the difference between what we provide to the production and what everyone else does who is allowed to be in the union? We work long, hard hours and we are at the bottom of the payscale. Someone please tell me why production assistants do not have access to any of the 328974 unions in this industry?

    Post a Reply
  19. I was just offered a role as an Assistant for a commercial production out-of-state. The production company said that they would be mailing me a check for $2350 of which $400 being a deposit for my services and the remaining I would have to send to a travel agent of the sponsor to arrange my flight & hotel accommodations. As I am very new to this industry and unfamiliar with how things work is this a legitimate job or am I being scammed?

    Post a Reply
    • Yes, your instincts are correct– THAT IS A SCAM!

      The Anonymous Production Assistant covered this exact scam… their website is down at the moment, but yes, STAY AWAY. I’ve seen this too. Basically, they find a legitimate production company and purchase a domain name VERY SIMILAR to it, but not quite, and send fraudulent e-mails.

      Here’s a paragraph from the scam email I’ve seen:
      “Instruction: Please respond with your contact information such as your full name, address and cell number where a check will be mailed out to, it is for your traveling and lodging expenses (more information will be provided as we progress). You will also be provided an itinerary by the designated travel agent arrangement”

    • Thank you so much for confirming my concerns. I will try to inform the real company and the job board for which they found me of this scam.

  20. Hi!
    I wanted to ask for some advice about this job I’m being interviewed for over at NYC for VH1. It’s a freelance PA job and they are offering a starting salary of $18.75/hrs for 5 days, 8hrs a day and I’m still hesitant to take the plunge. I’d probably be under contract for 6months-year but since I’ll be moving from Miami to NY I know that it won’t be easy to even share in apartment rent.

    I want to see if I can get the wage to at least $20.00 but I don’t know how to negotiate that ask!

    After tax I’m a little scared I’ll be working to live rather than actually enjoying the prospect and I’ll most likely have to find a second job.

    What should I do? Can you offer so sound advice on this, calm a panicked entry mind down?

    Post a Reply
    • Hi Sabrina,

      To be honest I’m really actually jealous of you. I graduated from university with a degree in film and have since been trying to find a way to land my first entry-level job in the industry. To find a paid PA job with a major network like VH1 in NYC is like my ultimate wish right now.

      Although you are worried about the money you should be thinking about the opportunities that are now available to you i.e. working for a recognizable company, building familiarity with producers and/or production coordinators and most importantly getting the professional experience that can land you a higher paying position in the future.

      But if that still not good enough reason for you then send them my way I will take the job.

    • Hey Sabrina, congratulations on your job interview! I’m going to be straight with you– $150 for 8 hours of work as a PA is incredible, especially in the beginning. (For perspective, my PA days were $150 or $200 for 14 hours, which is considerably less by the hour.) If VH1 is somewhere you’d love to work and you want to live and work in New York, I would not recommend asking for more money…there are a ton of candidates for entry level positions, and they’re likely just to go with someone else willing to work at the listed rate. A few questions I would ask them: Is there overtime after 8 hours? How often do they go over 8 hours? If there is some guarantee of OT, that could help with the money problem.

      In the beginning, you do have to work to live. The enjoyment comes from being on set and the reality that you’re paying bills by working in television. There are better paying jobs out there at the entry level, but that isn’t why people get into this line of work. It’s all about the passion and love for the job.

      There are other ways to earn a buck on the side beyond a part time job– there’s a whole post about it on here (“How to Make Money While Pursuing the Dream Job”).

      Best of luck, let us know what you decide!

  21. Can you recommend accountants in NYC well specialize in industry taxes? If not, can you elaborate on how I can find an accountant?

    Post a Reply
    • Hey Ania, I don’t personally know of any accountants in the NYC area, but a good way to find an accountant familiar with our industry and write-offs is to ask your peers, or even on Facebook or an industry-related Facebook page. (Maybe try the FB group “The Production Meeting”? It’s a group made specifically for any/all industry questions.)

  22. Hi Laryssa! Thank you for replying. I appreciate the FB page recommendation. That’s my next stop for trying to find an accountant. The people I’ve come across in the industry so far are all much further along in their careers, and the accountants they recommended are very expensive. And a lot of PA’s I’ve worked with say their parents hand their taxes over to their family accountants… So, I’m hoping the FB page will be a source of local help. If not, I’ll just keep researching. But if you happen to come across anything (affordable) on my coast by chance, definitely do share!

    Post a Reply
  23. This post is very insightful! Great, informative. Though I have to admit, the market is so saturated that I haven’t been able to score a job locally, but it did reinforce the idea of going commercial for my start up. Seems it’s the way to go to get some decent, livable cash flow. Been researching for days how to quote and price to give shooters, pa’s and editors a decent wage. Let’s see how it goes. Added you to my resources feed.

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