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Film Industry, Careers in

production assistant studios line

The film industry as a whole may be divided into three interdependent segments: production, distribution, and exhibition. Production is what most people think of when they think of Hollywood— the actual creation of motion pictures. Distribution is the network that gets the completed film from the studio to the theaters that are waiting to show it. Exhibition is the operation of the movie theaters—selling tickets, selling concessions, and screening films. However, the film business encompasses much more than that. Forced to sell their exhibition chains in the 1950s, the major studios have diversified their interests. Furthermore, the studios themselves have become units of much larger global conglomerates.

Therefore, in the 1990s, the World Wide Web recruitment site for Universal Studios could state with perfect accuracy:

Picture any large, worldwide corporation. They need all kinds of people for all kinds of jobs, right? Well, Universal Studios is no different. Not only are we a global company, but we’re also involved in a variety of different businesses: movies, theme parks, television, consumer products, online services, retailing, and more. Our employees work in many careers, including administrative, architecture/design/creative, business/strategic planning, communications, development, distribution, engineering, facilities, finance/accounting, human resources, information technology, legal, live entertainment, marketing, medical, motion picture/creative, music/creative, online services, procurement/purchasing, production, real estate, restaurant/food services, retail, sales, studio operations, technical services, television/creative and theme park operations.

A similar list could apply to all of the major studios. Therefore, this entry will focus on careers that are involved with what is most closely associated with Hollywood—motion picture production.

Motion picture production careers can be broadly divided into two groups: above-the-line and below-the-line. Above-the-line positions include the creative and performing personnel, such as writers, directors, producers, and talent. Below-the-line positions include the technical and production fields.

Despite the exhaustive listing above, neither Universal nor any of the other movie studio giants posts job openings for “feature film director.” By far, the most common career path for those wishing to pursue above-the-line careers is to begin in independent films. Often, such films are wholly financed and created by one or two individuals; however, there are also dozens of small independent studios, each producing perhaps one or two films a year.

One specific example of the independent studio is Los Angeles Motion Pictures, Inc. Founded in 1997 by its president, Mike Dichirico, the company is divided into two sections, production and digital services. The digital services division provides nonlinear editing, digital frame retouching, and computer animation to outside clients. The production division produces feature films. The former creates a steady income stream, allowing more selectivity in the projects undertaken by the latter. Within the production department, two people are responsible for the execution of a feature film project: the producer and the writer-director. The writer-director handles the creative duties, while the producer seeks funding and handles business logistics. Thus, the heart of the above-the-line positions are affiliated directly with the studio. Almost all other production personnel are hired as independent contractors, which is the common practice for independent studios.

Despite this, though, entry-level positions can be found at independent companies. At Los Angeles Motion Pictures, Inc., the main such position is production assistant. Production assistants handle all of the countless small tasks that keep a production running. An individual may progress to second assistant director—handling production tasks of more importance—and from there rise to directing or to producing. The studio works on a limited partnership basis with such individuals, in which the would-be director or producer raises at least 50 percent of the costs of the proposed film, the studio raises the rest, and the entities divide liabilities and profits.

As this arrangement would indicate, the would-be above-the-line filmmaker needs at least a working knowledge of business, in addition to a thorough understanding of motion picture production. Beyond that, educational requirements vary. Certainly, a degree in film is helpful, but it may not be essential, depending on an individual’s previous experience and the needs of the company.

The issue of experience is even more important in any of the below-the-line fields. Author Vincent LoBruto interviewed top cinematographers and film editors for his books Principal Photography (1999) and Selected Takes (1991), respectively, and most of them had earned degrees in film. However, all of the filmmakers had moved up through the ranks, so to speak, in order to reach the upper levels of Hollywood filmmaking. For a cinematographer (director of photography, or DP), the progression is second assistant cameraperson, first assistant cameraperson, camera operator, and director of photography. A second assistant cameraperson is responsible for loading film magazines, doing the slates at the beginning of each shot, and keeping paperwork. A first assistant cameraperson is responsible for pulling focus (adjusting focus at the direction of the camera operator) and for the mechanics of the camera. A camera operator physically executes the shot as the director of photography desires. The DP is the head of a team that includes the assistant camerapersons, the camera operator, the “gaffer” (the head electrician, who arranges the lighting), and the “key grip” (the person who is in charge on set of all camera support equipment). By directing this team, the DP creates the image that is finally seen on film. An editor goes through a similar career progression. One begins as an apprentice editor, then moves up to assistant editor, and finally to editor. And, these are only two of the many specialized arts and crafts that are involved in modern filmmaking, including animation, special effects, stunts, production design, and others.

In conclusion, there are numerous careers available in the field of filmmaking. To the novice, this should serve as an encouragement rather than the reverse. Drive and desire are still the primary factors of success. One advantage that a filmmaker just starting out now has is that all of the major studios and many of the minor ones maintain informative sites on the World Wide Web. The primary guilds (such as the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild) and unions (such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts) also maintain websites. The aspiring filmmaker should consult these sites for the timeliest information available.

Film Industry, History of - Early Photography, Film Inventions, Film Content, Film Art Emerges, The Studio System, The Television Era [next] [back] Film Industry - A New Industry, The Studio Years, The Television Years

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