How to Get Into the Film Industry

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

The film industry is notoriously hard to get started in—and nowhere is that more true than behind the scenes. Landing the first crew job can be difficult, especially if you don’t know where to start. Here’s information on everything that’s fundamental to getting your crew career off the ground, from who’s who on set and how to actually get jobs, to mastering networking and making money.

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Movie set jobs and departments

'Daisy Jones & The Six' crew

“Daisy Jones & The Six” Credit: Lacey Terrell/Prime Video

While every production is different and the number of people working behind the camera will vary depending on budget, timeframe, and myriad other details, you should be familiar with every job you could find on a film crew. Not only will this knowledge help inform your future career path, but it’s also extremely useful in understanding how departments work together to make something come to life. 

Here is a breakdown of the major crew departments, the most common positions within each, and hierarchies. Click through for details including career trajectory, earning potential, and what skills you need for each job. 

Production

The production department handles the actual operations of the project:

Direction

While the director literally calls the shots, the rest of the direction department is on set to make sure operations run smoothly via scheduling, reports, and call sheets:

Location

These are the people responsible for finding the right locations for a shoot, as well as managing the logistics of the location once shooting begins: 

Transportation

As the name implies, this team provides transportation to and from set for cast members, set elements, props—anything or anyone that needs to be moved: 

Camera 

The hands that literally handle the camera, this department prepares and operates the cameras and monitors, and manages footage and media: 

Grip

If any piece of electrical equipment (cameras, lights, etc.) needs to be supported or moved during filming, this team handles it: 

Electric

Responsible for anything that needs power, this department runs every electrical cable on set: 

Continuity

A department of one that observes and monitors pretty much everything to ensure every piece of the production puzzle comes together properly: 

Sound

The ears of a production, this team captures and records everything from dialogue to background noise: 

Art

The art department is responsible for ideating and creating the actual look of a production:

Props

If an actor touches or uses an object (not part of a costume) on set, it’s the responsibility of the prop department: 

Costume + wardrobe

Responsible for the design and procurement of every piece of clothing and accessory work by the cast, from principal talent to extras, as well as dressing actors day-of: 

Hair + makeup

Exactly what it sounds like, this team handles the hair and makeup (and prosthetics and special effects makeup, if necessary) of all the onscreen talent: 

Special effects

Any “effect” that has to take place live—smoke, weather, pyrotechnics—is planned, prepared, and executed by the SFX department: 

Visual effects

Though most visual effects really come to life in postproduction, this department is needed on set to make sure the live-action sequences are shot in a way that allows the VFX to seamlessly integrate:

Stunts

The minds and bodies behind anything considered risky to someone not trained, this department coordinates, choreographs, and performs stunts:

Postproduction

When principal photography ends, the postproduction professionals get to work editing, adding effects, mixing, and coloring so that the finished product is as close to perfect as possible:

How to get your first job in the film industry

'Black Mirror' crew job

BTS “Black Mirror” Credit: Nick Wall/Netflix

There’s no one clearly defined path to getting your first TV or movie crew job. If you’re used to following a linear career path, this may feel discouraging. But it can actually be a good thing: Rather than one doorway everyone is trying to get through, there are many you can use to get your foot in. 

But before you start going after jobs, it’s a good idea to have a few things in order. Crew positions are competitive and fill quickly, so while there’s no guarantee you’ll be asked for any or all of the following—and certain things will depend on the department—it never hurts to be prepared.

  • Prepare a résumé: Your résumé should serve as a solid snapshot of who you are, the job you’re applying for, and why you’re qualified to do it. The people in charge of hiring entry-level crew rarely have time to thoroughly read every résumé that’s submitted, so make sure yours is clear and the relevant information is easy to find, such as your availability (“I can start right away”) and any skills or qualifications you could lend. (For example, a production shooting in two locations on opposite sides of town may need a PA with a valid driver’s license.) Make sure your résumé is in film production format—anything formatted like a traditional résumé is an immediate giveaway that you’ve never worked in film before.
  • Make a reel (if applying to camera or postproduction jobs): If you’re applying for a job in the camera department or as part of a postproduction team, a reel of your work is important. It’ll help effectively communicate your skills, experience, style, and aesthetic. 
  • Put together a portfolio: For visual jobs—such as art, sets, SFX, costume, and hair and makeup—a portfolio of your work may be required.
  • Create a website: Do you have a personal website that’s easy to find by searching your name? Does it feature your credits, past work, or reel? Great, you just made it that much easier to hire you.

Where to find film crew jobs

'I'm a Virgo' set crew

BTS of “I'm a Virgo” Credit: Pete Lee/Prime Video

Here are a few tried-and-true methods to get your foot in the TV and film set door.

Move to a major production hub

If you’re serious about getting crew work, head to a production hub like New York, Los Angeles, or Atlanta. Join pertinent organizations like the New York Production Alliance, Shooting People, and Women Make Movies in New York; Los Angeles Post Production Group and LA Film Society in L.A., and the Atlanta Film Society, Women in Film and Television, and FilmHubATL in Atlanta. 

Don’t be afraid to attend local industry events, said one industry insider—and be sure to throw your hat in the ring when you hear about open positions and sets that need help. 

Look at job boards

Yup, sometimes it’s as simple as that. From no-budget student films to studio blockbusters, the internet is your friend when it comes to finding crew openings on productions filming near you. Use pertinent keywords such as “TV production,” “film production,” “film crew positions,” or a specific position title on job boards including Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and Monster.

Sign up for crew job databases

Sign up for production job databases such as:

Be sure to keep your profile up-to-date and check regularly for open positions. 

Harness the power of social media

“Sometimes landing a last-minute job is as simple as using the right search terms on Facebook,” noted producer-director Jourdan Aldredge. “Use the search bar just like you would on Google: plug in your location and relevant keywords, like ‘Austin film crew jobs’ or ‘last-minute production jobs New York.’ You can also seek out and follow local creators who often post when they’re crewing up for a production.” Sign up with groups like:

Contact the local film office

Any production bigger than a single hand-held camera will likely require a permit, which means the city’s film office has a running list of everything that’s about to be or is currently in production. This information may not be available to the public but the film office may have a training program with direct lines to open crew positions, such as New York City’s “Made in NY” Production Assistant Training Program or Atlanta’s Georgia Film Academy

“If there’s something shooting in your area, chances are they need to register with the local film office,” according to Aldredge. “Not only can you use these film offices to know what productions are headed your way that may need crew, but many also have crew databases where you can upload your details so that if a local production finds itself in need of last-minute crew members, you’re easily findable and contactable.” Some of these in top film and TV production locations include: 

For a roundup of productions filming near you that might need to crew up, check out Backstage’s Now Filming. Our Greenlit dispatches are also a great way to keep track of productions that may be coming to your city in the near future. 

Approach camera and gear rental houses

If you know you want to work with cameras or specialized gear, seek out the big rental houses in your city and pitch yourself as a trainee. You’ll likely be working for free, but when productions need to rent equipment and they do so through your rental house, they may need a crew to operate everything. 

Be open to odd jobs

The more production work experience you get, the better. “When someone calls ‘all hands on deck!’ those are the hands that arrive,” said production assistant Kaitlin Cornell. “Personally, I’ve had a wide variety of odd jobs, from office work to making sure that shipments go out on time to just plain old sweeping. If you start as a [PA] then that’s the baseline for breaking in as a crew person. No matter what department, they all need PAs.”

Build your professional network

Your network is the group of industry contacts you amass over time who can vouch for you, hire you, and recommend you for jobs. Bottom line: They keep you employed. 

When you’re just starting out, your network will likely be pretty slim since you build your network through professional jobs and you haven’t really had many yet. But the minute you get that first gig, it’s time to start making those connections that will lead to your next job—and the one after that, and the one after that. 

Not convinced this is really how people get hired to work on a movie set? One New York City second AD said that when he needs to hire PAs, the first thing he does is text a group of trusted former co-workers to ask if they know anyone looking for work they’d be willing to vouch for. If that first group can’t come up with enough people, they then go out to their trusted circle, and so on and so on until that second AD is swimming in hardworking, trusted PAs. 

“The golden rule of crew work is to always be networking,” advised Aldredge. “I’m not suggesting you network day-in and day-out—be sure to do your job and do it well first. But those moments at the end of the day and after the project wraps? Absolutely. You’ve shared long hours, crazy directors, and funny moments; use those shared experiences to connect and develop relationships that will then help you find bigger, better projects in the future.” 

The further you get in your career, the more invaluable this group of people will be. Just look at Emma Tillinger Koskoff, who started as an assistant to Martin Scorsese and now runs his production company. Or Nat Sanders, who went to film school with Barry Jenkins before becoming his go-to editor. Or Ruth E. Carter, who met Spike Lee while she was working as a backstage dresser in an L.A. theater, and then went on to design costumes for 12 of his films.

What it's like to be a film crew freelancer

'Insidious: The Red Door' crew jobs

BTS of “Insidious: The Red Door” Credit: Boris Martin

Once you get that first job—and hopefully many more after that—you’ll quickly have to learn how to live life as a freelancer. Yes, there are some crew positions that are considered staff or full-time, but the majority of crew members—especially in the early stages of their careers—are freelancers. As such, there are several things to consider and be aware of as you get into this line of work.

Money

For a good idea of what you can expect to make as a crew member, click through the job titles above for annual earnings information. 

Taxes

As the saying goes, there are two things that are guaranteed: death and taxes. As a freelance crew member, you’re about to get very familiar with the latter. Unlike full-time, salaried employees, freelancers have to jump through a few extra hoops when tax season rolls around, so it’s helpful if you understand what’s coming and what you’ll need before that time arrives. To hold your hand through it all, check out our guide to filing taxes as an actor or other freelancer

Healthcare

As you get further into your production career and likely join a union, you’ll reap the benefit of the organization’s health insurance plans. But until then, you may be left to find coverage on your own. Here are several resources to help you navigate the process: 

Lifestyle

If you’ve ever wondered, How competitive is the film industry?, the answer is very. Because of this, the common thread that runs through every crew position is a lack of work-life balance. Yes, the work is interesting and exciting and no two days are the same, but the work is also hard—mentally and physically—and requires very long hours, backbreaking labor, a lot of standing around, and work that is rarely acknowledged. (Don’t believe us? Check out this video of a day in the life of a PA.) There are no vacation days during production; but once a job has wrapped, all you have might be days off—when you′re not making money. On location? That can mean weeks or months away from home and your family. 

“If you don’t like long hours, hard work, and a lack of personal time, though, then it’s probably not for you,” says location manager Jason Allen.

But if you love being part of a team and working with like-minded individuals to produce something; if you’re obsessed with film, TV, and video of all kinds; if you’re willing to put in the hard work for immense payoff years down the line, there’s no better place to be than on a production crew for a film or TV set.

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