Breaking into the Movie Business: The Assistant Directors Training Program

In the early 1960’s the Directors Guild of America and the Association of Motion Pictures and Television Producers met and designed a training program for Assistant Directors. Both the Union and the Association realized the need for a training program that would allow anyone outside the Industry to have an equal opportunity to gain employment in the film industry provided they met minimum requirements.

The Assistant Directors Training Program was born in the early 1960’s. The first class of Trainees graduated in 1965. Through the years, the Program has been graduating hundreds of Second Assistant Directors who went on to successful careers in the film business. I was Administrator of the Program from 1967 to 1980. I worked a short time as an Assistant Director in 1980.

The program offers 400 days of on-the-job training. Trainees are immersed in the production of movies, TV shows and series. They work under the supervison of an Assistant Director and/or Unit Production Manager where they provide managerial, administrative, communication and facilitation support to all the cast, crew and production personnel working on a production. It should be noted that while every attempt is made to keep trainees gainfully employed, there may be occasional periods of unemployment. Two years is the norm for completion of the Program’s 400 work days.

The duties of the Trainee are varied, but include: detailed paperwork that is delivered to the production office at the day’s end; communication the on-going status of all the elements of production to everyone associated with the production; schedule changes, assisting movement of the extras, calling actors to the set, monitoring the progress of the crew’s work, coordinating crowd and traffic control, monitoring safety on the set, locating people, delivering messages, anticipating, reporting and help solving any problems that may occur.

Trainees have a minimum weekly guarantee beginning at $610. with raises to $656, $702, and $749 upon the completion of each 100 day period. Upon successful gradation from the program, the beginning weekly salary for 2nd Assistant Directors is approximately $2500, a figure which does not include overtime or location work.

Working conditions on a movie set can vary widely. Trainees should prepare themselves to work long hours, often irregular, overtime, distant locations and often under hazardous conditions. A movie set is populated by widely diversified creative personalities which can include actors who become prima donnas, directors who don’t always know what they are doing and unanticipated problems that require immediate changes.

Trainees are expected to work seamlessly with the good and the bad, always maintaining a neutral position regardless of the conditions. Because this work schedule can put a strain on personal relationships, it behooves anyone interested in this kind of work to discuss their future with wives, loved ones, partners etc. On the plus side is the fact that trainees are much too busy to even think about getting bored. Every day on the set is different and it is this occupational perk that ultimately provides a satisfying career.

The Assistant Director is a production job and should not in any way be confused with that of a Director. A film Director is a creative position and it is rare that their backgrounds come from a career in production. 2nd Assistant Directors can aspire to become 1st Assistants or Unit Production Managers, both are career positions with additional responsibilities and commensurate pay increases. A few Assistant Directors have chosen to become producers and as a result they have become very successful.

Because of the long success of the Training Program, competition is fierce. Many try but few are chosen. Minimum requirements are a BA or Associate degree from an accredited college or film school. Work experience in the film business can serve as a substitute for college or a combination of both.

All applicants who meet the minimum qualifications must take a test and achieve a minimum score for inclusion in a select group for interviews before a screening committee. Applicants who either fail the test or the interview, may apply again. The test and interviews are given once a year. A companion program operates out of New York with the same requirements, including the same time frame for making application, testing, interviewing and selection of trainees.

The movie industry is more diversified than it has ever been. The next few decades might see a complete transformation from celluloid to digital, but the basics of moviemaking will always remain the same. Scripts have to be written, deals made, actors and productions crews hired, locations scouted, shooting schedules arranged and then principal photography begins. The movie business is the most collaborative of the arts, bringing together hundreds of talented craft people, actors, producers, directors to produce what everyone hopes will be a masterpiece to be enjoyed by millions. Not surprisingly, money is the ultimate bottom line, even though fiscal restraint is often nowhere to be found on a movie set.

The Assistant Directors Training Program is not unique. There are other on-the-job training programs, but the AD Program is the only opportunity that focuses on the managerial aspect of the business. The important milestone the AD Program established was that it virtually eliminated nepotism which was rampant from the beginning of the Industry. Prior to the AD Program, if you wanted to work in the film business, you had to ‘know someone.’

Now for the last 40+ years, anyone with talent, perseverance, organizational and managerial skills, basic knowledge of the film business, a sense of humor and the ability to keep your equanimity when all around you is utter chaos. Don’t become discouraged if you pass the test, but are overlooked during the interview. It was Winston Churchill who said Never, Never, Never, Never give up!” That advice worked for him. Why not you?

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