Networking is the "muscle of the industry" for production assistants

by Kavita Shah / Beacon Staff • September 3, 2014

Jake Cannavale Interned as a PA this summer
Jake Cannavale Interned as a PA this summer

Lenny Alcid practiced unwrapping the plastic on ten brand-new decks of cards before turning to his boss for approval, nervous to hear whether his attempt at a perfect crescent cut was up to the standard of magician David Blaine.

 “I know one of the production runners before me was assigned to open the cards. They weren’t doing it to expectation and he fired them,” said Alcid, a sophomore visual and media arts major. “He’s the type of person where he asks for two boxes and you don’t ask why.”

 Alcid spent one month of his summer working as a production assistant, or PA, for David Blaine Productions in Manhattan. The company is essentially a documentary crew that follows and films Blaine’s magic tricks, stunts, and performances.

 Like several other Emerson students who worked as PAs over the summer, Alcid was tasked with what is commonly referred to as “gruntwork” for the production team and talent: running errands, writing notes, carrying equipment, and other odd jobs.

 The job of a PA is relatively consistent despite varying types of programs and crew sizes. Alcid worked for a magician among a crew of 15 people, while sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major Jake Cannavale worked on the set of an HBO pilot with nearly 150 others. Claudio Zungri, a senior visual and media arts major, worked with a crew of roughly 40 people on promos and commercials for a company called Outerborough Pictures.

 While Alcid’s responsibilities were limited to mundane tasks like opening cards in a highly specific manner and running a stopwatch while Blaine held his breath underwater, he said that starting with an entry-level position is helpful for aspiring producers to gain experience in the industry.

 “Everyone starts there, at the bottom,” he said. “It makes you realize that it’s a lot about experience and who you know.”

 All three students acquired their positions through some sort of contact in the industry rather than an application-based selection process.

 “Networking is everything,” said Cannavale, whose father is working on the pilot and got him the job. “It’s the muscle of the industry.”

 Zungri said that personal connections are inevitably one of the most important aspects of working in production. He acquired his position through a close family friend who was the assistant producer of the promos for this year’s Video Music Awards.

 “Lots of people I was talking to on set hadn’t even gone to school but they happened to have those connections,” Zungri said. “In the film industry you can go through school and work your way up, or have a connection and climb the ladder that way.”

 Zungri said he gained the most perspective into the production business by talking to fellow crewmembers during breaks. 

 “You can hear theories in class about what a producer does, but you can’t really understand it until you’re right there watching it,” he said. “The real world isn’t as structured as school is.”

 The team’s schedule was based on the talent, Zungri said, meaning that they would sometimes have to be on-call as early as 4:30 a.m. or much later in the day, depending on when the talent was available.

 Unpredictability aside, Zungri said the classes he has taken in Emerson’s visual and media arts department thus far have prepared him well for his work experience. He said the sophistication of Emerson’s program and the ability to participate in group projects gave him a good preview of the environment of the MTV set he worked on over the summer.

 “Emerson has taught me that the industry is a collaborative effort,” he said. “No one single person can do a commercial.”

 Zungri and Alcid both described film production as a series of interlocking jobs and responsibilities. Alcid said that working on set taught him that even the smallest, seemingly unimportant aspects of a show matter in the long run.

 “It’s very mechanical and people often go undervalued,” said Cannavale. “It makes you realize that there’s so much more business than art.”

 Alcid said that base-level internships allow aspiring producers to observe the day-to-day tasks of several different positions. The experience exposes interns to the hierarchy of the film industry, aiding them in the process of creating professional goals.

 “This industry is all about crazy coincidences, connections, and luck,” said Alcid. “I’m just lucky I didn’t get asked to open the cards first.”