The next generation

The Mayor's Office is working to make New York's future PAs top of the line

For some, production assistant training programs might seem a bit unnecessary. After all, how much training does one need to get a bagel and cream cheese for the assistant director?

"That's the perception of what a PA is, but there's a lot more to it," says Tsahai Wilson, who works as the office production assistant on NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." "There's lingo you have to use, how to use a walkie-talkie, how to conduct yourself on a set, how to talk to a higher-up in a sticky situation -- so when you get on a set, you're not so green."
Wilson is just one of 61 PAs who have been trained by the "Made in NY" Production Assistant Training Program, which graduated its first class in March 2006. Thus far, 25 graduates have landed PA jobs at everything from commercials and music videos to TV pilots and feature films, and the program is actively seeking new applicants for the next round of training, which takes four weeks. Graduates also are promised job-search assistance for two years after they leave the program.

Although the PATP is partnered with New York's Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting, the city does not administrate it -- that's done by Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, a community development organization with skills-training programs. The city, for its part, provides credentials to the graduates, who receive a certification once they finish the program.

BWI program director Tracy Anderson was inspired by the Los Angeles-based Street Lights program, which also has PA training, and when New York's production boomed post-rebates, she saw an increased need for trained on-set assistants. "We started talking with the city about creating a certification that would give more industry recognition to the graduates," Anderson recalls.

Training is free (BWI is funded by private foundations; New York City does not provide funding), but admission is competitive. All applicants must have a driver's license and be at least 21 years of age and a city resident. "We also look for people who need the opportunity the most, who have no or almost no connections already to the industry and who often come from low-income backgrounds or are unemployed," Anderson continues.

Ninety-eight% of the program's students are people of color, she says, which helps productions diversify their worker pool.

"CI" production coordinator Leslie Gyson says she's gotten two of her best hires from the program. "The people in this program have made an active decision, saying, 'I want to do this,'" she explains. "They've had to motivate themselves."

In some cases, part of the motivation is to avoid having to pay for an expensive film school education. Juan Carlos Mendoza, who worked on Warner Bros. Pictures' planned December release "I Am Legend" and an A&E pilot called "Manhunters," among other projects, says he was applying to film school when he got called back for the PA program. He took the latter and dropped the former.

"I've come across PAs who are doing the same job I'm doing who have $80,000-$90,000 of loans to pay off," Mendoza says. "I don't know if it's a better way of learning, but it gave me the tools and the connections I needed to begin my career in film."