Tips for surviving the zombie horde and joining Georgia's Film Industry
You know that scene in The Walking Dead when the good guys are hiding in some old building while the zombies are groaning and trying to break in? That’s what it’s like right now in Georgia’s motion picture industry...
...except that the “good guys” are the people who have been working in the business for years and the zombies are the hordes of Georgians who have been promised fame and fortune in the motion picture industry by breathless local television stations for the last 5 years. While this analogy isn’t particularly kind to those of you who want to break into the business, it’s accurate to say that those who are already established have felt great pressure from outsiders like you as well as film crews who have traveled to Georgia from Los Angeles, only to treat our local crews like outsiders. It’s a very competitive business – people tend to be protective of their jobs, and now you want in on the action?
Well I’m here to tell you that It’s entirely possible for you to move from being an outsider in this industry to being an insider, but it is likely to require a significant time investment before you’re able to work in this business full-time (think in terms of years) and along the way you’re going to have to learn to understand the topography of Georgia’s motion picture industry and the nature of the motion picture industry in general. You’ll also need to learn to read the “trail signs” of where the jobs are (and are not) to be found and to establish yourself in the greater community of film technicians.
There’s a sidebar accompanying this article featuring some resources to help you get started, but that information will do you little good on its own because the single most important lesson you need to learn about this business is that it is entirely relationship-based, and until you have some relationships in the industry you stand little chance of making this your career. So, let’s get started.
What Are Your Skills?
It’s easy to point to a movie crew at work and declare “That’s what I want to do!”, but the deal is that each person on a movie set possesses a specific set of talents that allow them to be good at their job. So it’s important for you to understand the range of jobs available to you in the movie industry and to consider the skills that you already bring to the table.
Are you good at CAD work? Set Design might be your thing. Do you like working with a team of people to assemble technical equipment? The Grip department might be for you. Have you been making your own clothes since you were a kid? You might make a good seamstress for a wardrobe department.
Over the past decade the fastest route into the movie business has been through the construction department because the majority of the workers who build our sets arrive already possessing most of the skills necessary to accomplish the job at hand, and when a production needs a set by a certain deadline it often solves the problem by throwing more people at it. It must be said that people who dedicate their lives to the construction of movie sets possess a level of artistic carpentry that far exceeds what you’ll find out in the residential and commercial market, so don’t expect to start out doing anything too glamorous if you get hired for construction.
Join the Community
There are a great variety of groups in the Metro Atlanta area dedicated to the art and business of filmmaking, from the Atlanta Film Festival to the Georgia Production Partnership to the craft unions to which most of the professional crew members belong. The Atlanta Chapter of Women in Film & Television (WIFTA) has been in operation since 1974 and has provided many opportunities for people who went on to have successful careers in the motion picture industry. These organizations are out there and there’s little stopping you from joining them and beginning to meet the people who work in the Atlanta motion picture market.
There are several terrific social groups out there as well, like former Atlanta Film Festival Artistic Director Charles Judson’s weekly “Film Bar Mondays” meet-ups, and the Atlanta Film Festival’s monthly event “Eat, Drink, & B-Indie”. You have a lot of options for meeting people who are interested in filmmaking.
Film Bar Mondays
A weekly meet-up with an ever-changing selection of venues whose stated purpose is for “connecting and creating community,” organized by former Atlanta Film Festival Artistic Director Charles Judson. (Free) facebook.com/groups/filmbarmondays
Eat, Drink, & B-Indie
Held on the third Tuesday of every month from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at Manuel’s Tavern. Includes networking, panel discussions, guest speakers, new equipment demos and more. (Free) atlantafilmfestival.com/edbi
Atlanta Film Festival
The Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF) is an Academy Award qualifying, international film festival founded in 1976. atlantafilmfestival.com
Georgia Production Partnership
A professional organization featuring meetings with key industry representatives and compelling speakers. georgiaproduction.org
Engage Online and In Real Life
In the 1990s people met in message boards online to discuss projects happening around the Metro Atlanta area. In 2015 most of those message boards have been supplanted by open and closed groups on Facebook and to a lesser extent on Google Plus.
A quick Google search will bring up listings for meet-up groups producing their own films, and many of these groups rely on volunteer support, which can be a great introduction to the nature of filmmaking for some people. The advantage of working on a low/no-budget indie crew is that it can expose you to many different areas of film production by allowing you to cross departmental lines freely, unlike the regimented departments found on professional productions. This “incubator” environment is often the best place for a young filmmaker to learn what they like to do and to network, since they’re actually working on a set, doing the sorts of things they may eventually do for a living. The friendships you make on indies can eventually lead to job opportunities on larger productions.
Break Into the Big Leagues
The first foot in the door for many people is to work as a production assistant (PA) for several years. The advantage of this job is that it allows you to have unprecedented access to all departments, a fair exchange for the low pay and long hours. PAs are generally well-regarded by crews and looked after to some degree, most typically when the PAs are young (there’s nothing so sad as an aging PA). Outside access to people who work in the big leagues of the movie business is fairly unusual because most of crew members do not tend to mingle with the community of aspiring filmmakers. For many of them it is simply a job. They’ve made it, and their time is so precious and their desire to avoid competition so great, that they really have no reason to interact with the next generation of filmmakers until they find themselves in need of additional crew. In these instances it is often former PAs that are hired to cover this demand, as at some point in every PA’s career they decide on a craft and begin to pursue it to the exclusion of all others.
Join a Union
Working as a PA is a great route if you’re eager for new experiences and don’t have many financial commitments, but it’s also a game for the young as it is a physically demanding job and promises extra long hours. However, if you’re no longer in your 20s but are willing to spend some money and devote some time toward learning you could consider joining a union like Atlanta IATSE Local 479 and attend their frequent and varied training classes to build up an understanding of how to work on a movie set in various craft roles. One particular advantage of this path is that you will be exposed to industry professionals who take time from their busy schedules to come and teach classes on their specific craft, and if you make an impression with them there’s a chance they might decide to give you a call on a day when they’re in need of help, in which case the good news is that you’ll already be in their union – and the truth is, like it or not, you will eventually find it in your best interests to join one of these unions.
Surviving the Crewpocalypse
I truly believe that some of you reading this article today will manage to navigate past the zombie hordes and, through a series of amazing adventures and very close calls, will one day find yourselves counted among Atlanta’s motion picture professionals. When that day comes I hope that you’ll do your part to pass along the torch and help inspire and encourage the next generation!