Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

PA stands for Production Assistant, or Potential Arbitration?

it has nothing to do with anything, but I like the image.
it has nothing to do with anything, but I like the image.

It has been a crazy week here. The film I am working on is moving forward at breakneck pace. We have five days until shooting, and only two actors cast. We are not pushing. Further, I taught my first class at UCLA yesterday and actually survived! I haven’t seen a film in a while, and I was fretting about writing this week’s Frocktalk installment. I stopped fretting when I opened my mailbox and out popped a delectable little hand grenade in an envelope. I will transcribe the contents verbatim for you:

Page One:

Dear 705 and 892 Brothers and Sisters,

With the anticipation of television and film production “picking up”, we would like to remind you all of the use of Production Assistants in the Costume Department.

Included in this letter is a memorandum signed by name withheld of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers and name withheld, then Business Representative of Local 705. Please read it carefully. Although it was written and signed in 1994 it is still a binding agreement today. The use of Production Assistants to do any of the covered work of Locals 705 or 892 is a grievable offense.

In Solidarity,

(and it’s signed by various Executives and Representatives from 705 & 892)

Page Two:

From: Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers

July 1, 1994


As a result of the 1993-1994 negotiations between the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and Motion Picture Costumers, Local #705, the parties have agreed to issue this bulletin with respect to the performance of bargaining unit work.

Neither Personal Assistants nor Production Assistants may be engaged to perform costuming work covered under the Local #705 Agreement.

Please circulate this bulletin to the appropriate persons in your Company.

(and then it is signed by the two above-mentioned names-withheld from AMPTP and 705)

Page Three:

A partial list of what Production Assistants CANNOT do:

· Shop for clothing

· Pull/rent costumes from Costume Rental Houses

· Pull/rent stock from Studio Rental Facilities

· Dye clothing

· Order promotional items for shows

· Painting/dyeing shoes

· Sewing/doing alterations

· Beading/embroidering costumes

· Working on set

· Setting up dressing rooms

· Wrapping dressing rooms

· Swatching fabric samples

· Putting together/organizing a continuity book

· Assisting in fittings

· Breaking down a script

· Doing any computer-related costume work (using breakdown and budgeting software, doing an inventory, creating forms)

· Making/tracking a budget

· Writing up/organizing “return sheets”

· Doing research

· Writing up/checking in dry cleaning

· Dressing atmosphere

· Organizing clothing/costumes in the department or trailer

· Sketching/illustrating

What Production Assistants CAN do:

· Get lunch/meals/coffee for the Costume Department

· Pick up clothing/costumes from facilities/stores after they have been chosen by a Local 705 or 892 member and written up by the facility/store

· Return clothing/costumes to facilities/stores after they have been organized and written up by a Local 705 or 892 member

I completely understand why our unions are sending this letter to us. The economy is so bad, and so many people are knee-deep in debt, we need to employ every possible union member we can. I get it.

And, for as long as I have been doing this (I joined the union in 1994), there have been stringent rules in place. We all know that a non-union member is not allowed to handle finished costumes. The guidelines are very clear. Most of us follow the rules.

The problem is, the production companies (including the studios) have been hit hard by the economy too (or at least they are feigning injury). They have slashed our budgets. And I mean, most of us designers are making half (or less) of our regular salary quotes. We have to fight for adequate manpower to get through a show. Nobody wants to spend a dime, and yet they want the same quality product to which they are accustomed. Times are tough. Having a PA is a luxury. I can totally understand that, given the climate, it must be very tempting to use a PA in a costuming capacity when production refuses to give you the money for an additional costumer.

Most of us costume designers refuse to compromise quality, even if the budget is small. We will pull every magic trick out of our sphincter to make the show look good. These days, we are not given enough money (or time) to do things as thoroughly and/or carefully as we would like. As a result, people are starting to get “creative” with their resources. We can’t get more money, but we still need to get the work done. I can clearly see where the PA issue becomes a problem for the unions. But in a way, the unions are kind of preaching to the choir. We costume designers and supervisors have been put into a position between a rock and a hard place.

It would be great if we could give a copy of this article to our UPMs and Line Producers. Maybe they would have a little bit better understanding of our need for extra man-days, extra cutter-fitter days, extra on-set tailor days, our need for overtime. When production refuses to pay for an on-set tailor on a day when (for example) you have a huge BG call, what do you do – hold up production while you and your 705-ers duct-tape hems? It is the ultimate catch-22: there is not enough money and not enough time to do things properly, so we need extra help, but we can’t get any, because there is not enough money.

So you see, this problem is a lot more complex than the union just telling us to NOT use PAs for costumers’ work. The problem starts with the slashing of our budgets, and the refusal (on the part of the studios/production) to honor our sincere need for more time and more help.

** Sidebar – I am working with an AWESOME Line Producer right now on the film I am designing, and she completely understands our situation. I am lucky to have an ally in production who “gets it”. But friends, I have worked with plenty of LPs who don’t get it and don’t care! This is indeed a problem!!**

The second issue is that it is nearly impossible for a newly minted college graduate (MFA, undergrad or otherwise) to get a job in the costume department in this town right now. With the recession and the damage done by the WGA strike and the SAG faux strike, no one is working. We are all hiring PAs who should be, by now, union costumers. But those PAs can’t earn qualifying union hours, because they can’t get hired at costume houses. The costume houses (because of the economy) have had to lay off their staff, and/or cut their hours. Everyone is just trying to survive.

As a result, those of us working on movies hire our favorite and most talented longtime PAs. It is a gruesome reality that some of these very talented people have not been able to make any headway into the union, even after many years in the business. New grads, (inexperienced, green, aspiring costumers) don’t stand a chance in this climate! It shouldn’t have to be this way.

Our PA on the show I am designing is the perfect example. She has an MFA in costume design from a great university. She started as my intern in 2006, and has been PA-ing for me (and others) ever since. Folks, that’s three years as a costume department PA. Her skills are amazing – I have seen her work as a quilter and stitcher on her own projects. She is great with the computer. If she got on the right non-union show that rolled, she would be in the union by now. But the economy has tanked, independent financing has gone down the drain, and the shows rolling union have dried up. No one wants to pay 35% fringes if they don’t have to.

So, what does she do? Work at a costume house in order to get her hours? Not a chance, not with the layoffs and cutbacks. No one can get hired. What can she do but PA, at this point? Keep in mind, most PAs make about $150/day. That’s $750/week, before taxes. No overtime, no benefits, nothing. This is not right.

I think this economic situation presents an interesting opportunity for the unions.

The unions’ primary concerns (as I see them) are a) to take care of their members’ healthcare, pension, pay scale/contracts, labor disputes and work conditions, and b) to make money. Couldn’t we solve this problem in one fell swoop by creating a new position in the union, an “apprenticeship” position?

We could create a position in the union for which you must qualify. Let’s say an applicant must have a minimum of 2500 hours’ experience – either working as a PA on a union film, or working in the costume department on a non-union film. Those hours would have to be documented via check stubs and call sheets. Once you have 2500 hours, you could apply to the union in the “apprentice” category.

There could be stiff definitions of acceptable duties for the apprenticeship position, but it would be great if we could extend an apprentice’s duties to things we really need help with, like setting up and cleaning up fitting rooms, writing up laundry, doing research, and dealing with product placement. This would be a tremendous help to the department.

Accordingly, an apprentice’s salary would not be nearly what a costumer’s salary would be. If a costumer on a show makes $30/hour, an apprentice would make something like $17/hour. At sixty hours a week (with twelve-hour minimum before overtime), five days per week, that works out to be $1,020/week, a very livable arrangement, PLUS they would rack up hours for benefits like pension and health insurance. AND they would receive overtime for their services. This is a win-win situation.

I put this forward to you, Frocktalk readers, to see if there are others of you feeling like I do. We need a transitional job category in 705. It is too difficult to get qualifying hours through costume house work or through non-union films rolling union. We have too many great PAs languishing on the sidelines. We need their new blood; we need their energy.

Ten years ago, I was co-chair of the membership committee for Local 892, the Costume Designers Guild. At the time, it was the union’s policy to administer a “test” to all applicants for CDG membership. The “test” was a design project, with sketches and swatching. The applicant had to present the sketches to the membership committee for review in order to gain membership in the CDG. Around this time of year in 1999, the then head of the IA deemed the “test” illegal, and our committee was unceremoniously disbanded. (** note – not without protest, mind you **)

The new guidelines for Guild membership as a costume designer (not on a film that has rolled union, and not as a supervisor on a show without a costume designer) require that:

“(Applicant must have been the) Costume Designer on at least one (1) feature motion picture, television production, commercial, or music video made for commercial release, with independent documentation from a deal memo, crew list, call sheet, or DVD with credits, and three (3) signed letters of recommendation from Costume Designers or working professionals that are knowledgeable about your skills.

Live entertainment (theatre, pageants, etc.) are covered by other union locals. Student projects are not acceptable credits.”

If you have a call sheet or crew list to prove you worked on the project, if you have your resume, passport photo, three letters of recommendation, and a check for $4400, you’re in.

The decision to eliminate the “test” was made by the IA brass because (this is how it was explained to me) they felt that the test was exclusionary and in some respect illegal (though I am still not clear on what aspect of the designing/sketching assignment made it illegal). In order to attract more members, the idea was to make entry into the union more attainable. This went all across the board – the makeup union abandoned their famous “test” (bald cap and beard application, etc), and the kinder, gentler, more inclusive IA was born.

Or was it?

The rules for gaining entry into 705 didn’t budge. It is still as difficult to get into 705 today as it was back in 1999 when the “tests” were abandoned. Only now, with this crappy economy, it is totally unfeasible to gain entry into 705 due to budget shortfalls and lack of work.

You’d think that if some of the unions’ objectives were to a) be perceived as “kinder, gentler, and more inclusive” and b) to make money, they’d want to open their doors a little wider, too, don’t you think?

Creating a new category in 705 for apprentices would help to increase union membership (and therefore dues and entrance fees), and help to galvanize the workforce within the department. With more members covered, there is more strength and leverage. We need a position like “apprentice” in the department.

I don’t think that cheap productions (who would prefer to hire PAs) will ever go away, but certainly movies budgeted at $10M or more could afford an “apprentice” hire, instead of a PA hire. Our costume department’s efficiency would be greatly increased (and we would sincerely benefit) by having a junior member able to lend a hand in work that requires a great deal of effort. Having an “apprentice” position would strengthen our team, and it would provide much-needed work experience and health benefits for skilled, smart, motivated PAs who have been working their asses off for too long in a position that is (at this point) beneath them.

Do you agree?


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