As our industry continues to ramp into an abundance of productions, post-COVID, the demand for experienced, hard-working, and dependable crew members is greater than ever and although they may be at the bottom of the hierarchy, a good production assistant can make all the difference.
Do you remember your first day as a Production Assistant? If you were like me, you probably were intimidated by the start paperwork, didn’t know what channel Transpo was on, and thought that arriving at your call time was considered “on time.” A lot of production assistants are thrown into a job and forced to learn through trial and error or, if they’re lucky, someone might slow down for 30 seconds to offer a sage sliver of advice – otherwise, they’re expected to “just figure it out.”
Maybe you went to film school and were taught some of the basic fundamentals, giving you a leg up on all the political hires… but even then, I’m sure “Why didn’t they teach me this in film school?” crossed your mind once or twice. ManifestWorks is a program dedicated to preparing, educating, and training professional production assistants who can step onto any set with the knowledge, skill sets, and confidence to excel on their first day of work and then use that momentum to book their next job. The coolest part about ManifestWorks however, is that they’re solely focused on creating opportunities for those who have been impacted by homelessness, foster care, and incarceration. Not only do they create an immersive curriculum intertwined with real-world experience, but they also provide developmental resources alongside a network of supportive professional mentors that help their fellows advance both within the film industry and in life. If that’s not the coolest thing ever… I don’t know what is.
The ManifestWorks curriculum follows the flow of production over a 12-week course where students dive into the pitch process at an agency, the inner workings of both production companies and gear/rental houses, as well as hands-on experience in simulated set exercises. The program is extremely well rounded, covering many of the nitty-gritty details of set survival such as on-set communication, walkie etiquette, how to properly fill out start paperwork, timesheets and expense forms, or how to make a functional call-sheet.
ManifestWorkers, aka students of the program, also receive access to an array of social resources including counseling, a speaker series, and classes focused on providing life advice. Events focused around networking and its vital importance in this industry, how to buy a house, and how to show strong work ethic not only position ManifestWorkers to succeed in the film industry, but also in life.
When ManifestWorks’ core founder and Executive Director, Dan Seaver, walked me through everything they teach their fellows I was blown away and truly wished I had gone through such a program. It would’ve saved me from making some cringe-worthy mistakes… so I had to ask him, “When did you get the marvelous idea of starting ManifestWorks?”
“When my agency shut down, it was a great moment for me to step back. My background had been as a journalist before ever entering the agency world, so I started teaching a journalism class at a juvenile detention facility,” says Dan.
“I had never been in one, I didn’t really know what goes on in jail and I was shocked by the conditions, I was shocked by who was there. I was shocked by how many kids had been locked up essentially by the foster care system which had been unable to deal with their needs… There were so many people incarcerated for what are called 'status offenses' but are actually really minor things like tardiness when being out after curfew- these are things you become eligible for incarceration for when you’re already on probation. It struck me as a complete waste of taxpayer dollars, but most importantly, I realized it was just a heartbreaking way for kids who didn’t have resources to be punished again and again because fundamentally, they were poor.”
Once starting his journalism class, Dan ended up volunteering and teaching at that detention facility for about a decade, accompanied by a bunch of friends who became the core group of people that got ManifestWorks off the ground. Throughout this time, Dan and his colleagues stayed in touch with the kids they’d been helping, and watched them grow from 13 and 14 to 23 and 24. Getting to observe and maintain relationships with these kids, Dan began to realize that what usually happens to graduates of juvenile detention centers, is unfortunately a progression to adult incarceration; a cycle prompted by lack of education and opportunity.
“I started to think about what could change that. All of the journaling and yoga and writing that fills up time at these facilities... It doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t have an opportunity,” explains Dan.
And that’s when he realized the film industry was basically a gold mine of opportunities waiting to be tapped into. You don’t need a college degree to succeed, but you do need to have thick skin and a lot of hustle. So that’s exactly where Dan started. “I asked a production company if they would hire a student I knew from the facility as a set PA,” he explained. “Not surprisingly,” Dan continued, “for somebody who grew up in foster care and homelessness- living on the street and going in and out of delinquency as a child- this kid had gained unique problem-solving skills that other kids his age typically wouldn’t have had in terms of agency and executive function... He worked harder than everybody else, which I knew he would. I just knew he would be hungrier in a way that no film school kid could ever be, and I realized that in some ways, he was really well-prepared for a career in this industry. And you know, despite his drive there were still a lot of skills that he didn't have in terms of networking and interacting in an office since he’d never encountered a space like that,” recalls Dan.
“And that’s really what ManifestWorks is about – answering that question of ‘What could that student have known that would’ve helped him progress even further?’ So I was really excited to create this program, bring him into one of the first classes, and provide him with the training and tools to put him on a path to great success.”
Since starting in 2013, ManifestWorks has connected over 200 alumni to living-wage careers and has seeded thousands of freelance jobs. Applicants of ManifestWorks report an average annual income of $12,517 and when looking at the average annual income of alumni post-graduation, that number bumps up to $62,075. Not only that, 92% of alumni end up maintaining full or part-time jobs after graduating, a huge jump from the entry number of 53%.
And although the framework of ManifestWorks has been laid so solidly down, Dan and the rest of the team are still psyched about new ways to meet the needs of ManifestWorkers. With each new program and each new graduate, comes another opportunity for Dan and his team to listen and learn about what these attendees need, so they know exactly where to help.
A great example of how Dan and his team have adapted and expanded, meeting the needs of their program attendees in real-time, was their swift and intuitive adaptation to COVID-19. That film season, ManifestWorks honed in on fortifying social support and counseling for any ManifestWorker who was struggling, as well as rapidly shifting classes and programming to an online space, and then meeting the needs of those without internet access by providing computers to each student lacking one. For the first time ever, ManifestWorks also provided cash grants to those in need or ineligible (typically due to homelessness and incarceration) for unemployment.
Looking ahead, Dan is excited to offer more social services and introduce their new, upcoming three-week Office PA intensive program centered around laying the groundwork for people who want to become coordinators or supervisors.
Dan is most moved by the number of alumni who have reinvested in the organization, once they’ve found their own success and established a steady career. “We don't talk about charitable giving in our program. We don't ask people to develop habits of philanthropy and you know, people usually come to us with almost no money and so for alumni to say, ‘This is something I want to contribute my hard-earned money to, to provide this opportunity to others,’ that’s just... that’s just so humbling.”
And while Dan and his team have a well-attuned pulse on the needs of ManifestWorkers and the structure of the program, it's never too late for creators, producers, coordinators, or production companies alike to get involved as well. One of the best ways for program attendees to grow and build a sustainable life for themselves is by bringing those fine-tuned skills out of the classroom and into the real world. So if you’re looking to hire experienced, hungry, humble, and passionate crew members, head over to ManifestWorks’ “Hire” link at the bottom of their website home page to send an email and get started.
– Chelsea Bo, Emily Kidd
You can read more about ManifestWorks, explore their programs, and even check out their past annual reports on their super informative website, here.
To read more about Paxeros and what we’ve been up to, explore the rest of our blog here.