To some, getting started in the film industry as a set production assistant can be a bit discouraging. Getting work in the industry can be inconsistent, so keeping the bills paid on a PA’s salary can be quite difficult. Many are only able to plow through and climb the industry because of the promise that when they become an assistant director, their salary will make all of the hardships worth it. So today we’re going to give the most up-to-date, definitive answer to the question: how much do assistant directors make?
The answer to this question is quite complicated, as there are countless different varieties of productions you may find work on. We tried our best to compartmentalize this article, so please feel free to skip on down to the section most relevant to you.
Note: This article reflects payment standards for Assistant Directors working on projects in the United States. Jobs in the UK may pay much differently, and we suggest you find a different source. (Anecdotally, we’ve heard they are severely underpaid in comparison)
How Much Do Assistant Directors Make?
First, its important you understand the different types of shows, and different types of assistant directors. Without that knowledge, you’ll just have a mess of a bunch of numbers scattered all across the board that don’t really mean anything.
If you’ve never worked a day on a film set, or are just beginning to get your bearings, there are basically two different types of assistant directors. First you’ve got your 1st ADs, who are directly in charge of running the set and making sure everything happens in a timely fashion. This is the most senior position in the production department, and as a result is also the highest paid.
In addition to the first AD, you’ve got your 2nd AD’s, and your 2nd 2nd AD’s. The responsibilities of these roles can vary greatly from set to set, but generally they are extensions of the first AD. They coordinate tasks with the production assistants and Key Set PA, run the production trailer, create call sheets & production reports, and everything else that needs to be done in order for the first AD to do their job.
How Much Does An Non-Union Assistant Director Make?
While it is feasible to calculate how much you’ll be making on union productions, if you’re working as an AD on non-union indie projects, it can be quite hard to predict how much you’ll be making. Unfortunately, working on these smaller sets is usually unavoidable on your path to becoming a union AD, as there are pretty much no set-in-stone requirements to hire you aside from a positive reputation.
Working as an assistant director can be incredibly grueling, and the process of making a name for yourself through indie films can be quite a rough period. Unless you have good connections and can be blessed with the right gigs, you can expect to be paid very poorly relative to the amount of work you put in.
Some low budget sets may have everyone working for the same rate, (likely 100 or 150), and even smaller ones will be looking for people willing to AD for free. While we recommend you value your time more than that, these non-union gigs can still be a great way for you to network and get experience as an AD in a lower pressure environment. Nobody is allowed to get mad at you when you’re working for free.
Conversely, as we mentioned before, if your reputation is strong you might be able to land jobs on large-budget features that pay out near union rates. In our experience, these are few and far between.
There is no real estimate we can give you to tell you how much you’ll make as a non-union assistant director. When the stars align you may make almost as much as a Union AD, but if you’re connections are poor you can get stuck doing gigs for a P.A. salary, or even for free.
How Do I Become A DGA Assistant Director?
Assistant Directors working on Union Shows are represented by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), an organization that strictly monitors and regulates pay, but is quite difficult to get into. A lot of misinformation is circulated in the industry about how to join, so here’s a quick summation of the requirements.
- Work 600 days on set as a production assistant. A very small percentage of these days may be as an Office Production Assistant
- Have 450 days of AD days on non-union shows. (You can’t be hired as an AD on union shows)
- AD on a non-union show that decides to become union halfway through the show, then pay your dues when the show “flips”. (RARE)
Keep in mind, those are only the requirements to begin working as a 2nd 2nd AD, at which point you will need to go through a similar process to be qualified as a Second AD and First AD. By the time you get there, you’ll likely be well aware of the requirements from the 600 days of water cooler discussions, so we won’t waste time with the specifics.
Remember, the requirements you fill will be the bare minimum to qualify for the work. Once you are in the union, you still need to get the jobs, which involves a bit of luck. Most productions will be looking to hire the more senior AD’s in your local industry, so you’ll be stuck with the scraps that they turn down until you’re more established.
In a vast market like Atlanta or Los Angeles there are countless projects in production, which means the right hustle can yield great opportunity. I got my start working in the much smaller film industry of Hawaii, a place that rarely has more than 3 concurrent productions, and a laundry list of working AD’s that are competing for them.
How Much Does An Assistant Director Make On Union Film And TV Jobs?
Finally, let’s talk about how much you can expect to make once you’ve finally begun your Union AD career. The job is very difficult, but in the United States, the general consensus is that assistant directors are compensated quite well for the work that they do. For 2018-2019, here is the current card with the general rates.
As you may have noticed from the above chart, there are several factors you’ll need to take into consideration when estimating how much you’ll be making. Here’s a list, along with some links to more specific rate cards that are applicable.
- Are you a first, second, 2nd second, or additional second AD?
- Is the production shooting at a studio, or on location?
- Can the project be considered “low budget”? (See articles 1 and 2 of the above image)
- Is the show multi-camera?
- Is the show a pilot (single) or (Multi)?
- Are you getting paid a per diem?
In addition, there are several additional factors to take into consideration such as overtime, mileage, travel, discharges, and many others. This sheet provides the specific details of how these details will affect your pay. If you read through it, you’ll probably notice that overtime pay is insane, and you’ll understand why productions try to avoid it at all costs.
Once you’ve considered all of this, ultimately the biggest factor determining how much you make per year will simply be how hard you are willing to work.
Some AD’s choose to do one or two movies per year and spend the rest of the time vacationing. Others may work 9 months straight on an hour-long drama, while some may even hop from show to show, working for years at a time without taking any breaks. It would be quite stressful and exhausting, but if you managed to work non-stop for a full year, getting overtime when possible, it would be more than possible to earn over $300,000 per year.
Keep working hard and putting an emphasis on networking and you’ll be making an assistant director’s salary in no time. One final piece of advice we have for anyone is to think about your life in terms of more than just money. If you don’t genuinely enjoy working in film, no amount of money will be able to change that. Experiment around the different departments to see if something really clicks with you, but if you’re spending your entire career miserable “until you become an AD”, it is likely you’ll be equally miserable when you get there.
If you found this article informative and are looking for more information in a similar vein, here are some other ones you may find helpful.
- 4 Ways To Be The Best Production Assistant On Set – This infographic we made was published on huge sites like IndieFilmHustle and NoFilmSchool, has 4 super useful tips that will help you become an assistant director as fast as possible!
- How Much Do Production Assistants Make? – If you haven’t actually started your film industry journey just yet, this guide will let you know how much you can make before you become an AD.