Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Workers: TV Production Manager

Around 10:20 a.m. on a Friday, Lester Berman received a cell-phone call informing him of what he calmly predicted would be a $10,000 problem.

An actress on the “Wildfire” TV series, for which he is production manager, was stuck in I-25 traffic. The car snarl had already pushed the shoot back 20 minutes. The minutes, no, seconds, were piling up. On a 200-worker production going through roughly $2.36 a second, seconds count.

Berman smiled and told the caller what to do.

He says 50 times a day, someone comes to him with a problem. A crew member slept late. A piece of equipment failed to arrive. Traffic snared the actress.

As production manager, it’s his job to fix them, often by taking calls on one of his two cell phones (one based in Los Angeles and one for the local production).

When a script needs to be turned into a schedule and a budget, producers go to him. He negotiates salaries with cast and crew. If the plan he comes up gets approved, he’s the one to make sure the production stays in budget and finishes on time.

“The key to my job is organization,” he says. “There are hundreds of elements that go into making one day.”

He loves the work for allowing him to help turn an idea on paper into something people can see. He’s been to places such as Hong Kong, the former Soviet Union and Europe. Kevin Costner’s arm has draped his shoulder. Donald Sutherland bought him an espresso machine.

It’s not all glamour. It’s a lot of 5 a.m. mornings and late nights. Berman warns that the hours and travel can be hard on family, can make it tough to maintain a relationship.

Still, after doing the job for more than 30 years on numerous films and TV shows, he has no regrets.

“I really enjoy producing,” he says.

He got his start while pursuing a graduate degree in film at New York University in the early 1970s. An Italian documentary film crew called a friend of Berman’s looking for help. The friend didn’t want the job, but Berman did. He started off making $3 an hour driving the crew’s van. He quickly moved up in the ranks, and traveled the world while learning the ropes of his job.

He recommends getting any work possible on a production as the first step to landing a job like his. Yes, a degree is helpful for the intellectual background, he says, but getting on a production is where you learn the dirty details behind movie magic.

“It doesn’t matter what position you start at,” he says. “If you spend two or three weeks on a film, you’ll find out all the elements that are necessary to make it work.”

Expect to make $100 to $150 a day starting out, Berman says. Stick with it, and you’ll move up to $200, to $300. Get a job as a production manager, and look for pay of $4,000 to $10,000 a week, if you’re part of the Directors Guild of America union, as Berman is.

You won’t be alone looking for a job like his. In Los Angeles, Berman says, there are 4,000 to 5,000 production managers. Fifty of them may chase one opening.

You’ll need to be organized, Berman says. You’ll need to be able to clearly identify problems and their solutions. People skills are important, too, he says, and he practices what he preaches.

During a visit to the set of “Wildfire,” he greets almost every early-morning worker by name, giving them a smile, a handshake, a pat on the arm. He holds doors open for people.

He’s dressed comfortably in a green plaid shirt, black pants and shoes better for walking than sitting behind a desk. He’s relaxed, but when a worker asks him about the expense of shipping some equipment, he instantly recites the costs as if they’re written on a list before him.

Observing a horse being unloaded for a shot outside a stable, he notes that someone with less experience would be drowning in the hundreds of details that were coordinated to make the scene happen.

There’s no bravado to his statement. He says it matter-of-factly, the same way he describes his encounters with the famous: “They’re just people.”

His ease arises from more than 30 years of experience. He worked on “Superman” when George Reeves played the hero. He worked on “Suspect Zero,” the first production in the state to use New Mexico’s new incentives. Other films on his résumé include “The Postman,” “Wild Orchid” and “The Beastmaster.”

The way he sees it, production managers play a big part in making it possible for creativity to happen. No matter how brilliant an artist’s vision may be, he notes, if the cameras, crew and cast don’t know where to go, what to do and when to do it, nothing will ever get made.

And when it comes to the expensive process of making movies, money management can make or break careers.

“If I’m a very creative person and if most of the film didn’t come in on budget, I wouldn’t be working,” he says. “It has be organized in a kind of way that everything has to be perfect.”

SIDEBAR: GET A JOB

Since 2002, hundreds of local film crew workers have been hired due to a slew of film incentives that draw numerous productions to the state.

The incentives include tax breaks and loans up to $15 million. The loans require productions to hire New Mexicans for crew positions.

Lester Berman, production manager on a TV series being shot in New Mexico, says the incentives have been extremely attractive to producers. He suggests anyone interested in working in the film industry get any job he or she can on a production. You can catch up on productions and opportunities coming to the state at www.nmfilm.com, the state Film Office’s Web site.

There’s also training for crew positions offered by Central New Mexico Community College. Visit www.cnm.edu for more information.

Expect to make $100 to $150 a day starting out, Berman says. Stick with it, and you’ll move up to $200, to $300. Get a job as a production manager, and look for pay of $4,000 to $10,000 a week, if you’re part of the Directors Guild of America union, as Berman is.

SIDEBAR: TRENDS

Since Lester Berman began working as a production manager in films and television more than 30 years ago, the veteran of the field has seen it get a lot more competitive.

“If there are 50 big feature films made in Hollywood, there might be 3,000 people trying to get those jobs,” he says.

Another change came with computers. Working out budgets and schedules moved from pen and paper to computer screens and keyboards. He says it simplified the work.

What hasn’t changed, he says, are the core duties and skills needed for the job.

Production managers still turn a script into a schedule of shoots with a budget. They negotiate salaries of cast and crew. They manage a production to make sure it finishes on time and within budget.

He says those tasks take strong organization abilities, a talent for creative problem-solving and people skills to spare.

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