In the entertainment industry, you almost always start out as someone’s assistant. These are shitty jobs with crazy hours and little pay, but they’re a critical part of your career. I’ve seen lots of people try to move up the ladder without working a shitty assistant job. I have never seen it work.
If you don’t start at the bottom, you won’t move up the chain. You’ll never learn how the system works. You won’t learn the language, the culture, the buyers, the customs, the process, etc. These things will never come to you as an outsider.
What kind of assistant job can you get?
The Two Tracks
There are two entry-level tracks in Hollywood: Production and development.
Both jobs are soul-sucking. Both come with long hours. You’ll do shit you never thought an adult with a college degree would be doing. You’ll ask youself “What the fuck am I doing?” at least once a week, but maybe more. Both jobs pay like crap because there are literally a thousand people ready to take your job if you screw up.
When I worked at Soundelux, I was once tasked with pulling the cores out of thousands of reels of film. I spent three days pulling out those stupid plastic cores because it was cheaper to pay me a shit wage than buy new ones. My fingers were bloody and aching when I finished.I’ve seen lots of people try to move up the ladder without working a shitty assistant job. It never works. Click To Tweet
Honestly, I think they were testing me. I think they wanted to see whether I would do something mundane, menial, and painful for crap money, and if I could continue to be polite and do the job well. That’s how they determined I was someone they could move up.
In another case, I had to bring hemorrhoid pads to a producer at 2 AM. Why someone would want anyone to do something so intimate for them is beyond me, but I knew I’d be fired if I was slow or brought the wrong items.
This kind of shit demonstrates that you’re willing to stay in the job more than the guy who’s waiting to take your job. Take my word for it: There are thousands of people who want your job and you (like everyone else) are entirely replaceable.
What’s it like as a production assistant?
You’ll work on a production team doing all the shit work, but your real job is to meet as many people as possible in every department (construction, camera, grip, set decoration, etc.), make an impression, and learn what they do. Eventually you’ll need to decide where you want to work, then focus your networking in that area.
What’s it like as a development assistant?
You’ll do shit work here too, but you’ll work for an agent, manager, producer, studio executive, or network executive. Whoever you work for, make sure they actually produce things. They should have an overhead deal somewhere or have a proven track record of selling stuff.
If you intern, only do it for a few weeks (6 to 8). If they don’t have money to pay staff, then they don’t really do business in Hollywood. Like you would as a PA, use your interactions with other people to narrow down where you want to work.
Alright, so you have your first job in Hollywood. What do you do next?
1. Shut the Hell Up
You may have great opinions, but no one wants to hear them unless they ask for them. No executive wants some 20-something in the lowest job in the office dispensing criticism.
Positive opinions are usually fine, but don’t drop anything negative unless specifically asked. In fact, don’t say anything negative without first saying something positive. Keep your answers constructive.
Keep in mind that even if someone asks for your opinion, they probably don’t want it. They just want to find out if you have a brain that works like theirs. They want you to demonstrate that you think like they do. If you pass the test, they might pull you along with them.
Furthermore, don’t ask your boss or the people you work for to read your script, watch your short film or come to your play. That’s like asking them to paint your fucking house. Wait until you have known them for a few months then start bringing up your interests and passions politely. Let them make the first move. You WILL have the opportunity to share your work with your boss, but first you will have to build trust.
2. Identify the Buyers and Sellers
Buyers are people who purchase content for film and television. Sellers are people who create the content or sell it on behalf of the creators. Make friends with these people as often as you can. Or – more likely – meet their assistants and teams.
There are 1,000 sellers for every buyer in Hollywood. Making friends with buyers can literally supercharge your career, especially if they like to buy whatever you sell.
Sellers are useful too, of course. Sellers can sell whatever you create because they’ve already made friends with buyers. They’ll take a piece, of course, but they’ll package your work so it actually turns into something. Just make sure you have a written agreement so you get paid.
3. Learn the Language and Customs
One of the first things you’ll need to do in your first job is to learn the way people communicate, especially the senior people. The way you talk about content and material will signal to people that you understand what you’re doing.
How do you learn the language? By immersing yourself in the culture. Talk to a lot of people, not just the ones you work with every day. Explore the other teams and ask questions.
4. Get Social
More connections = better career. It’s that simple. This is a social business. You’re invisible without a network and social calendar. If you want to be successful, you need to be social.
Have coffee or drinks with people. If you’re lucky, someone will invite you to lunch one day. Invest your time making show-friends with the people you’ll come up with in the business, especially if someone seems like a rising star.
The social scene is so important, in fact, that most people in entertainment take it as seriously as their day job. I knew a woman at ICM who would coordinate a weekly party circuit. She’d leave the Thursday-Saturday party schedule on her voicemail so people could call in and learn about the social scene. This has changed with new technology, but that circuit still exists. We didn’t meet anyone of note, but we did meet the assistants of senior people who could help our careers.
There are some exceptions here, of course. Some people are so brilliant and their stuff is so sellable that they can avoid the social scene. This is a very small group of people. Most of us aren’t so skilled at an early stage of our careers.
5. Set a Clock
You can’t be someone’s assistant forever. Actually, you shouldn’t do it very long at all. There are an infinite number of ways to make shit money without having to work 12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week.
In fact, people will notice if you can’t get out of an entry level role within a year or two. Your boss will notice. He or she may replace you if they don’t see you making progress. From their perspective, either you don’t care about your career or they think you don’t have what it takes to move up.
If you’re a production assistant, you should be out in less than a year. If you’re in development, don’t stick around for more than 18 months. A network or studio path could take a couple years. No matter what you do, you should see some change within six months – new connections, more responsibility, etc.
If you can’t find a better job within those timelines, the entertainment industry is the wrong career for you.
Exceptions to the Rule
Writers and directors can sometimes bypass the crap jobs, but they need to pop on to the scene with something tangible and – most importantly – sellable. Doug Liman is a good example. He directed a spectacular short film at USC that demonstrated a level of skill well beyond his contemporaries. People wanted to talk to him immediately after the screening. He might have avoided pouring someone’s coffee, but I guarantee he did plenty of crap work along the way.
If you think you have something valuable, but no one seems to care about it after six months to a year of shopping it around (actively showing it to people), then it won’t catch on. Create something new or take a crappy production assistant or development assistant job.
Actors are exceptions, too. They just have to audition to get roles, but there’s no harm in working a shitty entertainment job to make show-friends (business friends).
If you don’t fall into one of those exceptions, follow the advice I laid out above. Make friends, work your ass off, and claw your way up. It’s challenging, but incredibly rewarding.