Move to Hollywood. Become an assistant. That’s the advice every Hollywood hopeful gets before they join the industry. We often hear people say things like, “I just want any assistant position. Anything to get my foot in the door.” And that’s a fine approach, especially if you aren’t sure what you want to do in the industry. There are many jobs that you probably didn’t learn about in college, and if you’re truly open to figuring out where you fit in, applying to any assistant job that sounds reasonable and interesting is a good way to go.
But if you do know what you want to do, you should be aware of the differences between the various types of assistant jobs. Some will help you build your network and lead to your dream job, and some may stall you on your path. So here’s a quick overview of some of the most popular assistant positions:
AGENCY/MANAGEMENT COMPANY ASSISTANT
This is the #1 entry-level job you’ll hear about. Though you certainly don’t need to start as an agency assistant to succeed in Hollywood, more doors will open up if you do. That’s because as an agent’s (or manager’s) assistant, you’ll get an inside look at all the different sides of the business. You’ll talk to creative clients, to buyers at networks and studios, to producers, and of course, to other reps. You’ll have your pulse on everything that’s happening in Hollywood, and you’ll meet a ton of other assistants who will become your network as you progress in your career. The job requires a lot of hustle, great phone etiquette, killer organizational skills, and often, thick skin. But if you can make a great impression on an agent’s desk, you’ll be in a great position to hear about open desks at other companies. And of course, if you want to work as a rep, you’ve got to start here.
NETWORK/STUDIO ASSISTANT (DEVELOPMENT OR CURRENT)
If you want to be an executive, you’ll need to start as an assistant at a network or studio. But “start” is a little bit of a misnomer here. It’s pretty rare to land this kind of desk as your first job. Executives at networks and studios don't have time to provide on-the-job training and typically want an assistant who has already mastered phones and scheduling. Plus, they need an assistant who already knows the major industry players. Networks and studio executives have the most power in Hollywood -- and their assistants need to be true gatekeepers. Unless you have gotten very lucky, you’ll need at least a year of assistant experience to secure one of these coveted desks.
TV/FILM PRODUCTION COMPANY ASSISTANT
If you don’t have the temperament for an agency, or you’re interested in becoming a producer down the line, you may want to explore assistant jobs at production companies. But not all production companies are created equal. A job at a reality company isn’t going to help you break into scripted development very easily, and an outfit that focuses on indie features isn’t going to give you much exposure into the TV comedy world. You should thoroughly research the production company you’re applying to so you can learn about their projects and culture. Is it a small shop with one or two executives? Or is it a major company with multiple departments? Do you like the content they produce? Is there room for growth? It's okay to take a job without growth opportunities, but some companies are specifically looking for candidates they can promote down the line -- that's great if you want to be a producer, but not as good if you're looking for a stepping stone.
A PA is a totally different job than an office assistant (though a few types straddle the line). A traditional PA will be on set helping out with a variety of tasks -- running errands, wrangling talent, and setting up craft services (aka food). You’ll interact with the crew and experience the fast pace of set life. These jobs often last for only a short period of time, so you can build a large network quickly if you're smart about using your connections to move on to other projects. This is a great starting place if you want to work as a director, line producer, crew member, writer, or production executive. And there are a ton of other PA jobs, too -- Writers’ PAs support the writers' room, Post PAs support the post production team (and get great exposure to writers, too), and each crew department on a production has a PA. Meanwhile, an Office PA is typically someone who works in the office of a TV show, answering the phones and coordinating some of the basic office flow. You won’t be rolling calls like at an agency desk, nor will you be on set. But you will get access to the creatives behind the show, so you may consider starting as an office PA if your goal is to end up on set or in the writers’ room.
COMMERCIAL PRODUCTION COMPANY ASSISTANT
If you’re looking to boost your time on set and love creating content across formats, and especially if you want to work with brands down the line, you may enjoy working at a commercial production company. But make no mistake: A year as an assistant at a commercial production company isn’t going to be as impressive to hiring managers as a year at an agency or film/TV production company. It’s unrealistic (not impossible, but not easy) to start here and transition to a job at a network or studio. But if you want to learn the ropes of production or are open to growing within the commercial world, this is a good place to start. In fact, a lot of people who start in commercial production like it a lot because the pace is slower, the money is good, and there are still plenty of opportunities for creative expression.
This job, like the network/studio current or development assistant, is rarely a truly entry-level position. As a writers’ assistant, you’ll be supporting the entire writers’ room, taking notes during meetings and keeping the writers organized. You’ll need to have a good understanding of a show’s workflow and how the room functions, so this job -- while a great gateway to a writing job -- usually comes after some time as a PA, Writers’ PA, and occasionally, as an assistant on a great desk.
Personal assistant jobs are tricky. They typically won’t lead to a job on a desk at a production company, studio, or agency, but there are some benefits to this often thankless job. If you work for an actor, writer, or director who has their own production company and prove yourself invaluable as a personal assistant, you may be able to transition into a role on one of their projects -- as long as you make it clear in your work product that your #1 priority is the job they hired you to do. You may also build a strong relationship that can open doors for you. If you’re not sure what you want to do in the business and you just need connections, this could be a worthwhile first step that pays a lot better than other assistant positions. But proceed with caution -- if your ultimate goal is to be a network executive, a year as a personal assistant will only delay you. You’ll still need to go from personal assistant to assistant on a desk to assistant at a network (for a few years) and then start climbing the ranks from there.
As you begin your assistant search, keep in mind that there are exceptions to every rule. If you've started at a commercial production company but want to become an agent, all hope is not lost. But if you're strategic about targeting the assistant positions that will get you to your ultimate goal as quickly as possible, you're going to have a much easier time building a successful career.
t's time for another "Industry Spotlight," our monthly series where we interview professionals from across the entertainment industry about their current jobs and career trajectories. Our hope is that you will learn more about the positions you're already interested in, discover new roles you may not have considered, and utilize the wisdom of those who've paved the way before you to forge your own path for success.
This month, we sat down with Melissa Morkus, Manager, Production at Marvel Entertainment.
In one sentence, how would you define your job?
I'm responsible for all logistics start to finish of turning words on a page into something you see on TV.
What do you like most about your job?
Being a part of a great team that creates epic super-hero shows!
How did you get your current job?
I replaced a friend of mine who was moving on from the company. I interviewed and was very excited to get a job offer the next day.
What was your first job in Hollywood?
A PA on Minute to Win It (the NBC game show).
What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
Organization, clear communication, and follow-up are all key skills you need in production.
What’s something you do in your job that an outsider wouldn’t expect (and maybe you didn’t expect before you took the job!)?
Attending VFX review sessions-- basically a chance for the producers to sit down with post production team and go over each scene in an episode that requires VFX work / fixes. Our shows are so VFX heavy which impacts production, so it's very useful to be in these sessions and learn as much as I can about post.
What’s a mistake you made early on in your career?
There was a situation that came up early on in my career which could have easily been resolved by a confirmation email. Sometimes phone conversations can be forgotten or words can be twisted, so always get it in writing when you can. Always cover yourself!
If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
Be open to opportunities that are presented to you, even if it wasn't something you planned on. You learn something from every job. Get the most out of your experiences and meet as many people as possible.
Many people find the idea of writing a cover letter daunting – some will even avoid job applications where a cover letter is requested. If you’re one of these people, you may need a quick refresher about the purpose of a cover letter. Cover letters are actually pretty easy to write once you know what's supposed to go in them!
A cover letter is not a college admissions essay, nor is it intended to be a writing sample. It’s also not supposed to be a version of your resume in paragraph form. To put it simply, a cover letter serves as a preface to the rest of your job application. Think about it as the introduction to the story you’re trying to tell in your resume – how are you going to frame the rest of the information you’re putting forth in your application?
To write a good cover letter, all you really have to do is concisely explain why it makes sense for you to work at a particular company. What skills do you have that align with the most essential skills a hiring manager is looking for? Why are you interested in the company or role on a personal level? Are there any unique circumstances that make you a stand out candidate that can’t be demonstrated in a resume? And that's really it. If you can answer these questions in half a page or less, you’ll be in good shape!
The Hollywood grind can be stressful, and sometimes we all need a laugh! This guest blog post from Helen Burak, Tyler Eaton, and Nick Watson of entertainment industry satire site The Salmon Pages will give you some much needed advice . . . that you probably shouldn't take.
How to succeed as a Hollywood assistant:
1. Go the extra mile
Don’t be afraid to outshine everyone else in your office. Polish your shoes. Pick up your boss’s mistress’s dry-cleaning. Wear an adult diaper to avoid running to the bathroom during a call! Be bold and be strange. You think Brian Grazer was a normal assistant?
2. Work as much unpaid overtime as required (or more!)
If you live under your desk and bathe in the kitchenette, you never have to leave! Instead of sleeping, catch up on e-mails and color-code spreadsheets. Instead of eating, don’t. Lunch breaks are for filing!
3. Ask for a demotion
Your boss will be so flabbergasted by this bizarre request, he’ll probably promote you! Then turn that down. Now his mind will be even more blown, and he will almost certainly offer you his own job.
4. Make yourself available 24/7
Work/life balance is for temps. Make sure your boss can contact you while you’re in the shower, on the toilet, at a funeral, and during sex! Reply to emails in the middle of your wedding vows — they’re all “URGENT!”, so your betrothed will understand.
5. Quit all your hobbies
Stop wasting time on softball, reading for pleasure, or exercise! Who needs a moving novel when your job makes you cry in the bathroom every day? Who needs a gym membership when you can break your back unloading cases of La Croix?
6. Compare yourself to others constantly
How else does an assistant measure their success except by cackling at those who work at less prestigious offices? Simply check Facebook 800 times a day to keep tabs on where you stand! Make sure to congratulate those who find work at fancier companies in case their coat tails ever grow long enough for you to ride. Fail upwards, baby!
7. Shut out your non-industry friends
If you’re ever not working, you should be talking about work. Seeing people with “other careers” who “get out of work at 5pm” and “have a social life” will only distract you. Embrace your new normal and surround yourself with other, equally overworked assistants! Via email.
8. Forget your creative ambitions
Whatever you wanted to be before you took the job no longer exists. You no longer exist. There is only rolling calls.
9. Never take any time off
It will trick you with feelings like “happiness” that you cannot keep.
10. Read The Salmon Pages.
For more great advice you should definitely take!
The Salmon Pages is a satire site about all things entertainment industry — it’s Hollywood News, Punched Up! Get all the latest Hollywood gossip and breaking news from medium.com/the-salmon-pages, brought to you by editors Helen Burak (@helenburak), Tyler Eaton (@TylerEaton1), and Nick Watson (@_njwatson).
More you might like from The Salmon Pages:
How To Become A Rockstar Assistant In 6 Easy Steps
Thanks for Your Notes but You Clearly Didn’t Get My Screenplay
Archaeologists Unearth Friend’s Script You Promised to Read