"ASK HR" is our advice column where we answer readers' questions about pressing work dilemmas, job search queries, resumes, and navigating Hollywood. If you have a career-related question, email us, and the answer could appear in a future newsletter! All submissions will remain anonymous.
Dear Hollywood Resumes,
I work at a small company where each person is basically their own department. My title is "director," but I don't have any direct reports, and I worry it may be misleading as I apply for jobs at larger corporations. My role is probably more aligned with "senior manager" at those firms, but I'm concerned that if I apply for those roles, hiring managers may think I'm taking a step backward. But I'm not sure I'm qualified for the director-level jobs! Should I amend my title on my resume to say "senior manager" or something more vague, like "consultant?" My actual title is publicized on company materials, so the discrepancy would come up if a potential employer searched for me. I feel so confused!
-- What's in a Name?
Dear What's in a Name,
Oh, the realities of working at a small company! You often find yourself collaborating with people outside your department in a bigger way than you would at a corporate level, you own more projects than would be assigned to you at a larger company, and yet, you don't have any of the org chart familiarity or team management experience your corporate counterparts can claim. We bet your boss just made up your title at some point or another -- small companies often don't have an HR infrastructure that funnels people up the ladder in a specific way.
The thing is, corporate hiring managers know that small companies operate differently and may not have the same title structures. Instead of changing your title, make sure they have context about your company and role in your resume. You definitely don't want to have one title on your resume and another all over Google -- that'll confuse the hiring manager and make it seem like you have something to hide. Instead, use the first bullet under your job heading to paint the picture of your office -- something like "boutique production company" or "start-up" will clue the hiring manager into what your role actually means. And sure, you may not have direct reports or management experience, but you do have a large role if you're handling the responsibilities of an entire department solo! Don't sell yourself short: Being at a small company means you know how to manage every touchpoint of a project, you're used to working with a cross-functional team, and you're directly involved in multiple areas of the business. That may be a value-add to the corporate team you're looking to join.
Every now and then, we recommend changing the title on a resume to something more generic that better describes the role (this usually happens when someone has a title that's very company-specific and could confuse a recruiter). But in your case, you should keep the director title! Regardless of whether a job posting is calling for a senior manager, a director, or some other title entirely, remember that hiring managers are more interested in what you accomplished in your last role than what was written on your business card.
-- Angela & Cindy
Ask anyone how to get a job in entertainment, and they'll tell you to start as an assistant, preferably at a talent agency.
But is that good advice?
Sometimes. But for many, a different route may be a better approach. Let us break it down for you...
If you're seeking your first entertainment job at the beginning of your career, getting a job as some type of assistant is the most straightforward path to success. In particular, working at an agency will help you form relationships with a "class" of peers who grow in their careers alongside you, hone your skills on a rigorously-paced desk, and expose you to the nuances of multiple aspects of the business -- that's why it's such a popular suggestion. But plenty of people launch their careers in Hollywood without doing a year on an agency desk. We're proof! Especially now, when agencies aren't hiring floater pools, there's no reason to focus your search exclusively on agency desks unless, of course, you want to be an agent.
That said, not all assistant jobs are the same, and they won't all lead you down the same path. If you want to work in development at a network, you'll likely need to prove yourself as an assistant for a year at a smaller company -- a network executive's assistant is expected to understand the business of Hollywood and have mastered the basic assistant tasks. If you ultimately want to be an editor, a post-PA job will be more beneficial to you than a year at an agency, and similarly, a writers' PA job will get you to a staff writing job faster than a production company desk will. As we always say, target your job search. Focus on those assistant positions that will get you closer to your long-term goal faster.
But what about those who have been working in entertainment for many years and are looking to make a career transition to a new side of the industry? Is an assistant position the right move? No! If you have several years of entertainment experience under your belt, you should not be seeking assistant jobs! Unfortunately, we work with many clients who have been told they need to start their careers all over again as an assistant in order to make a career transition. But that's simply bad advice. You don't need to throw 10 years of field producing experience out the window and start as an agency assistant in order to become a development executive. In fact, no one will take you seriously if you attempt that; they'll think your resume got lost in the wrong pile. It's not always easy to move from one side of the industry to another, but you can do it by highlighting the added value your unique background will bring to a role and taking the time to craft a strong job search strategy.
Similarly, if you've held jobs in adjacent industries and want to break into entertainment, you don't necessarily need to start anew. For example, someone who has been working in event planning can probably get a job as a production coordinator or production manager for event broadcasts, instead of starting as a PA. Or, an ad agency executive may be able to transition to a role in integrated marketing at a network. Before you discard your past experience, consider how it may translate to the new role you're looking for.
There are cases when your experience simply won't cut it for higher level entertainment roles, and in those instances, you'll need to think about what you value most in your career -- is a pay cut worth it to pursue your passion? If the assistant path doesn't align with your lifestyle, consider if there's a blended role that may be more satisfying (i.e. if you've worked in social media marketing and want to get into scripted development, a job at a branded content firm may scratch your creative itch without requiring you to relive your 20s). But if you're truly committed to a 100% career overhaul, go for it!
The next time someone tells you to start out as an assistant, consider whether they fully understand your current situation. A lot of people assume that everyone has to take the same path to success, and this often results in generic advice. But your career trajectory may look different, and that's ok! Just remember that starting as an assistant can be a great way to get your foot in the door -- but if your foot is already in the door, you should probably keep walking through.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
"Industry Spotlight" is our newsletter 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 Amy Thurlow, who has worked as a writers' assistant and script coordinator on SLEEPY HOLLOW (Fox), KRYPTON (Syfy), AMERICANAH (HBO Max), and is currently working on TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORY (CW).
HOLLYWOOD RESUMES: Tell us about the role of a writers' assistant.
AMY: A writers’ assistant is responsible for taking notes while the writers break story, and then organizing the notes, so everyone knows what the room discussed that day. They create a record of the work that’s being done and track what ideas the writers "land" on and help create a blueprint of what the room discussed for the writers to reference as they go to script.
When I’m a writers’ assistant, my day-to-day is nonstop note taking and keeping up with the story breaking conversation. The writers’ assistant job is an art form, because you have to really understand story to keep up and make sense of everything when you organize the notes. You also have to pay attention 100% of the time, which seems easy, but oftentimes the writers themselves aren’t this focused. At the end of the day, I organize the notes and send them out to the writers.
HR: Tell us about the role of a script coordinator.
AMY: The script coordinator is the keeper of the script. They make sure that everything is proofed and formatted correctly for production and that it gets to the right people at the right time. They keep track of all the files for the show and versions of the scripts and are a walking reference guide for the show.
As a script coordinator, every day is a little different, depending on the show’s needs. If I get a script, I’m uber focused on proofing/formatting and generally making sure everything makes sense for several hours, then I’m asking clarifying questions to the showrunner to ensure that we’re on the same page, and eventually distributing the script to the departments that need it. Script coordinating is a hard job to describe, because there are so many layers in between each step. For example, you might need to alert a department head of script changes or flag overall mythology inconsistencies. It really changes from show to show. Script coordinators are also responsible for important WGA paperwork and sometimes even writer contracts.
HR: What are the skills someone would need to succeed in your position?
AMY: A good attitude. No one wants to be around someone who thinks they’re better than getting coffee. Everyone has to start somewhere and chip in. TV writing is a lot of teamwork. It’s about supporting the process no matter what level you’re at.
HR: What do you like most about your job?
AMY: I love TV writing, and I love being around the process. Whether I’m in the room while we’re breaking story, or I’m prepping a draft, I love seeing what decisions are being made about story. If you live and breathe story and character and love being part of a creative team, you don’t mind the other parts of the job that are less fun.
HR: If you don't like _______________, you won't like my job.
AMY: Being flexible! Assistants and script coordinators need to be flexible. You might have to take your laptop with you to the movies or a friend’s birthday. Things are constantly changing, so you need to be able to roll with the punches.
HR: What's something you do in your job that an outsider wouldn't expect (and maybe you didn't before you took the job)?
AMY: How much goes into to TV writing. I don’t think I ever realized the extent to which stories are discussed before I saw it in action.
HR: What's the key to finding time to write when you're working as support staff in a room?
AMY: This is a huge challenge, since shows are so engrossing. I struggle with time management, and a thing that’s really helped me is scheduling everything, including my writing sessions. Recently, I joined an online productivity program called CaveDay that really helps me unplug and focus.
HR: How did you get your current job?
AMY: I got the job on CW's TWO SENTENCE HORROR STORY through a mentor and friend I worked with on KRYPTON.
HR: What was your first job in Hollywood?
AMY: I worked at a 2D to 3D conversion company as a Stereoscopic PA/Coordinator for two years while I was trying to get hired in TV.
HR: What's a mistake you made early on in your career?
AMY: When I was a writers’ PA, there were writers that wanted to help me, but I had just started writing TV. I was really nervous about sending them my pilot, so instead I wasted a bunch of time paying for evaluations to tell me if I was ready. But writing is subjective, and they didn’t really give me an answer. Most show relationships fade after the show ends. I wish I’d trusted myself and my work more.
HR: Tell us about the #PayUpHollywood movement and why it's particularly important for people in your role.
AMY: TV is a changing landscape. It used to be you got a job as a WA or SC and you spent maybe a season or two doing it before proving you were ready to staff. The staff writer role used to be more of an apprenticeship. Now, what we’re seeing is that staffs are smaller, so staff writers are expected to operate at a much, much higher level. There are a lot more shows than ever before (which is great!), but they also have fewer episode orders. The WGA mandates freelance episodes be given out on shows with 20 episodes (or the show pays a penalty). Those freelance episodes regularly went to support staff as a way to prove their ability to write for the show and eventually get promoted to staff. They also supplemented the poor wages. Freelance assignments are still given out by generous showrunners, but there are a lot fewer of them available with shorter episode orders.
Along with fewer freelance opportunities, the vast majority of shows don’t make it more than one or two seasons. Miniseries are bigger than ever. The progression generally used to be put in 1 season as WA or SC, write a freelance in season 2 and staff in season 3. That progression has become pretty rare. So even though there are more writer jobs than ever before, the ability to move up the ranks as a WA or SC is harder, and people are stuck in support staff roles for a lot longer. It may be feasible for someone to suck it up and defer their student loans for a year or two, but the financial burden compounds when people are in these roles for 5 years or more.
Since the 2008 crisis, there’s been a steady crack down on how much these roles pay, and just as cost of living sharply increased in LA, studios were pushing to pay less and less. With COVID, they're trying to tighten their belts even more, which ultimately results in actual wage theft. Studios often try to pay these jobs as part-time roles, even though they’re full-time jobs. A show recently tried to pay their script coordinator for only 3 days per month. Aside from this being in violation of our union contract, there’s no version of that job that can be done in so few hours. Likewise, we’re seeing the cutting of overtime from a 60/hr week to a 40 or 50/hr week. But we don’t operate 9-5 -- we have to be available 24/7, so cutting the overtime means that we’re available off the clock for the show. When you work on a show, you can’t work a second job, so ultimately, only people who can afford to be paid less than base cost of living can afford to work. This is exacerbated by the fact that this is all freelance. Even on the most successful shows, there are typically 6-10 weeks of hiatus per year where you’re not paid (including the two weeks at Christmas where you don’t get paid). Other freelance positions that have comparable duties like Assistant Editors and Script Supervisors make about 3-4 times as much as we do. They’ve been unionized a lot longer, but even so, the difference is staggering.
Studios often try to act like our jobs are a luxury to the writers, but the reality is that our jobs are crucial. Why would a studio pay a room of writers upwards of $100k per episode if there’s no one taking notes on what they’re saying? My twitter thread tried to highlight how much money and responsibility rests on the script coordinator’s shoulders considering how little they make. On top of it all, the pay rate is exclusionary, and unfortunately, BIPOC are excluded at a higher rate from these jobs. The #PayUpHollywood movement is about changing representation from the ground up.
HR: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break in/move up in the industry, what would it be?
AMY: Really evaluate why you want to be in this area of the industry. At the end of the day, you have to really love it, and if you don’t, you’ll be unhappy. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met that think "TV writing pays a lot and is fun/easy." It’s not really that simple. Yes, the schedule of minimums on the WGA site looks high, but it’s not like being a doctor, where you put time in at med school and then make a steady amount of money for the rest of your life. You may put in 5-10 years as an assistant, going into debt, then be staffed for only one season. The same things that make it difficult for assistants to move up in rank are also making it harder for writers to move up in rank. It’s a lot of instability to deal with even if you really love the work. I also see a lot of people who are introverts who want to be TV writers. If that’s you, then you might want to reconsider. The job is literally being in a room talking all day with people. If you’re a writer who likes to be out on script, then maybe features or novels are a better fit.
HR: Thanks, Amy!
Applying for a job in the best of times can be scary, and in these very-much-not-the-best-times, it can be downright terrifying! But what if we told you you might be your own worst enemy right now? And that once you stop getting in your own way, you'll have a much smoother go of it?
Here are three things that cause job seekers to inadvertently hold themselves back (and some tips for getting around them!):
1. OVERTHINKING YOUR RESUME STRATEGY
Do you find yourself harping on whether your resume should have color, use a fancy format, or implement a grand graphic design? Are you considering leaving dates off of your resume for fear of being rejected because of your age? Are you utterly convinced the hiring manager won't take you seriously because you've been freelancing for 15 years? If these and other concerns keep you up at night, you're not alone. There's tons of resume advice out there, and not all of it is good OR relevant when transitioning into, within, or out of the entertainment industry. Plus, it's human nature to try to control the little things (like your resume details) when you can't control the bigger things (like when the role that's perfect for you will open up).
But the truth is, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to crafting a resume. There are a few basic principles you should follow, but since every candidate is unique, every resume is unique. Your resume needs to be the best reflection of your capabilities to do the job you're applying for. That means you must tell your story clearly, concisely, and concretely; your resume needs a beginning, middle, and end and should give the hiring manager a clear picture of where you've worked, in what capacity, and what skills you developed there. Don't worry too much about the hiring manager's biases; if you're including relevant skills, contextualizing your experience, and using the language of the job posting to generally guide your resume content, you'll be ahead of the curve. Focus only on telling the clear story of why your work history makes you a fit for the role, and you'll be able to put the puzzle pieces of your format together.
And if you're still worried that you don't have the "right" experience for the job, remember that those little things that depart from the hiring manager's expectations are often what make you stand out from other candidates. If you can bring a unique perspective to the table, consider it a bonus!
2. OVER-WRITING YOUR RESUME
Are having trouble fitting your resume on one page (or two if you're applying for an executive-level role)? Do you get nervous that the one thing the hiring manager is really looking for will be the one accomplishment you leave out? Do you find yourself doing complex math problems just so you can show the incremental growth of a show's ratings from before your time working on it to now?
If so, stop. Your resume is not intended to be a lengthy history of everything you've ever done. It's an overview with the goal of selling yourself as the right candidate for the role. How do you sell yourself? By responding to the buyer's needs. In this instance, that means tailoring your resume to the job posting and listing only the skills you have that align with what they're looking for. You have a cheat sheet for this test: If a skill is listed in the job posting, it's relevant, and if it isn't listed, it's not. That doesn't mean you need to repeat every single skill listed, either. Often, a job posting includes soft skills like communication and time management that you can illustrate in the context of other bullets. Focus on the requirements and any skills that come up multiple times -- those are the main skills the hiring manager is looking for.
And when it comes to listing accomplishments, don't go overboard. The hiring manager doesn't want to scan meaningless numbers, but rather, she wants to get a picture of how successful you were in your last role. Did you have a high volume of work? Did you develop a new initiative for the company? Did you work with any notable brands or on major projects? You know what you're most proud of at work without pulling out a calculator, so write that.
3. OVER-APPLYING FOR ROLES
If you're applying for 50 jobs a day -- or even 10! -- you're doing it wrong. Especially in this job market, it's unlikely that there are more than one or two new postings for the role you really want that will show up in a day. And here's the thing: Hiring managers want to hire someone who wants the job, not someone who knows how to submit an application quickly.
Slow down, and narrow your search. "Something in marketing" is not narrow, while "content writer for digital marketing firm" is. You should also create a targeted list of companies you're interested in. As long as you can articulate a specific goal, you're on the right track. Then, focus your networking efforts on people at those companies and in those roles. Tell everyone you know what you're looking for (be specific!) and ask them for help. When you see a posting you want to apply to, find someone -- or multiple someones -- who can refer you. Reach out to the recruiter on LinkedIn and express your interest. Make it clear that you really want this particular job. Yes, each application will take more time, but your application to interview ratio will be more favorable.
Following these tips won't make the job application process super duper fun, but it will make it more fruitful and less stressful. And if you still need support, ask for it! Have friends hold you accountable. Get a second set of eyes on your resume, whether it's a professional look from us or from a trusted peer. You don't have to go at this alone.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan