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!
Getting an assistant job is tough -- but proving yourself as an assistant is even tougher. And you’ll definitely need to show your boss and network that you're a great assistant, because that’s the only way you’ll get promoted, recommended for future jobs, and move up the Hollywood career ladder. Being an assistant in Hollywood isn’t just about doing your year on an agency desk and then magically getting your script greenlit. If that were the case, everyone would succeed! Rather, the assistant phase of your Hollywood career is designed to separate those who really get it from those who aren’t fit for the industry. So how do you ensure you fall into the former camp? These three qualities are what it’ll take for you to stand out as an assistant.
In Hollywood, the term “entry-level job” generally refers to an assistant position. Hollywood assistants do mostly secretarial work – answering phones, managing calendars, and booking travel – with the added excitement of trying to magically predict every need their (often very demanding) bosses can dream up. It’s not a glamorous position, but it’s the first stepping stone to a career in Hollywood.
The entertainment industry has a strong “pay your dues” type of culture, where you’re expected to complete menial tasks for minimal pay in order to prove you’re tough enough to move up the ladder. But once you’ve put in your time, a promotion is no guarantee. Assistants are required to become experts in administrative duties, but in order to graduate to the elusive “coordinator” title, they have to showcase a different skill set. To make things worse, there are far more available assistant positions than there are openings for more senior roles. Aside from the lucky few who get promoted within their companies, assistants generally have to revamp their resumes entirely to convince a new employer they’ve got what it takes. These three tips will help take that resume to the next level.
1. Ditch the admin stuff
One of the biggest problems assistants face when trying to break out of administrative roles is that often, their primary responsibilities are simple, menial tasks -- the kind of tasks that every assistant can’t wait to let go of after a promotion. These responsibilities are likely to shift dramatically at the coordinator level and beyond, and therefore become less important on a resume. If the job title on your resume says “assistant,” we can safely assume you answered phones and scheduled meetings, but what else can you do? If you want more responsibilities, you need to show you can handle them, so forget about the years you’ve spent faxing and filing. It’s time to move on.
2. Prove yourself by showcasing relevant skills
So you’ve deleted every bullet point that makes you sound like a secretary — now what? Are you worried your resume is going to feel empty? This is where you’ve got to acknowledge what you’re really capable of. You may have spent most of your days filling out expense reports, but hopefully you made an effort to go beyond the call of duty, at least some of the time, and this is what you’ll pull from to fill in those blank spaces. [Some advice: As an assistant, look at what the higher-ups are doing and try to mimic them. Even if it’s on a smaller scale and few people listen to your opinions, you’ll be developing valuable skills that will come in handy later.] When trying to craft your resume, use the job posting as a guide. What exactly are they asking for? Someone with a deep understanding of story structure? Good thing you spent time reading all those scripts you printed and copied! You may even be able to translate some administrative duties into the more advanced skills employers are looking for. For example, if the listing asks for an excellent communicator who can collaborate with multiple departments to guide projects along, reword your “phone answering” bullet point to demonstrate your experience liaising with a variety of individuals and teams. In short, you can prove you’ve got the skills by making sure the resume matches the posting.
3. Own your responsibilities
Even though you know deep down that you have the skills to grow in the industry, you may have lost some of your confidence during the humbling assistant experience. While that’s understandable, don’t let your resume reflect it. In order to snag that more advanced position, you have to own the responsibilities you list. If every bullet point begins with the word “assisted,” you’ve got a problem. While it’s great to show that you can collaborate with a team (and ideally at least one of your bullet points will highlight this skill), you don’t want to make it sound like you need help with every task. Hiring managers want employees who can work independently and manage projects without hand-holding, and if it appears like you’ve never taken ownership of a project in your current position, they may feel you haven’t fully developed the qualities they’re looking for. To make yourself a more compelling candidate, list your responsibilities in a way that shows you’re capable of doing them alone. If you were a member of an event planning team, you can write “planned and executed events” on your resume. Just because other people were doing the job with you doesn’t mean that you didn’t contribute in a big way (but make sure you never take credit for something you didn’t work on at all). If you’re confident that you can lead a project, it’s okay to list it that way on your resume. You’re not lying by leaving out the others who were involved — remember, this job application is about YOU.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan