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.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
So you’ve been on a desk for three years and are confident that you’re a rockstar assistant. Your boss never yells at you anymore, and you’re even getting regular praise from him. Is it time for a promotion? Maybe. But being a great assistant isn’t going to be enough to get you there. Good assistants are a dime a dozen -- after all, there are plenty of career assistants who have been doing this way longer than you have. If you really want that promotion to coordinator, you’re going to have to stand out in a bigger way.
The first thing to remember as you’re striving for a promotion is that you need to figure out how to get noticed for higher level skills -- phones and calendar management are no longer relevant once you've moved up. Look at the job responsibilities of the person one level above you and start taking some of them on (this could work out very nicely if that person is also trying to get promoted -- she may be willing to hand off some of her duties to make room for her own higher level assignments). Find things that are outside the realm of administrative duties and learn to do them well. Maybe you’ve never been asked for your thoughts on a script or project, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share your opinion. At the very least, you could read/watch the content and have your notes ready to go in case someone asks for them. But if you have a really strong point of view and have cultivated your taste by reading and watching a lot of content, you may be able to impress a higher-up by offering your feedback in a humble way, even if you haven't been asked. Just keep in mind that you shouldn't offer unsolicited feedback until you have established a very solid rapport with your supervisor.
Secondly, you should find ways to take initiative. If you see a problem with the way things are run on your team, fix it. This could range from implementing some type of new organizational process that improves efficiency to generating a competitive report that will allow your department to develop content that will stand out in the marketplace. You could even find new projects or talent to bring in -- no one is going to stop you from getting coffee with potential writers or directors that could help make your team’s product stronger. If you can come up with a list of concrete accomplishments that are the result of you taking the initiative to get something done on your own without being asked, it will be hard for your boss to argue against a promotion.
As you develop yourself professionally, remember: You CANNOT let your current responsibilities slip. Your work as an assistant is essential to the daily functioning of your department, so administrative errors will be more noticeable than any achievements you may be making outside of your pre-defined role. Wait until your assistant duties have become second nature before trying to take on extra work. Your boss will recognize that you’ve put in your time and that you’re capable of handling a heavier workload, and only then will you get your promotion. And if there's no room for growth at your company, you can always position yourself to level up at a different company with your newly cultivated skills.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
One of the most challenging aspects of assistant life is that your boss will never know how much work you actually do. Since you're there to make his life easier, you should make it your goal never to let him in on what happens behind the scenes — if you can keep something off his plate, do it. Your boss may never know that scheduling his lunch with an important contact took hours and hours of back and forth emails and calendar juggling, and that's a good thing, even though it's frustrating to do good work for little or no recognition. So how do you impress your boss if he's completely unaware of all the hard work you're doing to keep his life running smoothly? By becoming the go-to person for information. There's no better way to showcase your long-term viability as an employee than to be the person your boss can rely on to tell him anything he wants to know at the drop of a hat.
If you can stay on top of the calendar, phone sheet, and contacts, you’ll probably be able to relay a lot of information off the top of your head, which is great. But if there's too much to remember, have a system for finding the answers to simple questions very quickly (for example, you could bring your phone or laptop into a meeting so you have easy access to the calendar). But that's only half the battle. You've also got to have a solid strategy for finding information that isn't as readily available.
Sometimes you'll be asked for information that requires a little digging. This is when you’ve got to be resourceful. When asked a question you don’t know the answer to, respond with “let me check,” or “I will find out," and then check, find out, and report back promptly. Make it seem effortless. Never admit that you don't know the answer, or worse, that you don't know how to find the answer. Do whatever you can to figure out the information on your own, without asking others. If you simply don’t have knowledge of a company process and there's no written material you can comb through to learn it, ask another friendly assistant for help. Try to avoid asking others on your team, especially if it's outside of their purview. If you’re constantly pushing work onto your superiors, it will get back to your boss, and you won’t be able to maintain your image as a person who can magically produce information out of thin air (aka a rockstar assistant).
Strive to be the person that can come up with the correct information the most efficiently — it will set you apart from others and show your boss that you're indispensable. If your boss thinks you know everything, he’ll begin to trust you with higher level tasks relatively quickly, which is how you’ll eventually earn that promotion.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
You’ve landed a new role at a company you're excited about -- congrats! The stress of the job search is over, but don’t sit back and relax just yet. If you can make a good impression early on, you'll set yourself up for praise and promotions down the line and all the privileges that come with being known as reliable. Here are a few key tips for making a great first impression:
1. Show up on time. Usually, a supervisor or current employee will set a specific start time for your first day. Obviously, you shouldn’t be late, but it’s not a good idea to come in early either. Training and accommodating a new employee takes a big chunk out of a supervisor’s day, so you want to give her the time to respond to emails or whatever she does in the morning before you interrupt her workflow. After day one, show up on time -- and if you’re an assistant, try to get there 15 minutes early for a few months. It will demonstrate dedication and earn you a promotion much more quickly.
2. Dress up. Treat your first day like you’re going in for a job interview. You clearly made a good impression with the outfit you wore to your interview, so if you dress similarly, you’ll maintain that image in your supervisor’s mind. After the first couple of days, you can dress more casually (if it’s in line with the company dress code).
3. Take notes. Always carry around a notebook with you and write everything down. Supervisors do not like to repeat themselves, and you’ll be able to avoid this problem entirely if you’ve taken good notes. Plus, you’ll come across as prepared, organized, and driven -- if your new boss notices you scribbling down every word she says, she’ll think that you really care about your new position and want to do great work.
4. Meet other employees. Introduce yourself to as many people as possible on your first day -- it will help you make friends in the office and will ensure that people know who to approach when looking for information from your department. Your boss or another team member will likely introduce you to some other key employees, but go beyond that and talk to everyone you come across in the elevator, kitchen, or other informal settings. Sometimes your biggest allies are the people you meet on your first day.
These guidelines are all about setting up an image of a person that’s organized, responsible, polished, motivated, and friendly. If you follow the rules, you’re sure to have a great first day. And if you want to further solidify that impression, bring in donuts or cookies for your fellow employees at the end of your first week.
--Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan