Figuring out your salary is the most awkward part of the job application process, and arguably, it's the most important. After all, the main purpose of a job is to earn money -- even if it also comes with the bonus of fulfilling your creative dreams. When it comes to salary negotiations, you don’t want to lose out on a job because you aimed too high with ridiculous demands, but a low salary sets you up for lower earnings for years down the line. Remember, most raises are calculated on a percentage basis, and 10% of nothing is, well, nothing.
In entertainment, there’s very little you can do about your salary in your first entry-level position -- assistants are typically offered a certain rate, especially at agencies, and that’s that (though collective bargaining and social campaigns like #PayUpHollywood are slowly raising the bar on these rates). But just because you don’t have much power to negotiate when you start your career doesn’t mean you should hold on to that bad habit forever, nor does it mean you should settle for a job that's massively underpaying you.
Unless a company has uniform starting salaries (for assistants, these will often be public information, as many companies promoted their wage increases in the trades in response to social activism), you should negotiate. And certainly, as you move up in your career, you're likely to come across a version of the question, “What are your salary requirements?” in a job interview. But how exactly do you negotiate your salary, particularly in an industry that knows it's competitive?
First of all, do your research before you apply! Glassdoor is a great resource for figuring out average salaries for your title in your area, and Colorado has a new law where employers must publish salaries in job postings, so you can always search for similar jobs in Colorado and do some cost of living calculations to adjust for your area. Figure out what number will be comfortable for you and what's reasonable for the job. This way, if an employer throws out a number that's egregiously below market rate, you'll know to run in the other direction, since underpaying employees isn't usually a sign of a healthy workplace. And if you find that the jobs you're applying for typically pay below your cost of living, you might consider pivoting your job search or adjusting your expectations.
Once you're in the salary conversation, do your best to avoid throwing out a number first. Try to force the interviewer or hiring manager to show their cards, so you know what you have to work with. If HR asks about your salary requirements, pivot with, “Well, I’m actually curious, what is the salary range you anticipated for this position?” If you get an answer that’s way higher than you expected/wanted, that’s great! It gives you room to bring up other types of negotiations -- maybe for flex time or more benefits.
If the hiring manager doesn’t let you get away with the pivot technique, DO NOT give up and tell them your current salary. In California, it’s actually illegal for them to ask, which gives you a big advantage. Start off with a question about benefits – what’s the vacation policy, 401K, insurance coverage, stock options, bonuses, etc. This will allow you to assess how much you need to make as base salary to maintain (or really, to improve – the goal here is to move up in the world!) your current lifestyle. Then, you can offer a range. The range should start at the lowest number you’re willing to take based on how good the benefits are and go up $10-$25k from there, or whatever’s reasonable based on your research. They might only offer your minimum, but there's always a chance you'll get lucky with an offer that's in the middle or top of your range. The beauty of giving a range is that it helps you avoid giving a number that's lower than what they had in mind -- if you say you were thinking $60K, and they were going to offer $75K, they will probably accept your low standard, costing you a ton of money!
We can't stress this enough: Make sure the number at the bottom of your range is enough money that you'll feel good about accepting the offer. If you want at least $70K but can theoretically, if absolutely necessary, trim your budget and make some sacrifices for $60K, don't start your range with $60K! Ask for the $70K you want, and if they respond with "Well, we only budgeted $60K for this role," then you can entertain the "theoretical, if absolutely necessary" lower number. In fact, if your number is a little too high, they might just say, "That's more than we had budgeted" and you can ask what the budget they had in mind is. A good employer will respect that this is an important dialogue, and anyone who treats you rudely during this negotiation will likely take advantage of you in other ways. Remember: It's not a shameful secret that people work to make money, or at least, it shouldn't be.
Sometimes, you'll be asked for your salary requirements in a job application, making it tough to negotiate. However, in some cases you can leave this section blank -- if the rest of your application is great, HR will ask when you get a screening call. If you must write something because the field is required, write a range or a number in the middle of your range with “(negotiable)” or “(flexible)” next to it. Even better, skip the online application entirely, use LinkedIn to find a person in the hiring department, and email them directly (you'll have far more success in your applications if you can get your resume into the hands of an actual human).
And of course, there are times when HR will offer a lowball number, regardless of how you handle the salary question. If this happens to you, counter with your demands, backing them up by reinforcing your qualifications and citing your research. If the company can't meet at least your current salary, you have to decide if you're willing to take a pay cut. And if you do, we hope you have a really good reason -- after all, you're not running a charity. If you really want the job, see if you can get additional non-monetary benefits -- COVID has made many companies increasingly generous around flex schedules, remote work, and vacation time. It's also okay to turn down the job offer if you can't find a compensation package that works for you -- don't shortchange yourself.
The biggest thing to remember is to go in unafraid. If a company doesn’t hire you because you’re too expensive, you probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway. Decide what you're worth beforehand, and stick to your guns -- you'll thank yourself in the long run.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
It sounds like a bad pitch for a sci-fi movie -- the only way the hero gets her dream job is to win the battle against a resume-reading robot, only to fight a war with an AI-interviewer, before finally meeting a human being (or many!) who will judge her on her skills, personality, and viability.
Yes, recruiting is getting more tech-advanced. But in Hollywood, personal relationships are still critical. So no matter what the internet tells you about hiring practices, in our industry, leveraging your network is more important than finding ways to get around applicant tracking systems (ATS) and AI-powered video interviews. The only reason companies rely on those tools in the first place is to streamline the hiring process and find candidates who won’t be wasting their time, and nothing does that better than a strong referral from someone they trust.
However, that’s not to say that no one in Hollywood uses these tools. They do, and as the line between tech company and entertainment company gets blurred, automated tools may increase in prevalence. But it’s important not to get too worried about how they’ll impact you -- quite often, the best practices for resumes and interviews that you are familiar with already will still apply. But to ease your mind even more, here are a few simple guidelines that can help you get past ATS/AI systems:
Most importantly, remember that your real dream job is the one where you’ll get to work on projects you care about, with people you enjoy being around, for an employer who will value you as a human being. That job will come in due time, even if you have to battle some bots along the way.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
Pop quiz! You're in an interview with your (hopefully) future employer. The hiring manager just asked you to describe how you respond to challenging situations at work. You:
a. Say that you’re a problem solver who meets every challenge head on, considers all the various risks for each possible course of action, makes data-driven decisions, and gets the job done no matter how late you have to work.
b. Share an anecdote from your previous job, in which you found out at the last minute that one of the main locations for an upcoming shoot was no longer viable, so you made a list of other similar locations, secured an appropriate alternative option, and quickly contacted the crew department heads to make sure they knew the change of plans and had the necessary equipment to fit in the new location.
When comparing the two, hopefully it became obvious to you that the correct answer is B. Why? Because as nice as A sounds, it’s kind of meaningless. Anyone can claim to have the skills an employer covets. Sure, you’ll get points for having researched the type of candidate the company is looking for, but that’s about it. But with an answer like B, you’re sharing a real-life example that shows your work ethic and helps an interviewer picture you in a similar situation.
Sharing specific examples is also a good way to convey that you understand the job at hand -- the more relevant your example is to the job you want, the more you’re proving your ability to walk right into the role. However, if you're trying to make a career transition -- for example, from production into marketing -- your best example of responding to a challenge might not be 100% relevant. In this case, tack on an additional explanation as to how your skills translate to the role at hand. Using the example above, you could add, “I know that clients can make last minute changes, and marketing messages may need to pivot for any number of reasons, and I'll be able to call on my problem-solving experience from working in TV production by responding to those sorts of challenges calmly and quickly and ensuring there aren’t any lapses in communication.”
Getting specific will also allow you to build a stronger conversational connection with your interviewer. Remember: The interviewer already knows you’re qualified enough to be considered for the role. Now they’re trying to assess whether you’ll fit in with the team, so your aim should be to create a friendly, comfortable rapport. How many good conversations have you had where you simply listed off general character traits about yourself? Likely not too many. But it’s pretty typical to swap anecdotes when you’re connecting with someone.
The next time you prepare for an interview, think of a few specific experiences you can share for some of the most popular interview questions -- strengths, weaknesses, a big challenge, how you work with a team, a time you showed leadership, and how well you operate under pressure (hint: these experiences might overlap with some of your greatest accomplishments). Practice telling those stories, ideally to another person, but to yourself in the mirror/shower/car is fine, too. It might make all the difference!
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan
A boss who makes you keep your Zoom on all day to make sure you're actually working. A coworker who constantly passes her work along to you and takes all the credit for its completion. A supervisor who gives you zero direction for a project and screams bloody murder at you when you turn in something slightly different from what they imagined.
These are examples of toxic workplaces. And unfortunately, they are endemic in Hollywood.
Though The Hollywood Commission recently reported that a majority of survey respondents have seen less abusive workplace behavior in recent years, instances of abuse are still troublingly common. There are a ton of problems associated with working in a bad environment, but one that's especially concerning is the fear of how to describe your job when you're finally able to leave its clutches. If toxic jobs and job interviews weren't tough on their own, they can be even more stressful when you put them together! But have no fear: We're here for you with some tried and true experience and answers to the three most common questions we get from job candidates seeking freedom:
How do you respond to an interviewer who asks you why you left your last job without badmouthing your boss and/or turning your interview into a therapy session?
Even if your boss is known to have a difficult personality, or your company has the reputation of being a hot mess, you want to come off as even-keeled and professional in your interview. Instead of focusing on the negative and the past, tell the interviewer why you're excited for the opportunity they're presenting. In general, the best interview tactic is to reiterate why you'd be great for the role at hand. Whether you acknowledge that you left (or are planning on leaving) because the previous role "wasn't a fit" or refer to the company's dissolution, make sure the bulk of your answer focuses on what excites you most about the job you're applying for and why you've applied. If your interviewer pushes you to gossip, resist, and consider whether this new job may also be a little toxic.
When asked about challenges you faced at work or a time you had to resolve a conflict at work, how can you answer honestly without disclosing too much about your awful colleagues?
It's super hard to think clearly about difficulties at work when the majority of your time at work was difficult! You're going to need to practice answers to this question before your interview, so your emotions don't get the best of you. If you can, pick a challenge or conflict from a previous role that wasn't toxic -- the point of the question isn't to understand your immediate work history, but rather to get a sense of how you've handled problems throughout your career. If the toxic job is your first or most relevant job, find an innocuous example that isn't going to lead you down the path of badmouthing. For instance, if your micromanaging boss had an anger problem, you can say something like, "My last boss had very specific preferences for how he wanted work turned in, and that meant I often had to redo tasks, especially early on. I learned to get more detailed instructions before starting the project, and when that wasn't an option, I made sure to turn a draft in early so that any revisions wouldn't stop us from meeting a deadline." Inside, you might be seething about that one time he berated you in front of the entire office for using Calibri instead of Helvetica and called you Calibri Cathy for a month, but by practicing a polished, surface-level answer to the question, you'll be able to keep your calm in an interview.
*We highly recommend sharing your actual stories with trusted friends and/or mental health professionals to get the emotional support and validation you need -- that'll also help you control what you say "publicly."
If your current boss would freak out if they knew you were interviewing, do you have to ask your interviewer to keep it on the DL?
Some toxic bosses understand that you are not obligated to suffer under their thumb for the rest of your life. But many will absolutely lose it if you try to leave. They may attempt to sabotage your potential (or even firm!) job offer, threaten to blacklist you if you don't stay until they're ready for you to leave (even if that's beyond an appropriate 2-week notice), fire you on the spot if they hear you've been interviewing, or force you to resign unless you sign a contract that you won't go on any more interviews. None of this is acceptable, and some of it may not be entirely legal, either. But that doesn't make it any less scary! If this happens to you, remember that this kind of behavior is exactly why you need a new job. Do not let your boss's scare tactics intimidate you. It's not really necessary to mention anything to your interviewer, and it could teeter into awkward territory. Instead, know that most hiring managers won't call a reference that isn't listed on your reference list, and it's not a huge red flag if your current boss isn't on there -- in fact, it's a quiet signal that you may not have told your boss you're looking.
But the most important thing here is to focus on getting the new job and not about the repercussions from your terrible boss. You do not need to stay at a job that is so abusive you're afraid to leave it. If possible, try to save up a bit of money so you'll be okay if you don't get the job you're interviewing for and your boss does fire you. If saving isn't an option, commit to yourself that you come first, and you'll find a way to make ends meet with a temp job if you need to. Don't let yourself be held back by an abuser any longer. And if you did get the offer, know that 2-week notice is a courtesy, not a rule, and if your boss tries to sabotage your offer, leave. They will never be helpful to you in the future anyway, and the relationship is not worth preserving; there are good people in Hollywood whose referrals and respect means something, but your boss is not among them.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan