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