While Bill Hader is known for his Saturday Night Live impressions and terrifying portrayal on HBO’s Barry, he was once getting coffee. Hader started out as a production assistant, an entry level position where you are running errands for everyone on set. While it may seem hard to believe he rose from coffee boy to leading man, it’s actually not that uncommon. Many people, especially writers, get their starts as assistants. Working in the industry isn’t necessary to become a writer, but it can help you meet the right people to eventually get you in the writers’ room. If you’re interested in taking that path, here are some things that will be helpful to know.
There are many different assistant jobs, and they each have their own unique challenges and benefits:
Being an assistant to an agent can be challenging (think: Lloyd from Entourage), but almost everything goes through agencies so you have a lot of access to information and resources. You will likely work long hours for little pay with lots of mistreatment and abuse. Seriously, think Devil Wears Prada times a hundred. But on the flip side, you will be in regular contact with writers and your coworkers will likely go on to do other things, creating opportunities for you in the process.
Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in Aline Brosh McKenna‘s Devil Wears Prada.
Being an assistant to a manager can either be very similar to an agent or much more relaxed – it all depends on the management company. Either way, managers typically have fewer clients that they work with more closely, so you’ll have more face to face time with writers and directors.
Studios are the larger company that makes television shows and movies, so you’ll be exposed to the entire production process. The benefits will be meeting lots of writers and executives who could help you find work in the future. The downside is that you’re still removed from the actual writing process, so showrunners might not know you well enough to really vouch for you.
Production companies are the small entities that advocate for and help sell projects to studios (and networks in the case of television). Production companies tend to be less corporate than studios. Working at a production company, you’ll be able to make excellent connections with producers as well as connect with the writers who come in to meet with your boss.
Personal assistant jobs can be tough and often extremely unglamorous. (Want to drop off your boss’ drycleaning and walk his dog? Apply here.) However, it’s a great way to get to know one writer, director, or actor extremely well. For example, a writer on Mad Men got into the room by being a nanny for the showrunner Matthew Weiner.
John Hamm in Mad Men
Production assistants are the lowest rung on any set, and it often involves a lot of escorting actors to set and getting coffee. And yes, be prepared for people to be upset that you got their order wrong. But, you get to see production first hand and make invaluable contacts with people who actually make shows or movies.
Assistant positions around writing rooms are coveted and can be tough to get. There are four positions: Writers’ PA (gets lunch and maintains the room), Showrunner’s Assistant (assists showrunner), Writers’ Assistant (takes notes in the room), and Script Coordinator (copy edits and distributes scripts). These jobs are effectively the holy grail of assistant jobs for writers, and they’re a great way to meet writers and potentially get promoted to staff writer.
When building your resume for an assistant job, you want to emphasize any experience you have in answering phones, juggling lots of tasks, critical thinking, and being a hard worker. You don’t have to just have entertainment experience per se, provided that you can gush about film or TV, and that you can incorporate any relevant past experience. For example, if you were a receptionist at a health insurance company, list in the bullet points on your resume how you dealt with difficult personalities, multi-tasked, and kept the office in order. You can also explain any projects or initiatives you led that could translate to the job at hand.
If you want to build a resume with entertainment-specific experience, interning is the easiest way to get a foot in the door. Cold-calling and cold-emailing very rarely work for assistant jobs and might cause more harm than good, but cold-calling can still work for internships because good interns are honestly hard to find. If there’s a production company, agency, or management company that interests you, see if they have a contact email on their website (or on IMDB Pro, which you can get for free for one month) and inquire about an internship. Also check entertainment career websites (like entertainmentcareers.net, Linkedin, or any alumni job boards you have access to) to see if there are any internship opportunities listed. If you’re still a student or if can afford to work for free, try to do as many as possible. Internships can often lead to full-time assistant opportunities, or your bosses will be impressed by you and pass you along for jobs at other places.
If interning isn’t financially feasible for you, entertainment temp agencies can be a great way to get experience and meet people. Temp agencies like First Professional Services, Eleventh Hour, and others particularly specialize in providing temps at studios, production companies, and networks. While you’re temping, you’ll be learning how to be an assistant while meeting people who could let you know about other jobs. Plus, sometimes temp positions can become full-time if you do a great job. Just make sure to ask in your temp interview that they put you up for entertainment specific assignments. No one interested in working in film wants to be stuck as a temp in a law firm.
As I said, cold-calling for assistant jobs is often frowned upon. As such, many jobs are passed around by word of mouth, making interpersonal connections the key to landing one. The most obvious places to look are the UTA job list, a list passed around every few weeks, assistant boards, Facebook groups, and entertainment job sites (like entertainmentcareers.net). If you went to a college with an active alumni group, you might be able to join and make some key connections. Look up any alumni from your college that work in entertainment and ask if they would be willing to get a coffee with you. Ask friends if there are any networking mixers they know of that you could attend to meet more people. Look up on LinkedIn if you have any friends who work for any companies that might be hiring.
You might need to get creative, but if you’re willing to meet people and let them know you’re looking for a job, you’ll soon start hearing about open positions. Also, keep in mind that most jobs are a stepping stone to other jobs. If you’ve just moved to LA, it’s probably not feasible to land a writers’ assistant job right off the bat, even if that’s what you want. It takes most people about five years of other assistant jobs to get in a room. So, consider working at an agency or production company, building your contacts, and then pursuing that position.
Now that you’ve gotten an interview, be prepared for whatever they may throw at you. You should look the company up on IMDB and be prepared to talk about any work they’ve done or are doing. In the same vein, make sure you can talk about external projects outside of the company fluidly. Most interviews will ask you to list your favorite TV shows and movies to get a sense of your taste. It’s good to have three things listed in your favorites: something classic, something acclaimed, and something fun. Also, bosses will often ask coded questions about whether you’re “up for any task” or able to deal with “personalities.” They simply want to know if you’re going to quit the first time you have to get your boss’s car washed or the first time someone raises their voice at you. They’re often trying to vet if you’re going to be up for any task, no matter how unglamorous.
It’s important to note that even if you want to be a writer, you have to try to talk about whatever field you’re interviewing for in a way that keeps you open to what they do. Remember: you’re not likely going to get a writing job at first, so you want to be able to convince a future employer you could be passionate about their work, even if in your mind you know you only want to write. After the meeting, be sure to send a thank you card. If it’s convenient, you can write one after your interview and give it to the receptionist. If you know anyone who can call and give you a recommendation, now is the time. A recommendation will be invaluable as the employer tries to vet you.
Being an assistant isn’t a requirement to being a writer, but it is a common way to get started in the industry. If you’re trying to land a job, the most important thing to think about is whether it’s something you could devote yourself to for a year or two in order to reach your larger goals. Try to be honest with yourself. A lot of people burn out going this route, and that’s okay. It’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re going to be miserable, take another route to your dream job. But if you can make it as a Hollywood assistant, you could make invaluable connections and learn a ton about how the industry works.