The All-Purpose Guide to Hollywood Assistant-ing- Part 1
Full disclosure: I was a Hollywood assistant for almost 10 years. And I still work as an executive assistant now to pay the bills (albeit for wayyy more money and wayyy fewer hours than I ever did in Tinseltown. Also, fewer staplers get thrown at my head in a normie job). So this is purely from my own experience ...
So you wanna be an assistant.
Lol. Nice joke, right? Nobody actually wants to be an assistant. I’d bet this came up on zero out of a hundred responses when you ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s not usually a dream career for most people, even if it can be rather lucrative.
However, if you’re one of those people looking to break into Hollywood, doing so as somebody’s assistant is a damn good way to go about it. It’s not required 100% of the time … but I know more people than not who have. And if there’s a tried-and-true method to success, it feels like something worth looking into.
Many parts of this position absolutely suck. But if you want to make connections and learn the business (critical components to “making it”), then getting on someone’s “desk” is a good way to do it.
A few common questions people may have when taking this route in entertainment ... starting with:
WTF DOES A HOLLYWOOD ASSISTANT ACTUALLY DO?
Let’s go ahead and get the basic stuff out of the way.
First thing’s first—a lot of the responsibilities of the job are going to change depending on where you work. An agency assistant isn’t going to have the exact same job description as a Writer’s PA. But there is some overlap.
So, in general, the administrative tasks are:
- Scheduling. Keep your boss’s calendar in check. Guarantee they know where they’re supposed to be at any given time and how to get there. Make sure they have ample drive time and space for bathroom breaks.
- Monitor calls. Yes, this may seem antiquated (because it is), but most of Hollywood business still takes place over the phone. And it’s the assistant’s job to answer the phone and keep track of who your boss needs to call back. (P.S. Why does the assistant need to answer the phone, you ask? Because it’s ten thousand times easier to duck someone you don’t want to talk to if you have a physical barrier between you. Yes, that’s the actual reason.)
- Greet people who arrive at the office. Because, again, your boss is a busy person (or at least wants to set the appearance that he/she is). The assistant is the first person to recognize that an outside guest is here, and will usually fetch water, coffee, soda, etc., as requested.
- Lunch/coffee orders. Your boss sure as hell ain’t gonna fetch their own caffeinated beverage.
- Taking notes in meetings. This applies a lot more to assistants who work in a writer’s room. Because so many people throw out ideas in these settings that it’s a requirement someone writes it all down (lest they forget a brilliant joke for the final act).
- Reading scripts your executive doesn’t have time for. This applies a lot to development assistants (the job I used to have). If you work at a studio or network, you can rest assured everyone in town wants to sell you something. They’ll overload your boss with material (usually on a Friday afternoon) chasing that sweet, sweet payday. You pick up the extra slack.
- Make sure material gets out to places it needs to go. Similarly, if you work at an agency, management company, or production house, then you need to send off submission letters (with perfectly typed legal verse) to everywhere it needs to go. Keep track of this … because you don’t want to forget one.
- Solve crazy, out-of-the-box problems that no amount of schooling could have ever prepared your for (watch out for later articles in this series where I’ll tell you about the most insane task I ever pulled off in less than 24 hours!).
Is that everything that an assistant has to do during their day? No. But it’s enough to give you an idea of the task that stands in front of you.
For now, we'll move on to another basic but important question, which is:
HOW THE HELL DO YOU BECOME AN ASSISTANT IN THE FIRST PLACE?
You gotta move to Los Angeles. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Look, I left before the pandemic. Maybe things have changed in the two-plus years since. But I highly, highly, HIGHLY doubt it. Too much of the job requires your physical presence in an office. And if there’s one thing I know about Hollywood, they hate change.
Anyway, once you’ve packed up your U-Haul and travel 2,000 miles to the City of Angels, what next on your grand adventure?
I’ll tell you how I broke in—internships. Yep, I worked for free. The purpose of this was to make people who were already in the business like me enough to give me a recommendation. And it worked, at least in my case.
Now, this will probably be a lot harder for some of you now than it was “back in my day.” (… I really hate saying that, but it’s true). Because roughly 10 years ago, some stupid person decided to sue a production company over unpaid wages for their “internship.” And they won. Hollywood was basically told that to have interns, they needed to provide college credit and make it a classroom environment. You know—run things by the book.
Here's the problem with that … so much of Hollywood is fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. Most places don’t have enough money to do things the “right” way. They relied on unpaid labor to survive. Was this the most right and ethical thing in the world? Nope. But it was a fair value exchange, as I see it.
You (the intern) came in with nothing but your hopes and dreams … but you could offer sweat equity. In return, they could offer you access to people they know—other companies with more resources and the actual ability to pay you. You each scratch each other’s backs for a few months, and voila! Everyone wins.
These days, it’s a bit tougher to go this route if you aren’t in college. If you happen to attend USC/UCLA/Chapman (etc.), then this is super easy. Literally every door in town should be open. If you aren’t … let’s just say, you’re going to have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps a bit. Because the chances of you landing an entry-level position without any experience is going to be low.
Everyone wants those, and competition is fierce.
However, there are a few things you can do to up your chances of success:
- Call the really small companies and ask if they provide internship opportunities. Don't waste your time calling Universal, WME, Circle of Confusion, or Warner/Discovery. I can almost guarantee you they will have policies in place to block you from entry. Instead, call the small production companies—the places with few but meaningful credits on IMDb. Will these places be the best training ground for you? Maybe not. But everyone knows somebody, and it’s only fair they try to help you get a job after you’ve worked for them … just make sure you keep your wits about you and don’t let yourself get taken advantage of. Because you may not know this, but there are tons of slimeballs in Hollywood.
- Network your ass off. Because again, everyone knows somebody. If you hear of a party where Hollywood people are going to be, go to it. Lie to get in if you have to. Sit in the Starbucks near a studio and see who walks in. Find a way to shake hands and kiss babies (not literally) in order to stand out.
- Do whatever the hell you have to do to get your foot in the door. There’s a classic story from my time in L.A. A guy fresh off the boat from Maryland stood on the corner of Hollywood and Highland with a sign that read “Need an assistant? I need a boss.” and handed out resumes to cars parked at the light. He got 13 job interviews in a few days (or something like that). While I laughed at this at the time, I can’t deny that the dude had balls of steel. And it fucking worked. He got a job and is still working as an independent producer today. Good for you, Nick (wherever you are).
Before you complain, yes, I’m aware that some of this article contains information you might deem “high-level.” (Also known as basic.) But trust me, someone out there needs this info.
Be on the lookout for the next iteration of this series, where I go deeper into the art of being a good assistant (and all the things you need to do in order to get out of the job and start your preferred career path).
Godspeed y’all, and happy writing.
*Feature image by Jorm Sangsorn (Adobe)