So you made it to California. Welcome to Hollywood, kid. What do you want to be? A movie star? An agent? A tortured writer? Who cares, I sure don’t, and you better not either, because unless you’re related to Steven Spielberg, I’m going to tell you where you’re going to start: the mailroom. The basement. Where the sun don’t shine.
Sound below your pay grade? Think you’re too good for it? Guess what, you aren’t. There are kids from BCG and Morgan Stanley waiting for a mail cart. There are law school grads and Senator’s Aides, future Nobel Prize winners and Westpoint officers who are begging for a mailroom gig. They want in, they want to be a part of the game, and no matter who you are, no matter what you want to be, you need to understand what they already know: in this town, you have to work for a Talent Agency first. I’m talking about the monsters, the giants, the evil empires that control the actors, writers, directors, and musicians who make Hollywood run.
And if you can get in, you’ve got a ride in front of you. See, an investment bank asks for two years. Med School takes four. But if you want to work at an agency, they only need one. One fucking year, because that’s how hard they’re going to run you. Stand on some hot coals, kid, because that’s what you’re in for.
Now it’s time to hustle, because the first thing you’ve got to do is get in. That means socialize. Hit the bars in West Hollywood. Get lunch in Beverly Hills. Ply strangers with drinks. Meet friends of friends and tell them straight-up what you want. If you do it enough, somehow, some way, your resume will fall into the right hands. It may sound crazy, but they want you to find them – to prove you’ve got an agent’s drive – and if you do, you’ll be sitting in the posh lobby of WME, CAA, or UTA this time next month, waiting for an HR suit to interview you.
And when he comes around that corner and shakes your hand, you’re going to need to be one of two things: a born agent or a born liar. Because no matter what you really want to be, you need to convince this man that your sole desire is to represent his company’s clients.
See, you’ve got to understand – right now you’re empty suit number 234,622 in Hollywood. You’re one of thousands of unemployable, interchangeable chunks of amoebic sludge and an agency mailroom is your best chance to distinguish yourself. You need that job. You need it and your competition will kill for it.
So when you get that offer, just say yes. Never mind that it’s minimum wage, never mind that your friends at banks and law firms will look at you like you’re insane. Take your choice of places: ICM, UTA, CAA, Paradigm. Work for Ari at WME. Work for Bob at Gersh. It doesn’t matter – just get in – because once you do, you’ve already made the toughest cut. You’ve found a place to start.
Now let’s talk about your first day. This is going to be a humbling experience, one you start when you walk in through the service entrance around back. That suave lobby you sat in before your interview? They cut that for Ryan Gosling and Mick Jagger, not amoebic sludge like you, because as of today, your job is to sit in the freight elevator and sign for deliveries while the janitor stashes trash bags in the dumpster adjacent.
You smell that in the air? The acidic stench of rotting coffee filters? The stagnant puke of yesterday’s banana peels? Aren’t you glad you dry cleaned your suit for this? I bet you love walking around all day on those stiff leather shoes, don’t you?
Trick question, kid. You don’t get to complain. You don’t get to complain because in the time it took for you to deliver an inter-office to that shit assistant who thinks she’s already an agent, another busload of prom kings just arrived from St. Paul, MN, and they’re all gunning for your job. So start acting like you love the mailroom. Convince yourself it’s true. Say it until it’s real. You fucking love cutting buckslips, hole punching documents, and binding scripts. You love this high-stakes game of arts and crafts and it gets you hard just thinking about it.
That’s why you’re hustling like every day is the Super Bowl, learning the assistants’ names, reading their bosses’ clients’ scripts, and trying your best not to step on a corporate landmine that’s going to blow you back to the freight elevator in goopy bits and pieces. Fuck that stinking cage, you want out of the mailroom, because here, you’re everyone’s bitch, and you need to earn the right to be one person’s bitch. Not just anyone’s bitch, a Hollywood agent’s bitch. That’s called being an Assistant, the second sacred right of passage in this town, and once you’re there, it’s going to make indentured servitude look like a vacation. We’re talking investment banking hours with Starbucks pay; but hey, you asked for it, kid.
So when an agent is so desperate for help that he’ll hire you, you better come with your work boots, because you’re going to see this guy every hour of every day. If you can’t charm the pants off his clients; if you don’t have the bluster to tell a casting director to fuck off or the instinct to tell a studio exec’s taste in three sentences, then this is going to be a long ride. Every day is going to feel like that first week and let me tell you – that’s a bad week.
That’s when you know how bad you’ve got it. When you’re three days into the gig and you’ve got four phone lines ringing at once. When you look at your computer and see the emails stacking up quicker than commuter buses at Pico and La Brea; when so many people are so pissed off at you that they’re out of phone lines to pound you on; when your boss is calling your cell; when some fuckface manager is hitting you on Facebook. Welcome to the suck, kid; and guess what? You’re already fucking it up.
That’s all right though. You’re not alone. You’ve got help. There are other assistants here and even though they don’t really have time or interest to help you swim, they’ll remember how helpless they were when they started when they see you bleeding-out in your cubicle. They’ll remember being too scared to eat and too nervous to sleep and they will come to your rescue.
Why? Cognitive defense, kid. Look it up. Watching your life go to shit makes them think of when their life went to shit and they just don’t want to go there. Ever. They’ll do your job for you if it makes those memories go away. They’ll save the day and then they’ll pretend to forget your name; but you won’t let them – you can’t let them – because to go anonymously at an agency is to miss the point entirely. These people, they’re your best friends you haven’t met yet and in between all of your incompetence and accidental shitting on their work, you must find a way to make them like you.
And over time, you will. Over time, you’ll prove that you’re not just amoebic sludge, that you know the difference between a network and a studio and can pull a script form a producer who wouldn’t let Tom Cruise read it if he showed up with twenty bucks and free Taco Bell. You’ll win their respect the way Marines do – on the firing line – and before long, they’ll invite you to lunch or maybe even a drink after work. That’s what it feels like to pass the critical “two month hump;” and that’s when it’s time to look around and realize that half the kids you started with are already gone.
Congrats kid, you just made the second cut. Pat yourself on the back, you’re on your way to being a battle-hardened vet. This is when you have to learn the fundamentals of doing it right; because you can sit here all day and take body blows form casting directors; you can be waterboarded by hotheaded agents; you can be scapegoated by shitty coordinators; or you can step up your game and start having fun.
The other assistants around you are about to become your best friends; your bank account, your worst enemy; your sleep schedule, an afterthought; and the bars on Santa Monica Boulevard, a necessary evil. Hell, you might even get laid in all of this.
So just listen up, kid. Listen good and I’m going to tell you how to do it right. These are the basics and if I’m going to be straight with you, I’ll tell you I didn’t nail them all. But if you can cover most of them, you’ll come out better when this is all done, and you might even have a story to tell.
Here’s how it goes:
Come in early.
Understand that you have one job and that is to do whatever your boss tells you to do.
Say yes to everything.
Wear body armor.
Don’t be fearless, be fuckless. As in, you don’t care, you just act.
Become apathetic and mechanical. View yourself as a machine, not a person.
Learn the most essential point: you are only as good as who you know and what you’ve read.
When you do, always order another drink.
Make eye contact with the agents in the hall. Next week, introduce yourself.
Read until your eyes glaze over.
When your eyes glaze over, drink coffee.
When coffee stops working, try whiskey.
When whiskey stops working, don’t try cocaine.
Learn the phrase, “You were right.” You’ll understand later.
Be known to at least one department head.
Stop asking for permission. Start acting.
Depend on no one.
Start a soccer league. Organize the agency bowling team. Become the center of something.
If you talk to another assistant more than twice, ask them to drinks.
Pickup the check when you do.
What? You’re broke? I told you to stop giving a fuck.
Search every name you hear in Studio System.
Learn family trees of executives and producers the way handicappers know racehorses.
If you think you can do something, always volunteer. If you know you can’t, always hide.
Accept blame. When you do, repeat that phrase you learned: “You were right”.
When it’s your fault, have a short memory.
Understand that whoever is mad at you is too busy to remember they’re mad at you.
Protect your boss.
Protect your clients.
Don’t worry about sleep.
If you’re going to do this right, you need to live like a force of nature. You need to understand that you will not be intellectually challenged so much as physically taxed. That you will be asked to perform more tasks than you can possibly handle; that your days will feel like football games – how many more plays can you get in before the clock runs out? That’s because you’re on a trading floor but unlike that bond offering in New York, your assets – actors, writers, and singers – they fire you through tears if you get them a shit deal. And if you get them no deal at all… let’s not even go there.
This is the most intense thing that most of you will ever do. Some of you will be fired before you ever leave the mailroom. Most of you will go on to a cushy job in production or development. A select few will remain in the interminable high-speed chase that is agenting.
Do it right and you’ll have friends for life. Quit, give up, or do it wrong, and no one will even remember your face. But when you walk into The Den on Saturday night, when a stranger turns around and says your name – that’s when you know it’s going to be all right. It’s a small thing, kid, but you need to recognize its importance. See, when a stranger knows you, it means you’ve earned back that thing they took from you the day you set foot in the mailroom: your name. Getting it back is what happens when you finally climb out of that pond of amoebic sludge you’ve been wallowing in for so long.
Congrats, kid. You’re a Hollywood regular now. The 9:30 bus from St. Paul is about to arrive and you don’t even give a shit. Fuck those prom kings with their pretty hair and their puking awful dreams. So what if you’re broke, bloodshot, and sleeping next to a stack of dog-eared scripts? You’ve got your good looks, your Ray Bans, and a ride-or-die gang of media mavens you call friends. The Hells Angels don’t know shit about this kind of loyalty and come to think of it, you know a studio looking for a good pitch about that exactly. Time to call your friend from the TV Lit Department whose network pilot flamed-out last fall.
Yeah you’re not the real thing yet, but who cares? This is the town that invented fake it ‘til you make it. Keep walking, keep hustling, and buy another round, because you’ve got a future here. You might just be something after all.