December 17, 2018

The Ultimate Hollywood Assistant Survival Guide

The Hollywood Assistant Survival Guide
Hollywood Assistants: More than just the nervous person handing you coffee.

Chances are if you’re reading No Film School, you've contemplated moving to Hollywood at some point in your life.

If you want to write, direct, or edit, Hollywood is full of opportunities for you. It’s where most people get their foot in the door, and where the lucky few build lasting careers.

Or maybe you wanted to move here because you were a huge fan of Entourage.

Whatever the case may be, when you come to this town, there’s a good chance you’ll start at the bottom. That means working your way up as one of the many tenacious, heroic, and completely underpaid Hollywood assistants.

I was one of those assistants for several years, and I thought it would be great to write a useful survival guide for people starting within the industry.

Aside from my own experiences, I was hoping that people could post their own in the comments, or email me at Jason@NoFilmSchool.com and we can add them anonymously into the Crazy Hollywood Assistant Stories portion of this post.

These are my stories, and my methods of navigating the business, but here at No Film School we want to encourage anyone and everyone to email me with their stories and survival guides, as an assistant, gaffer, director, or whatever job it was you have survived! 

So without further ado...

The Hollywood Assistant Survival Guide

I moved to Hollywood in 2012 and got a job shortly after that at Scott Free. I was a runner, then worked my way up to assist the president, Michael Costigan. He left Scott Free to open his producing shingle, and I went with him. I stayed on as his assistant until Shovel Buddies sold, and I’ve been writing ever since.

That sounds like a happy Hollywood story, but it’s also a rare one. Lots of assistants stay on desks and try to work their way up in the industry to become executives.

Now, this works differently for each company, agency, studio, and in reality. I tried to generally assess what it looks like to rise to the top as an assistant.

The Hollywood Assistant Ladder

  1. Runner / Mailroom

  2. Assistant to a junior exec

  3. Assistant to a higher level exec

  4. Executive Assistant

  5. Coordinator / Story Editor

  6. Creative Executive

  7. Director (sometimes Manager fits in here)

  8. Vice President

  9. President

  10. Principal

As you traverse up the assistant ladder, the opportunities get slimmer. There are only a limited amount of companies big enough to have multiple Creative Execs, and then from there, things get whittled down even further.

So if you’re trying to be an assistant that rises in Hollywood into an executive role, good luck.

The only way you’re going places with the right amount of hard work, connections, luck, and being legitimately good at your job.

The Hollywood Assistant Disclaimer Portion

Okay, before you proceed, I want to get something out of the way.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I met with a few execs. One of them, who shall remain nameless, told me that the only way to get promoted was to be okay at the personal parts of the job, but excellent at the business part.

Their theory was, if you made yourself indispensable at the personal aspects, then the executive who hired you would be too scared to promote you away and to lose the comfort of their current gig.

Now, this sort of seems like bull. Sort of.

I didn't try to rise up the ladder, so I don’t know. If you have an experience, we’d love to hear it.

But I want to make one thing entirely clear: I was a pretty mediocre assistant.

But now I have hindsight. And I have friends who rose up the ranks and were excellent at every aspect.

So I grilled them before writing this, so I hope it’s useful.

Now I’ll take you through one possible day in your Hollywood assistant life, and tell you how you can avoid mistakes, be prepared, and try to tackle everything that comes at you.

Or at least try.

When You Get In the Office

First thing’s first. Set a few alarms in the morning. You’re going to be tired. I would get to the office between 8 and 8:30 AM.

I would use that time to turn the coffee pot on, put fresh water and glasses on my boss’s desk, and make a “to do” list for myself.

I’d also print out a daily itinerary so my boss would know what was on his schedule. If he had meetings with writers and directors, I make sure their material was on his desk. So script coverage links to films, and sometimes I'd even write my notes on each thing.

In these moments of quiet time, I’d enjoy my coffee, take a bathroom break, and gossip with the other assistants.

But those moments were fleeting.  

You can expect your boss between 9:30 AM and 10 AM, but chances are they will want to roll calls on their way into the office.

So what’s rolling calls?  

How to Roll Calls

Rolling calls is a thing you do when your boss calls in, and you connect them to various people around town. You dial the numbers on their phone sheet and then listen to the calls.

While listening, you’ll take notes about what was discussed, so you know if you have to send the person any materials. Or what to expect they will send you.

This is also a great time to learn about the industry, negotiating and networking.

Rolling calls is an art form.

Every day your boss will rely on you to help them clear the phone sheet. To return every call they get. The higher up of a boss, the more calls they get.

This can be difficult, but you have all week to get it right.

But you have to keep the phone sheet handy, and when your boss is not in meetings, or reading, or at a screening, you have to have them on the phone.

And the phone sheet has to be your guide.

What Is A Phone Sheet?

The phone sheet is a list of people who have called throughout the day, and the times they've called.

Ideally, you’re calling back the oldest calls first, and working your way to the newer ones.

But there will be lots of times your boss doesn’t have an answer, hates a person, or just would like to talk to someone else first.

So ALWAYS ask before you indiscriminately dial.

Okay, so what do you do if your boss takes a meeting at the office?

Preparing For A Meeting In The Office

First, you want to make sure you book a conference room or clean your boss’s office. It depends what the protocol is within your office.

Then, I used to make sure every person attending the meeting has a pen and paper. Just in case they talk about things or want to exchange email addresses.

The primary responsibility here is booking the room, but you always want to make sure the guest has a bottle of water, or a coffee, or anything they need to feel comfortable.  

If your boss is running late, make sure you let the person know, and always have an excuse that sounds amazing. Like they just sold a project and got stuck at the studio, or they’re closing a deal, or finishing up a call with a famous filmmaker.

A general rule is, your boss can be 5-10 min late for pretty much anything, but after that, you determine how important the person is and then push your boss based on that idea.

Ideally, you don’t schedule anything majorly important less than an hour before big meetings.

So how do these meetings happen?

You have to coordinate with other assistants.

Setting a Meeting Via Phone/Email

So this is the fun part of the job. You get to network with other assistants all over town. Your bosses want to get together, or maybe they have clients who have projects your boss likes, or maybe they just went to the same college and want to catch up.

No matter what, you’re in charge of booking the time and day these things happen.

Find out your boss’s preferences, so you know when to schedule the meeting. Many bosses like to go out to lunch, do dinner, or even try to fit things in during early morning hours.

You ask your boss what they like; then you send their availability over.

This is when it gets tough.

You have to hope there’s some crossover between when they are available, and when your boss is available.

You and the other assistant are now jockeying for who has the power here.

Learn this lesson now: Don’t be a dick.

If you're a dick, you might get your way once, but you won’t forever.

This stuff gets handled nicely... most of the time.

And when someone inevitably cancels, you’ll be back at it again.

Eventually, the meeting is set.

But someone might want to do it out of the office.

Where will they go?

Knowing Your Neighborhood

Chances are, most times your boss wants to get out of the office, she doesn’t want to go very far. Ideally, you have a print out of every menu of a place within a mile radius and know the hours.

You also want to know about coffee shops, their seating situation, and other casual spots.

I like to keep a list of drug stores handy in case you need medicine, a red bull, or a toothbrush because your boss has Pad Thai in her teeth.

Also, know which roads are near you. You’ll have to give directions. If you don't have parking, then you’re going to need to scout out places around you that are solid options.

If you’re in Los Angeles, you need to know everything around your office. Where’s the best place to order lunch, what are all the business’ hours, and what’s the parking situation.

Parking

Parking gets its header because no one uses public transportation in Los Angeles. If your boss is driving to a restaurant, find out if they have valet.

If they’re going to an agency, figure out which side has the parking garage entrance. If they're headed to a studio, bug the other assistant to make sure they have a drive-on ready.

Always know where they can leave their car.

Breakfast

Prepare a list of breakfast places around key parts of town. I knew where my boss lived, so I could always try to set breakfast meetings closer to his home.

Traffic in LA mornings is atrocious, but if your boss is an early riser you have more options in play.

This may seem nuts, but even for Breakfast, always make a reservation.

Lunch

Always schedule your boss’s lunch meeting close to where they need to be in the afternoon. That means don't get them lunch at the Urth Cafe on Melrose if they need to be at Disney immediately after.

Keep your lunches at places that take reservations, or places that never get crowded.

And brace yourself for last minute cancelations of venue changes.

Coffee

We’re not talking about Starbucks, though many execs drink it. There are fabulous coffee shops all over Los Angeles. Lots of times they were places my boss would meet a writer before a pitch at a studio or were just quiet places they’d go to read the next hot spec.

I made a list of coffee shops all over Los Angeles based on the number of outlets they had and quality of the coffee. You can check their locations and parking yourself.

I have them memorized...

Today, I share that sheet with you.

Lots of plugs AND good coffee
Caffe Vita
Solar De Cahuenga
Bourgeoisie Pig
Toi
Groundwork Noho

Okay Plugs and okay coffee
Madison and Park
Sasquatch
Dinosaur
Bricks and Scones
Literati
Venice Grind
Coffee Tomo

Lots of Plugs but mediocre coffee
Insomnia
Coffee Connection

Dinners

This is where things get kind of tricky. My boss had kids, so he wanted to be home for dinner. If you have an insane and single boss, they may be going on dates or handling dinners on their own.

Or... you might be scheduling all of that.

The general rule for dinners is finding a place with parking, valet, that seems cool, and could be great to accidentally run into people.

I liked to pick spots that had good Yelp reviews and were close to the boss’s home at night.

Generally speaking, always find out who has what allergies or restrictions before scheduling the dinner place.

Sure, Los Angeles almost always has a Vegan option, but better safe than sorry.  

Drinks

Ah drinks, finally something you’ll need after a long day.

Drinks usually happen post dinner time, anywhere from 8 PM until 11 PM depending on your boss’ sleep habits.

For drinks, follow the dinner rules. Look for convenience, parking, and proximity to their final destination.

But what about assistant drinks?

As I’ve mentioned before, Hollywood is all about networking. So all those assistants you sit next to, and all the ones you've been emailing with and calling all day, they’re the people you’ll see every night after work.

That's right; your job is not done once you clock out.

Now you have to network.

No one wants to stay longer than a year or two in the same role, because you need a diversity of connections to move ahead.

When you meet other assistants for drinks, you’ll bitch about your bosses, compare notes on the town, talk about things you've watched that you love, and generally espouse why you came to Hollywood in the first place.

Was it to write?

Direct?

Act?

Whatever the case, assistant drinks are where you make friends.

These friends will tell you about job openings, slip you the hottest scripts, share movie screeners, and just be your intel all over town.

The more friends you make, the easier your life will be in Los Angeles.

Everyone needs a favor now and again, so be bold and reach out.

And when they reach out to you…

DON’T BE A DICK!

Okay, that covers this city.

But what if your boss wants to leave Los Angeles?

Air Travel

If your company has a travel agent, bully for you. They will handle everything, and you'll send your boss’s preferences to them.

If not? It’s all on you.

I spent a ton of time on sites like Kayak looking for deals, memorizing frequent flyer numbers, and ALWAYS buying trip insurance.

People change their minds ALL THE TIME.

And your boss will hate being stuck with the bill.

So if you're booking air travel, see if your boss needs a ride to and from the airport. How many bags they think they will be taking, and what time of day they prefer to fly.

If they're afraid of flying, make sure there’s extra time before they need to be at the airport so they can have a drink or psyche themselves up.

And then always send PDFs of projects they need to read, or print out scripts and pitch decks so they can carry them on and page through them.

Yup, even when your boss is in the air, you’ll always be working.

Eventually, though, it will be time for you to go home.

When You Leave The Office

Holy crap. It's time to leave the office. For me, that was between 8:30 PM and 9 PM usually. So I was working a 13-ish hour day. 

I ate lunch when I could, I took pee breaks when I could, and I drank a ton of coffee. 

I also had to switch to eating healthy because I got super fat just sitting around all day and rolling calls. 

When it's time to leave, you do the opposite of what you did in the morning. 

You head into your boss's office and clean up all the stay papers and notes. You organize everything they left out, toss their trash, clean up the water bottles, cap stray pens and markers. 

Throw away all the old phone sheets, tidy up anything else you see. 

Relook at your todo list and make a note of what needs to happen in the morning. 

Make sure you sent everything out that you promised, print out the script you need to take home and cover, and turn off all the lights. 

I also used to have to set the alarm, because I was the last one out. 

Congrats, you made it through one day. 

Only a few thousand more. 

Applying For The Next Job

There are lots of different schools of thought when it comes to applying for the next job. Usually, I like to give my boss a little leeway that I’m looking. But before I do that, I put my feelers out.

You need your boss’s recommendation, but you don’t want to scare them.

That’s why it’s important to do your due diligence around town, contact your connections, and then as you start applying, let your boss in on the process.

If they are happy for you and embrace you, great.

If they're a jerk...nothing you can do but get out of there anyway.

As you go from job to job, hopefully, you move up in the world.

And in pay.

Hollywood Assistant Pay  

You probably saw this coming, but Hollywood assistants get paid like crap. If you’re starting as a runner, you can expect something closer to $15 an hour.

Once you get a desk, you're maybe getting 25-30k a year.

As you get more experience, you move into the upper 30s and 40s.

Finally, if you make it to being a creative executive, you’re hopefully making around 60-70, or more if you're at a studio.

Once you hit the actual executive positions, your salary and contract will likely be negotiated by an agent. Usually, they are great and come with perks.

But guess what?

All these numbers above? Usually, they are for at least 60 hour weeks. Not counting the hours you spend on the weekend catching up on the work you didn't get done.

When I was an assistant, I found myself routinely putting in 70-80 hours for around 36k a year. With benefits.

It's grueling. And you may hate it.

Lots of people leave Hollywood because of it.

I don't have anything pithy to say. That’s just a fact.

But hey, in all those hours, you get to acquire some wild stories.

Crazy Hollywood Assistant Stories

This is why you do it. To have everyone in your family seated at the table when you head home, listening intently as you regale them with the time you brought Tom Cruise a salad. 

When Ridley Scott called you "the intern one who smiles all the time."

Or that time you spilled coffee on yourself when you tripped in front of Renee Zellweger and had to take your shirt off because it was burning your skin.

What about when you beat Glen Powell at ping pong?   

Or when Mickey Rourke shoved a cupcake in your face after you pissed him off for saying he was "of a generation" even though it was the beginning of a compliment?

There are exciting memories too. Like when Jonah Hill laughed so hard at your Mickey story that he bought you a beer. 

Or that time you were supposed to have breakfast alone with your boss and Bill Hader sat with you guys and made you laugh. 

And no one will forget when Margot Robbie asked you to parallel park her car. 

These are just some of the things that happened to me in about a year and a half span. 

And they can happen to you too. 

If you're willing to put up with the rest. 

Reader Submitted Crazy Assistant Stories

Story 1: 

"I’d been working for a very popular actor as a second assistant/driver on-set. The benefit was I’d always get a nice ride for a few months. The downside was that this particular actor was a handful - not the worst I’ve ever worked for, but far from the best. Still, I was somewhat protected by being the second on the ladder. 

 
Anyway. I was on my fourth film with him. The exec assistant I was working under got moved up and off of set to run the production office/house for the actor. I became the point person on set and the exec asst. hired a young girl (total newbie) to work under me. 
 
This girl was probably only 18 and I can’t even remember her name. It was a long time ago, but... maybe... Kristin? Anyway. It’s Day 001 of this shoot and we’re on location. I pick the actor up at his house above Franklin in L.A., and I’m texting the new girl with updates about our ETA. I ask the boss what he wants for breakfast when he arrives. He doesn’t know. Says he’ll just talk to her when we get there. Now at this point, I assume that the office has prepped this girl on our tricky boss and given her a solid rundown of what will be expected. A lot of it is simple, common sense stuff, but then... a lot of it isn’t. 
 
So we pull up in Basecamp and he hops out, introduces himself to the girl. Says, “yeah, so... maybe just a bagel, cream cheese, and lox? And an oj?” 
 
“Sure,” says the girl and hurriedly heads off toward catering. I parked and walked over. I introduced myself as she was prepping fresh-squeezed oj. Told her he wouldn’t eat in hair/makeup, so she should just leave it in his trailer if he wasn’t there when she got back, rather than taking it over to the vanities. I also told her not to just walk in as he might be changing. 
 
I stayed out of the trailer when he was around. Safer that way. When I got back he hadn’t yet gone into the works. She was still at catering. I had a director’s chair from a past project and I parked myself there, just outside his door, and cracked a script he wanted me to cover. 
 
So I’m sitting there reading and she comes back with the oj and a bagel on a plate. I got up and knocked on the door without checking out what she’d brought. Probably should’ve. 
 
He opens the door, and by now I’ve gone back to my chair and the script. I glance over as she hands the plate up to him - up because he’s in one of those massive fifth-wheel trailers. Three steps above her. 
 
He takes the plate and then lifts the bagel with just his thumb and forefinger as if it’s some sort of... odd insect. Alarm bells go off in my head. 
 
He kind of rotates it, looking at it like he’s not even sure what happened to it as she just stands there looking up at him. A second later, he kind of just... flicks it at her... and it lands just near her left shoulder, the cream cheese and lox causing it to slowly sliiiiiiiide down the front of her shirt. She’s in shock, but about a millisecond later, she starts to cry, wailing and runs off. The actor just closes the door. 
 
I immediately go for my phone to call the exec assistant as the trailer door opens again. He leans out, looks at me and says, “she doesn’t need to come back,” and closes the door. 
 
Her sin? She put the cream cheese and lox on the bagel as opposed to on the side so he could do it. She also didn’t bring a knife or napkin, but that’s neither here nor there. 
 
She did not return. I got him his breakfast until a new newbie showed up. This time, I went down all of the rules."

Summing Up The Hollywood Assistant Survival Guide

So there you have it, that’s what it’s like to be a Hollywood assistant. There are more twists and turns than a Shyamalan movie, but it can be fun.

Whether you’re chasing your dream as a writer or want to move up the ranks, Hollywood can be a tough place.

My best advice to you is to make as many friends as possible.

When things got bad, or I needed favors, my assistant friends were always there to bail me out. They passed around my work when it was good, and as they rise the ranks, they’ve hired me to keep working hard for them.

If you're in the trenches with fellow assistants, you form a strong bond.

But screw them over, and you’re dead.

As I look back on my time in Hollywood as an assistant, I laugh a lot more at the stress and ridiculous requests.

Someday, if I’m ever lucky enough to have an assistant, I hope I’m as good to them as my bosses and mentors were to me.

There’s a special place in hell for asshole bosses — one where they bring us coffee.

Got a great Hollywood assistant story? Leave it in the comments or email it to me (Jason@nofilmschool.com) and I can post anonymously for you.   

Till next time…

 

 

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