So several people, here and in on Reddit via PMs, have asked the same general question or questions:
How did you get your first internship? Any advice for someone currently trying to break in?
I'm in film school. What are my chances of getting a job as a writer's assistant?
How would you go about getting those low-level office/writer PA-type jobs?
So, first, to clarify: as is implied in the linked interview, your chances of getting a writer's assistant job, straight out of film school, are basically 0%. I'm sure it's happened in the past, but its a very rare exception with probably mitigating circumstances. Remember that there are several people with masters degrees in screenwriting who currently work in positions below the writer's assistant in my office. They make photocopies and bring people coffee. They'd have to be pretty terrible for us to give you, with no experience, the job over them. And, the ones in my office at least, are not terrible; they're awesome at making photocopies and their scripts are funny and poignant.
That's okay! Just make peace with the fact that, despite the "assistant" title and no technical job requirements, Writer's Assistant is not a job you can get with simply a masters degree.
So what are you supposed to do?
Say your middle-term goal is to get staffed on a TV show. This means you'd be a Staff Writer, the lowest-level writer on a given show. This is a pretty good goal. It was my goal through my 20s and early 30s; maybe you'll take about as long to get there as I did, or maybe you'll get there faster or slower. I have one friend who was staffed on a network show when she was 26 (we all hate her). I have another friend who was staffed on his first show when he was in his late 50s. Both are rock-stars. Walk your own path etc.
Before I launch into this I'd say please, don't take what I'm saying as gospel, here. It's just a pretty unedited rant off the top of my head based on what has worked for some of my friends.
Also, this isn't banking or medicine. If you want to write well, the most important things are to live an interesting, varied life and write a lot. If you have the chance to work on a commercial fishing boat or travel to Cambodia or something, I'd take it. Strive to be more like Hunter Thompson and less like Patrick Bateman.
Anyway, say your goal is to get staffed on a TV show. There are three ways to go about this.
Path 1) work your way up from intern or PA to assistant to writer's assistant, prove yourself, get offered a script, write it, and then use it to get staffed (this is the path I took);
Path 2) write a great spec episode of an existing TV show, use it to apply to a diversity program like NBC Writer's on the Verge (most networks have one), be the rockstar of your class, and then use that to get staffed on a show. (This is the path that many of my friends have taken. Helps if you are female or not white.)
Path 3) write an amazing sample, and/or get hot some other way, get an agent (or a really great manager), and go out for staffing directly (not recommended but it can happen. I'd call this a backup plan if I were you).
Path 1: If you're going to try the route of working your way up from intern or assistant, the first step is getting one of the following jobs: A) mail room at an agency or big management company; B) PA job, probably in production first (or writer's room if you have some connection to a producer; if not, don't stress about it); C) Intern somewhere, anywhere, for free if you have to, just to establish a baseline of not being crazy, and learning basic assistant skills like knowing how to write coverage and maybe rolling calls.
A) mail room at an agency or big management company. This is what I'd recommend the most for a young writer. If I had to do it all over again, this is what I would have shot for when I first moved to LA (rather than interning and working at an apple store for 18 months, which is what I actually did).
The big Hollywood agencies (they're all basically located in Beverly Hills/Century City, not Hollywood), CAA, WME, UTA, ICM, Paradigm, Gersh, Verve and APA; and to an extent, the really big management companies like 3Arts, Management 360 and Madhouse; have a very specific corporate culture. Generally speaking, everyone who works there starts in the mailroom, sorting letters and pushing a little cart to deliver the mail to the agents. Eventually, after a month or more, you get the chance to be a "substitute assistant" when assistants are out sick. If you do a good job, you'll get promoted to be the assistant to a lower-level agent. After a year or so of that, you can transfer to become the assistant to an agent who represents TV writers; or you can move on to greener pastures.
It might seem like working your way up the agent ladder is not helpful if you want to be a writer. Here are some reasons why I think it's a good idea:
- low barrier to entry. Because they are just hiring you to push a mail cart around, and because they want to train you from the ground up, agencies will hire people with basically no experience as long as they seem smart and hardworking.
- because they represent writers, actors, and directors, and because they are the ones who make the final deals on every project in town, working at an agency is a really good place to learn the way the TV and Film businesses operate. 10 years later, when you're a powerful writer, knowing the business side of the equation will be invaluable when you're making decisions, trying to cast actors and hire directors, and renegotiating your million-dollar deals.
- most people in the mailroom with you will immediately view one-another as potential threats. Most of them want to be Agents, and it's a bit of a bloodthirsty, competitive business. By contrast, you, the aspiring writer, will seem like a cool non-threat. Maybe even an asset and an ally. Hell, maybe you and someone in the mailroom will become best friends, and in a few years they'll be a co-ordinator or agent, sign you, and get you your first staff job. Or, at least, you'll know which agents at your agency are good at their jobs, which ones are addicted to cocaine, and which ones are a little of both.
- It's the ideal 'resume builder' for getting a job as an Executive Producer's assistant, because it proves you can handle a busy desk and hold your own. (I have, several times, been tasked with helping an EP hire an assistant; and the former agency assistants always go to the top of the pile for this reason.) Also, if you're lucky enough to find your way to a desk that covers TV writers, you'll befriend them over the phone and your boss can pressure them to hire you as a Writers Assistant, Script CoOrdinator or Writer's PA.
- "It's not what you know, it's who you know." If you work as an assistant at an agency, you will know many, many people. Over time, they will become more powerful people, and within 10 years, you'll have really useful connections in all aspects of the business.
B) PA job, probably in production first, moving to a writer's room PA later.
I put this because it is one of the jobs that has no experience needed to get. However, this really is one of those "who you know" type of jobs. I'm guessing it's probably kind of easy to get a job like this if you went to USC or UCLA, as a huge percentage of PAs I've run into recently seem to have graduated from one of those schools.
Anyhow, I don't know how to get one of those jobs, other than doing what I did: go to film school, meet people in the class above you, get them to help you get a job a few years later. Or maybe someone from some part of the school that hooks people up with PA jobs. Or become an NBC page.
Anyway, if neither of the above options work for you, try:
C) Intern somewhere, anywhere, for free if you have to, just to establish a baseline of not being crazy, and learning basic assistant skills like knowing how to write coverage and maybe rolling calls.
Of the three, this is probably the least attractive, because it doesn't pay anything and you might not have any opportunity for advancement. But, beggars can't be choosers. And crappy internship war stories will come in handy down the line, trust me.
How do you find an internship? A few suggestions: school - even if you aren't in film school, your school might be able to find you an internship somewhere to start. The UTA job list. (Just google it, you should be able to find a recent one.) I think it's kind of a waste of time for actual jobs; but if you're willing to work for free or credit, I think it's less of a stretch.
If you get really desperate, you'll have to resort to cold-calling management and production companies. Honestly this is less crazy than it sounds, because you're not cold calling asking for them to do something ("do you want to buy steak knives?" "will your boss spend two hours reading my script?"); you're cold calling asking if you can come work for them for free for a while. It's a much smaller ask. I've had desk jobs where, if someone cold-called me and asked about an internship, i'd just forward you to the assistant who handles that. If she happened to need someone on tuesdays and fridays, she'd bring you on without a recommendation.
Where should you intern? Again, this isn't law or finance. It doesn't make that much of a difference where you're interning if you just want to be a writer. Obviously if your options are a company people have heard of on the one hand, and a company people haven't on the other, yeah, maybe go with the first one. The more "well connected" the place seems, the more ability they'll have to get you a lower-level job somewhere else. But in the end, I think it doesn't matter so much.
Essentially you just want to go somewhere where you can learn to write coverage, maybe get a little practice rolling calls when the desk assistant needs to use the bathroom, just a little bit here and there so you can tell people when you're applying for a PA job that you have those basic skills.
Look into management companies first, as they are similar to agencies and well-connected. Here is a list of current 'big name' management companies you could reach out to you. (DO NOT read into those "how many scripts on the blacklist" numbers as a sort of "ranking." That's what they want you to do, and it's bad for the universe to buy into it.) Second, look into established production companies, starting with companies with deals at studios. "Facts on Pacts" (scroll down to the PDF chart) is a good place to see those. You could start with these 155 companies and go from there. The third option would be less established production companies that don't have studio deals. Just reading through deadline to see what companies are selling things might be a way to go about finding companies to reach out to. (Hey, if they have news in the trades, business is probably good!)
Whichever of the three above paths you take, or really whatever you do for a living, you really should strive to work your ass off and take pride in your work. A friend put it this way, "you need to demonstrate that you're capable of doing the job I gave you. If you can't do that, how am I going to trust you to write a script?"
If your job is to stock the fridge, and you frequently forget to stock the fridge, I'm going to have a hard time helping you out when my boss says, "what about her, is she a hard worker?" The times that the above kind of shit has hindered the advancement of people I know, many of whom have very expensive masters degrees, is staggering. Take putting the cokes in the fridge seriously.
Once you have any one of the above jobs, the next steps will present themselves to you. You'll work hard and keep in touch with people who move on, and keep your ear to the ground, and before long, a better job will be emailed to you. The kind of job that will never appear on a public list; the kind of job that bounces around the private tracking boards that all of us assistants use to secretly run hollywood.
Then, that day, you forward your resume to the address listed and hope you get an interview.
Also, this will become self-evident when you start working at a desk in the movie business, but it really is "who you know." The part they don't tell you is, generally speaking, nobody knows anybody useful when they first come out here. What you do is, you get into a job where your boss has business with another person who has an assistant. You send them an email like: "hey, [my boss] wants to set a coffee with [your boss], can you send me avails?" then you'll set the meeting, then you'll be like: "awesome, set! BTW, great to meet you over email. We should grab a drink after work sometime." And then, you go to some shitty young hollywood bar like The Parlor or The Churchill, or the Hudson, or ugh Laurel Hardware, or someplace in Santa Monica, and have semi-awkward drinks with someone else. (Honestly those bars are fine, I'm exaggerating. Just not my scene. But they're fine.)
The above, called "work drinks" is a HUGE part of being a young hollywood person. Young executives, those who aren't writers, they live and die by their networks; and having work drinks with other assistants is how those networks form. So keep in mind that, yes, it's who you know; and also, that anyone who can get an internship at a mid-level management company can start to know people too.
Path 2: Diversity programs. I'm talking about the NBC Writers on the Verge, the ABC writer's fellowship, the Warner Bros TV Writers Workshop, and CBS' Writers Mentoring Program. Anecdotally I have a bunch of friends who did these programs and are now working TV writers. I also know of a few who did these and then remained unstaffed, but whatever.
You might not care too much about having the 'mentoring' aspect, as you're already a proficient writer; but the secret sauce you don't hear about is this: if you do well in the program, and go out for staffing on one of that network's shows, the diversity program pays your salary for one, or as many as 1+ part of 2 more years. In essence, you go out for staffing and the showrunner is like: hey, free writer. Why wouldn't I do that? Then you're in the door, and you have a contract, and if the show stays on the air you are automatically promoted.
Google the programs I mentioned above, and check out the admissions requirements. Usually you want to have 2 spec episodes of an existing series locked and loaded for these.
Path 3: write an amazing sample, and/or get hot some other way, get an agent (or a really great manager), and go out for staffing directly.
A friend of mine, an established showrunner, just got paired up with a girl who wrote a fairly popular blog to develop a TV series. Right now they are in Atlanta shooting the pilot. So, you know, sometimes you can just make your own TV show.
I'd hate for this post to become a thing where people read it and think, "oh, there you go. To become a good writer, I just do X, Y, Z, and then I get staffed." NONE of the above options are going to help you out very much if, at the end of all of that, you're an average writer. Or you're "pretty good." Put writing every day, and thinking critically about your writing, and reading a lot of books and scripts, and doing interesting outside-your-comfort-zone things, on the top of your list. Anything in this post should be a few notches underneath that.
And, I keep saying this, but: you're not trying to become an accountant. You're trying to do something rare, and difficult, and that has a bit of art and intangibility to it. It's going to be messy, non-linear, and have false starts. Buy into that. Fuck stability. It's, seriously, going to be fine.
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