Sunday, January 11, 2009

The best assistant job

Kelsey writes: I was wondering if you could provide any more insight on working for an agency vs. having an assistant job on the set of a TV show, whether you think one is more effective or a faster way to go about eventually getting a staff writing job. Also, do you think there is any value in getting an assistant-type job on a show you don't really want to write for?

No assistant job leads directly to being a writer. There is no sure-fire path, which is why I'm jealous of all my friends and cousins in medical school. (But then I turn away at the bloody scenes in Grey's Anatomy and I figure I'm doing the right thing.) The best job is to be a writer's assistant on a tv show because you'll be surrounded by writers with agents who all know you want to be a writer. You will learn a lot, and if they all like you they will help you out. But it doesn't automatically mean you'll be given a freelance episode or be promoted to staff writer. it's just a good POSITION to put yourself in. The problem is, these jobs are super hard to get and you will probably not be able to find one for your first job. Being a PA or Office PA might be the job to lead you to this job. Or maybe being an assistant in current or development at a studio or network - but again, those are often not really entry level jobs either.

Working at an agency is probably less ideal for a writer - but might be easier to get. It is still a good job because you learn what people are looking for in scripts, but you cannot work at an agency with the intention of getting repped there. If you even say in the interview that you're a writer you probably won't get the job. (There are plenty of aspiring writers working at agencies, but they're smart enough to know what agencies want to hear.) You have to think of it as a learning experience and gaining contacts. Like I've said before, agency assistant gigs are seen as entry-level, and that's why I ended up there. I would have rather been an assistant at a studio or prodco or on a show, but I couldn't find a job like that - it seemed that everybody wanted agency experience. You won't necessarily want agency experience to be a PA or office PA on a tv show - but those jobs tend to be harder to find. In terms of comedy or drama, I think it would be best to work on the show that you'd most like to write for... but you may not have that luxury in finding the job. I don't know - other people will more experience might want to comment on this. For sure, the assistant experience will be transferable (except maybe if you're a writer's assistant on a comedy - I've heard that sitting in a comedy room and writing all the jokes being pitched is kind of a specific thing, and I've also seen writer's assistant job postings looking for specific multicamera vs. single-camera comedy experience). But other general assistant stuff is usually universal. No assistant experience is transferable into a writing gig. Nobody cares how well you rolled calls or scheduled meetings - it's has nothing to do with writing a great script or being a helpful member of the writer's room. I have heard that it's good to have "room experience," to know how it all works...but generally it seems that the reason it helps to be an assistant is that you will learn a lot about the process and meet the people who can help you or do you a favor or give you an opportunity. A showrunner might make his assistant a staff writer because he likes the person and knows the assistant is a talented writer - but I don't think only being a good assistant will make you a staff writer. It's similar at studios, networks, etc: it's kind of a weird, counter-intuitive rule, but generally nobody gets promoted for being a good assistant - they get promoted for proving they can do a good job at a higher position. This means going beyond the assistant duties of answering phones and scheduling - it's finding new material, discovering new talent, reading everything, giving good notes, writing a great spec, etc., depending on the particular job. (Now, I'm not saying you can be a crappy assistant - that will get you nowhere!)

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kelseyyy said...

Thank you for entertaining my ridiculous questions; it's much appreciated. This post was particularly helpful because I was curious about the process of rising from assistant to of those things you know you have to do, but it's shrouded in mystery nonetheless, so it's nice to have even a little bit of an idea about how it goes.

Jon and Kate said...

I would recommend finding a job outside the industry that gives you ample time to write. Aspirants over-rate the idea of connections; the more time you have to write, the better your script will be, and that's worth more than all the connections in LA.

Neil said...

Very interesting point by Matt - one that I will definately dwell on.

One suggestion I have (connection-wise) is facebook. It's hugely useful for networking with other writers and people in the biz. I'm on my first writing job (I suppose it's a job, kinda is, kinda isn't - long story) through facebook. Saw a producer with some ideas looking for writers. I responded and 5 months later I've co-written 5 feature films, the first one going into production as soon as we have the cash.

Facebook people. What do you have to lose? Apart from 'I can't write, I have to check facebook first'.

Anonymous said...

The writers on the show I work on are mostly TV veterans, whether they've written for one show or several, but they've all written for TV before. However, our youngest staff writer didn't have any television to her name (at least none that I can recall), and was hired based on her specs. Our script coordinator has written for a TV show before, but is also a novelist. And I would assume most of the writers, before getting their first gig, were hired off of specs or novels or screenplays, so my suggestion is to focus on that.

Not to say being an assistant won't help either. At least on this show, all the writers seem very helpful and interested in the writers assistant and PA. There always seems to be opportunity in the air to move up, whether it's on this show or through connections to others. I personally believe if you want to be a writer, you should write, but if you're not wealthy and need a job, work in the arena you want to write for.

Amanda said...

Matt - Yes, I agree with you that Writing a Great Script should be your #1 concern when you're trying to be a writer. But I think it's a mistake not to position yourself in the best way possible. What's the point of a great script if it sits on your computer and nobody in Hollywood ever reads it? You have to break IN somehow. Sure, some writers were never assistants, or PAs, or anything. But they all broke in somehow. If you have personal relationships with agents or studio execs or important people in Hollywood, you probably won't need to be an assistant. If you don't, being an assistant is a great way to create those relationships (and learn a lot in the process).

A. Jared said...

One thing I'll say... I've seen several times people get promoted from writer's assistant to staff writer, or giving them a script, without the showrunner ever reading a word they wrote. I'm not entirely sure what the thought process here is, but my guess is that if someone worked hard for them for a little while, they feel like they owe them the shot at the promotion and actually reading them for it might make them less want to do it. My point is only that in some cases it might be better to angle yourself into the writer's asst position, make sure people know you want to write, but not necessarily try to get your stuff read.

Amanda said...

thanks Adam! Good to know.