Thursday, October 17, 2013

Making Mistakes: Nine Hollywood assistants tell all

Being an assistant can be stressful. Even if you've settled in a comfortable routine, you have to deal with difficult, volatile personalities, and you often face new problems you have no idea how to solve. It also doesn't help that your boss will get annoyed if you bother him/her too much with questions. You're going to make mistakes -- but that's okay. I always remind people that your boss has a lot other things to worry about, and s/he will probably have forgotten about your mistake within a day. It also may help to know that we've all been there. To prove it, I asked nine Hollywood assistants about a time they messed up, and what they learned:

From a writers PA:
I was working on my first show, where the writers drank a lot of coffee. I did my best to make sure there was always coffee on the burner, but occasionally one of the writers would go to get some coffee and discover that we were out. I'd apologize profusely, but still get chewed out, and I spent much of my time on that show in constant fear of an empty coffee pot. When I worked on my next show, I was more confident and set expectations differently. If we ran out of coffee after the morning rush, I'd wait to brew more until someone asked for coffee (usually in the afternoon). Rather than apologizing, I'd say, "Sure, I'll have a freshly-brewed cup for you in a few minutes." Because I was positive rather than apologizing, people were happy rather than mad. After all, isn't a fresh cup of coffee is way better than one that's been sitting on the burner all day?

From a producer assistant: 
Once I sent the DVD of a movie in post by Fedex with only $500 insurance. Thankfully, it didn't get lost, but my boss said, "You sent a $15m movie with $500 insurance??" I guess I should have used our overnight courier? What my boss should have done is flown one of us with it, since it was going overseas.

Assistants often lie about their fuckups. I'm really effing good at it. Some things you have to own up to, but some things you should just lie about - like if you don't get your boss when it's an important call, you just have to lie and say the person called when he was on the phone with someone else really important

Also, I once ordered Sprinkles cupcakes for an office birthday and the boss' wife got really mad that I didn't think to call her and ask if I should also order some for her -- at her home.

From a showrunner assistant:
I've done so many things wrong. I've forgotten to book flights, set meetings, lock pages in a script, send emails... I even called a very powerful writer a midget. He, thankfully, had an excellent sense of humor. My list of blips is endless. I have one piece of advice for those who find themselves in my same position.


Lie like your livelihood depends on it. Because it does. Often the flubs are small. Like that drafted email of directions that you didn't send that was really important because Mr.X and Mrs.Y are incredibly smart, but don't know how to Google map an address. Of course they know how. But that doesn't mean they won't be pissed. So, lie. Blame the internet, or say the electricity went out for like a second and somehow the lines of power got crossed and the little dude that lives inside the internet got all confused and couldn't deliver your email. Gah! If all else fails, use big, made up words. Example: "Oh it's the flibergantor that's connected to the interfication was broken. How prostibilous!" No one will question you for the fear of looking dumb. Especially in this town where people are so concerned with image.

And if you're a terrible liar, or get caught, remember, we aren't saving lives here. It's just TV. It's just a movie. We're here for entertainment. Use the f-up as part of your next pilot, movie or spec. That's what it's there for in the first place.

From a producer assistant: 
My car's battery had died in my driveway and needed to be jump-started. Instead of taking a cab straight to work, I explained the situation to my boss and waited for a tow truck. Unfortunately, the tow truck took hours to arrive and by the time I got my car to a Pep Boys, it was 11 am. We had an important notes call with a studio starting at 12 pm. My boss was furious that I was late late to work, and said she would have paid for my cab to work, I just needed to be there. Luckily, the call was running 20 minutes late, so I was able to get to my desk in time to take notes. However, my boss reamed me for being cavalier about the notes call and stressed how important it is I think of these things ahead of time. Lesson learned: if my car ever breaks down again where it's safe in my own driveway, I'm getting my butt to work and worrying about the car when I get home.

From a studio exec assistant:
My junior executive boss was on location and traveling with the same itinerary as a senior executive. They had the exact same schedule. The senior executive's assistant told me they were coming back early and to change my boss's travel, so I did this after getting an email from my boss that they were coming back early. Then I got an angry call from my boss asking why I changed the travel. In the midst of getting yelled at, I heard the senior executive in the background say something to the effect of "why are you yelling? I told her to." Everything was ok because the senior executive pulled rank, but I should've just actually talked to him. I just need to get to know his personality enough so I could anticipate his reaction to everything.

From a manager/producer assistant: 
Shortly after I got my very first assistant job as an assistant to a manager/TV producer, I booked a trip for him to go to New York. He directed me to some janky website with NYC hotel deals, and after spending some time on it I thought I found him a killer one, which I was super excited about. Turns out, what I thought was the total cost of the stay was actually the cost PER NIGHT. He was pissed when he got the bill in New York, but it was only two nights, and he really liked the hotel which is what I think made it okay. He cut me some slack because I was pretty green, but he gave me a hard time about it for years. After that, I triple checked everything related to travel and money.

From a showrunner assistant: 
When I tried to help get a friend hired as a background extra without consulting my boss (the showrunner) first, the Assistant Directors called my boss when he was busy at home writing a script and and told him about my request. I had gone through the ADs because he was busy, but because I had highlighted my position as his assistant when I made the call, they checked with him anyway. He was angry at being interrupted during crunch time and at my throwing his name around with the ADs. I kept my job, but from then on, I approached even the smallest requests with much more caution and consideration.

From an agency assistant:
There could be the time an agent told me to never use the word "as" again. That was... frightening.

But the worst I did was fail to connect a call between international clients and a big producer on a coveted project at 8 AM.

I had scheduled it and just completely forgot. Neither the producer nor the clients had any way of contacting the other, so they both sent confused emails to my boss... who had no idea the call was happening then. I awoke to a few missed calls and texts. I got to the office and he was furious. A mild-mannered guy who never really got upset. But this was an important call about a project these clients desperately wanted and now it had to be... rescheduled.

And guess what? It was, and everything was fine. I was in the doghouse for a day because everyone was inconvenienced for an hour. It just cemented my firm belief that, especially in the agency world, there is a mad rush to make things happen immediately, but in reality... things can wait a day or two. If there's mutual interest between a client and a producer or studio, then a missed call or meeting isn't going to change that. I also learned that sometimes when you're scheduling countless meetings, you might miss confirming a few. And when it comes to phone calls, sometimes it's best to NOT have to connect the calls. Let the producer call the client directly. What's the harm in that? The agency frowned on it, but no client ever really cared WHO was calling them, as long as the call was happening...

A better mistake is one I heard from a Talent Agent assistant. He was sending an audition confirmation to Actress A and had to CC her "Group", which consisted of any relevant managers, agents, etc. But he accidentally selected the Actress B's "Group." So Actress A saw that Actress B was going to get the same audition. And Actress A called the agent and ripped him for sending other competing clients against her for the same role... and the agent eviscerated the assistant all night for being a "fucking idiot." Called him repeatedly all night, insulting him, threatening to fire him, etc...

And my friend? He just apologized and took the beating. What else could he do? He thought he lost his job, but he showed up the next morning and there was his agent, waiting for him in his office, with an agenda of stuff to take care of. They didn't talk about it again. Accidents happen. People apologize. People move on... agents just take it a little bit harder.

From a producer assistant:
Once I was listening in on 9-person conference call. I was not invited to listen in on this call, but Michael Douglas was on it and I wanted to hear what he had to say. As long as I kept my headset muted, no one would be the wiser. I ended up having to juggle several lines, though, and I forgot to re-mute myself when I went back to the conference call. Then a co-worker walked by my desk and I more or less started shouting into my headset about how many shrimps were in my lunch and how great it was, interrupting Mr. Douglas himself. "Who is that?!" he said. Then I heard my boss' door open and him yell "Get off the fucking phone!". Good times.


Eitan Loewenstein said...

Shockingly, most of these executives don't know how to handle small mistakes by their assistants. There's a lot of drama, a lot of yelling, and a lot of suffering for nothing. Grow up. Make sure the assistant learns it's not OK for the next time and move on.

Although to be fair, some of these are really funny and dumb. I had a bad habit of forgetting who was on the phone. Heck, I still do. "I have a call for you." "Who is it?" "I don't remember." They told me less than ten seconds ago!

But I'm an idiot. So there's that.

Greg M said...

Most of these mistakes are legit mistakes, but the cupcake story and the "as" story(?!?)are terrifying. What's wrong with these people?

Thanks for sharing, Amanda!

Chris Ming said...

This reminded me of the Business Insider post, about a month ago. Basically, a CAA agent chews out her assistant for a stupid mistake, and call her a "bitch."

The writer seemed real indignant, but I remember thinking, "Uh, that's not that harsh, and the assistant should have known better."

The comments below it tend to agree.

Great post, Amanda.

Amanda said...

Thanks guys!

I did see that story... I don't think it's ever appropriate to call your assistant a bitch.

Crystal said...

I have to agree with Eitan and not just because I know him personally.

I made mistakes when I was an intern, but it was never a big deal. My boss would say fuck and tell me not to do it next time. The people in these stories are so immature. I wouldn't last three days if I had to put up with that kind of bullshit. I don't understand the hazing mentality. Taking abuse shouldn't be a right of passage.

And it's never okay to call anyone a bitch.