Settling the Western Frontier: Or (How I Moved to LA and Got a Job)

Thinking about heading out West? I did, and though it wasn't easy, it turned out to be a great move for me. I put together some common questions that students have asked me about the transition to LA and my post-grad life. I hope they help you!

Who are you? What was your time like at NYU and what do you do now?

I majored in Film & TV at Tisch, and took every opportunity I could to make films. My Intermediate and Advanced Production films both had solid festival runs. I made my thesis, Dream Date, under Susan Seidelman and the film was a Wasserman Finalist. After graduation, I moved to LA determined to make rent while pursuing a career in TV writing. I survived the fabled Hollywood mailroom, working as an assistant at WME Entertainment before landing a gig as the showrunner’s assistant on NBC’s The Mysteries of Laura. Less than two years after moving to LA, my screenwriting chops earned me a route out of assistant-hood. Currently, I am writing half-hour comedy for television within the Nickelodeon Writing Program. You can watch my Sight and Sound failures and triumphs (and more!) at vimeo.com/laurennyc

You moved to LA right after graduation!?! That sounds crazy! Why did you do that?

Though I had always been a diehard film geek, my senior fall, I began to feel that writing, creating, and directing for television was my calling. I had interned in New York long enough to discover that TV writers and development executives were mostly located in LA. Often, shows that are shot in NY, are actually written in Los Angeles. When I had the opportunity to spend my senior spring interning at HBO in Santa Monica, I took it. I met development executives and the assistants that worked for them. I had dreams of becoming a Writer's PA after graduation and working my way up the writer's room ladder. 

Why did you decide to "go the agency route"?

As my semester at HBO winded down, I realized jobs in writers rooms are REALLY hard to get. Even with NYU and HBO on my resume, I didn't have the connections or experience I needed to secure a job as a Writers' PA. After speaking with the assistants at HBO, I began to consider working at an agency. The super-serious, formal, non-creative environment sounded like an intimidating 180 degree shift from film school, but I figured I could handle the long hours and I had just enough of a Type A personality and thick skin to handle it.

How did you land a job in the mailroom?

This might sound crazy, but getting a job (even in Hollywood!) can be simple. I have NO relatives in the entertainment industry. I got a job the old fashioned way...  by applying cold. Hollywood companies value the skill of networking and initiative, which is part of why they don't make it easy to apply. Getting your application in the door, is often your first "test" as a prospective hire. It's on you to reach out to alumni, recent grads, former classmates and ask them for insight and guidance. If you can't find the info you're looking for online, call the company's main line and ask for HR or ask them to direct you to someone who can answer your question. For my part, I called the agency main line, asked for HR, then followed the directions about applying for the job. They called me in for an interview and offered me a place in the mailroom a few days after the interview.

OK, wait. How do agencies even work? What's the different between the mailroom and being an assistant?

If you're in the mailroom, you literally sort and deliver mail. Sometimes you will cover for an assistant if they are out sick or on vacation. Each agency works differently, but generally you start in the mailroom and then have the opportunity to become a permanent assistant to an agent. At that point the stakes are much higher and the job becomes very dynamic, difficult and busy. (Duties include setting conference calls, sending out scripts, taking care of client needs, scheduling meetings... and so much more!)

There are three to five big agencies out there. How did you decide which one to apply to?

I researched! I made a list of my favorite TV shows and TV creators. I looked up the writing staffs of my favorite shows. Then I spent some time on IMDB and Studio Systems and found out who the players are. I realized most of my favorite creatives were repped at WME, so I focused my resources there. I reasoned that I'd get along in that community because my passions and tastes were aligned with theirs. At the very least, I'd gain knowledge and connections surrounding my career role models. While I'm glad I honed in on WME, in general I suggest applying to a few places. Research the agency’s clients, their culture, and how they hire and promote mailroom staff and assistants. Approach it like applying to college and you'll be fine. [It's worth noting that management companies and smaller agencies are also great options that tend to provide slightly more low-key working environments, so check those out too.]

I landed an interview at an agency! What do I do now?

All of the legends about mailrooms being competitive, grueling, and demeaning are true. The long hours, high volume of work, and overall pressure of working for an agent are very real. (Watch Entourage and read The Mailroom! Seriously that is some of the best prep and research you can do.) Show up to your interview well-dressed, energetic, prepared, and professional. Prove that you are ready to handle one of Hollywood’s roughest rites of passage. Most of all, they want to know that you WANT to be there for the learning and networking experience. They don't pay you enough to be there simply for a paycheck. Keep in mind they are looking for mature, organized, detail oriented individuals. This is NOT the time or place to express your visionary, artistic self. They need people who will put their head down and do the work with a smile and a good attitude. It can be difficult, but this is the time to take off your auteur hat, and let your positive energy and work ethic take center stage.

This "Hollywood assistant" thing sounds intense. Is it worth it?

The mailroom is like the Ellis Island of Hollywood. For many people, it's that first portal where you can get on your way to the job of your dreams. Agencies are places that routinely hire kids fresh out of college. They don't expect you to have a ton of professional experience under your belt, which is great because many of us don't. They do expect you to be conscientious, mature, and humble. One of the best things about being a Hollywood assistant, is that you will meet tons of other people who are also fresh out of college and brand new to LA. It's a great way to gain a community of peers who'll become your friends and colleagues throughout your career. I ended up working for a Scripted TV agent who represents writers and directors. Working with the clients, reading scripts, and learning about the business side of the industry positively influenced my writing career. I gained a great group of friends and started growing a strong professional network. To be clear, answering an agent's phone might make you more savvy, but it will not help you beef up your creative portfolio. I had to be super disciplined to keep up my writing on the weekends on my own, or I never would have grown as an artist during my year as an assistant. 

I see how this is could be a great first job option, but this whole agency thing doesn't sound like it's for me. Am I crazy?

Not at all! Mailrooms are simply ONE way in. While they tend to be a great option for aspiring writers, producers, and executives, I think people with hands-on creative inclinations are often happier using their skills in different environments. Skills like editing, sound, camera, animation, etc. are incredibly valuable to employers. Be a PA. Do freelance work. Become the assistant of a craftsperson you look up to. Or, get a job outside the industry that allows you to direct your own projects on the side.

I'm still feeling a little overwhelmed about graduating. Are you sure it's gonna be OK?

The only thing that will make you a better artist, is making more art. This can be done in many different ways in many different places. Find a job that can put food in your fridge and support your dream. Everyone is different, and it's important to do what is right for you as an individual. Keep asking questions and researching and you'll find your way.