How You Can Find a Job in Hollywood
There are many myths about what it takes to break into Hollywood.
Maybe you’ve heard that you should ride the elevator at CAA and give your resume to the agents that shuffle in and out. Or that without a family connection, you won’t get a job.
Perhaps the myths you’ve heard are more reasonable, like you need to start out as a talent agency assistant, or that you can’t sell a screenplay without an agent.
The truth is, there’s no one way to break into the industry – but there are some general guidelines that can help you launch your career as the next Hollywood macher. (Rule number one: the elevator thing is a terrible idea).
Here are some of the rules to follow.
Know what you want to do
Not all jobs in the entertainment industry are created equal, nor do they all have the same paths. It’s important to assess what you want to do in the industry and be honest about it.
I’ve run numerous internship programs over the years, and it frustrates me to no end when my interns have lied about their ultimate goals. One intern told me he wanted to be a studio executive when he really wanted to be a film director and was too shy to admit it. But the paths for those jobs are totally different, and as a mentor, I wasn’t able to help guide him appropriately.
If you’re applying for entry-level assistant jobs, you want to tailor your job interview answers according to the position. When you’re networking or interning, you’re setting yourself up for failure if you hide your ultimate goals.
This is even more true for actors. The path to becoming an actor is wildly different than any other job in Hollywood. If you start out in an entry-level position, you won’t have time to focus on acting, and your bosses will likely resent you, since no one wants to be used as an actor’s stepping stone.
Instead, take acting/sketch classes, meet casting agents, become a background actor with Central Casting, and audition. If you have to work a side hustle, get a flexible job as a waiter or babysitter.
And if you really don’t know what you want to do, that’s okay, too! Be open to any possibility and treat your early jobs as learning experiences.
Understand what entry-level jobs are
When I first moved to LA, I had no idea that “agency assistant” and “assistant to studio executive” were not jobs of the same rank. I put my foot in my mouth more than a few times thinking that my experience as a campus leader and perpetual intern had prepared me for a Hollywood assistant job that required three to five years of experience. Why would I want to be an assistant after 3 years? Shouldn’t I have blossomed as a writer by then?
The truth is, the trajectory to “make it” in Hollywood is long and winding. As an assistant at a talent agency (or management company or production company), you have a front row seat to the ins and outs of Hollywood and can cut your teeth learning industry lingo, proper phone etiquette, who’s who, and the nuances of scheduling meetings for creative, powerful people.
Until you experience the horror that is dropping a call and getting screamed at by your boss because you potentially lost the company a huge deal, you can’t understand why you need to rack up years of assistant experience.
Many people with volatile personalities are drawn to Hollywood and succeed, and the industry feeds off fame, success, money, and power. Millions of dollars can be on the line with any one phone call or meeting. As an assistant, it’s your job to make sure the little things go off without a hitch so the real deal-making can occur.
You’ll make many mistakes when you first start out. I remember leaving messages with the wrong call back number at my first job, but thankfully I had a caring and understanding boss who laughed it off. I also had a boss who reamed me out when we had a miscommunication about whether or not he was taking his conference call from home or the office (it was the office, and I was one minute late in dialing, a panic I won’t ever forget).
It does take a year or two to settle into the inner workings of the industry, and that’s when you can work for people who are higher up, who have bigger stakes in projects, and who really can’t afford an assistant who leaves the wrong call back number.
If all of this talk about phone calls stresses you out and you’re wondering where the action of actually making a movie or TV show comes in, consider a job on set. You can start out as a PA and work on a variety of different productions as you rise in the ranks of production, writing, or directing.
But don’t get me wrong: A PA job is tough, too. You’re working 12+ hour days, freelance, and with just as high-tempered folks on an equally (if not more so) tight deadline.
Don’t be like some of the PAs I worked with, who blatantly said they were in it “for the snacks at the craft services table” or put on bathrobes because the hours were too long for appropriate clothes. Instead, keep a cool head, say yes to any task, and you’ll find that you get called for many a PA job.
Network, network, network
They say that Hollywood is more about who you know than what you know, and at the beginning of your career, that’s absolutely true. Don’t fret if you don’t have a direct line to Spielberg, though.
Everyone has a network to some degree, especially in the Jewish community. In addition to joining formal groups like Jewish Entertainment Network: Los Angeles (JENLA), Junior Hollywood Radio and Television Society (JHRTS), and your college’s alumni network, you should tell everyone you know what you want to do, even if they aren’t in the industry.
People love making connections – remember all those games of Jewish geography you played at summer camp? Someone you know knows someone who works in entertainment and can set up an informational interview.
Remember to stay in touch with your connections, and not just when you need something. Send a thank you email after your meeting, and check in at key times during the year. Rosh Hashanah is a great time to send well-wishes to your fellow Jewish contacts, and you can follow up on those wishes a few months later in the secular New Year.
Track your contacts in the news and reach out when you read something interesting about a project they’re working on. Focus on building relationships, and you’ll find that soon enough, you have the “who you know covered” and can start working on the “what you know.”
Understand the industry
Hollywood has its own set of rules and terms. Spend some time learning industry lingo and processes to ensure that you don’t come off as a novice. A great recommendation from one of your contacts won’t cut it if you stare blankly at your job interviewer when she asks if you know how to do script coverage.
Read the trades like Deadline, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter daily, and check out some industry books to gain more specific knowledge about a certain sector of the industry. Use informational interviews to clarify aspects of the industry you don’t understand.
And most importantly, consume content. Every job interviewer will ask you what you’re watching and why you like it, and if you don’t have a strong grasp of current content and a curated taste, you won’t be taken seriously.
When I worked at a production company, I interviewed a surprising number of candidates who said things like, “I only watch HBO, and ‘Friends’ is my favorite show on there right now.”
First of all, “Friends” isn’t and never was on HBO, and if you haven’t watched anything worth talking about since 1994, I don’t know why you’re in the industry. If you don’t know what shows are on which networks, I certainly can’t expect you to help me figure out where we should pitch the content we’re developing!
So watch TV and movies and pay attention to who makes them. Not many people can say their job is to binge on Netflix – embrace it!
Work harder than everyone else
If you want to stand out among the other Hollywood hopefuls, you need to work tirelessly to achieve your goals. When you get your first job, even if it’s a one-day PA gig, be organized, efficient, and helpful, and ask for more work to do when you’ve finished your tasks.
This is especially true if you’re observant of Shabbat. Hollywood doesn’t close on weekends, and you’ll have to prove to your bosses that having you as their assistant six days a week is worth the day off on the seventh. You’ll have to prove this to Jewish bosses who may have their own complicated feelings about practicing the religion.
I was once turned down for a job because my would-be boss felt too much guilt from his grandmother that he wasn’t observant. But don’t get too hung up on the people who see your religious observance as a hindrance. If you’re great at what you do, you’ll carve a path for yourself. Remember that observance gives you tremendous discipline, and that’s one of the cornerstones of any good employee.
Working in an entry-level position in Hollywood can be thankless and exhausting, but if you’re passionate about your future in the industry, you’ll get through the grinding years and find fulfillment in the art you helped bring to the world.
Find a group of industry peers that are your true friends – I’m still close with my peers from my first internship eight years ago – who you can vent to when the going gets tough.
Make friends outside the industry, too, so that you remember that there’s a great big world out there that isn’t freaking out about a dropped phone call.
Ultimately, stay true to yourself and your values. Your career is important, and it can even be fun! But more important than breaking into Hollywood is making sure Hollywood doesn’t break you.
Need help writing or editing your resume? Check out Cindy’s company Hollywood Resumes!
Cindy Kaplan is a writer and entrepreneur living in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured on Yahoo!, Defy Media, VEVO, and other digital outlets and film festivals. She co-founded Hollywood Resumes, a resume-writing service that focuses on job applicants trying to break into the entertainment industry. She loves all animals, from puppies to okapis.