Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What Does a Showrunner's Assistant Do?

There's a fascinating First Person article over at John August's site on what it's like to be a showrunner's assistant. I've reposted this below for you all. Unfortunately, this isn't a 3Questions interview, but everything is pretty much covered. Below is John's lead in and the first person account:

In addition to a name that sounds like a children’s book hero, Jonny Sommers has a job many readers want — or at least, think they want: the assistant to a successful and busy TV showrunner.

I met him through Larry Andries, who is also writer/showrunner (but not Jonny’s boss). It was at a birthday party at a speakeasy in Koreatown, complete with a password at the door. So don’t forget that mixing and mingling is a crucial part of the industry.

When I found out what Jonny did, I asked him to write a first-person account for the blog. And here it is.

My name is Jonny Sommers and I’m a 25-year old nascent screenwriter. I’ve been living in Los Angeles for a little over three years. For the past year and a half, I’ve been employed as a showrunner’s assistant on a network hour drama show.

The job is akin to any other assistant gig in Hollywood. Difference is, your boss is running a corporation called a “TV show” and it employs hundreds of people. It’s the showrunner’s job to run the corporation smoothly, to make the best television possible. It’s your job make sure your boss can do their job well. This means:

  • managing their schedule
  • rolling calls (keeping a thorough call log and forwarding any calls to their cell)
  • setting up travel
  • coordinating their day
  • making sure they are where they need to be and are as informed as possible
  • reading scripts and writing coverage (providing a story synopsis and comments)
  • taking notes on calls
  • getting coffee
  • getting gas for their car
  • sending gifts
  • setting up dinners
  • getting that salad from that one place they love
  • listening to them vent their frustrations
  • being a gatekeeper and sometimes, their confidant.

There’s a large learning curve to the job. When I was new, I made more than my fair share of mistakes.

You cannot forget that word “assistant” in your title. Though you have access to every aspect of your boss’ life, you’re not an executive. Your thoughts, your feelings, and your opinions aren’t particularly important. Maybe one day your boss and you will forge some professional relationship and you’ll become more than an assistant. Until then, be quiet, listen, and make sure your boss looks good.

Your boss can ask you anything at any time and they don’t want to wait for an answer. Maybe it’s the name of an actor’s agent, or the shooting start time, or casting director’s cell number. You need to have all of this information ready.

The job requires long hours. You could be there late into the night. If you’re a clock-watcher, you’re doomed. I don’t mind the long hours because each moment is a chance to learn. It’s not that I have to stay until 2 AM because they’re still shooting, it’s that I get to stay.

Being flexible means your life plans take second place to the job. You will disappoint people because you will often have to blow off the 7:30 movie you planned or explain to your significant other that you’re working late, again.

Gatekeeping and Trust

With the hundreds of people associated with a network show, your boss is a wanted person. Everybody wants a piece of his or her time. Whatever issue they want to talk about, to that person, it’s the most important thing in the world.

It is your job to prioritize their day and protect their time so they can deal with more pressing matters. You’ll need to have a solid working knowledge of Hollywood and its players. Beyond knowing the names of cast, crew and executives on the show, you need to know who’s currently important in Hollywood. Is that person who just left word (industry term for leaving a message) a big movie producer or some no-name agent making unsolicited calls?

The relationship between showrunner and assistant requires trust. Since you are listening in on many of their calls, you’ll have experience with how the entertainment industry works. This also means that you’re privy to very confidential information. Subsequently, people on the show will try to buddy up with you to glean information.

A few years back, a young woman, brand new to Hollywood, somehow landed an assistant position at a major agency. At the end of her first week, she sent her hometown friends a breathlessly gushy e-mail about all the important people she’s met, and the juicy conversations she’s overheard. Unfortunately, she accidentally sent the e-mail to her the entire agency. She was fired on the spot.

The Good

For any open showrunner assistant gig, there might be 200+ applicants. It is the job that most assistants would kill for. Tourists pay fifty bucks a person to get a tour of where you work. You’re surrounded by celebrities. If you freeze your DVR, you might see your name in the end credits. You get to go to various parties and drinks with other assistants. You get free show presents such as sweatshirts, DVDs, screening tickets and so on. Plus, the pay isn’t that bad.

You’re in proximity to brilliant writers, directors, actors and other industry professionals. When my boss was hiring a writing staff for his show, I was able to get a first-hand look at how he, the studio, and the network, selected the staff. Those lessons will be beneficial when I’m going out for a job as a staff writer, which is my next career goal.

Not all showrunner’s assistants want to write. Some want to direct, produce, or work as a studio executive. Whatever your aspirations might be, this job can help you get there but it doesn’t guarantee that you will. If you don’t make the most of the opportunity, it can pass you by. This job, no matter how cool it is, should be a springboard and not an ultimate destination.

The Bad

There are some weeks when I’m just praying for it to be Friday. Beyond the long hours, the job is extremely fast-paced and very stressful. There are times I feel as though I’m drowning in work and my “To Do List” is growing infinitely.

Sometimes, what your boss is asking for may seem impossible. A friend of mine received a phone call at three in the morning. His boss was in New York City and wanted a private plane to fly him back to Los Angeles at 8 AM. That gave my friend two hours to locate a plane, a pilot, and get his boss on the plane. Somehow he got it done. When his boss arrived to work, my friend was treated with no fanfare. What he did was difficult and impressive but that’s the job. Your boss doesn’t need to thank you, or acknowledge a job well done. This is what you signed up for. If you’re a person that needs constant praise, this job may not be for you.

One executive I know described the assistant-showrunner relation this way: “You’re sort of like my fridge. I just expect it to work.”

From the second my boss walks in the door, to the moment work is done (not when he leaves because your responsibilities will keep you in the office long after your boss leaves) you have to be ‘on’ constantly.

Have you ever been to the circus and saw a juggler juggling fifteen sharp knives? Well, sometimes my job feels that way. Most days start off with my boss rattling off things we need to get done. “Jonny, did we call this person?” “Jonny, are we shooting on the location next Thursday?” “Jonny, can you get my car washed?” “Jonny, did you schedule that meeting?” “Jonny, did you read the pages that came out last night?”

Do your job, wear a smile, and don’t whine. When I first moved to LA, a friend who is a successful writer on a famous show offered me some advice. I asked, “What makes a good assistant?” He answered, “Just shut the fuck up and do your job.” It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

Oh, and you should write, too

The most challenging part of the job happens when the day is over. After a fourteen-hour day of phone calls, endless questions, boring reading, and double-checking schedules, you’re fried. Here comes the second part of the job -– the part where you go home and practice your craft.

There is no such thing as a career assistant in Hollywood and no one is going to promote you to staff writer because you’re really good at rolling calls. You need to be really good at writing. Writing is the only credential that matters.

When you finally get home, you are in complete control of your career destiny. At the end of these long days, writing is the last thing you want to do. Motivating yourself to write in the wee hours, and knowing that you need to get up early to do it all over again, is really difficult. However if you’re serious about making the leap from a Hollywood assistant to a Hollywood writer, you’ll find the time.

It can be tempting to want to share your work with your boss, but there’s an appropriate way and an inappropriate way of advancing your career. The first few months is not time to ask for your boss to read your script. The absolute worst thing you could do is go behind your their back and ask one of their colleagues for a read of your script. The dynamic is akin to any relationship that takes time and trust. Use common sense before you call in any favors. The safe route would be to wait until boss offers to read your script.

Speaking of script, I should really get back to this spec script I’m writing.

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