Secrets of Hollywood Agency Mailrooms
Is the next David Geffen here? He started in an agency mailroom, as have countless moguls, as THR introduces today's apprentices.
Forget Harvard Business School. If you're looking to meet the next generation of Hollywood players, there's no better place to search than a talent agency mailroom. Countless moguls began their careers pushing a steel cart down a hallway, which is still considered the best way to learn the ins and outs of show business. Today's mailroomers are a far cry from the lower-middle-class New York kids who created the pay-your-dues ethos that permeates the agencies to this day. They're hyper-educated, ultraprofessional and fully aware of the opportunities their jobs provide. CAA, for instance, extends its culture of steely professionalism to its mailroom program. The agency, founded in 1975 by a group of ambitious William Morris agents -- Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer, Mike Rosenfeld, William Haber and Rowland Perkins -- still requires strict attention to detail, as well as the traditional suit and tie (or business attire for women, who now join the mailroom in almost equal numbers). And the program is open-ended, meaning you get out when you're good enough. The competition is so stiff that trainees must work as an assistant for a year before even starting the program.
In the Mailroom:
Chelsea McKinnies, 28
The Bloomington, Minn., native studied drama and English literature at New York University and upon graduation in 2005 tried her hand as an actress. Three years later, McKinnies decided to delve into the business side of the industry and began working at CAA's New York office. After stints as an assistant in the theater and motion picture talent departments, the latter of which landed her with Dianne McGunigle (who focuses on comedy), McKinnies joined the mailroom program in June. She knows what her focus will be. "Comedy for me is very exciting," she says, "because most of the individuals that do comedy are self-generating. They have a spark that I feel, if nurtured properly, lends itself to a long-term career."
Clarissa Reformina, 25
Even before graduating from Boston University in 2008, the upstate New York native had a handful of music business internships under her belt, including stints at New York radio station Z100 and Sony BMG. Until she began the mailroom training program in August, Reformina served as assistant to CAA music agent Mark Cheatham, starting in June 2008 in New York. She'd like to continue on the music track. Reformina says she's enjoying her time in Los Angeles and connecting with other trainees. "I wouldn't even call them colleagues anymore," she says. "I would call them friends."
Peter Micelli, TV Packaging and Literary Agent
Micelli grew up in a family that loved hard pears and apples, so he picked some up during his daily 5:15 a.m. grocery run for the office. "An agent called down to the mailroom and said, 'Who the F is buying the hard fruit?' You realize in that moment, there is a challenge to a one-size-fits-all mentality. You have to make people feelheard and happy."
Jim Toth, Co-Head of Motion Picture Talent
"The first Friday, on the way home, I bought one of those Dr. Scholl's foot massagers. My feet were killing me," Toth told author David Rensin for his book The Mailroom. "I wondered if the knee surgery I'd had because of high school football might prevent me from becoming an agent. I admit it -- it actually crossed my mind."
Created in 1991 when the Bauer-Benedek Agency merged with Leading Artists Agency, where current chairman Jim Berkus was a partner, United Talent Agency employs about 20 full-time mailroom staffers for its 122 agents. To interview for an agent's desk, each wannabe submits himself or herself to four weeks of training at "UTA University." It's a path followed by UTA partners such as Dan Erlij (TV lit) and Brett Hansen (alternative TV) as well as HBO Entertainment president Sue Naegle and producers Marty Bowen and Basil Iwanyk. "Tactically, it's important because you're able to observe the pressure, the passion and the frenetic environment," says motion picture lit partner Jeremy Zimmer, "which is not for everybody."
In the Mailroom:
Evi Heilbrunn, 22
The University of Pennsylvania grad flew out the morning after graduation, targeting independent film financing as a potential career path. "It teaches you how to react to any situation," she says of working in the mailroom.
Rebecca Phillips, 27
An MFA from the Yale School of Drama didn't prepare the New Yorker for her week-one delivery to an A-list actor-writer. Rather than allow her on the property, he made her toss the envelope over a garden wall. "I don't see this as paying my dues," she says. "It's an overture to an opera I've been prepared for my whole life."
Dan Erlij, TV Lit Partner
"The weekend before the 1996 TV upfronts, I got an angry call from [TV lit agent] Jay Sures' assistant: 'Dude, NBC hand-delivered all the invitations, and Jay's isn't here.' I was in sheer panic. I decided they might be in the HR head's office, but we didn't have a key, so I took the door off the hinges. The moment I got it off, I got a call from the assistant: 'Dude, my bad.' "
Brett Hansen, Alternative TV Partner
"A partner once handed me a bag of money to drop off at a high-profile actor-writer's house. I knocked on the door, and no one answered. When I called the partner, he said to keep trying, that the client was definitely home. I knocked for two hours straight. Finally, the client opened the door, grabbed the bag and slammed the door without a word."
At International Creative Management, ambitious young wannabes must earn their way into the mailroom. New recruits at the Century City-based agency -- which dates to the 1975 merger of Creative Management Associates and International Famous Agency but received a shot in the arm with the 2006 acquisition of Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann -- typically push a mail cart for two to three months. Mailroom workers can be promoted to full-fledged assistants, and another year or so of rolling calls allows them to apply and interview with nine or 10 of the firm's 140 agents for a spot in the official trainee program run by vice chairman Robert Broder. "We probably get 200 to 250 pieces of mail a day … a lot of kids wanting autographs," says Danny Wantland, who has run the ICM mailroom for nearly 19 years. "It started as a temp job."
In the Mailroom
Kira Marx, 22
The Syracuse grad has been sorting Eminem and Megan Fox fan mail: "It's so funny to read these poor little kids writing 'Dear Mr. Marshall Mathers' or 'Dear Mrs. Megan Fox.' "
Michael Masukawa, 22
The UCLA grad landed in the ICM mailroom in August. A highlight so far: attending an AFI screenwriting showcase that allowed him to hear 10-minute pitches from hot screenwriters and follow up with those he liked. "Before that, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do, but after being there I know I want to be an agent," he says. "I loved the pursuit."
Carter Cohn, Talent Agent
"One of the great joys of my mailroom experience was the 'Wiatt Car Run.' When [agency chief] Jim Wiatt didn't need his car for the evening, we would take it to be gassed up and washed. It was a convertible Porsche. We'd put the top down and really open it up on the 10 Freeway."
Doug MacLaren, Motion Picture Lit Agent
"At the end of my first Friday, I came back from delivering packages to find one last envelope for Charlie Sheen's house -- way out in the boondocks. I didn't get there until close to midnight, and the place looked deserted, so I threw the package over the gate and left. Six months later, I found out the package was from one of the assistants, who had written on the buckslip: 'Hey Charlie, we're just f--ing with the new guy in the mailroom.' "
Forged from the 2009 merger of the venerable William Morris Agency -- where everyone from David Geffen to Barry Diller to Disney's Rich Ross started in the mailroom -- and relative upstart Endeavor, whose leaders Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell climbed the ladder from the bottom rung at CAA and the old InterTalent, respectively, WME selects its 20 or so mailroom workers from about 250 applicants a week (workers are paid a tiny hourly wage plus overtime as required by California law). But those allowed in the door spend time in an intense showbiz crash course, learning the ins and outs of the agency and Hollywood. "We view our mailroom as a learning tool, not a punishment," says human resources chief Carole Katz, who runs the program. "It's not hazing." Still, only about 30 percent of mailroom staffers will be invited to become "trainees" and get assigned to an agent's desk. And of those lucky few, only about 10 percent will eventually make the cut and become an agent.
In the Mailroom
Maxfield Elins, 22
Mailrooms are filled with USC graduates and relatives of Hollywood insiders. Elins is both, joining WME this fall on the advice of stepfather David Madden, who runs Fox TV Studios.
Cara Goldman, 21
The recent Syracuse graduate dove head-first into WME culture by interning for the agency at the Cannes Film Festival in May. "I was getting tickets for agents and doing whatever else they needed," she says. The experience convinced Goldman to move west and join the mailroom in the fall.
Kate Mitchell, 23
Among the bizarre tasks the recent USC cinema arts graduate has been assigned during the past four months: an impromptu candy run for agents and clients. "They had to be this specific type of gummy bear," she says.
Roman Lillie, 31
After studying at Wellesley and the University of Pennsylvania, Lillie built a career in the news business -- at CBS' The Early Show then as an on-air reporter in Florida -- before giving it up. "I knew absolutely no one in the industry," she says, recalling how she cold-called WME and landed a job in August. "I'm really impressed by the commercials department. That's where I want to be."
Adriana Alberghetti, Partner
"[Endeavor co-founder] Tom Strickler decided I didn't read enough scripts. So he drew a line on his wall eight feet high and said, 'Starting today, you have to read client scripts, and until your pile of scripts hits that line, I won't even consider you for a promotion.' Then he'd pull a script from the pile and make me pitch it to him. If I couldn't pitch it to him in three minutes, it was out of the pile. At the top, he taped an envelope that said 'The Prize.' When I got to the top, it was a first-class ticket to the New York Film Festival. I went with the partners and got a corner suite."
Josh Pyatt, Agent
"There was this agent who made me drive around Los Angeles trying to find a specific doggy door for his office. Mind you, this guy represented some of the biggest clients we had. So I went to 15 pet stores in this town -- I probably drove 35 minutes away looking for this thing. And then I had to do what few people do: I had to come back and tell him I couldn't find it."
THE GREATEST MAILROOM STORY EVER: For his 2003 book The Mailroom, author David Rensin solicited tales from dozens of Hollywood heavyweights who started their careers in agency mailrooms. The following story from Jack Rapke -- who served in the William Morris mailroom in 1975 before becoming a top CAA agent and partnering with filmmaker Robert Zemeckis -- has been told in many ways, and it's THR's favorite.
There was this older agent, in his mid-60s at the time, who covered CBS. They called him the Silver Fox. His secretary was Michelle Triola Marvin, who was famous for the Lee Marvin palimony suit. She used to push us around: "He has a run. Come and get it immediately." Not once or twice, but 10 times a day: "He has a run." She used to beat the shit out of us. We were like, "F-- her. F-- him."
Dennis Brody was head of Dispatch. The town was divided into three runs: Hollywood, the Valley and Beverly Hills. We were all out of the mailroom and in Dispatch -- me, Lezman, Randall, Bruce Pfeiffer, Somers -- and we got a call from Michelle Marvin: "I have an immediate package that has to go immediately, first stop." Where's it going? Century City, so it's the Beverly Hills run. Who's on the Beverly Hills run? Gary Randall and Bruce Pfeiffer. Gary Randall was driving. Bruce ran the packages.
They went down to the guy's office. The rest of us went outside, on a break, to the catering truck. We were hanging around the roach coach when Pfeiffer came out carrying a white paper bag like you'd get at a pharmacy. The dispatch slip read CENTURY CITY HOSPITAL. Bruce carried the bag at arm's length. He didn't know what was in it, and he didn't want to know. He got in the car with Gary and put the bag on the floor between his feet.
Gary and Bruce left the lot and turned up Charleville, heading east, then to Olympic and the hospital. But before they arrived, curiosity finally got the better of them. They had to stop and check out what they were carrying. They figured it was a urine sample.
It was a stool sample.
Excerpt from The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up by David Rensin (Ballantine, 2003), reprinted with permission of the author.
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