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This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Like everything else in Hollywood these days, the assistant is getting a reboot.
The image earned by decades of tradition — that of the well-groomed, highly educated automaton living to serve an abusive boss’ every whim in exchange for an invitation into the industry club — has given way to a new breed of assistant: gentler, more self-involved and not necessarily motivated by such time-honored enticements as money, fast cars and power.
It’s a generational thing: For the first time in Hollywood history, the millennials — that catch-all for anyone who came of age around 2000, give or take five years — are dominating the underclass. The assimilation has not been an entirely smooth one, as a population of 20-somethings who grew up digitally (and often emotionally) enabled now find themselves thrown headfirst into an environment traditionally associated with subservience, secrecy and paying one’s dues.
THR spoke with dozens of agency and studio assistants and their bosses, most of whom cite the arrival of new variables — those key “millennial traits” — into Hollywood’s apprenticeship-based ecosystem, one of the last of its kind in corporate America. On the one hand, new recruits are praised for being compassionate, idealistic and wildly Internet-savvy. But behind closed doors, veterans grumble that they also can come off as entitled, self-centered and chronically prone to oversharing.
Horror stories are traded among the bemused: Have you heard about the assistant’s mother who called a power agent to complain about how she was treating her daughter? Or the assistant at a boutique agency who froze when his boss asked him to print a script? (He’d only ever seen them in PDF format.)
“They don’t get the whole ‘I’m here to take care of your every need’ mentality,” says Josh Green, vp business affairs at Sony Music, of the current crop of assistants. “They gossip, play on Twitter and Facebook and IM all day. They’ll do what’s asked but never anticipate their bosses’ needs.”
A common complaint is that millennials expect too much, too soon. Having been raised on a steady diet of YouTube, Netflix and other forms of instant gratification, they frequently are shell-shocked by the grueling hours and low pay that awaits them in Hollywood. When Syracuse University grad Yoni Liebling moved to L.A. in 2010 to take a job in CAA’s storied mailroom, he admits his expectations were slightly out of whack. “I had that millennial mentality,” says Liebling, 27, of those itchy early years. “I thought, ‘I’m going to work for it, I want it, thus I should get it.’ ” It didn’t take long for Liebling to realize that Hollywood is the type of place where few low-level people advance “unless you bust your butt.” He then proceeded to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
He now assists The Blind Side producer Molly Smith and lives with three former CAA mailroom buddies in “the castle” — a four-bedroom Spanish Colonial within spitting distance of Pizzeria Mozza in Hancock Park. Two of his roommates — Sean Eisenberg, 27, and Adam Paulsen, 26 — have stayed on at CAA, where they work as coordinators in the comedy and film financing departments, respectively. The fourth, Ben Yano, 27, assists Scott Budnick, producer of the Hangover films and founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an organization that helps former prisoners get back on their feet. “I was always involved in philanthropy while I was at CAA,” says Yano, who gravitated to the “like-minded” Budnick after learning of his charitable efforts.
Together, these four driven young men offer a vivid portrait of what millennials are bringing to the industry. They’ve even reconfigured the way in which assistants socialize: On any given night, the castle will ping their people; minutes later, an industry party materializes in their cozy backyard. “Assistants, comedians and coordinators will show up — all the people coming up around us,” says the Minnesota-born Paulsen of their “open-door” policy.
To be sure, a good swath of assistant culture remains as opportunistic and cliquish as ever, with young strivers regularly packing such West Hollywood haunts as Harlowe Bar, Laurel Hardware and the Phoenix. But savvy assistants — many of whom tend to mimic their bosses’ habit of microscheduling everything — make sure to get in a good Googling ahead of time. The more they can glean from Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, the easier to tell if this drinks date is a potential colleague, competitor or even a casual fling.
Read more Next Gen 2014: Hollywood’s New Class
The rise of Facebook and Instagram has added yet another layer of complexity. Jittery agencies have scrambled to revise social media policies in a bid to ensure that snap-happy assistants are staying on brand, noncontroversial and respectful of their high-powered clients’ privacy. But enforcing those policies isn’t easy. One Instagram feed devoted to the goings-on at “Wonderland,” another assistant house in Laurel Canyon, regularly led hundreds of industry revelers — including members of Green Day and the cast of Game of Thrones — to show up for its infamous, all-night ragers. The tenants — four guys in their early 20s currently working at Gersh, CAA, WME and ICM — were evicted from the property last year and now occupy a smaller place at Melrose and Kings Road. How did the revelers handle work on the mornings after? “We’d wake up at 7:30 a.m., shake off our hangovers, show up and crush it,” says one frequent Wonderland partier. “Our bosses didn’t care. Some of them were there partying with us the night before!” Asked how he thinks millennials have changed the culture, he doesn’t hesitate: “We made Hollywood more digital. And way more social.”
For many, the lackluster economy (studies say one in five people in their 20s and 30s currently live with their parents) has made the road that leads to that first assistant job longer and more thankless than for previous generations. Paulsen says he held four unpaid internships before finally landing a paying spot in the CAA mailroom. And unlike working for TV producers such as Vince Gilligan and Ryan Murphy — both of whom have upped assistants to writer positions — a job on an agent’s or studio executive’s desk can feel like a road to nowhere. That’s where another millennial quality comes in handy, the same that helped to elect the president who will forever be associated with their generation: hope.
“There is no set path to getting ahead in Hollywood, which is what makes it so exciting and also terrifying,” says Libby Meyer, 24, an assistant at management firm Principato Young. “You just have to find the courage to know that it will all work out.”
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