Roundtable: Hollywood how-tos

Want to learn the secrets to building a successful career in the industry? Listen to what our panel of talented professionals had to say.

How does one go from making coffee to making millions? It's a question on the minds of every aspiring executive, agent or manager in Hollywood, but the answer varies greatly depending on whom you ask. To get the insider's perspective on how to get ahead in the business, The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway recently invited five former Next Gen'ers to reveal what qualities it takes to make a name for oneself in the often cutthroat world of entertainment. Panelists included (pictured above, from left) Mike Darnell, executive vp alternative programming and specials at Fox Broadcasting Co.; Nick Grad, executive vp original programming at FX Networks; Jon Jashni, chief creative officer at Legendary Pictures; Charles King, a vp at the William Morris Agency; and Yair Landau, president of Sony Pictures Digital.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the biggest surprise you've had in building a career in Hollywood?
Jon Jashni: It is truly about the work. You assume that it must partially be about the politics and partially about the strategy -- at the end of the day, all that's indelible is the work.
Charles King: The thing I have found surprising is how the landscape has changed so dramatically over the last 10 years. In terms of content, the whole digital landscape -- everything has really been turned upside-down. So, if you are doing business the same way it has been done the last 20 years, you are going to be left behind.
Nick Grad: When I started -- I had my first executive job in 1995 -- it was really surprising how small the business seemed. It was four-people-by-four-people. It wasn't an old boys' club, but everyone knew everyone. It was very insular, and I don't think people really wanted a free flow of (others) coming in. Hollywood has always been this beast that really is unwilling to change.

THR: Isn't that true of most businesses?
Yair Landau: It is true of all power structures. Incumbents don't like to leave their positions. Guys don't like to see other pieces grow that reduce their power and influence. But that is no different in Washington D.C. than it is in Hollywood. Change has a way of causing imbalance in the status quo.

THR: Mike, what surprised you the most?
Mike Darnell: I worked for a local station for six years, and my whole goal was to get to the network. And when I first started there, I thought, "Well, everybody must be a genius. I know how hard it was for me to get here." I expected everybody to be brilliant. That just wasn't true. A lot of people that made it through those ranks were not that smart, and to my great surprise very few of the people I worked with -- and it's still true -- watched a lot of television. It seemed to me that if your expertise was boxing, then you should watch every boxing match and know every boxer. I talk to executives in the business all the time who say, "I don't watch any television."

THR: How important is it to know your field?
Darnell: The easiest thing to get caught up in is the vacuum of the executive ranks and not have a sense of what the public wants to see, and the only way to have a sense of what the public wants to see is to see it and enjoy it yourself. (If not), then this is the wrong business to be in. If you hate what is populist, you can't be in a populist business.
Landau: But that's true for any business. If you don't care about the product and you don't want to consume the product, then you shouldn't be making it.

THR: If you do care about the product, what's the best path toward making it?
Grad: The most successful people have early on found a mentor and someone they can really respect and learn from. My first was Jeanie Bradley, who was head of current at Columbia TriStar TV. She's just a phenomenal person and teaches you that it's not about you -- it's about the work and about relationships -- and not only are you the studio advocate on behalf of whatever production you are doing, but you are also the talent's advocate at the studio. It's a two-way stream.

THR: How did you meet her?
Grad: Got lucky, interviewed for the right job at the right time. She hired me.
King: I've had several (mentors). The first was a woman named Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp, who helped me get my first job in the business at MTV Networks as a law clerk back during my second year in law school. There was a story in Black Enterprise about the top power brokers in the industry, and I wrote her a letter.

THR: What's the best advice a mentor gave you?
King: The value of being multilingual, not just understanding one arena. I was given great advice from (William Morris agent) Dave Wirtschafter to understand a lot of different areas in the business, and it has allowed me to grow at a more rapid pace. Most people are fairly segmented, at least in the early years. But look at the landscape of the marketplace: In (Paramount chief) Brad Grey, you've got a manager/TV producer running a film studio. You've got people from publishing running movie studios. You've got people from the film world working in dotcoms. I was encouraged to try and understand a lot of aspects of the business.

THR: Is being "multilingual" more important than being a specialist?
King: You definitely have to have your core base of understanding. For me, I started out in the motion picture literary marketplace. You have your base of understanding, and you expand from there.

THR: Mike, what's the best advice you've been given?
Darnell: The best advice came from Barry Diller, who told me a very simple thing: that everything I ever did had to have a beginning, middle and end. As silly as that sounds, it stuck with me, and it was a very clear statement.

THR: What about mistakes. What's the biggest mistake you've made?
Jashni: Taking it personally. I realize now, truly, that it's rarely personal, and that has just freed me to focus on the work.
Landau: I was early on a lot of things, and my belief in my will to make something happen, versus the reality of the marketplace, were too far apart. There were a bunch of things that we tried (digitally) that are now huge in the world, that basically we were just too early on. Timing from a marketplace standpoint is a hard thing to gauge.
Darnell: It's not a mistake, but I've made some career choices. I've stayed in the executive ranks. I like the job. I really enjoy what I do, but there is certainly more money to be made as a producer.

THR: How would you advise somebody to do it differently?
Darnell: Oh, boy. I did it a very difficult way. Coming from a local station into a network is a very difficult route. I'd say the easiest route is getting your foot in the door at a network -- being an intern, an assistant, anything -- because the only way to get known and seen is to start from below.
Grad: But the system has changed a lot. Today, no matter where you start, you can have a goal that is completely different, and nobody is going to look at you and go, "You're the intern to the legal-affairs guy, and you want to be a director?!"

THR: How do you create a map to go where you want, then? Can you still do that with all these systemic changes?
Grad: There's no map anymore. When I started, it used to be: Work in a studio or network, then be a producer, produce a hit sitcom, get back in, buy a house in Montecito! (Laughter) The business changed so much -- you have to roll with it. If you want to be an actor or writer or director, it's easier to locate where your endpoint is. Being an executive or a producer, there's too much X factor involved, and things change so much. You can probably get a nice little five-year plan going, but beyond that it's really hard to figure out.
Jashni: The linear, upwardly trending career arc doesn't exist anymore. Survival these days is its own form of success.

THR: So, you can't look ahead?
Grad: You need to know who you are and what you want. Most people genetically don't know what their strengths and weaknesses are and what they want. What do you like to do? What do you not like to do? If you ask the average person, they have a hard time putting that down on a piece of paper.

THR: Is it still possible to emulate others' careers?
Darnell: I grew up appreciating Barry Diller. I had a relationship (with him) when I first started. (He was) very tough, very intimidating. I am a short guy, so everybody looks tall to me. But I said, "Barry Diller is a tall guy!" And my wife said, "He's not tall!" And I realized that his strength, his power, his intimidation made him tower. I was shocked when he left (Fox) and went to QVC. I couldn't believe it. And of course, he is a visionary; somehow, he knows what is happening.

THR: You don't come across as being like Barry Diller, though.
Darnell: In a way, I am. He has combined an extraordinary creativeness and a really great business acumen all in one human being, and I sort of feel I like that about myself. I like being creative. But a lot of people are very stuck in being creative, where that's the only thing. And I have always said, "It's a business." So, I'll do shows I love and shows I don't love. If game shows are working, I'll do a game show. As much as I love being creative, it's a business, and that's my job.

THR: But clearly you didn't say, "I am going to be intimidating like Barry Diller."
Darnell: No. It's not about the intimidation factor. This combination of business-meets-creative appeals to me -- you have to achieve both. I look at an Aaron Spelling and think, in addition to being creative and a great producer, he looked around the landscape and said, "Here's what's missing," not, "What do I want to do?"

THR: In terms of careers, what's missing? Where should people be aiming?
Landau: You can give an answer at this second and this minute, but it's not really relevant. What's relevant is, where is somebody going to be a year from now, two years from now?
Darnell: I am watching another form of media explode, the (sites such as Yahoo! and If there's a place that is going to explode, it is where (they intersect with television). The Internet wants desperately to have some TV media in there, and TV wants to incorporate into that, but neither is a perfect fit at this moment. Both areas are struggling to find a breakthrough.

THR: What about someone who wants to work for you? What do you look for when you're hiring?
Darnell: The main thing to me is loyal, loyal, loyal people who have visceral television instincts -- not a Harvard degree, not an incredible ambition. We are all so (used to being) in a society that is not watching the mass -- we lose perspective. And that's why it is such a crapshoot. It is better if you have people around you (with) fairly real opinions. What is revered as the best and the brightest is not the best and the brightest in this industry.
Jashni: I want people who have an aversion to futility and who understand the concept of loyalty. I need people that I can go to when I don't have the answers, which is a lot of the time, and who can tap into a whole layer that I am not as current with, who can counsel me.

THR: If you hire an assistant, what do you look for, Charles?
King: Loyalty, hard work, someone who is willing to pay their dues. But loyalty would be the strongest.

THR: What is the most underrated quality someone should have?
Jashni: Boundaries. Someone's ability to determine what's appropriate at any given time indicates a greater ability on their part to grow into other roles.
Grad: It is still about originality and bringing something that people didn't (know) they wanted. Every year, in the TV business, every agency goes to the networks, and they tell them what they want. Maybe one out of 25 things they say, they actually end up with. The people I hire, I need them to have an instinct for what works and what I want to achieve.

THR: What do your bosses look for in you?
Darnell: Many, many times I've been told, "You're crazy! This is the straw that's going to break the camel's back." But here's the bottom line, at least in television: You do not get rewarded for saving them money. You do not get rewarded for Emmys. You do not get rewarded for anything except ratings. I don't care what anyone else says to you -- that's it. In the long run, you are only putting your neck on the line if you think you are going to generate a number. Don't put your neck on the line because you are going to get an award.

THR: How important is it to go along with the team?
Darnell: It is important to be a team player if you believe in the team and the team is doing a good job. If you believe the team is not doing a good job, your job is to try to change the team. Because there are many times when being a team player, quite frankly, gets you fired. It's important to support everybody, and at the same time, if you don't believe in it, it's important to let that be known.
Landau: I'm a huge believer in being a team player, in collaboration as a key part of the creative process. At some point in time, there's a creative decision that is not made by one person because there's a lot of money involved and big companies involved. At that point, being a team player is pretty key. It's important to stick to what you believe in and articulate it, but it's also important that your ego not overwhelm the rest of the process.

THR: What advice would you give to somebody starting in the business?
Grad: When I was an assistant at Fox Broadcasting, (executive) Dan McDermott said, "If you want to move up, just start doing that job." Obviously, you have to be careful not to really piss too many people off, but I just started doing coverage on scripts, even though no one asked me to. You have to try and let people know that you have the tools.   
King: I call it the "as if" theory -- to act "as if" and do it. For the assistant who wants to be an agent, what does an agent do? How many scripts are they reading over the weekend? What events are they going to? How does an agent dress? It's about being prepared to do the job before you are even in the position.
Darnell: Work insanely hard, especially when you are young. There shouldn't be a moment in your life when you can't stay 16 hours. It is a business that does respond to people paying their dues.
Landau: Don't be held back by the way things have always been done or the way people tell you business is done. You should always be thinking about what is the right way for you to do it or the right way generically it should be done. You should never be held back by someone who says, "Well, we do it this way."
Jashni: Two things for me: You have to define yourself as opposed to allowing others to define you. And you have to absolutely be a juggernaut -- a passionate and appropriate juggernaut, but a juggernaut.