I think it’s important to talk about what to expect once you actually start.
My first day in production was terrifying. I’m pretty sure I threw up. What can I say? I’m a nervous Nancy. I’ve been racking my brain to think of a good story when I failed my first week, but everyday was a struggle.
I really wish I had been more prepared.
I’m sure I’ve built up a lot of this in my mind, and no one remembers how terrible I was at first, but that’s beside the point. I literally (yes, that word is overused) remember thinking, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?”
Fortunately my excitement powered me through the long days, and I managed to navigate through without anyone confronting me.
When I first started, I tried reading up on what it took to succeed, but couldn’t find a whole lot other than The Hollywood Assistants Handbook. Which, to be fair, has a lot of great pointers, but didn’t give the full breadth of tactics and mindset. I’m going to take you through the tactics I’ve found to be a successful formula when you are first jumping in.
I won’t beat around the bush – the film industry is intense especially when you’re at the bottom. Let’s just say entertainment professions attract an…interesting group of people. Big egos, sociopaths, you name it, the film industry has it.
If you are new and “green” some of your coworkers will harass you like its a fraternity hazing, and your superiors could care less about you. I’m not telling you this to try and scare you, but I want you to know exactly what you’re up against.
“I order assistants like I order pens.”
That’s what my former boss told me. As terrible as it sounds, it’s fairly accurate. This sentiment is important to understand because it shows you how management in the entertainment business feel, and how you will be treated until you prove yourself.
If you want to thrive in the film industry, you need to understand why this mentality is so rampant. There are people lining up around the block just to get an entry level position. I know this has always been a big dream for me, and know that’s probably the same for you. Unfortunately, it’s the same dream for a lot of folks, which creates a lot of demand for few positions.
In the 2005 book Freakanomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner introduced the concept of “glamor professions.” A glamour profession is essentially a career that has the potential to give you status and money. I’m sure you can guess what industries can be covered by the this term – sports teams, ad agencies, music labels, and yes – the film industry.
In the glamor professions, there are thousands of people competing for just a few positions, which creates the environment of being underpaid and working long hours. I’ll let the authors explain in greater detail:
“In the glamour professions—movies, sports, music, fashion—there is a different dynamic at play…swarms of bright young people throw themselves at grunt jobs that pay poorly and demand unstinting devotion…(they) are all playing the same game, a game that is best viewed as a tournament. The rules of a tournament are straightforward.
You must start at the bottom to have a shot at the top…You must be willing to work long and hard at substandard wages. In order to advance in the tournament, you must prove yourself not merely above average but spectacular. (The way to distinguish yourself differs from profession to profession, of course.)”
This is a great way to think about the film industry, and the mentality I’ve adopted since I read the book. It is a little cold and calculated? Maybe, but it’s the truth. To advance in the tournament you need to be ready to work.
Like, really work.
You need to be spectacular to rise above those around you. To really pull this off there are some nuances you need to understand about your new position and those around you.
ENTERTAINMENT CAREERS – UNDERSTAND YOUR POSITION
When I was at my first big job I read a book called The 48 Laws of Power, because I wanted a better understanding of power structures not only in the entertainment industry, but throughout human history. The only difference between power structures in production companies, versus those in other organizations are the extremes. In many cases you are dealing with bigger egos, longer hours, and tons of money.
The most important thing to understand is your lack of power in the company. For the first three to six months you need to be on a mission to prove yourself day in and day out until your new coworkers know, like, and trust you. Trust is big in the film industry. How you advance in the tournament depends on your reputation and your reputation begins with trust.
If we were to look at the 48 laws, there is one that stands out to your powerless position. It’s the roadmap I’ve used to prove myself countless times while at the bottom of the totem pole, Law 24: Play the Perfect Courtier.
Your first job in the industry will have no immediate power, but you will have advantages others won’t. Since you’re at the bottom you can keep your ear to the ground. There’s a lot you’ll be able to see that other’s won’t.
Whether you like it or not the film industry is rife with politics and you need to be ready. The more aware you are of the political nature of the industry, the further you will go. From Law 24, Robert Greene states:
“The perfect courtier thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity. He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the most oblique and graceful manner. Learn and apply the laws of courtiership and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court.”
To make an impact you will be constantly balancing different forces in your environment. In a powerless position you will be pulled in various directions with little room to say “no” to your superiors, while still needing to have subtle influence to accomplish what is asked of you.
Again from Greene:
“Great courtiers throughout history have mastered the science of manipulating people. They make the king feel more kingly; they make everyone else fear their power. They are magicians of appearance, knowing that most things at court are judged by how they seem. Great courtiers are gracious and polite; their aggression is veiled and indirect. Masters of the word, they never say more than necessary, getting the most out of a compliment or hidden insult. They are magnets of pleasure — people want to be around them because they know how to please, yet they neither fawn nor humiliate themselves. Great courtiers become the king’s favorites, enjoying the benefits of that position. They often end up more powerful than the ruler, for they are wizards in the accumulation of influence.”
The first day of your new position you need to analyze the political and cultural dynamics of your new environment. Who is the King? The Line Producer? The Director? The Showrunner?
It might not be who you think it is.
Where do the other assistants fall in the scale of the court? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Who is a political hire? Who achieved their position through hard work? Who will try to bring you down? Who is your ally?
You need to do an 80/20 analysis of the production and realistically see where you fit. I like to use the term “fill the gap.” Find the gaps and cracks in the company.
You need to mold yourself to these gaps and pick up the slack where others in the court fall short. Again, this might sound cold and calculated, but the sooner you understand how the system works, the more successful you will be within it.
If you don’t think the idea of a King’s court exists in the 21st century take a good look at the structure of any organization in the United States. Company politics are the politics of the King’s court, and you are a courtier. You need to know the rules, the players, and the game to succeed.
It is important not to overstep your bounds and do your coworker’s jobs. In the film industry there are unions in place to keep duties exclusive to those whose job it is. While you don’t want to cross the line by doing someone else’s job, you want to do your job to the fullest in almost an artistic sense.
“If all you can do is the task, and you’re not in a league of your own in doing the task, you’re not indispensable.”
– Seth Godin, Linchpin
In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene tells the story of Jules Mansart, a French designer for King Louis XIV. Mansart has a unique way dealing with the King – he would show the King his architectural plans with intentional mistakes, so the King could correct him.
“The king, as Mansart expected, would put his finger exactly on the problem and propose how to solve it, at which point Mansart would exclaim for all to hear that he would never have seen the problem that the king had so masterfully found and solved; he would burst with admiration, confessing that next to the king he was but a lowly pupil.”
By doing a good job and playing to your boss’ ego, you are setting yourself up for long term success. Those above you will appreciate the work you are doing, while not seeing you as a threat.
FIND THE GAPS
“You stand no chance of rising if the ruler does not notice you in the
swamp of courtiers. This task requires much art. It is often initially a matter
of being seen, in the literal sense. Pay attention to your physical appear-
ance, then, and find a way to create a distinctive — a subtly distinctive — style
– Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
If you don’t want to step on toes, but really standout, how do you set yourself apart? This is something that won’t present itself initially. It might take weeks, even months to truly get a feel for your company, where the gaps may lie, and where you can pick up the slack.
Finding and filling the gaps in the workplace is something that you are going to have to figure out for yourself. You are going to have to be the one keeping your ear to the ground, looking for opportunity. “But it’s not my job.” This is something I see in the workplace so often it makes me cringe.
“Doing a job that’s not getting done is essential.”
– Seth Godin, Linchpin
As long as the job not getting done is within your realm, and you’re not overstepping your boundaries, you need make it your responsibility. This is an art, not a science, so you need to use your own discretion when looking for opportunity.
Keep your ears open and eavesdrop on your superiors with caution. They might mention that they need to find lunch options near tomorrows shoot location. Take the opportunity to jump on Yelp, and use the “search near” function to find the highest rated nearby restaurants, and send a list to your producer.
This demonstrates your value by showing initiative. It sounds like a small gesture, but over time, small gestures add up and define people’s perception of you. What are the problems they don’t know they have? Keep your eyes and ears open, look for problems others don’t see.
If you find something that needs to be done, and no one is doing it, take advantage and do it yourself. But let others find out that you are the one doing it instead of bragging about it. Bragging is off limits. In an industry with so much ego and bravato, humility will give you an edge—one that most won’t be able to pinpoint.
“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” – Sun-Tzu
Entertainment is a chaotic industry. Being on a film set is chaotic. There are so many moving parts and external forces at play, a lot will quickly change, and this will give you huge opportunities to find and fill gaps.
Opportunity is all around you. Be ready. Stay hungry.
When I first started working, I was surprised to find how many people were unreliable in the working world. Word is bond. Keep this mindset; when you say you’re going to do something, do it. Execute.
I know this is easy to say and hard to practice, so here are a couple things I do to keep myself on track.
Start a daily checklist. When you hear something that needs to be done daily, do it without being asked. There’s no better feeling when you are asked to do something, and you can produce a result quickly because you’ve thought ahead.
Creating a daily checklist also helps reduce decision fatigue. Yes, decision fatigue is a real thing. The more decisions you make throughout the day, the more you overhaul your mental capacity, making decisions later in the day more taxing and compromised.
You need to be sharp if you are going to play the game. Making a daily checklist will help give you a slight edge because you won’t be straining your mind for simple things.
PREPARATION + ANTICIPATION
Anticipation, more than anything, has made me successful in my years working in production. I first picked up this tip from The Hollywood Assistant’s Handbook. It was one of the first tips I put into action when I started working, and didn’t realize how important it was when I first read it.
Jobs on set or in a production office are very reactive job positions. Your first job will be most reactive because you will act on the whim of your superiors, who are the ones reacting to external forces.
Even when the work day is going well, your boss can decide to send you out for coffee or food they’re craving, which is time consuming and can set you back on the more important work you’re trying to accomplish. But, since they are the ones cutting your paycheck you need to be ready. At the end of the day when they ask, “Why didn’t you do XYZ?” you can’t say, “Because you sent me to get coffee when I was in the middle of trying to get it done.”
Your performance will be judged on whether you get your stuff done, or not. Nothing else.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
Knowing this, you need to plan ahead. If that means starting your day an hour earlier to balance your Petty Cash receipts, do it. If it means staying later to get through making sure there is enough product for the photo shoot the next day, consider it done. You never know what the next day will bring, so be as prepared as possible.
Remember the section on being the perfect courtier – you want this to appear as effortless as possible. No one needs to know how much time you’re spending getting ready, staying late, or double checking your work. Making it appear effortless will yield huge results in the eyes of your employer.
You need to embody “Johnny on the spot.” I don’t know where I first heard this term, but I have tried to bring that mentality with me everyday. Being Johnny on the spot means you are ready to work, no matter what comes your way. You need to prepare, anticipate, and execute.
Here are the five things I consider throughout my workday:
- Think ahead to the days work – reverse engineer the steps you need to take to accomplish your goals.
- Think like your boss – what does their day look like, what will be helpful to them?
- Study the shotlist before the day begins. Know all the ins and outs.
- Deal with problems immediately, never let anything slip from your control.
- Think of your team – what are they struggling with? How can you help?
You need to think of the value you are providing in an entry level position. Why do they hire a good director? For his artistic vision. Why do they hire a good producer? To get the project done on time and under budget while keeping the artistic integrity. Why do they hire a good production accountant? To make sure the production is getting as many tax breaks as possible with the film incentive. Why will they hire you? Hustle.
I feel like this is a buzzword lately. I hear people constantly talk about hustle. How they hustle. What good hustlers they are. If that were true, they would be hustling, not talking.
The ability to hustle through your day and get your stuff done is a huge asset. It’s also providing huge value to your team and the company. As a side note, everyone loves a good hustler. The ability to pull off what needs to be done in a timely manner is no easy feat.
You need to push yourself. Make stuff happen when it seems like there is little opportunity to do so. The more you push, the more likely you’ll succeed. I like to equate a lot of what I talk about to sports because sports provide a good visual representation.
I want to share a video I love – The Top 10 NBA Hustle Plays of all Time. The dudes that made this list are not necessarily the most athletic or skilled players, but they hustled and made the plays happen because they put in just a little more effort than the guy next to them.
Now, you can knock Will Smith’s work all you want, but his success is undeniable. He’s a two time Academy Award nominee, Golden Globe winner, and one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood. But guess what? Will Smith doesn’t think he’s all that talented:
“I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as…slightly above average in talent. Where I excel is with a ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy’s eating, I’m working.”
– Will Smith, 60 Minutes
Here’s a quick interview where he expands:
You may not be ready to produce, or direct, or lead a team. Where you fall short with talent or experience, you make up for it with hustle. Hone your work ethic and you will be head and shoulders above your competition. If you hustle more than any of your peers, opportunities will find their way to you.
One quick note about hustle: don’t confuse it with burnout. Bruce Lee said, “Long-term consistency trumps short term intensity.” This is absolutely true. You are no use to your team if you kill it day one, only to burn yourself out for the rest of the shoot.
You need to commit to your hustle just as much at the end as in the beginning. The hours are long, that’s just the way it is in the film industry. The days are usually based on a 12 hour schedule with a half hour break for lunch. That means you are usually looking at 12.5 hour days minimum.
Being a finisher is an incredible skill to have when other’s energy levels drop. If you are able to keep up, you will become an incredible asset to your team.
THE ART OF STOICISM
Being on a film set can become crazy stressful. Keeping a level head when times are tough is an invaluable skill. You need to keep a pulse on how the day is going, not only for you, but for your team.
Keep an eye on the body language of your co-workers and your superiors so you can respond accordingly. The more aware you are of situations, the better you can anticipate and react for the day’s work.
It’s important for you to understand that there will be bad days. Theres no way around it. There are too many external factors when it comes to a film or TV production for every day to be smooth. The more prepared you are for the bad days, the more effective your actions will be.
I like to keep the philosophy of the stoics in mind when I’m on a job because it helps me keep a level head. One of the great stoic philosophers, Epictetus said:
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
Stressful situations are going to come at you left and right, but don’t worry about what you can’t control. It’s important to read the situation, understand why it’s happening, and do what is in your control to handle it. Everything that is not in your control you shouldn’t spend any time or effort worrying about.
Do your best to learn from the situation and move on. Tomorrow is another day.
- Never, ever, get on social media or other sites in front of your co-workers, even if you think you can trust someone. It gives easy fodder for your peers to try and ruin your reputation. The same goes for texting. Stay off your phone unless it’s work related. If it’s an emergency run to the bathroom or excuse yourself.
- Never eat first. Film people take their lunch break very seriously. Again, easy criticism, “Who does this guy think he is eating before me?”
- If you are on a set don’t sit down unless it’s a company break. Even then, put yourself last. You don’t want to get too comfortable on a set. Anything can happen at any time. Also, if you are sitting, it’s a subconscious signal that you aren’t prepared, even if you are.
- Always keep your reputation in mind. Which co-workers will try to make you look bad to the higher ups? When you are around them, do your best not to reveal your weaknesses, they will try to exploit them. In the film industry your reputation is all you have so guard it.
- Keep a level head. Production jobs can be high stress, high anxiety. It’s easy to lose your cool. Never get too high or too low, you never know what’s right around the corner.
- Always double check with your superior, “Hey, I’m going to run and get XYZ, need anything else?”
- Leave a paper trail, it’s best to always have something to back you up. Keep every single receipt, and try to communicate as much as possible through email.
- Always have a pen and paper with you. I’ve been caught without one before and regretted it because I got one detail wrong. Write everything down always. Things happen quickly and it’s good to have a backup for your memory.
- Keep a Call Sheet and shot list with you at all times.
What are your favorite tips? I would love to hear them in the comments!