Survival Tips for Creative Assistants

by | March 10, 2009

While widely regarded as the bottom, the legendary dregs of the pool, this is the starting point for any career launch into the creative side of the industry. Cynics say assistants are there to feed the egos of self-important creative executives, but others assert that it is a rite of passage to the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of entertainment, not to mention a good training ground for the next generation of creative executives.

The typical job of a creative assistant is to do everything from fetching coffee to kids from one's boss' day care, answering hundreds of calls on a daily basis, making dinner reservations for one's manager, and occasionally, if there is time, reading scripts and writing coverage.

Being an assistant is the first rung up the entertainment ladder. Here are some tips for getting and keeping these jobs -- and setting yourself up to move up beyond the assistant level

The position of assistant encompasses duties as secretary, butler, chauffer, mother and confidante. For all the books every written on management skills, they are all but irrelevant in the entertainment industry. Rarely will you aggregate a larger group of individuals who care less about developing others. One executive described the junior ranks as "suckling on the teats of wolves."

The most important traits of successful assistants are:

Flexibility. Many assistants are required to juggle and reprioritize their own lives in order to accommodate their managers. One assistant tells of missing a flight out for a vacation because the manager called inquiring about some small bit of information that the assistant was supposed to have had.

Patience. Many assistants report countless evenings of waiting around in the office long after the boss had left to a leisure dinner with 'business partners.' Many managers often tell their underlings to wait until they they are told to go home. Usually the request is legitimized by the (flimsy) guise of receiving a phone call that must be immediately patched through.

Resourcefulness. Often it is the assistant's responsibility to unearth random tidbits of information or to seek out for some difficult-to-find object. Whether it reservations at 8 p.m. on a Friday night for the most popular restaurant in town or a rare edition, out-of-print book, assistants are often expected to find ways to make difficult things happen. Indulgent. The assistant is also expected to be kind and proactive -- remembering birthdays and special occasions, congratulating successes and commiserating failures. The best assistants are often known for anticipating special requests, accommodating the quirks of their managers, before the manager asks. "I'll try to get my boss his favorite latte every morning if he's unable to pick one up for himself," says one assistant at a prominent Hollywood talent agency.

Eagerness. Cheerfulness and a positive attitude, even in the face of adversity is vital in the profession. The grumpy are quickly replaced with those more eager and willing.

Making the most of minimum wages

Assistants make anywhere from a low $20,000 per year to above $45,000. Usually, the higher paid assistants are in the coveted positions of working at a studio in a unionized position. The majority of assistants earn a salary on the lower end of the spectrum. In order to sustain a viable lifestyle, most assistants resort to the usual manners of making ends meet -- sharing living expenses with roommates in modest neighborhoods, limiting indulgences on food (ordering in on the company's dime whenever possible), cutting back expenses on clothing and entertainment, investing in modest transport, borrowing funds from parents. Despite the low salaries, there are often perks to the profession that should not be overlooked. Many assistants manage to allay some of their expenses on staples like dry cleaning by leveraging the generous expense accounts of their managers. Others engage in supplementary income sources, such as teaching on weekends, in order to increase their cash flow.

Getting promoted

If you stick it out long enough in a CA job, you'll probably move up The hard part is waiting it out, often over the course of several years, sacrificing late nights, while making the right connections and waiting for a lucky break. While there are things that can be done -- meeting lots of people, keeping your ears and eyes open to opportunities, jumping to a lesser-known company in order to make a transition out of the assistant ranks, promotion ultimately boils down to timing, persistence and good fortune. Good assistants quickly learn to build networks with other assistants, to share information on what's hot in order to give their bosses the extra edge, to religiously listen in on phone calls, and to constantly look out for their own best interests.

Here are some interesting stories of how some people got to where they are. One common link is a passion for what they do. They did it on their own merits, without connections, a family name or a coffer full of trust fund money. Their secrets? Hard work, patience and serendipity.

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