Thursday, 18 June 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #308: Agents, Assistants, & Absolute Poverty

Nikki Finke had a recent post about how the millionaire power-brokers at the newly merged William Morris-Endeavor Entertainment Agency are going to slash the salaries of their assistants to make them more in line with the more parsimonious policies of the Endeavor Agency.

There are literally tons of stories about already overworked, and underpaid assistants, being used, abused, and refused until they either quit, or get adopted by Barry Diller.

Now there are two reasons why they treat, and pay their assistants so poorly, and no, it does not come from a taste for having angry assistants piss in their soy latte.

1. MONEY & CONNECTIONS: Basically agencies don't appear to want anyone who might actually have to live on the wages they pay. Assistant is just an entry level position, and for agents it is all about connections, who is related to whom, and they don't want to have their positions entered by anyone who doesn't already have money and status in their little community.

The time when a poor kid from the old neighborhood could get a gig in the mail room and making it to the top spot through pluck, luck, and hustle is long over. Hollywood is a shrinking and inbred community, and if you don't have any connection to someone who is already a somebody in the industry, you will never get that mail room job.

2. TRIAL BY FIRE: When you base your hiring on contacts over merit, you are going to get quite a few weeds in your garden of talent.

So to get rid of those weeds, you need the Garden Weasel of Simple Brutality. That means shitty pay, long hours, no overtime, brutal workload, and employers who are demanding bottomless pits of need.

Hopefully you will get the jokers out of the deck, and hopefully find a few with the hustle and drive to become real agents.

This system goes back a long way, in fact, it's the oldest form of training known to civilization, and it's called the Apprenticeship.

You see, you can't really learn how to be a good agent in university. Sure, you can learn contract law, and some of the more technical aspects, but there are literally hundreds of other aspects that they don't teach in school. You can only learn how to handle those things by doing, and by doing it under the most stressful, wretched conditions they can finagle, so that when you do make it to the corner office, you can handle everything fate throws at you.

Now these systems tend to get worse as the industry gets richer. This is because those who were a
ssistants when they first started had it rough, so they feel that they must make it rougher to make up for some feeling of inadequacy in the face of the legendary generation that preceded them.

I sort of picture the discussions about treating assistants going a lot like the old comedy sketch the Four Yorkeshiremen:

AGENT 1: Assistants these days have it easy. They don't know the meaning of working hard. When I started out I was only paid three cents an hour, had to live under my desk, and work 23 hours a day. Then my boss would make me crawl over broken glass to serve him coffee.

AGENT 2: You had it easy. When I was an assistant I was paid three cents a day, was forced to live behind the copier machine, work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, swim through a tank full of piranhas to serve him coffee, and then he'd toss it in my face, horribly scalding me.

AGENT 3: Ya pussy! When I was an assistant I was paid three cents a week, had to live in my boss' waste paper basket, work 36 hours a day, 9 days a week, and
crawl on hot coals to give my boss his coffee, which he would then throw in my face, and then he'd shoot me in the kneecaps, crippling me for life.

AGENT 4: Too much soft living, that's your problem. When I was an assistant I was paid three cents a year, had to live in the urinal of the executive washroom, worked 48 hours a day, 30 days a week, 3,650 days a year, and everyday I had to swim across a pool of acid to get my boss his coffee, and then he'd throw it in my face, saw off my head with a rusty knife, and shit down my neck.

AGENT 1: B'ah, wuss.

This system isn't always foolproof. It leaves too many openings for ass-kissing, conniving, and scheming, and the judgment of the mentors who are supposed to do the weeding, can be too easily swayed by such things, or by the connections of the assistant and their relatives. So some of those weeds do bloom, and often these weeds lack the "start from nothing" hustle that made the founding of the Hollywood agency system legends.

And another flaw in this system, is that the really big agencies, drunk on their own prestige, usually are the worst employers. This means the really clever candidates with the rare and precious hustle aim for the smaller agencies, work their way up, become big fish in a small pond, and when the majors come to recruit them and their mojo, they have to pay the big bucks. The funny thing is, if they made a few adjustments to their system, they could probably get these people at the start, and keep them loyal to the agency that brought them, at a more reasonable cost.

Of course the key word is loyalty, and if you want that in Hollywood, you better get a dog.

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