Getting into show business through the mailroom
The mailroom is a great place from which to work your way up, and agency mailrooms are especially well known as starting points for agents, managers, producers and studio executives. Many extremely successful, well-known industry icons, such as Michael Ovitz, Barry Diller and David Geffen, started their careers in a mailroom.
Agency mailrooms can be grueling. The hours are long and the pay is rock-bottom. As in any other entry-level position, it’s a world in which the word “no” does not exist. It’s nonstop sorting and delivering of mail, photocopying scripts, distributing faxes, making deliveries and pick-ups, doing personal errands for agents, reading and covering scripts, filling in for assistants when they’re out, helping out at agency events and parties and so on, and so on, and so on. Your hope is to stand out, get noticed and get promoted to a “desk” (a job as an assistant to an agent) as soon as possible.
Most agencies require their trainees to have college degrees, and of the thousands of applications they receive each year, only a handful are chosen. They look for someone with a passion for the business and a certain level of professionalism. Knowing something about the industry and the terminology is helpful, and they’re always on the lookout for someone who’s going to hustle. Those who work in the mailroom together are generally friendly and supportive, but as can be expected, a certain competitiveness, overt or not, is endemic to this type of work environment. Stints in the mailroom can last from several months to a couple of years, and everyone’s jockeying for position.
Helen Roger runs the mailroom at CBS Studio Center. She has three people working under her supervision at any one time, and each commits to being there for a year. There’s a waiting list to get in, and her applicants aren’t required to have college degrees, although it certainly doesn’t hurt. She looks for people who show a willingness to work and the ability to be team players. She prefers the “doers” to the “talkers” and expects her crew to work hard when they’re there. In the course of their day, the mailroom staff has the opportunity to network with a multitude of people from various departments all over the lot, as well as those who are working on shows being shot there. Several are able to line up better jobs for themselves and leave before their year is up.
Politics often seep into the mailroom by way of nepotism, and it’s not uncommon for the children of those closely connected to agents, managers, high-ranking agency clients and executives to be preferentially hired before all other applicants, especially during the summer. But it’s no different when you’re on a production and the director’s son or the producer’s wife’s sister’s next door neighbor is suddenly given a job as a PA. Once in the job, however, they’re all expected to carry their own weight, the same as everyone else. A job in a mailroom doesn’t guarantee anyone a meteoric rise to Hollywood bigwigdom. Like any other entry-level job, it’s just a way in and a start. The rest is up to you.
I’d like to recommend a terrific book called The Mailroom—Hollywood’s History From The Bottom Up by David Rensin (Ballantine Books), which will give you more insight into the workings and politics of an agency mailroom than you’ll ever need to know. Rensin travels behind the scenes and through sixty-five years of show business history to tell the real stories of the marvelous careers that began—and in some cases ended—in the mailroom.
Excerpt from Hollywood Drive: What It Takes to Break In, Hang In & Make It in the Entertainment Industry by Eve Light Honthaner. Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.