BREAKING INTO THE MOVIE BIZ By Mark Litwak, Attorney At Law

Many people have written asking me for career advice how they can break into the entertainment business. Here are some of my thoughts. There are many different ways to enter the industry and build a career. It is largely a bootstrap business without initiation rites or designated steps for promotion. Each person finds his own path. Breakthroughs can occur at any time. Academic training can help prepare one for an industry career but it by no means assures entry. The competition is so great that graduates of film, law and business schools often have to swallow their pride and begin their industry careers as secretaries or messengers. Many people have begun their careers working at one the talent agencies. CAA and William Morris operate two of the more renowned ones. Trainees work long hours in exchange for an opportunity to learn the ropes of the business. The programs have been criticized for their unscholarly approach. "All it does is teach you where people live and it puts a lot of wear and tear on your car," says a studio executive who started in the CAA mailroom. "There was no learning process. In the mailroom you had college grads running foolish errands for agents." But most graduates think the experience was valuable, They "verbally abuse you every minute of every day for two years," says one graduate. "It's like hazing in a fraternity." They tell you are a piece of shit. [However] when agents whip you, beat you, they are teaching you how to survive in Hollywood. After I was asked to get directions to a restaurant and couldn't get through, I was yelled at for not calling up the Los Angeles Times food critic for directions. They teach you by yelling at you. It was the greatest experience of my life." "In the mailroom you learn who everyone is," says CAA alumnus Ken Sherman. "You begin to learn the politics ... you listen in on agents' phone calls. They encouraged it so you would learn how deals were made." Former CAA trainee Terry Danuser says, "You learned the language used and how to talk to people. How to negotiate. How to get what you want." "At CAA for two years I learned more than in my four years of college and three years in the industry," says one graduate. "It was invaluable as an education." Says former William Morris trainee Johnny Levin, "It's such a business of personalities ... I don't know how you appreciate and learn that in an academic environment."

The agencies like the training programs because they provide inexpensive labor. "It's cheaper than hiring secretaries," according to one former trainee. "It's much cheaper. They pay trainees less and [the trainees] work more because they are going after the carrot, the implied promise of becoming an agent." Some participants do not feel they were exploited. "I figured it would be a good learning experience," says CAA alumnus Adam Fields. "Rather than my paying a couple of thousand to go to school, they paid me a couple of thousand to learn." But the training programs can be tougher than school. "It sorts out the less determined. Weeds them out," says manager-lawyer Michael Meyer, who worked in the CAA mailroom for seven weeks before quitting. "You have to really want it. It's a grueling process. You deliver mail from eight A.M. to nine or ten at night. There is no lunch break. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life." By one estimate, 60 percent of the trainees drop out. Despite the hardships of the training programs, there is no shortage of applicants. One graduate explains that "the only place to start is in the mailroom of the big ... agencies. Or as an NBC page. Those are the only places you can really learn the business." William Morris has provided the start for so many executives and producers that it has been dubbed the "Harvard Graduate School of Show Business." "Assistants are enticed by the idea of being an agent", says Danuser. "That enthusiasm lasts about six months. Then you realize your chances are very limited there. It takes about a year to quit." "At CAA they would know right off whether you would ever be an agent," says a former trainee. "They would lead people on to think they would make it. But it never happens. When asked, they won't say no. They give an ambiguous answer. They want to keep a good secretary." One estimate is that for every fifteen trainees only one or two will become agents. But many of those who don't make the grade develop relationships during their training that help them secure jobs with producers, studios and other agencies. "Most of the people I was in the mailroom with three years ago are now making more than a hundred thousand dollars a year," a former CAA trainee said in 1985. Moreover, even if a trainee does not graduate to immediate riches, he benefits from the friendships made within the program. A strong camaraderie is forged among those who have suffered the trials and tribulations of training. "You grow up together," says Levin, who now has an industry-wide network of close friends. While the CAA and William Morris training programs are the best-known launching pads into the industry, there are others. The Directors Guild offers an apprenticeship program of four hundred days for those who want to become assistant directors or production managers. Participants receive a modest salary as they learn union and guild regulations

and other practical Production know how. Approximately 1,100 people take the aptitude test each year to enter the program. Fewer than 20 are usually accepted. Portions of this article are excerpts from my book "Reel Power," (William Morrow, 1986) and from my website. 1Mark Litwak is a veteran entertainment attorney and producer’s rep based in Beverly Hills, California. He is 1the author of six books, including Dealmaking in the Film and Television Industry 3rd Edition (Silman-James, 2009). He is the author of the CD-ROM program Movie Magic Contracts, and the creator of the Entertainment Law Resources web site: He can be reached at

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