Starting at the Bottom
In her Oct. 3 article "PR Interns Just Want to Have Fun?" Sarah Maxell paints a rather depressing picture of an entertainment industry internship gone horribly awry. While I do not intend to disqualify her feelings I do think that she, and many other Dartmouth students, fail to see the intrinsic benefit of starting at the proverbial bottom of a profession. Call me old-fashioned, but I find that character development is most appreciated and most successful when one experiences hardship and is offered the challenge to rise above it. There is a disconcerting tendency amongst many of my peers to embrace an attitude that demands recognition immediately, as if somehow we as Dartmouth students are entitled to a pre-determined level of success without even earning it. I would like to offer my summer internship experience as an alternative perspective on the business that is show and hopefully an example of the importance of "earning one's stripes."
When I tell people that I am interested in becoming an agent, I often hear the response "You mean like a travel agent?" Very patiently I respond, "No, I mean like a talent agent. I want to represent screenwriters and film directors." I am then treated with a quasi-condescending look. This past summer I worked in Beverly Hills at the Endeavor Talent Agency. While the name Endeavor is probably not in the Corporate Recruiting Handbook, the agency's clients are well known.
The process of becoming a Hollywood agent is not exactly glamorous. Entry-level jobs often start in the mailroom, populated by graduates with bachelor degrees, law degrees, and/or MBAs from the nation's top institutions who often forego stable salaries in favor of $450/week compensation. Daily tasks include pushing a mail cart, photocopying and delivering scripts. After weeks, months, or even years in the mailroom, a candidate "graduates" from the mailroom and becomes an assistant to an agent. Candidates usually assist multiple agents over span of three to five years before being considered for a promotion. There is absolutely no guarantee that a candidate will ever become an agent.
When I commenced my ten-week unpaid internship at Endeavor in the mailroom I was surrounded by many kids who drove cars nicer than some agents in the building and who were born into connected families. I quickly realized that I would have to find a way to stand out. I embarked on doing just that by volunteering for the most menial jobs and working sixty-hour weeks. I did not have a car and, as a result, in order to get in at 8 a.m. I would have to catch the earliest bus from Westwood and often times wait after 8 p.m. to catch a bus home.
Yet, this clear-cut bottom and often depressing experience is not restricted to a talent agency. Even "professional" careers like medicine require that individuals start at the bottom as an internist that is paid a pittance for eight years of higher education.
My worked paid off as I was entrusted with more responsibility. Was it tough? At times it felt like psychological warfare. Did I get yelled at? Yes. Did I get hazed? Yes. An agent who is a Cornell grad told me one day "No, you cannot shake my hand nor look directly at me ... Cornell is better than Dartmouth by the way." Did it improve my love life? Nope ... apparently unpaid interns with no car are not a hot catch in L.A.
Sarah Maxell expresses her disillusion in coming to the realization that her supervisors were not interested in her opinion and that she was relegated menial tasks. Yet, again one can surely find the same phenomenon in other professions at the beginning of the track. Untenured professors fresh out of graduate school are often not afforded the luxury of avoiding the responsibility of teaching introductory classes that are likely incommensurate with their interests. Medical residents and internists get the worst and longest shifts at hospitals and still earn a meager wage.
Part of starting at the bottom and working your way up is being able to sit back and appreciate the process. Whether that is finding something that you truly love to do or realizing that a particular field is not your cup of tea, I think the experience should never be trivialized.
I cannot wait to return to LA after I graduate and start in the mailroom all over again. I cannot predict if I will ever become an agent, but I am committed to the process, and right now am looking forward to appreciating it.