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08/10/2001 - The Art of Being an Assistant

How to Produce Movies for Television

"We can forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real
tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light."

-- Plato

The Art of Being an Assistant

Many prominent people in the entertainment industry started out as an assistant. The opportunities are there to work with established writers, producers, and directors.

Of course, basic skills are a must. Being computer literate is a definite plus. It's important to know Microsoft Word, Excel, and if you're working with writers, Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Are you articulate? That's key when it comes to screening phone calls and scheduling appointments. It's also important to be energetic and enthusiastic about your job.

Assuming you want to be an assistant to a writer. Please understand that there's a distinct difference between working with a TV writer as opposed to working with a feature film writer. In television, assistants mostly work for a series showrunner. That's the person who is in charge and oversees the production from start to finish. (You may want to check the archives for our column devoted to showrunners) Be prepared for a whirlwind of activity and diversity. Besides researching and gathering information, you'll also be expected to archive what you find and to act as a liaison for the show's staff writers.

In addition, you'll be allowed to sit in on writer's creative meetings. For example, ifyou're assigned to a sitcom, you'll be taking notes for jokes which are created on-the-spot, storylines, and plot points. It isn't unusual for teams of writers to take turns cooking up new ideas for the current show but also for upcoming episodes.

Keep in mind that sitcoms require a lot of strength and stamina. The staff often works through the wee hours. It's not unusual for a writer's assistant to arrive back home at
2 or 3 in the morning. Napping is out of the question. Stay alert and awake. It will pay big dividends in the end.

The good news is that television series usually promote from within. And, if you have scriptwriting potential, you may be handed an original story assignment and even the opportunity to write a full script. Besides gaining entry into the WGA, you may also have a chance to work your way up in the ranks as story editor, co-producer, producer, co-executive producer, and even executive producer.

An assistant to a feature writer works at a less hectic pace. You'll learn what not to do when it comes to writing two-hour movie scripts. You'll also be exposed to studio executives and discover how to get around their copious and sometimes ineffectual notes without giving away the store.

And, what's more, you'll also acquire the necessary discipline to meet rewrite deadlines and delivery schedules on time and on budget.

There are also the usual perks associated with feature films. This includes scheduling lunches and meetings with stars and high-powered agents and managers, arranging pitch meetings, even parties and film premieres which you may be invited to attend.

Unlike working with a showrunner and a staff of writers, you'll most likely be working with one person. This means that you won't be juggling 12-15 scripts in various stages of development, pre-production, or production. Instead, you'll be helping to shape one or two scripts at the same time.

In some ways, an assistant to a successful series showrunner or feature film screenwriter is akin to being a sorcerer's apprentice. When you meet the right mentor, it's magic time. Nothing will ever replace this invaluable experience.

Promise yourself that after you've made it into the big time that you'll always remember your humble beginnings.

"The influence of each human being on others in this life is
a kind of immortality."

-- John Quincy Adams (1767 - 1848)


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