There are plenty of stories about the Hollywood mailroom, and many of them are true. But nothing has captured the popular imagination like the story of the mailroom-clerk-turned-media-mogul -- so much so that at most agencies, starting in the mailroom is now official policy. No more the fabled first stop for a scrappy immigrant with big dreams. Today's Hollywood mailroom is an incubator for new college graduates with good pedigrees and even better connections.
Working in the mailroom of a big-name agency is poorly paid, often menial and on occasion demeaning. And in the end, only the tiniest minority climb to the level of agent. It's also a job that a lot of young people would kill for, and there are good reasons why.
Not Your Ordinary Mailroom
In 1912, 14-year-old Abe Lastfogel, a Russian immigrant from the New York tenements, became William Morris' first office boy and later the agency's president. The current chairman, Norman Brokaw, started in the mailroom in 1943 at age 15. Barry Diller, who joined the William Morris mailroom after dropping out of UCLA, went on to become chairman and CEO of both Paramount and Fox. Music and movie super-producer David Geffen, the Brooklyn-bon son of an immigrant bra-maker, dropped out of three colleges and began his career in the mailroom of the oldest agency in the world -- William Morris.
In his 2003 book "The Mailroom," David Rensin describes this storied bottom rung as "so embedded in our can-do mythology that when someone says, 'I started in the mailroom,' we instantly know what they mean."
But that's not what it means anymore. The mailroom isn't a foot in the door for a lowly but hungry upstart, who strikes up a conversation with Coppola in the hall and gets his big break.
At William Morris Endeavor, all hires start in the mailroom and are then promoted, as positions open up. In Los Angeles that's usually after a few months, but a little longer in New York. At United Talent Agency, almost every recruit begins in the mailroom. At Creative Artists Agency, some new hires skip the mailroom and go directly to assistant. But if they're later accepted into CAA's agent training program, they have to backtrack and spend several months in the mailroom anyway.
Tough Gig To Get
These days, just one in 10 applicants is accepted to the mailrooms at Hollywood's biggest agencies, according to Entertainment Weekly -- tougher odds than Harvard Law School. The Hollywood Reporter profiled a handful of mailroom clerks last year, and they included a 27-year-old with an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, a 31-year-old former network television reporter, and a 22-year-old UCLA grad whose stepfather happened to run Fox TV Studios.
"I can't think of anyone I know from the mailroom who didn't have a connection," muses Jeff, an assistant at a major talent agency who, like everyone else interviewed for this article, preferred not to disclose his real name. (He also asked to have his quotes checked via text message, in case the agency monitored his email.)
The need for connections might seem like a perversion of the mailroom's meritocratic ideals. But how well hopefuls can leverage their networks -- friends, alumni, former internship bosses, and well-placed strangers -- is a test of their hustle. "It's all training for Hollywood," Jeff observes. "You don't get s--t until you know somebody."
"It's an industry based on trust," explains Max, a recent Yale grad, who spent two years in the mailroom of a major agency. Because personal connections are so important, mailrooms don't just hire grads from top-tier colleges. Mailroom clerks are "super diverse" when it comes to education, Max says. Sure, there are Ivy League kids, but the mailroom also brims with talent from some of the country's biggest state schools: Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and, of course, UCLA.
The Mailroom Makes The Mogul
Getting a foot in the mailroom door may be the easy part. Yes, clerks actually deliver mail, making the rounds of the agency's floors at least every hour to pick up scripts, contracts and DVDs that need to be whisked away to stars' mansions in Malibu. But former mailroom workers also tell of doing lunch runs, walking agents' dogs, washing agents' cars, picking out Valentine's Day cards for their wives, or photocopying an entire book.
One of Max's friends was doing just that when she got a paper cut and bled all over the pages, so she raced out on her lunch break to buy a replacement.
"You go to crazy lengths sometimes," Max says, "not because you were necessarily asked to, but just because you've heard so many horror stories about people getting fired for the smallest things, everything you do feels monumental."
Once you become an agent's assistant, the pressure only gets worse. "By the end, in the last six months at least, I'd cry on my way to work," Sarah confesses. "You could get yelled at for absolutely anything, whether you did it or didn't do it. You could just get a phone call, 'Why the f--- did you set this meeting for this time?' And you're racking your brain because you just set 700 meetings and you have no idea what they're talking about."
Trial by fire, maybe -- but also a useful way to weed out the people who don't want the prize enough, and educate them about the egos and exchanges that make Hollywood work.
"In terms of a teaching thing, it's the best to really understand how the business operates," says Julie, a recent Ivy League grad, who worked at CAA before landing a job with a studio.
CAA mailroom trainees have the chance to be mentored by the people they want to be, explains Ryan Tarpley, a CAA executive who works closely with the training program. They also serve as mentors to the new clerks who want to be them.
"It's important to us that they have a great sense of the whole," he says. "And are exposed to agents and executives at all levels of their careers -- to get some face time."
The mailroom also helps you develop the most important qualification in Hollywood: connections. In your immediate vicinity, there are the dozen, or dozens, of other new hires, whose day job is also to deliver scripts and get yelled at. Former clerks talk about their mailroom "class" becoming some of their best friends. You grow up together in the industry, and eventually all become Hollywood moguls with each other on speed dial -- or so the fantasy goes.
Who Wants To Be An Agent?
Because of this, a stint in the mailroom looks great on the resume, at least in Hollywood. People in the know often advise young newcomers that an agency is the best place to start.
The system isn't without its critics. Last week in The New York Times, "Planet Money" co-founder Adam Davidson called the agency mailroom an "unfair and arbitrary" system, in which workers go through "a few years of low-paying drudgery" on the slim chance of getting promoted. Certainly the numbers sound grim. By some estimates, just 3 percent of mailroom clerks at the big talent agencies will make it to the level of junior agent.
But the numbers are misleading. Most of the former mailroom clerks who spoke to AOL Jobs would rather be Jerry Bruckheimer than Ari Emanuel and moved on after a year or two to work more directly in film and TV.
"It's a stepping stone to where you want to be," explains Julie. "The best place to start is at an agency. You're moving at a fast pace at a high level."
William Morris knows its new hires will most likely move on, according to Chris, who spent five months in the agency's mailroom in New York. After all, his starting pay was $10 an hour, and increases by just $1 each year. Job openings at clients' companies are mass emailed to all employees, something pretty much unheard of in any other industry in the world.
"It feels very transitory," says Chris. "People are always leaving, and there are always new people starting. Using WME [William Morris Endeavor] as a springboard to get into a different job isn't taboo, it's encouraged."
Or in Tarpley's more measured description: "Clerks and trainees find mentors within the building who help them learn and grow and connect them to the best opportunities -- internally or externally."
"Everyone knows," he adds, "we'll all be working together still."
Better Than An Unpaid Internship
At the end of the day, working in the mailroom is a job, and for new grads these days jobs aren't so easy to come by. Like most extremely competitive, "glamor" industries, Hollywood is littered with unpaid interns, who labor long hours free of charge with little promise of paid employ at the end.
One recent Wesleyan grad, who worked on the movie "Black Swan" for five months, actually sued Fox Searchlight Pictures last year for violation of minimum wage and overtime laws. The lawsuit claimed that the studio had over 100 unpaid interns at any one time.
Working in the mailroom is compensated -- not well, perhaps, but it isn't minimum wage. And most agencies have strictly enforced rules about overtime for their lowest rung employees, to prevent any gross exploitation. United Talent Agency technically doesn't let assistants access their work email outside of the office.
Working in the mailroom isn't just a job. It's a job that's available. Now, tomorrow, and always. Turnover is high, and the mailroom is hiring. "I can't imagine how anyone gets a job anywhere in entertainment without starting out in an agency," says Sarah.
The mailroom may be an ego-crushing, low-wage job for a new graduate. But at the same time, it's the kind of entry-level position that's sadly lacking in other industries: one that's always compensated, always hiring, learning-intense, and with a clear track for advancement. It follows the apprenticeship model of modern Germany or medieval England, but its training is in the craft of knowing the right people and getting it done. It forces its staffers to decide: Is this what I want to do with my life?
"It was pretty much a nightmare," says Sarah, reflecting back on the two years that she spent at an agency, before leaving to work at a studio. "I'd recommend that to anybody. You learn so much about yourself."
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