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In Hollywood, a tougher climb to studio executive ranks

Aspiring future studio executives who start at the bottom hoping to climb to the top find themselves stuck in the middle as economic pressures squeeze the industry.

December 19, 2010|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Matthew Cohen, a former directors assistant who wanted to be a movie producer, left his job as a creative executive at Temple Hill Entertainment this year to work for a video game development studio.
Matthew Cohen, a former directors assistant who wanted to be a movie producer,… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

When Will Hackner came to Hollywood in 2002 with dreams of becoming a movie producer, it immediately became clear what he had to do.

"Through osmosis you quickly learn that you get an internship, become an assistant, then a junior executive and you keep working your way up," the 30-year-old graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts said.

It's a career path that has become the stuff of legend: Start off in the mailroom at a talent agency or doing menial tasks for a producer, director or studio executive, and one day you could be one of the empowered few who decide what movies end up on the big screen. Such well-known names as DreamWorks Studios Chairman Stacey Snider and mega-producer Brian Grazer trod that road to the top.

But as radical changes in the entertainment business force studios to cut staff, make fewer movies and generally reduce the amount of money flowing through the town, these thousands of young people have found the Hollywood career ladder a steeper and more treacherous climb.

Hackner has seen the change firsthand. Eight years ago he began his career as an intern at Nickelodeon and assistant at Warner Bros. before becoming a junior development executive for Warner's DC Comics unit.

But in September, when he lost his job in a restructuring at DC, Hackner found himself among a growing number of 20- and 30-somethings working in show business who have been laid off or voluntarily left after concluding that there was little chance that they would ever become a studio president or film producer.

Jobs are so scarce that when Universal Pictures had an opening this year for a creative executive, or "CE" in Hollywood parlance — the job right above assistant in which young people get hands-on experience developing movie ideas — more than 200 people applied.

"What's amazing is that nearly all of them were deeply qualified," said Debbie Liebling, the studio's president of production, who started her career as a junior "coordinator" at MTV. "That brought home that it's genuinely harder now than when I was coming up and the industry was in a growth phase."

The traditional economic model underpinning the movie industry is in the midst of a radical shift. With the lucrative DVD market shrinking, digital alternatives stealing consumers' attention from traditional entertainment and media conglomerates demanding fatter profit margins, every major studio is finding ways to rein in spending and reduce overhead. Consumers can see the results at the multiplex, where 18% fewer movies will have been released this year than in 2007.

But perhaps nobody has felt it more than the eager college graduates who answer phones, fetch coffee, set meetings and read scripts for demanding bosses to keep the world capital of pop culture humming.

"When I started, it was understood that most of us would be able to work our way up just like the executives around us at the time had," said Heather Jack, a 30-year-old graduate student at New York University who began her career as an assistant at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and later worked as a development executive for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "But of the ones who started working at the same time as me, only a handful are still in the industry."

Along with the reduced head count at the studios, there has been consolidation in the agency world, where many young people get their start delivering packages and placing calls. Two of the biggest talent houses — William Morris Agency and Endeavor — merged last year to better weather the revenue downturn affecting their clients.

Also notable: The number of producers whose overhead is covered by studios — so-called "on the lot" deals that allow them to hire a cadre of young helpers — plummeted 34% from 2006 to 2009, according to the industry trade paper Variety.

In many ways it's tougher at the bottom because it's more cutthroat at the top. The uncertain state of the industry has left many senior executives frozen in position because there are fewer available jobs and it has become increasingly difficult for them to step into producer roles. Meanwhile, producers who used to invite junior staffers to handle some projects are frequently keeping control over the fewer movies they make.

"The people who have jobs hold on to them for dear life, so there aren't many openings for other people to take," said Nina Jacobson, a producer and former production president for Walt Disney Pictures who got one of her first breaks as a junior executive for producer Joel Silver.

The result, said Jacobson, is a system in which fresh talent is no longer steadily flowing up the ranks. "In the long run, an absence of fresh blood is something to be worried about for the health of the industry."

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