Monday, November 16, 2009

A Short Story About the UTA List

My first taste of working in the entertainment industry came in the form of an unpaid internship at a music video production company that doesn't exist anymore. The intern station was four small desks pushed together, with three available computers. There were five of us who would rotate computer usage, as fairly as we could, when we weren't active on a task.

One would assume that all five of us were interns, since we all made use of the intern station. This was incorrect. I would eventually learn that one of the five was actually a personal assistant to an executive at the company. There wasn't any space in the office to provide him his own separate desk or his own separate computer, so he was stationed with us lowly interns.

Even when slumped down deep in a chair, Adam was tall. And slump he did, every time he sat; a habit acquired, no doubt, during an adolescence rife with ridicule about his height. His long legs forced his chair a fair distance away from the desks, but his similarly long arms would branch casually back to the desktops. He walked slowly, but got there before you did. His face, always expressionless, gave a false sense of apathy. He rarely spoke, which is why I was able to carry on so long assuming he was just another intern.

But the news came fast, in a one-two punch. The day I learned that Adam wasn't an intern was the same day I learned he was leaving the company. He'd landed a new job, and would be starting the following Monday.

That was a lesson I learned early during my internship. People come and go quickly in the entertainment industry. All jobs are basically freelance, and therefor quite temporary. Even the jobs that sound permanent -- like chairman of a network, or head of production of a studio -- will only get you a decade or so of work. And that's only if you're good at it. With a few exceptions (hi, "The Simpsons"), a hit show is only going to run five to ten years. Most shows aren't hits, so you'll only get half a year of work out of it. Or less. It's a very transient business. Don't get comfortable, don't settle in, don't decorate your cubicle.

When you wrap out of a job, the best way to find your next job is to reach out to friends and acquaintances you've made during previous engagements. "Anything opening up at your company?" you ask them, or "heard of anything else out there?" You'll repeat those questions a few dozen times during your job hunt. And a few dozen times, the response you'll hear is, "I'll put the feelers out." This town is being constantly molested by friends of job-seekers.

But every once in a while, you'll get a less common response: "I can send you the UTA list."

*****

The UTA list is an ultra-secret, clandestine, very exclusive Hollywood job listing... Except that everyone has heard of it, people speak openly of it, and it's not very difficult to get your hands on. Also, you'll never meet anyone who has claimed to have gotten their job from a UTA listing. But everyone seeks it out as if it's going to lead them to their next gig.



The namesake of the list is the United Talent Agency, one of the biggest talent agencies in the business. (Click here for a short list of some of their high profile clients.) UTA will neither confirm nor deny that they're the ones responsible for compiling and distributing the list. It's officially unofficial.

Some people deny altogether that the list even exists, which is preposterous. Of course it exists; everyone has seen it. Whether the job listings are actually legitimate is the point worth debating. Although you can find a copy of the list with a simple web search, it's difficult to trust what you find on the internet. You're better off getting the list from a friend. Who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend... and who knows where it originated? And during this game of telephone, who can say what's been added, removed, or screwed with in some way?

Back in the day, the list got passed around from fax machine to fax machine. That seems like a lot more fun, a lot more like a spy novel. Higher stakes. Assistants and other underlings had to be sneakier about it, had to risk getting caught abusing company equipment.

Now it just bounces around from e-mail address to e-mail address. Yet it retains some of that underground mystique. When you open the file, you find it lacking a heading; nothing in the body identifies it as the UTA list. It begins, simply, "(As of [date])" followed by a couple of warnings. "NOTE: Unless specific permission is given within the listing, DO NOT CALL about positions or to follow up." And, "Please do NOT post this list anywhere online without express prior written permission." I'm not sure how you would acquire such permission, considering "the list does not exist" and you got it from no one nowhere.

Next come the jobs, organized by broad categories (Executive and Management Positions, Assistant Level, etc). They're usually written in vague language, so you're never quite sure where you're applying. (This is not dissimilar to classifieds or Craig's List.) "Once-a-week personal assistant with experience in the film industry needed for feature film screenwriters in Pacific Palisades. Tasks include, but are not limited to: office management/organization, running errands, manage household projects, personal planning. College educated, Mac proficient, good communicator. Send resumes to..."

So you send your resume, and you wait, and you never hear back. And when a friend asks for it, you pass the list along. And so it goes.

*****

"Everyone, be sure to congratulate Adam. This is his last day with us. Starting Monday, he will be Rob Schneider's personal assistant."

"Really?" I asked the nearest available ear. Still so new to the business, this was mind-blowing. Things like that really do happen! "How do you end up getting a job like that?"

"The UTA list," came the response.

"Oh!" my supervisor said with surprise. "So you really can get a job off the UTA list!"

Yeah, maybe. Just that once.

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