The Low and Mighty

Lorenza Munoz is a Times staff writer

Marc Hernandez isn't a name you would recognize in a roster of important people in Hollywood, but he's probably one of the most connected guys in town. His connections don't come from being a studio executive or the son of an industry giant or a producer of a major motion picture--they came from being an assistant. With a collection of at least 6,600 industry e-mail buddies, not much happens in this company town that he doesn't know about.

"In this business, you have to go out and be a heat-seeking missile and know everybody," said Hernandez, who accumulated his e-mail pipeline while an assistant at United Talent Agency.

Hernandez's list is a particularly ambitious example of the assistants' grapevine--a phenomenon particular to Hollywood culture, where letting people know you know what's going on is key. Whether it's in Internet chat rooms like IFILMpro, where anonymous assistants and low-level executives dish out gossip, or in personal e-mails sent to friends at studios and agencies, the passing of information is a blood source for Hollywood's vitality. And its heartbeat is centered in the assistant's keypad and headset.

"The assistants have a lot of information. They want to trade it but also protect it," said Lindsay Sloane, former assistant to veteran producer Mark Johnson ("Bugsy," "Galaxy Quest"). "It's almost like whoever knows the most information wins. But no one is really giving away things they are not supposed to. It's just enough to go back to your boss and say, 'Hey this is going to happen.' It's about looking like you know what is going on."

Hernandez became an assistant relatively late in life. He had been making a six-figure salary as an executive at South Coast Plaza in the mid-1990s when he decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and work in Hollywood. Never mind that he was in his early 30s, knew nothing about the industry and, worst of all, knew nobody.

"I had a burning passion and desire to be in the entertainment business," he said. "So I said to myself, 'Do it now or forever hold your peace."' To his parents' horror, he quit his job and became a mail clerk at United Talent Agency.

"I was making $350 a week pushing a mail cart with guys named Biffy and Skip," Hernandez recalled recently. "My parents thought I was crazy. But I loved it. It was like finding the love of your life after having dated for years." Hernandez eventually graduated from the mailroom to assistant for a top literary agent at UTA. His salary went up to $450 a week. He quickly caught on that the brokering of information was essential to moving up the ladder. He would make about 100 phone calls a day for his boss. So he figured he might as well start keeping track of everyone he was meeting over the phone. Soon enough, he began assembling a massive e-mail address book.

By the end of his first year, he had amassed more than 600 e-mail addresses. He then capitalized on the Internet--in 1997, a still relatively untapped resource--by finding Web sites that listed script sales, a vital component of the Hollywood machinery. Soon, his e-mail network consisted of more than 2,800 addresses of other assistants and junior executives who could learn the latest news, what scripts were being sold, who was hot, who was out, and where upcoming parties and job openings were. His e-mail network became a kind of Hollywood newsletter, a site where he and others could post information about what was happening in town.

His e-mail list eventually grew to 6,600 and included top-level executives eager to know what was going on. Now a literary manager with the Zide/Perry agency, Hernandez credits his rapid ascent up the Hollywood ladder to his e-mail connections.

These so-called "power assistants" meet for drinks nearly every night at the latest hot spot and plot their latest move, who they want to know and what they want to accomplish. Hernandez was known for his ability to fill up cool hangouts such as the Argyle Hotel in West Hollywood with more than 500 assistants when he organized his mixers.

"You want to put a name to the face," said Hernandez, who grew up in West Covina and graduated from USC. "I would recognize people's e-mail addresses by memory--it is like a 'Rain Man' thing--it was just ingrained in my brain."

Toiling as an assistant is a time-honored Hollywood ritual that many industry wannabes follow. Usually, the job lasts two to three years, and then the assistant either leaves the industry or is promoted to another position. These worker bees, most of whom are twentysomethings making less than $500 a week, are not as pathetic as you may think.

Sure, many are humiliated and abused by their bosses. But they are some of the most valuable sources of information in Hollywood, and many eventually make it up to executive positions.

"It is a typical Hollywood myth of the ogre, agent screamer, and they are everywhere--at every agency," Hernandez said. "A lot of it gets exploited and exaggerated though. Some people just have never been yelled at. Like when your agent yells out 'Why didn't you book my lunch at [the restaurant] Orso!?' Some [assistants] would go home and cry for a week. They are too thin-skinned, and this industry is definitely not for the thin-skinned."

Not only can you not be thin-skinned, you have to be plotting to get ahead.

Some assistants even pick their friends based on who they work for. The assistants' grapevine is not only used for fun and gossip--it sets a career path. Hernandez knew his e-mail network was something special when an agents at work hollered at him one afternoon:

"Hernandez! What is this list you are sending out?" the agent screamed.

"So I e-mailed him a copy of the list," Hernandez recalled. "Then he said to me, 'I am on the phone with [the senior vice president of development of a major studio], and she says this is the greatest source of information she has ever seen. She says she wants to be added to your distribution list."'

Once he graduated from being an assistant, he asked for a meeting with this executive, and she agreed to see him.

His e-mail list was also valuable for impressing his boss.

"My boss would say, 'We are looking for a writer who wants to do a kung fu movie.' I would send out an e-mail and find out in five minutes who was available," he said.

Last year, his e-mail list helped get him hired at ShowBizData.com, an industry Internet database company. He helped create the entertainment job board, where anyone could look for job postings. His list of e-mail addresses eventually grew to 10,000 people.

"It was tremendous," said John Wells, senior vice president of development of ShowBizData.com. "Marc doubled our traffic from the job board alone."

In March, Hernandez took his Rolodex and networking skills to Zide/Perry.

Many of those assistants he found jobs for or connected with his e-mails are now junior executives working their way up to senior management positions.

"This business is very much about who you know and who you can get to," Hernandez said. "What I was doing was making sure I was in communication with assistants who could ultimately get me to their boss. I didn't want to be known as 'Marc the assistant.' Every week that went by, I was branding myself as something different. As a result there are a lot of people that I now know."

Because of the way the industry works, assistants are privy to information that in most professions would be off-limits for a young person in an entry-level position.

Executives, agents and managers all handle their busy calling schedules by "rolling calls." Their assistants dial the numbers and hang on the line listening to the conversation, taking notes, finding out essential information for their bosses. By rolling calls, the boss saves time, energy and, most important, uses the assistant's attention span to recall the conversation.

For the assistants, rolling calls provide an invaluable lesson in how things work and are a gold mine of information. So if you want privacy, let the caller beware: assistants almost always listen in without telling the caller they are doing so.

However, assistants have to be careful how and when they divulge information. As Hernandez says, it is a strategic effort intended to get points with the boss and show everyone in town you are at the top of your game. The learning curve is steep, and in most agencies, it is a sink-or-swim situation. An assistant must learn what information can be traded and what must remain a tightly kept secret, said Jib Polhemus, a former Creative Artists Agency assistant who now runs Wychwood Productions, the production company of director Simon West ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider").

"There is an art of how not to answer a question when someone asks you," Polhemus said. "You have to figure out how to tell them as little information as possible without looking moronic. You learn how to do this pretty quickly after your boss screams at you a few times. It's a difficult situation, though, when a client calls and asks you a question point-blank and you have to play like you have no clue, when you know exactly what happened."

In the topsy-turvy world of high-ranking executives, assistants are often the first to know who is on the outs.

When Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to leave Disney in 1994, his assistants were the first to know. One of them immediately passed the news to her friend, another assistant at Disney. That friend called her friend--also an assistant--at CAA, and the word spread from there. The assistants' grapevine was so fast and furious that word was out even before some top executives at Disney knew and before the publicity department at Disney had a chance to announce the departure.

"My boss said, 'You assistants are the underground of Hollywood. It's fantastic how we can learn everything from you,"' said the former Disney assistant who had been friends with Katzenberg's assistant. She still works in Hollywood and asked that her name not be used. "We knew an hour and half before [then-Touchstone President] Don DeLine even knew."

Sometimes bosses rely on their assistants to get them out of a jam.

Laura Kim, a senior publicist for mPRm, a top publicity agency in town, was at the Sundance Film Festival last year when top executives from a studio urgently needed to get in touch with Sundance organizer Geoff Gilmore. Kim, a 10-year veteran of Sundance, tried all the numbers she had, but Gilmore was nowhere to be found. In desperation, she called her assistant, James Lewis, in Los Angeles.

"Two minutes later, he called me back with Geoff's private phone number," she marveled.

"Assistants are some of the most resourceful people." said Lewis, now a publicist at mPRm. "I had known Geoff's personal assistant very well, so I just ... got it. [Assistants] are the supporting network of the industry which really keeps everything together."

And, as Hernandez says, sending out valuable information can also result in good karma in an industry known for its cutthroat ways.

"There has to be a human element to this business," he said. "You can ask me for a favor ... and in the long run, when I need your information, you will come back and help me."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday September 9, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 40 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction Agency name--Zide/Perry Entertainment is the correct title for a management agency named in an Aug. 26 Sunday Calendar story on Hollywood assistants. The company was incorrectly identified in the article.
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