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."
Young people with pricey college or even law school degrees have historically accepted the comparatively low pay (assistants typically make less than $35,000 a year) and long hours of an entry-level job in Hollywood because it presents a unique opportunity to learn how the sausage is made in a glamorous industry. Assistants are on the phone while their bosses negotiate multimillion-dollar deals and on sets alongside decision makers.
"It's like an old-fashioned apprenticeship where you learn a craft by watching someone else do it," said Matthew Cohen, a former assistant to "Twilight" director Catherine Hardwicke who now works in the video game industry. "You put up with all the things you don't want to do because you're in the nerve center of how movies get made."
But now many people are deciding that the long hours and tedious work aren't taking them where they want to go. After four years at Temple Hill Entertainment, where he was a creative executive, Cohen left early this year after concluding that it was much more difficult to make the leap to movie producer than when he started working in 2004. He took a job running business development for a video game development studio.
"I don't feel like I've abandoned Hollywood, but I'm doing what I was doing in a different way," he said of working in the younger and more dynamic game industry.
Even those still hoping for another job in the movie business are having to pursue other opportunities as they apply for the few job openings that pop up. Hackner now runs a sports league for gay men and lesbians and does fundraising for nonprofit groups.
Ryan Gray, a former assistant at New Line Cinema who left early this year after seeing no promotion in sight, has worked as a baseball scout and writes a sports blog. Applying for low- or mid-level positions, he said, continues to get more and more competitive.
"At the same time, there has been a stunting of job growth," he said. "We have the same influx of interns every year. That creates a huge backup of people looking for jobs."
The situation has changed so much that experienced people say they can no longer offer the same advice that young people who trek to Hollywood have received for decades.
"In the past you could become a vice president if you just stuck around and worked hard," said producer Beau Flynn, who started as an assistant to producer Scott Rudin. "Now, when I hear people say they're going to start off as an assistant and go on to become a producer or executive, I have to tell them I just don't see it happening much anymore."
The most reliable path, Flynn and others say, may be not to follow one. Websites, mobile devices and video game consoles provide more platforms than ever to produce content for those willing to think out of the long-prescribed Hollywood box.
And the future of the industry, they note, will quite likely be defined by those who understand much more than the traditional way movies are made.
"You have to be an entrepreneur from Day One," Cohen said of the lessons he has learned. "You can't rely on the system coming through the way it was promised to you."