Friday, September 2, 2011

The Help, Hollywood-Style

As a reward for surviving the dentist, I took myself to Starbucks for a latte. (Yes, I’m one of those.) The line seemed short, but the attractive young woman ahead of me -- casually dressed, but carefully made up -- was ordering a long list of specialty items. She was making extra certain that one drink had four shots of espresso, and another contained three pumps of vanilla. Given the location of this Beverly Hills Starbucks, a stone’s throw from some major talent agencies, I was certain she was a show biz intern doing what interns do: making life cushier for their ever-demanding bosses.

Recent college grads with Hollywood aspirations know that interning is a good way to get a foot in the door. The contacts they make at an agency or production company can be invaluable to their future careers. Sometimes they get paid a pittance for all that hustle, but penny-pinching show-biz vets of the Roger Corman variety are well aware that an eager young man or woman will gladly work for free. It was the very clever Matt Leipzig who first approached Roger in the 1980s, offering to serve as his first unpaid assistant. This was an offer that Roger couldn’t refuse. Matt’s brains and determination impressed Roger, who soon promoted him to head of production. Ultimately Matt moved on, putting his Concorde-New Horizons experience to work first as a film exec and then as a literary agent with close Hollywood ties. Another intern, Minard Hamilton, quickly became Roger’s sales manager, before accepting a major position with ESPN. (He’s now CEO of a videogame company, Six Degrees Games.)

Today Roger happily fills his staff with unpaid and barely-paid assistants. Making up in zeal for what they lack in filmmaking experience, such newbies pounce upon every opportunity to show their stuff. And they’re not above vying with one another to make the best impression. A producer-type I know, closely involved with the shooting of a recent Corman film, griped to me that new college grads were giving screening notes that resulted in big new demands on his budget. I’m sure they just wanted to sound smart, without thinking through the ramifications of their off-the-cuff critiques.

Many Hollywood bosses (Roger and Julie Corman included) take a strong personal interest in their underlings. Assistants—who may be paying their bosses’ bills, phoning their doctors, buying their pantyhose, and wrangling their children—sometimes find themselves treated as almost a member of the family. Black Swan producer Mike Medavoy, for one, puts the usual heavy demands on his staff, but also takes pride in helping bright young people enter the business. It’s the line between the personal and professional that sometimes gets tricky.

There was a time, soon after I left Concorde-New Horizons, that another Corman alumnus alerted me to the possibility of an assistantship with an independent producer. This Hollywood player had some major credits in his past, but was then between projects. For the time being, he was working out of his spacious Brentwood home. My years of experience and the fact that I was married with children intrigued him. But when he launched into a diatribe about how a previous hire had offended his sensibilities by parking her lunchtime yogurt carton in his home refrigerator, I began to sense that working as a personal assistant has its perils. As Labor Day approaches, I hail those bright young people who try so hard to please, but are always just one yogurt cup -- or quadruple-shot latte -- away from disaster.


  1. Fascinating post! If I didn't have a mortgage to take care of, I'd gladly do the road trip out west to work for the great Roger Corman in the hopes of getting one of my (flat) feet in the door!

  2. Stick to your job and your mortgage, Brian. It's sad but true -- everyone agrees that Concorde-New Horizons is no longer the stepping stone it used to be. Roger's output has certainly diminished over the years (in terms of both quantity and quality), and it's considered much hipper to start out by making your own small film and getting it into a film festival. See the career of Robert Rodriguez, for instance.

  3. Ms. Gray - your response to Venom is sobering. But I'm with him - I dream of time travelling back and hanging with Dante and Arkush out at the New World trailer trailer...trying to get a date with Mary Woronov or Candy Rialson...running around LA with Dick Miller seeing if we can get a real New York style bially...or bringing a hot cup of joe to our new boss, Beverly Gray? If you hear of a time machine being invented - be nice to me when I show up back in the day - even though we won't be blog buddies for another several years!

  4. I love your vision of New World, with me as boss lady instead of lowly peon! Speaking of time machines, I worked on a Corman film that included that concept. "Time Trackers" may not have been a hit, but it contained some lovely actors, and was a prime example of Roger being sold on an idea because he could combine the use of two standing sets. Remind me!