Jason Burns ‘95
- College: Muir
- Major: Economics; visual arts minor
- Grad year: 1995
- Hometown: Malibu, CA
- Where you live now: Los Angeles, CA
- Career: Talent Agent; Partner, Co-Head of Motion Picture Literary | United Talent Agency
What inspired you to join the surf team?
Well, it’s not the best kept secret that the surf team has the key to Black’s. So that was Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket more than anything. UCSD was a great school, but I also knew it was parked on top of one of the best surf spots in California. And beyond the key, there was also camaraderie and a social aspect of the team. We had a great freshman class too— I knew a couple of the people just because we’d competed against each other as amateurs in high school. For all those reasons, it was just a given— how do I try out?
Do you have any favorite memories from days on the team?
There was one day I remember, a Superbowl Sunday, that was the best I’d ever seen it down there: huge and practically empty. Just an incredible day. I’m sure a lot of other people have a lot more funny or compelling stories that I may have even been a part of, but my memory is fuzzy.
How did surfing complement your UC San Diego education?
I’m a big believer that surfing is a really healthy sport, in a holistic kind of way. It’s one of those things where you can really detach and focus— you can’t have your phone and you can’t think of really anything else. When you’re taking off in a wave there’s just total focus, and nothing else is in your mind. Then there’s the other dimension that teaches patience because you’re waiting for the right wave and you’re enveloped in nature at the same time. There’s a calming factor, a priority break that gives you perspective. Just altogether a healthy thing.
What do you do now?
I’m a talent agent and represent film directors, writers and producers. I’m also a partner and head of the motion picture department at my company, United Talent Agency (UTA). It was certainly a long path to getting there, though.
How did you get into that industry?
After UC San Diego, I started working at Smith Barney in La Jolla, a brokerage firm. I worked for a guy who was very much the Gordon Gekko type, with the great Glengarry leads on how to build a book of business. (I know I’m mixing my film references, but bear with me.) I learned quite a bit about running a business, how to call people and establish a connection with them, and I liked sales and the fast pace of the job. But I eventually looked at that life and said, “this is just not what I want for myself.”
Along with weighing options like graduate school or an MBA, I happened to be reading a bunch of books at the time, one of which was called The Mailroom. It is about William Morris Agency, the first big Hollywood agency. It gave me a real sense of what an agency does and how it is sort of the center of the ecosystem of Hollywood. I was an econ major and visual arts minor in college, so the world of film really appealed to me— and here was a role where there was sales involved, but also a direct connection to the arts. You might not be an artist, but you got to advocate for them. So I went around trying to interview and got into a mailroom. Ultimately I got into UTA, which was a lot leaner and smaller at that time.
How the mailroom works is this: you’re literally delivering mail, but what you’re also doing is understanding who’s who within the agency, and you’re getting a sense of the studios in town too and more importantly: how information flows. This may be hard to believe, but back then there wasn’t much done through email, just a lot of scripts and things being sent back and forth. You’d learn the names to know, and kind of through osmosis you start to get an idea of how everything works. Then you start to apply for assistant positions, which is basically doing everything an agent says they are doing. So you’re on every phone call and if the agent says, “I’m going to send you a script,” or, “I’ll set this meeting,” you do that. And through osmosis, again, you’re understanding how an agent does the job, getting a sense of their instincts and manner. It’s a very specific system, the mailroom. It was really like a graduate school for me.
Of course, what I’m skipping is the hundreds of people who go through that process and never get to the next level. There are some Darwinian aspects to it, “the strong survive” sort of thing. But a lot of those people realize they want to go do something else, work for producers or work at a studio. But there’s no better way of getting a real understanding of how Hollywood works.
How did surfing help you in your career journey?
We had a lot of fun on the team, but at the same time, we were disciplined too, and life takes a certain amount of discipline. It takes a degree of competitiveness and discipline, and surfing on a team can teach that. Hollywood and especially my job has that reputation— you’ve gotta be a competitor and you’ve gotta be dedicated. In surfing, you learn what it takes and you have to be willing to wake up early and forego other things. To be really good at any sport, it means a certain level of commitment. You do all those things for yourself personally, but you’re also part of something bigger than yourself because you’re on a team.
For me, that’s what surfing and competing taught me. No one just gives you a trophy. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the work. I think that’s really important for anyone because classes don’t always teach you lessons for the next stage of life, the work environment, which is all about, well, showing up in a mailroom and being really excited about it, distinguishing yourself from others and really going the extra mile to get noticed and move up.
What would you share with someone thinking about joining the surf team?
I am kind of jealous at even having that opportunity again, because those were some of the most amazing years of my life. The idea that you could fit in school and take that as serious as possible, but wake up super early and surf every day, if you wanted to is amazing. To be exercising your body, your mind and also bonding with all these people. It’s going to be an amazing four years and the kind of opportunity that anyone would be envious of.