Up from the Mail Room

 

Smiling man in a business suit and tieI’m a talent agent representing 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.

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, which is about the first, biggest Hollywood agency, William Morris 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 arts minor in college, so that world 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 get 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, 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 physical 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 again, through osmosis, 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, like work for producers or work at a studio. But there’s truly no better way of getting a real understanding of how Hollywood works.

Now 24 years later, what I love about an agent’s role in this business hasn’t changed at all. To be an advocate for artists, to represent and champion people you really believe in, and see their lives change—sometimes overnight, even—it makes the long journey to where I am today all the more worthwhile.

 

Jason Burns ’95 is head of the motion picture department at United Talent Agency (UTA) in Los Angeles.