On Tuesday night in the Barnard Hall James Room, Barnard Career Development hosted a panel with figures from the entertainment industry hosted by UTA Co-head of the Television Talent Department Nancy Mendelson Gates. Dodge Cafe King and Queen Bijan Samareh and Alexandra Svokos were there.
When it comes to centering your career plan around making it in Hollywood, William Goldman’s famous epigram that “nobody know anything” can be a bit daunting. While the nature of climbing the ranks in entertainment is far more arbitrary than say following the course it takes to become a doctor or an engineer, certain principles do exist that can push one in the right direction. These principles are exactly what Tuesday night’s Careers in Entertainment panel wished to discuss.
Organized in Barnard Hall by Barnard Career Development, the panel consisted of NYC-based talent agents, a PR manager, and an entertainment lawyer. Nancy Mendelson Gates (Barnard ’89), kicked off the discussion relaying how career with the United Talent Agency as Co-head of the Television Talent Department wasn’t always fated. After graduating college, she received at MBA from UT Austin and worked with non-profits in NYC. Deciding that such work didn’t suit her, she moved to LA in 1996 and climbed the ranks at UTA as one of their fasted promoted agents. Her life journey was echoed in her sentiments to the audience, as she repeatedly discussed how it is okay for college students to be uncertain as to what they want to do in the future.
Hailing from a different side of the industry, Ira Schreck (Columbia Law ’80) took Gates’ sentiments a step further. Before working for Columbia Pictures as an entertainment lawyer and going on to start a boutique entertainment Law firm in LA, he worked all over the place. From a job at a casino in Reno to working as a cabbie in New York, he reminisced on his adventures as some of the best years of his life. A period of such personal discovery gave him the life experience to one day represent playwright Tony Kushner (Columbia ’78, Class Day Speaker ’04), the oft-spotted Sarah Jessica Parker, and other big names in entertainment. His desire to defend artists arose from his dissatisfaction representing big businesses, which he found too impersonal.
The panelist that hit home the hardest was Melissa Wells (Columbia ’06)— a Motion Picture Literary Agent at UTA who once produced the Varsity Show and majored in Film Studies (5th floor Dodge, woot woot). While working a babysitting job as a freshman, she discovered that her employer was the master of rom com, Marc Lawrence. He wrote and directed Two Weeks Notice, Miss Congeniality, and Music and Lyrics. She milked this opportunity for all it was worth, and started working as his assistant junior year. This eventually led to them founding their own production company. She encouraged students to stay close with their friends who also want to work in the industry, as her current friends and collaborators are the same people she ate omelets with at John Jay..
Among the other panelists were Stephen Gates (Head of Literary Department at Evolution Entertainment) and Cari Ross (President of Balance Public Relations), who echoed similar sentiments. Amidst the Q&A, they also stressed how important craft development is— writers must write every day, actors must always be acting, etc. The drove home how that if you want to do work in entertainment, you have to work anywhere you can, even if it’s a movie made on an aspiring director’s iPhone. The panelists also stressed that if you want to work on the representative side and get a job in the industry, you need be the best you can at it to get recognized for your hard work. People will remember the effort you put in and it’s not unlikely for “the best coffee-getter” to be promoted.
The evening was very enjoyable and informative. Gates gave a disclaimer that no soliciting or resume submissions would be allowed, much to the chagrin of eager attendees. It would have also been nice if they added a few panelist who are involved in the creative side rather than just talent representatives working on the business side. I’m sure many who attended would have enjoyed speaking with an actual Hollywood actor or screenwriter to learn how they got an agent and worked deals. Nonetheless, it was nice leaving the event “knowing some things”.
Dedicated fan collection via Wikimedia Commons