Our guest today is Matt Thilenius. A great fan of television and the agency life, Matt has quickly risen the ranks of CAA. Over the past year, he has gone from intern and mailroom floater to now being a TV Literary assistant.
First things first: why the television calling?
I love the storytelling of it. As a kid, I’ve always been fascinated with cartoons. I used to watch a lot of that kind of TV—I still do on occasion. I now find shows more interesting to watch. How you can tell a story through many episodes. In a movie you only have the span of two hours. In TV, you have a season, or multiple ones, where you can keep going at it, adding to it, developing characters and stories, building the plot and conflict. Television has always had a huge impact on our culture. Back in the day, it was mostly used to share news and important parts of our society. It’s also a fun source of entertainment. It’s evolved so much over the decades, there’s really a lot you can do with it. From the small screen to all the new platforms. I’ll be interested to see where it’s going to evolve. Whether it’s still television of something else. It’s a fun business to be in.
Three words to describe what your work is.
We represent writers. Our client will have an idea, a script, and we’ll make a TV show—or at least try to. We’ll talk to different studios, networks, to see who’s interested. We’ll strategize, brainstorm, see if it’s the type of material they’re looking for. Maybe it’s cable rather than broadcast. Which one are we bringing it to? Is it more premium, something along the lines of AMC/FX rather than Nickelodeon or WGN. Maybe it’s really out there, and we can try to work with the newer platforms. Then there’s the pitching part of it. We’ll call executives, saying: “we’ve got this new script we think you’ll like”. If they like it, they’ll take meetings with the writer and see where it goes. They can pass on it, or take it a step further. That’s the beginning stages of it. A production company may also want to option it for a specific period of time, see if they can bring it to a studio or network themselves.
Three words to describe how you work.
Obsession. There’s always a bit of craziness. Trying to watch all the shows, keeping up on the news, what’s happening in TV, and also MP. Taking it all in, absorbing it all. Literally a lifestyle.
Energetic. You definitely have to be good, working hard obviously. I think it’s also a lot of what you do outside of work. Yes, you have a day job, building relationships is important.
Networking. You have to constantly meet new people. When you’re on a desk, talking to other assistants, integrating with colleagues. It’s a good idea to get to know them outside the workplace. Whether that means lunch, dinner, or attending a networking event. You’re all in the same generation, moving up together. At some point, one will call you up, saying “I’ve got this person with a new spec, do you want to take a look at it?” Everyone is also taking different directions. Casting, producing, representing, directing, etc. That’s what’s cool about being in an agency. Not everyone there necessarily wants to be an agent.
—the television series that has influenced you the most:
Six Feet Under. It’s such a great show. I loved the characters. You feel like you’re on a journey with them. Each are very different, in their own ways. You can sort of relate to all of them. The ending was great, very satisfying.
—the one episode of television that defines you:
Probably the series finale of Six Feet Under. The show was so involved with life and death. Claire going to college—you could look back on those times. When you left your family, starting your own path in high-school or college. She leaves that part behind. I could relate that to my own experience in college, and moving out here. Starting a new journey.
—the television episode that impressed you the most:
I really liked Black Mirror. It was such a different show. There was this one episode, called “White Bear“, where the girl protagonist wakes up, not knowing where she is. There’s all these people outside, all after her or watching. It was intriguing. The ending was also kind of cool. In the end, they sort of brainwash her, and it’s revealed how everything is staged out. That show is so odd. It’s really something I hadn’t seen before.
—the show you wish was still on the air:
The Newsroom. I love the show. There was something about it that hooked me. It’s the characters, the relationships, the idea of running a newspaper. I have no clue how they do it, but being a part of that, seeing their lives—that was really cool, and, again, different. They covered so many things, events, such as wars or elections. They made it their own.
—the show you would never publicly admit to watching, except right now:
I’ll admit to anything I watch. [laughs] I do love Cops. I’ve watched that show for the past three or four years. It’s an amazing source of entertainment. Seeing people get arrested, hit by a Taser, the car chases-it’s all awesome.
—the show you wish you had worked on:
24. What made it so good was its storytelling aspect. You had the clock ticking, everything was condensed into 24 hours. It was trying to beat the clock in a new way. You knew that it would be resolved within those 24 episodes. Sometimes they would have in the first 16 episodes this event and then another twist would bring new stories for the next 8. It was very original.
What has been, so far, your journey in the television industry?
I moved out here after graduation. I knew I wanted to work in TV in some kind of capacity, and also the agency route. I had done an internship at an agency in college, loved what I was doing there, the environment.
Luckily enough, I got an internship afterwards at CAA, in their TV lit department. Their internships are all project-based, so you’re actually working on different scripts, helping coordinators out. It’s not just getting coffee. It’s also a great company, great culture, the people there are really awesome. I knew that’s where I wanted to be. For a year after, I did the mailroom. You learn a lot about the operations. You’re constantly walking around, you learn about the different departments. Not just TV, but business, MP lit, MP talent. You get to really learn about CAA as a whole. It also allows you to meet so many people. Not just assistants, but building staff and so on.
I eventually floated for about six weeks. Essentially, that means you‘re covering a desk where the assistant is gone for a bit, filling in for the day. You’d get a different assignment every time. It’s great because you get a better understanding of what you want to do within the company. Maybe there’s a department you weren’t sure of, but now you really like because you covered it. It’s a great way to test things out.
After that, I interviewed for a desk in TV lit. I’ve been there for a few months now. You learn so much every day. Listening on the calls, learning how deals get negotiated, reading a lot of materials. It’s great.
Could you talk about the transition and differences from mailroom to TV Lit assistant?
Being an assistant is definitely different. That’s when the real work begins. [laughs] When you’re working for someone as an assistant, it’s now a different set of responsibilities. The mailroom is sort of your introduction to everything. Now you’ve defined a department. You’re working for an agent. You’re expected to know all the clients, read all the scripts, materials, watch all the shows. Your client is essentially your boss. It’s about doing whatever it is to support, whatever he or she may need.
What is your day-to-day like?
It’s essentially phones and emails. A lot of it is setting up meeting with clients, producers, whoever the buyers are. It’s also a lot of submissions, sending material to a producer. Let’s say your boss is on the phone with someone they want to send a script to, you’ll create a letter of submission, with a certain kind of format, then send it out.
Keeping track of information and money is also very important. My job is to make sure our checks are coming in, and our clients are getting paid. You may have a file on each client. What kind of projects they have active, where have they submitted, what dates are they travelling, etc. Depending on the desk you’re on, it may vary. You could be involved with department-level projects, such as preparing the upfront party, sending out the invites.
During staffing season, it’s really about submissions to networks. Development season is coming too, so we’ll see which of our clients have, or don’t have jobs. And get them all meetings.
What are your thoughts on the writer/agent relationship?
The writer should always be developing new material, things to sell in case other things don’t pan through. The client will then let us know what it is, what we think of it. The agent will read it. Eventually, the team will get together. Maybe there’s already too much of that material on the market. Maybe we can push it back on the back-burner for now, come back to it later. It’s a bunch of conversations between the agent and client. If the writer is already working, then it’s more about how they’re doing. The agent is always for feedback. Is the show going all right? Are there any issues with the writers’ room? Are you getting your money? [laughs] When they’re booked, they’re usually so busy they don’t call. Discussions are about things in development, not necessarily what they’re on.
What do you look for in scripts you read?
Personally, what I like in a script is something that’s easy to read. A story where I can follow easily what’s going on. High-concept science-fiction is great, but sometimes there are a lot of different elements you have to read again and again to figure all out. I enjoy good plot and a lot of conflict. When each scene has some conflict that contributes to the next scene. I like good characters, and dialogue when it feels natural. You should be able to paint a picture in your mind, and it makes sense.
What is the hardest thing about doing what you do?
The high volume. There’s nothing intrinsically hard about what I do. It’s emails and phones. The hard part of being on top of everything. Having an answer for anything that may come up. Being in the know, constantly up to date. That’s the tricky part.
What is the easiest thing about doing what you do?
The phone sheet? [laughs] What’s nice is that it’s a day job. You know what you’re getting into. Granted, each day is a bit different, but there is stability. You know what to expect. What the next day will be like.
Who do you look up to in the television industry?
I would say every studio head (Les Moonves, Richard Plepler, Alan Horn), anyone who’s basically running a business. I respect what they do. Professionally, I’m not sure I’d want to do that, but I’d love to end up at least on that level.
What is the ideal job you would like to ultimately have?
I’d like to be an agent at CAA and be involved with company-wide work. Be a part of the foundation. Explore different avenues for clients and business opportunities. TV is cool, but ultimately I’d also love to work with MP, talent, digital. It’s all interesting.
When people from outside the industry ask what you do, what do you tell them?
I tell them exactly what I do. They may not understand it though. [laughs] I tell them that I work as an assistant in TV at an agency. We represent creative people, and our job is to get them jobs. Our company is also involved in putting together different elements to creating a TV show.
What is your best professional advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Watch a lot. Read a lot. Be curious. Be open-minded. You never stop learning. Know what is in the marketplace. What shows are on the air, who has them, what types they are. You may not be aware of what networks are specifically looking for, but knowing what they put out is important. You may not be expected to know everything, but you’re expected to have at the very least an interest in the industry. Have an understand of what a writer, a producer, or a network does. It’s really not rocket-science. There’s no craft you need to develop like a writer. It’s a corporate environment. Being interested is important.
What is your best personal advice to someone who wants to do what you do?
Budget your money well. You don’t make a lot of it. It’s easy to spend it all. In the first few months, you may not know what you’re doing.
Try to get out there as much as possible, especially if you’re just starting out. You can find a lot of meetup groups, networking things happening around. Explore. Things like JHRTS are great. You get to meet a ton of people there in many different companies. Going to those events is really important, and so is staying in touch-following up. You have to be a little proactive with it.
Get to know people, be curious—passionately so. Keep an open mind. Assume you don’t know everything. Someone is always going to know more than you, and that’s okay.
What is your next step?
I’m going to be doing this for a least another few years. Even if I were to leave, I’d still want to work in representation. At this point, my interest still lies with CAA. I may try to go to a different department, but as of right now, I love where I’m at. I’ll just keep grinding, see where things are a year from now.
Any last words?
Have fun with it. Everyone here is in the industry because they want to be in it. You like entertainment, you like storytelling. If an opportunity opens up, don’t pass on it because you don’t know what it is. It could lead to something you might have never thought of before. Meet everyone. Even if that person is a financier of some random company. You never know. The first step is getting your foot in the door, but once you’re past it, it’s a lot easier to move around.
Many thanks to Matt Thilenius for this insightful interview!
You can connect with him on LinkedIn.