UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2008
[perk central]
On Top of the World
Hanging out with celebrities is just part of the job for MTV event planner Matthew Van Houten
by Julene Snyder
Matthew Van Houtenphoto by Tim Mantoani

With the ink barely dry on his 2004 diploma, Matthew Van Houten was ready to take on the Big Apple. Since his political science degree from USD had helped him land a job at the United Nations working with the Italian consulate, the decision to swap coasts was a no-brainer. Clearly, great things were on his horizon.

Once he’d found an apartment through the online network Craigslist — one that came with a modicum of glitz at that; a roommate who was tour manager for the indie rock band My Chemical Romance — the pieces for a fabulous new life seemed poised to fall into place. Except that things started to fall apart almost immediately. It turned out that the new apartment was in a bad neighborhood (“dangerous, dangerous, dangerous”). And that funding for the U.N. job had fallen through. And that Van Houten would likely have to give up his dream of making it in New York after all.

“There I was sitting down to lunch with my aunt telling her my sob story,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it, just when I was getting settled, everything fell apart.” That’s when a woman at the next table apologized for eavesdropping. “She said, ‘You seem like a nice young man. I have a relative at Nickelodeon who’s hiring. You should give her a call.’”

Turns out that was a really good idea. More than 475 people applied for the job that Van Houten was ultimately offered, a fact he tends to downplay. “I just fell into it. It probably helps that I’m a type-A personality,” he says. Given his rapid-fire vocal style — doubtless fueled by many cups of high-octane coffee — that’s a trait that appears self-evident. “First, I jumped into the MTV temp pool,” he says with mile-a-minute delivery. “Then I got hired by Viacom to do events, and then moved back over to MTV as event planning coordinator, and then got promoted to manager of all corporate events.”

While it sounds like a great fit, particularly with his energy level, but there surely must be a down side.

“It’s absolutely a dream job,” Van Houten says. He’s probably not kidding. In just the past few months, he and his team have put together events ranging from an intimate show with singer/songwriter John Legend to movie premieres and screens for the likes of Eddie Vedder, Jeremy Piven and Susan Sarandon to “Choose or Lose” open forums with then-candidates Obama, Clinton and Guiliani.

Though he admits that he’s not as star-struck over proximity to celebrity as he once was, he will allow that he still feels the occasional moment of frisson. “I was definitely thrilled, blown away even, by being in the same room as Jerry Seinfeld when he was promoting Bee Movie,” Van Houten says. “These days, it’s all in a day’s work, but I’m a big fan of his.”

Nonetheless, he still gets a charge out of watching how excited the newbies get over all the star-power that frequents 1515 Broadway, the building overlooking Times Square where MTV is housed. “When I look out the window, we’re on the 35th floor of a 53-story building. I’m definitely on top of the world here.”

Of course, it’s not all superstars and martini ice sculptures. With more than a thousand events a year to manage, Van Houten is quick to point out that rubbing elbows with celebrity talent is just one of many aspects to his job. He also organizes event budgets, coordinates security, arranges for facilities, lines up bodyguards, gathers special props and deals with dozens of other details that go into making an event look effortless. Given the long hours, he’s fairly certain that his girlfriend would like to see more of him. Especially now that he’s going to school at night to get his MBA, he would recommend his current lifestyle to only the most manic sorts.

And yet, there are most definitely perks. “This job is like a golden ticket in a lot of ways,” he says. “New York is all about what you do and where you work, and as far as those sorts of things go, it doesn’t get much better than MTV.” As a bonus, the atmosphere is casual — “lots of tattoos and piercings” — and the corporate culture makes for a vibrant, creative workplace.

As for the future? Well, things are pretty sweet right now, but Van Houten can definitely see himself back on the West Coast, maybe in Santa Monica, maybe even in San Diego, running his own concert hall.

But no hurry, really. “From where I sit right now, every day is a cool day.”