The film industry is a profession that most people automatically write off as impossible to get into. “Good luck with that,” people will say with a smirk when you tell them of your intentions. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know; and you don’t know anyone.”
It’s true that creative professions are tough to get into. Unlike our more business-minded counterparts, like accountants or lawyers (who know exactly what they have to do to be successful), the film industry has absolutely no guarantees and no clear checklist to victory. Film professionals are completely on their own when finding a path to success and it can be very intimidating, especially since no two career paths are alike.
To make things worse, you won’t find a lot of support out there, in fact, people will tend to try to spoil your dreams and make you think twice before going for it. There are a lot of reasons why people do this, but not all are malicious.
People close to you, like your friends and family, will sometimes try to protect you from getting hurt. They care about you and don’t want to see you struggle. They don’t realize that what you really need is their support.
Some people will be jealous of your courage because they always dreamed of doing it, but never did. They will make it sound like the film world is entirely unjust and only a chosen few succeed.
Worst of all, some people are just plain salty. They may have faced failure in their life and have concluded that if they can’t have victory, they won’t let anyone else have it either. If you are going to break into the film industry, you have to expect these kinds of negative influences on your dreams and tune them out.
Here is my theory on hard-to-break-into industries: the more competition the more saltiness; the more saltiness the more hopeless people feel; the more hopeless they feel the less they try; and the less they try the easier it is for a truly focused person to succeed. I honestly believe that the film industry has not become harder to break into, but easier. Through turmoil and mediocrity, quality individuals rise to the top.
Get your House in Order
If you have decided that you are going to take the plunge, it is important to get rid of as much resistance to your goal as possible. The most common form of resistance is debt. The film industry does not pay well at first; in fact, your first few jobs may be for free. Therefore, if you have debt, you will be eaten alive.
It was three years after I decided that I wanted to pursue a career in film that I took my first job. It was painful to work a non-creative job in order to pay off my debt, but I had to dig myself out of the hole I had created before I could pursue my dream.
If you can enter the film industry for the love of the work instead of a need for money, you will have a great advantage over most of your competition. Believe it or not, people in the film industry become slaves to their jobs just like everyone else. They find themselves in a position where they are forced to take jobs in order to pay their bills. People who are free to pick and choose their work have negotiating leverage to not only get better work, but to get work that will further their careers.
Spend time developing this freedom before you get locked into the life of a starving artist. Pay off your debt and develop some sort of passive income. If you are a creative person this advice will not seem sexy, but it will free you to be able to pursue your passion the way most people dream of their whole lives.
Microcosm of the Entrepreneurial Universe
I love the film industry because it behaves like a miniature, super-charged economy. Because film professionals are independent contractors and film projects only last three months to a year at a time, this industry is in a constant state of flux. Each movie is an entrepreneurial venture with so much motion and turmoil, things tend to happen at light speed. Success in the film industry can happen almost overnight compared to the overall economy.
Creativity is not enough to make it. You have to be an entrepreneur. This means that you have to learn some business skills to put your ideas to work. Entrepreneurs have learned to master the creative/logical duality in their own minds. Creative people are amazing idea generators, but tend to lack in logical skills like decisiveness, persistence, and follow-through.
My First Film Job
After I had paid off my debt, I quit a great airline job and started sending my resume to production offices for upcoming film projects in Austin. I didn’t have any experience, but I figured that I had enough on my resume to show a producer that I could quickly adapt. Of about ten resumes sent, I was only contacted by one person: legendary low-budget producer Damon Chang who was setting up a movie called Hallettsville featuring Gary Busey on less than a million dollar budget.
Damon didn’t say much, but told me that he needed help setting up the production office and that I could help paint the walls if I wanted to. The only pay he was offering was pizza for lunch, but it could possibly lead to a slightly more stable unpaid job.
I showed up the next day and helped along with four other volunteers. We had a good time and took pride in our painting, but couldn’t quite finish the job in one day. I volunteered to stop by the next day to finish up.
When I finished painting, some of the other producers were trying to set up about twenty desks that had just come off a truck in pieces. I grabbed my cordless drill to help and soon inherited the unpaid job of setting up desks.
Since it was so early in pre-production I had a lot of time alone with Damon and the other producers while I helped to set up the office. I didn’t know a thing about how movies were made, so everything was fascinating to me. Some of the producers were on the phone with Hollywood agents trying to put together a cast while Damon was interviewing people to fill about fifty positions on the crew. Since I had only ever heard of writers, directors, producers, and actors; I had no idea that all of these other crew positions even existed.
In the film industry, it is important to understand that no matter how creative you are, or how many blockbusters you have in your head, the person who might hire you doesn’t care. Producers are just trying to fill jobs on their crew with competent people who will carry out the vision of the director.
That being said, the easiest way to get a job in the industry with no prior experience is to take the job that no one else wants. This means lowering yourself to getting someone else coffee, taking out the trash, painting the walls, etc. If you can put your pride aside enough to do these jobs with a smile, you will be far ahead of most. A little humility will start you off on the right foot.
After a couple of days helping out around the office, Damon pulled me aside for a mini interview. I explained to him that I had zero experience but I would do anything he needed just so that I could be around to learn. He told me that he could usually tell within a couple of days whether or not a person was fit for the industry, and that he was willing to give me a chance. I think that humility plays a big part in whether or not a person passes Damon’s test.
My first official title was “Office Intern,” meaning that I was the assistant to the Production Office Coordinator. The job was still unpaid, but I moved up from assembling desks to making copies and running to the store. The first day I met my new boss, Mary Beth Meadows, she told me that half of success in this industry was just showing up. She explained that since film is such an unstructured enterprise, dependable people are hard to find.
I was surprised to hear that some people were so flaky, but looking back, I realized that out of the five of us who started out painting the walls, only two remained. The others had found excuses not to show up. All I did to get a title was come to work on time.
Integrity is the value of doing what you say you are going to do. It is a very simple and subtle quality, but extremely powerful. Following through on a promise, no matter how small, can give you authority and respect in an area where you previously had none.
For example a person who shows up to work when they say they will, returns people’s calls when they say they will, and completes the tasks they accept, has integrity. This type of dependability is rare in the business world and like gold in the film industry.
Even though I had survived the first cut, I didn’t realize how powerful integrity really was until I got my first chance to prove myself. One of the producers, Dustin Weaver, needed some locations scouts and pulled aside another intern and myself. He split up about ten possible locations between the two of us and gave us the same assignment to scout the locations and report back the next day.
Doing exactly what I was told, I took pictures of the locations and sent them to Dustin in an email the next day with a short take on each site. Shockingly, my counterpart called in sick the next day and didn’t follow through on her assignment. What she didn’t realize was that Dustin was looking for a locations assistant and while she flunked the interview, I was hired the next day.
How a Movie is Made
I didn’t know a thing about what went on behind the scenes in a movie before Hallettsville, but the movie served as my film school. I was most interested with the duality that exists between those who are “above the line” and those who are “below the line.”
The people who are “above the line” on a set are the ones you are most likely to hear about. They are the ones with creative input. This includes the writer, main actors, director, producers; and sometimes the assistant director, casting director, art director, or others. These people usually get credited at the beginning of the movie and sometimes share in the royalties.
People who are “below the line” fill in the jobs that complete the day-to-day tasks that are required to make the creative vision become a reality. The entire system is set up so that the creative people can concentrate most of their energy on being creative while everyone else around them makes it possible.
The interesting thing is that the people above the line are not necessarily more experienced than their below the line counterparts. In our movie, some of the people above the line had actually dropped out of film school. To get above the line, you need either have the resources to make a movie ($$$), or the creativity to make it happen.
This is another example of how the film industry is a microcosm of the entrepreneurial environment. Business are created by the partnership between investors and entrepreneurs (above the line). Once the business is set up, employees are hired to carry out the daily tasks. Getting into the ownership of a company is not as easy as working your way to the top. A movie is just a mini-company. To own a company, you must have the vision and resources to make a leap of faith on your own.
Just like in the “real world” people in the film industry can also get stuck in the rat race. If you are in debt, and are forced to take job after job that you don’t necessarily want, you never get the chance to take a breath and work towards your goal.
Very few people get above the line by working their way through the ranks. While positions that require a lot of experience in the trenches, like assistant director, line producer, and director of photography, can be negotiated above the line; if you want to be a writer, director, producer, or actor, you need to realize that these positions are not typically achieved by being promoted from below the line.
If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a director, direct. If you want to be an actor, act. Learn as much as you can by working in different departments on other people’s movies, but take time in between jobs to work on your own projects, no matter how small. If you don’t have the financial freedom to do this, your chances for success will be greatly diminished.
Qualities of a Film Industry Professional
Now that I have confused everyone on how to get to the top, I will say this: even though the path to the top is not clearly defined, the best place to start is at the bottom. We have already discussed how humility and integrity can help you. Here are some other qualities that can set you apart from the crowd.
During production, work days can be as long as 16 or 18 hours. This can be tough and requires a lot of stamina. A strong work ethic means that you are the first to volunteer to help and the last to leave at night. Cheerfully offer help to others in your down time, even if they are in a different department. Not only does this show your commitment to the project, but it might land you your next job. Don’t complain about the long hours, because it may cost you your next job.
If you are a creative person, chances are your are highly unorganized. A missed deadline in a film can mean thousands of dollars down the tube at best, and the failure of the project, at worst. It is helpful to find some sort of organizational tool like a computer calendar or a paper planner. I use a combination of the two. You can read about my system here.
Creative Problem Solving
As an assistant, your first responsibility is to do what you are told without argument; but if you see that something can be done more efficiently, don’t be afraid to suggest it to your superiors. Just remember, their word is the last word. If your idea gets shot down, be a trooper and go with the flow.
Just like in business, there are different departments in a movie and it is easy to blame a different department or an assistant when things don’t go right. People on the way to the top take personal responsibility for not only their own department, but the whole project. While you can’t be in all places at once, take ownership and work closely with your co-workers. Make teamwork, not excuses.
My First Paid Job
I was only assistant to the locations department for a few weeks before I got my next big promotion. I had shown enough to Damon for him to take a chance on me. He was having trouble finding a Transportation Captain within his budget, so he rolled the dice and offered the job to me. Although I would be making just $75 a day, I would be responsible for the coordination of a fleet of movie trucks, star trailers, generators, vans, and cars between several different locations on our project.
I gladly accepted the job, even though transportation had nothing to do with my eventual goal to become a director. I was not going to pass up a job of greater responsibility and a chance to be close to the action. The six weeks of production were grueling and stressful, but we made it through without any major hitches.
In my downtime, I was able to mingle with every other person on the crew and make some amazing contacts. It was my own film-school condensed into a few months. I barely made any money, but the experience I gained was invaluable.
If you are thinking about the film industry, don’t let anyone stop you. Get your house in order and hit the trail running. If your passion is film, there is no better place to live it than in the film industry.
(Featured photo by Jonathan Kos-Read)