Thursday, March 19, 2009

Breaking Into the Biz

Someone was kind enough to post a comment concerning my essay on Hollywood. She asked how one breaks into the business, and I promised I would give it some thought.

My usual response to the best way to get into the film business is: Go to law school. This is not entirely glib. The business is studded like a biker's belt from one end to the other with lawyers, and could not exist without them. Entertainment lawyers have a kind of choke-hold on Hollywood, from making deals and negotiating contracts to arbitrating union settlements and litigating rights and credits disputes. So if you are inclined to go into the law and want to be involved in Hollywood, then your road ahead is paved smooth.

Beyond that, you have to have some talent of some kind. That is, if you want to be on the creative side of the industry. Probably the easiest way to jump start your Hollywood career is to make something the industry wants. Usually this is a script - a good script - in one of the genres. These days pretty much the only material the studios are buying are romantic comedy, action-adventure, comic book adaptations and 'tentpoles,' that is, franchise properties such as Batman, X-Men, Harry Potter or Indiana Jones. If you can write a script that works in any of these genres, it is a shortcut to success in the business.

Perhaps the next best way to get in is to go to film school - preferably USC or UCLA - and make a distinguished and original thesis film which wins awards and is seen by industry types who are actually looking for new talent. Though you made your attention-grabbing film by burning up the balance on your parents' credit cards, you may then be given a chance to get in completely over your head directing a fifteen- or thirty-million dollar movie that will either make or break your career forever.

On the cinematography side, it is almost imperative to go to film school, unless you are such a blazing talent that you can shoot a visually compelling film on your own. You then have a sample reel to pedal, unless, of course, your film is seen by industry types who are actually looking for new talent. But this is rare: filmmakers prefer to work with established cinematographers, especially ones with whom they have worked before. And so, having graduated from a creditable film school, you will have to work first as a loader (or the digital equivalent thereof), then as an assistant on a second unit, then a second unit cameraman, as an assistant to a DP, and finally, after years of labor and networking, you may be given a low-budget feature to shoot, which will either make or break your career forever.

Something similar is true in the so-called below-the-line craftsmen - the editors, sound recordists, effects people, makeup, wardrobe, casting and so on. (Below the line is a term of art, meaning simply that their salaries are listed in the budget below the line that separates them from the lead actors, writers and directors who consume most of the money. Nonetheless, I still find it a slight which these deeply talented professionals do not deserve.) All these jobs require a good deal of training, including long apprenticeships, much talent and the ability to meet people, to get them to like you, and to make yourself indispensable.

Acting is in an entirely different category. This is probably the hardest route into the business, unless you do a play or a showcase which industry types who are actually looking for new talent happen to see. But if you want to act in films, it does help to have serious training, either in a university program or a professional training program, or with a skillful coach, and, I personally think, some experience on the stage. Once again, you have to possess something to sell that the industry will buy. This is usually great beauty with some degree of talent, or great talent with some degree of beauty. (In either case, beauty and talent exist in inverse proportion to each other.) Of course it is possible to have great talent with no degree of beauty, but then you can expect to be given only supporting roles, at which you can nonetheless earn a perfectly decent living. You may also possess great beauty and no talent, in which case you may have a future in reality television. Another alternative is to come at an acting career from a related business, such as singing or stand-up comedy or sports or the Internet. But in any of those you must excel to the point where you can cross over successfully and with grace.

On the studio side, well, I shall try to contain my cynicism about what is required. To become a studio executive, or a production executive at a mini-major or independent, or to be what is euphemistically called a 'creative executive,' not very much is necessary. You start, generally, by getting an MBA from a creditable university, and then going to work for a studio or production company in some lowly capacity, either as an intern, or in the mail room, or as a messenger, a script-reader, or even as a security guard or gift shop clerk. You then call yourself to the attention of an executive who takes you under his/her wing, and grooms you to the point where you can threaten his/her job. At that point, you must begin fighting for your professional future, clawing you way up the corporate ladder as you would in pretty much any other industry. The difference, of course, is that the rungs on this ladder (some at least) are intensely creative people such as writers, directors and cinematographers, who do things you could not possibly do or even begin to understand. The goal is to work yourself into a position where you can tell such preternaturally gifted people exactly what they should be doing. Once you are comfortable with this travesty, you are well on your way to corporate Hollywood success. (I fear I may have fallen short in my pledge to contain my cynicism.)

In general, then, the way to break into Hollywood is to have something to sell that the industry wants to buy. Usually it is an idea, preferably in screenplay form, although it is not unknown for a treatment or even a simple idea to be bought (though this is becoming ever rarer). Your sale-able commodity could also be raw skill or talent, or a high degree of training in one of these, proven by produced work in some form that can serve as a sample.

Of course, if you have no such talent or skill and you still want to be in the business, then you can work your way up the production-side ladder, using all the ingratiating, sycophantic and ruthless qualities you can summon. If this is your intent, then I can do no better than to refer you to Shakespeare's Richard III.

Good luck.