9 Essentials to Navigating a Career in Hollywood
A multi-Emmy-winning filmmaker shares some tips on how to build a solid reputation and assure longevity working in the entertainment industry.
The life we’ve chosen comes with a lot of hard work and every day it’s a grind. I don’t think you can ever be satisfied or ‘put it in neutral’ in this industry, as there are just too many hungry and talented filmmakers who are working tirelessly to stake their claim and if you miss a step or stop to smell the roses, you risk getting left behind.
Over the years, I have done a fair amount of consulting which inspired me to write my new book, What You Don’t Learn in Film School: A Complete Guide to (Independent) Filmmaking. What started as a cheat sheet to simply save time when answering commonly asked questions, quickly got loose from me and turned into a 200-page book covering filmmaking from ‘concept to delivery’ and everything in between.
It’s designed as a roadmap filled with my trials and errors to help make your journey along the highway to Hell a little easier on the feet and save you some of the blisters, twisted ankles, and heartache I suffered over the past 30 years. There are a couple of topics I thread throughout the book, the most important being work ethic and how it can lead to your becoming a consistent earner in the business and clever ways to nurture professional relationships.
I don’t believe there is any other industry in the world quite like ours and because it is so unique—and unpredictable—that we have to be forward thinking and never take anything for granted. But living at this constant pace can leave us forgetting the little things that can aid greatly in our success. Below are some tips from the book designed to help develop good habits whether the goal is to work in front of or behind the camera, become a network or studio executive, or have a career as a freelance artist somewhere in between.
Immerse yourself in everything you can that surrounds the industry.
1. Learn every job
I had no idea what I wanted to do until I did it. Starting out, on any given day, I’d go from being a grip to wrangling cable or getting some ungrateful prick his foam latte because he was too lazy to get out of his chair and get it for himself. You’re either chasing this business or it’s chasing you, so if you want to succeed, I suggest you learn every job you possibly can and seize each opportunity that comes your way.
Many of us have big dreams—and that is healthy—but thinking your road to success will come easy or because you have a great script is about as stupid as attempting to drive across Death Valley on a quarter tank of gas. Learn every aspect of the business so when you’re nine months removed from graduation and those student loans pile up, or you finally realize no one worth a sneeze has even read your script, you won’t be forced to work a job out of desperation because the only skill you perfected was thinking you’d be the next Damien Chazelle.
Learn camera inside and out, become a coordinator, a second A.D., manage props, teach yourself to edit and immerse yourself in everything you can that surrounds the industry. Those jobs pay well and the more you know, the greater the chance you will have to make connections, shine and get noticed. And last I checked, earning a living in the industry you’re passionate about, even if it’s not at the dream position, is a heck of lot better than flipping burgers for minimum wage.
2. Finish what you start
Condition yourself from the very beginning to outwork everyone in the room. We’ve all heard the term ‘be the first one there and the last to leave’ and that approach doesn’t go unnoticed, but it’s equally important to work hard once you’re in the room. A career in this industry isn’t a sprint—it’s a grueling triathlon through the Texas desert in the middle of August—and how you prepare for it will determine your success or failure.
At times you will feel weak, beaten down and might even want to quit, but the right foundation from preparation will be that burst of energy you’ll need to keep you going and get you across the finish line. If you commit to an assignment or a project, see it through to fruition. So many people have great ideas they start but never finish for one excuse or another. Subconsciously, this becomes ‘okay’ when establishing how you approach certain tasks so, like it or not, the habit of quitting will become your strong suit and follow you throughout your career. There isn’t a faster or more effective way to ruin your reputation than being known as a quitter or someone who always chooses the path of least resistance.
There isn’t a faster way to ruin your reputation than being known as a quitter.
3. Be a reliable communicator
We live in a time when keeping in touch is easier than ever, so there is no excuse to neglect responding to an email or a text from a superior or a co-worker when it comes to the job. It can mean the difference between securing lifelong employment and getting exiled from the business.
There’s a reason the military and rescue workers have instilled strict protocol in their communication. Simply, if you don’t follow it or assume something is handled and it isn’t, people can die. There is nothing more frustrating, especially to a boss, than when someone on the team doesn’t reply to questions or requests.
Contrary to what a lot of people think, an unanswered correspondence does nothing other than say that you simply don’t care. Read carefully and reply thoroughly in a timely manner—and don’t assume because you ‘received it’ your coworkers will think you’re handling whatever it is they’ve asked of you. It’s the little things that fall through the cracks due to careless communication that can become major problems on a set. When your colleagues know they can count on you, you’ll quickly become a very instrumental part of the team.
4. Set goals
Even after 30-plus years in the business, there are times I find myself floundering or stagnant and often it’s because of one reason: I didn’t write down my goals or map out a strategy for the next chapter of my professional life. I am a firm believer that without a vision, the people perish and with that being said, without a playbook in hand you can guarantee one thing: failure.
Make a plan and write it down step by step. Goals are nothing until they’re staring you in the face and can be checked off as accomplishments achieved during your mission. While doing this is key, I think it’s important to keep things in perspective and remember, goals and dreams are much different and often we mix up the two.
Examples of goals are to make more contacts, learn a new position on a film set or perhaps finish that incomplete screenplay. A dream on the other hand, is to direct Bradley Cooper and Gal Gadot in that screenplay and win an Oscar for your great work. This can certainly be achieved if you believe it, but a few goals will need to be executed before you do.
Good people in this business advance quickly and can often end up in places you’d never imagine.
5. Nurture your relationships
We all know relationships are key. But do we nurture them and allow them to grow over time or lose patience in search of a quick harvest and destroy the crop before it has a chance to truly blossom? I can’t think of another industry that is filled with more time suckers and phonies than ours—and while those are just some of the landmines you will have to dance around, it’s the vendors, the assistants and even the people who unlock the doors to the soundstage of that location you’re filming in that can turn out to be the most important connections you’ll ever make.
One of my most cherished relationships in this industry is that with a man who actually unlocked the doors—at 6AM—to the soundstage for a music video I was directing over 20 years ago. We formed a friendship that day and over the years, he’s moved up the ranks, and rather quickly, becoming a highly respected executive for one of the biggest camera companies in our industry. I never had to grovel with my hat in hand or resurface into his life from out of nowhere when a project came along. Because we had an organic friendship that was nurtured over the years, he was able to anticipate my professional needs long before I ever had to ask and because of him, I’ve been able to accomplish much of what I’ve achieved.
Respect those around you and remember: good people in this business advance quickly and can often end up in places you’d never imagine. It’s nice to have solid relationships in place, especially ones that strengthen as life rolls on and careers continue to grow.
6. Please, don’t be that guy
I don’t know why our business tolerates certain behavior. Look, we all have our bad days, but how we treat people is important and can greatly determine the longevity or outcome of our careers. Fortunately, due to the recent shakeups in our town, I am optimistic people will expect to be treated with a certain level of respect and dignity and when they’re not, they won’t be afraid to stand up for themselves or come to the defense of others who don’t.
The phrase, “be nice to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet them all on your way down” comes from this business, made famous by Jimmy Durante and it’s shocking how quickly (and often) people forget it. There’s no excuse for rudeness or disrespect and it can eventually damage your career, even if you’ve made it up the executive ranks.
7. Make good on your word
Our business moves quickly and every cent and second count, so it is crucial that people can rely on you. Don’t tell others what they want to hear just to get them off your back or to impress someone, especially if you cannot live up to your own hype. The day will come when you need to make good on your promises and if you’ve built a reputation on smoke and mirrors and cannot deliver as much as a shadow on a sunny day, word will spread like wildfire.
This comes down to the little things like telling someone you’ll make a call on their behalf, sending out an important email, or agreeing to let a friend use a piece of equipment for an upcoming shoot. Those little ‘promises’ that you forget could mean everything to the person you made them to and if you fail to deliver, can cause them a world of hurt.
To avoid becoming a flake, I suggest that when you agree to do something, write it down or add a reminder to your calendar immediately so it doesn’t get overlooked. That way when life hits you at the speed of sound, as it will, you don’t forget what you’ve promised and can deliver on your word. Having the reputation as someone who under-promises and over-delivers is huge, and so many people are the exact opposite.
Having the work ethic of a perfectionist and a champion will pay off.
8. Hone your work ethic
There will be plenty of people around you or in your camp who think good enough is just that; good enough. That mindset is the enemy of greatness. Some people are more interested in just ‘gettin’ er done’ and moving on to the next than seeing things done the right way or the best they can be.
On the flip side, having the work ethic of a perfectionist and a champion will pay off one day and your value as a filmmaker and human being will start to escalate. Your name will gain respect, and in turn, value. The fact that you consistently deliver will only get you to bigger and better opportunities, so when cutting corners and just getting by seems like an option, challenge yourself to go the distance and give it all you’ve got.
I firmly believe every job we do is an audition for the next and everything we put our name on, we need to do to the very best of our ability. People will know when they see your work if you’ve given something your all but more importantly, so will you. As you plant the seeds to your career, how you prep the soil and nurture its growth will determine who you will become, and like nurturing relationships, the same goes for good work habits.
9. Develop a thick skin
Working in this business isn’t for the weak of heart. Although I acknowledge we live in a much more sensitive time than when I came up, our industry is still rough and can chew you up and spit you out if you don’t have thick skin or cannot handle rejection and humiliation. It’s just the way it is, so deal with it.
The unfortunate fact is, if someone quit tomorrow, they likely wouldn’t be missed. Actors, producers and writers have died off and great directors have thrown in the towel and turned their back on the industry, yet it keeps marching on without missing a beat.
Therefore, what’s important is that you find your way and establish a work ethic and personality that can allow you to flourish, one that will make you stand out and cause others to say, “I want that person on my team!” That’s how you grow in this business, become a commodity and a consistent earner, which is really what we all want—to take care of ourselves by doing what it is we love.