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Breaking Into the Film and Television Industries

Laurie Lathem

How to start your entertainment career

So you wanna be in show business. Maybe you've been working in a field that isn't exciting enough or doesn't use enough of your creativity. Or you're just starting out and know that a regular desk job isn't for you. Plus, you go to the movies and watch TV shows. How hard can it be to make one of those? The bad news is that breaking into the movie and television industry can be daunting and frustrating. The good news is that with hard work, a clear vision of your goals and a few tips on how to start, it is possible to get a foothold in an extremely creative and fulfilling career. It happens every day to people who are willing to put in their time. Since it's not all glamor and high pay, the most important qualification is love of the work.

Breaking into the business takes time and dedication. If you think you can step off the plane at LAX and be an independent movie producer, or write your own hit TV show, you're in for an unpleasant surprise. Every single person who arrives on a movie or TV set at 4 or 5 AM for sixteen hours of hard, unglamorous work has spent considerable time honing their craft and then worked even harder at positioning themselves so that they can get hired. From the hair and make-up artists to the art director to the production assistants, everyone has put in their time. Those overnight successes you've heard about are most often the result of years of struggle and hard work.

Here are some key things you should know about breaking into the business:

1) There are so many areas of the movie and TV business that there is almost something for everyone. Cinematographers work on set all day surrounded by hundreds of people while editors work largely alone in a dark room long after the production has "wrapped." From pre- to post-production there is a job to fit almost every personality and skill set. Know what you're good at and where you fit in. If you've studied art, then you might consider production design. If you've spent hours splicing together your own videos on your home computer, then go for editing. But in the beginning, you should get whatever you can.

2) Be aware that while a few positions in the industry are extremely lucrative, many more are less so. Writers, actors and directors are sometimes paid obscene amounts of money while grips, editors, and the many people who fill out the various departments on a film or TV series such as costume, props, art, photography, etc. are paid much more modestly and work very hard. Hours on the set are long and grueling. People do the work because they love it and can imagine doing nothing else.

3) The business is truly all about who you know. Most industry jobs are freelance, therefore, the most important aspect of getting a job, be it your first or your hundred and first, is who you know.

4) Your ego is not your friend. While it is certainly advisable to get as much training as you can before you go looking for work, the best way to learn is in on the job. In the beginning, get any job you can. ANY JOB. It will be lousy pay and long hours, but this is how you start learning and meeting people. A famous movie producer I know started out as a production assistant on horror movies. He spent his time on the set working hard and asking smart questions. He then produced his first low-budget horror movie and promptly got a job on another movie as a dolly grip for pennies a day. He didn't turn down the job because it was beneath him. He took whatever jobs he could find and it paid off.

Steps to Your First Job

Find out what types of jobs exist in the industry and which ones you are best suited for. If you do not live in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver or Toronto, get a sense of what kind of industry exists in your area. If there is none, consider relocating. While there is a growing number of cities where movies and TV production are taking place, the movie industry will not come to you. Write a strong resume that promotes your strengths without being unrealistic. There are many crossover skills from other fields so be honest about your past experience.

Get a Job, Any Job

PA's (production assistants) are not paid much but it is a great way to learn many aspects of the way a production works. You might be asked to run from props to hair to editing to an actor's trailer all within a day's work, so it's a golden opportunity to meet a lot of people and get a sense of what their jobs entail. If you have a more specific department in mind that you'd like to work for, go ahead an knock on the door, but be prepared to be turned away until you've had some on-set experience.

Getting Your Next Job

Once on the job, be as helpful and enthusiastic as possible. And above all, be prepared. Know who's who and if you don't know, find out. Have business cards ready. Get contact information and keep it organized. If you hit it off with someone in a particular department that interest you, make sure to let them know you are interested in working with them in the future.

Follow Up Is Everything

When someone, anyone, offers to put you in touch with a producer or department head, absolutely follow up with a polite and brief phone call and make sure to use the name of the mutual contact (as long as that person has agreed). I once called the office of a major producer to see if he had received my materials. Expecting to get an assistant on the phone, I was a little taken off guard when the man himself answered. In a case like this, don't be flustered and DO NOT take up too much of his time. I explained the reason for the call, was polite and friendly, and pleasantly surprised when he said "Oh, yes I have your stuff right here on my desk." I then said "Thank you," and let him go back to his busy day.
  • Know the business. Go to movies. Watch TV. Read the "trades" (Variety, Hollywood Reporter). Learn as much as you can about the workings of film and TV production before you arrive on set for your first day of work. Know the difference between a Director of Photography and an Assistant Director, for example. Know what the Production Designer does, etc. Take classes at your local continuing studies program. You can meet people this way and begin to build up a network.
  • Be professional and presentable. The movie business tends to be more casual than most, but that doesn't mean you can be sloppy. Dress casually but respectfully. The only one who gets to be the worst dressed person in the room is the director.
  • Be nice to EVERYBODY. More than in other industries, today's lackey is tomorrow's show runner (head producer on a TV series) or Oscar-nominated director. Sucking up doesn't help. Keep your dignity and self-respect. Be helpful and determined, without groveling or begging. Your boundaries might be tested but in the end they will be respected.
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Laurie Lathem