When people ask me how I got into the film industry I tell them I must have made a huge mistake in a previous life. The less glamorous side of the industry and the stress of freelancing require their own post. But since someone asked me this very question Thursday (in between me wrangling seagulls and trying not to catch anything while filming in an infectious disease lab), here’s my advice. (Disclaimer: This is for newbies. If you’re in the industry and just want to be famous, I can’t help you there.)
Yes, you’ll make coffee, empty the trash, and fight with copiers for free, but you’ll also learn more than any book or class can possibly teach you. More importantly, you set yourself up for success. If you do well, you’ll hopefully get hired as a production assistant. Then, you work your hardest and bide your time. Someday, a trusted crewmember won’t be able to make it to set, and you’ll be looking at a promotion. You’d be surprised at the number of producers, directors, and writers I’ve met who got where they are just because they were in the right place at the right time. (We sarcastically call this being the best… available.)
HAVE AN OPEN MIND
When you think of the film industry, you probably imagine a Hollywood director making a feature film. There’s generally only one director on a film, but every film has another hundred crewmembers. Do some research to learn about other crew positions (What the hell is a gaffer anyway?) and build a background in that field. Intern!
Don’t have any connections in Hollywood? Consider a city where you do. Atlanta, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh are some of the places that have been attracting production recently. A local guy who knows the fastest way across town and the best place to get Thai is worth more than a seasoned PA who thinks that the “Schuylkill” is a river.
Consider productions other than features. About half of my work comes from the commercial world. Every year, I lose another coworker to NFL Films or MLB Network. Countless companies produce industrial videos and business-to-business marketing material. It may not seem as “glamorous” as Hollywood, but the work is the same and the pay is often better.
BUILD A PORTFOLIO
If you’re still intent on being a Hollywood director, start with the directing (irrelevant of how far you may live from Hollywood). It’s never been easier to produce and distribute your own work. It will be a labor of love, and you should not expect to make any money. But you will learn a ton through the filmmaking process. It will also allow you to build a portfolio and connections. From there you could consider the festival route or pitch your next project to a company. Make a friend at an ad agency and direct their next spot. There is no single recommended or guaranteed route. The portfolio is critical, however. In a creative field, no one cares where you went to school. They want to see your work.
The great scandal of film school is that almost nothing you learn in film school is applicable on a film set. You don’t need to know what “mise-en-scene” means to use a C-stand. (No one cares what mise-en-scene means, anyway.) But film school does make it easier to get an internship and make industry connections. If you have the money—or better yet, a scholarship—go for it. But if you do, make sure you intern! Spend time working on an actual set. You don’t want to graduate only to learn that you hate what you do and can’t get a job with a film degree.
If you haven’t caught on, I would say interning is the single best, most reliable way to get into the film industry. How do you find these internships? Cold calling production companies is one option. Ask friends of friends who might have an in. Check in with your local film office.
www.mandy.com is an industry website that includes a job list. It’s not great, but it’s an option. I’ve used www.craigslist.com both to get and post jobs. Be careful here because craigslist does advertise for porn shoots. (It’s usually pretty obvious.)
When you finally do get to set, try not to look like a deer in the headlights (especially, if you’ve gotten there through a friend of a friend). Here are three books to help you out with that. They’re all quick reads.
Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: an Insider’s Guide to Film Slang
More or less a dictionary, Strike the Baby gives you a good primer of film terms. It’s a great resource if you’re trying to learn about the different jobs on a set.
Movie Speak: How to Talk Like You Belong on a Film Set
Although it’s setup the same way as Strike the Baby, it’s a little less broad an more deep. Tony Bill augments his book with anecdotes and thoughts garnered from decades in the industry. He also has some good suggestions on how to break into the industry.
The Hollywood Assistant’s Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players
Some of this book is Hollywood specific, but it covers much of the work you’ll be doing as an intern or PA. For example: Don’t touch the celebrities is pretty universal. It was co-written by Pete Nowalk, the guy who created How to Get Away with Murder, so I’d say he knows a thing or two about “breaking in.”