Yesterday, I got a text from a first time director who believes that the “Secret” played important part in his getting ready to make his first movie. Because I’m a mom, wife, and entrepreneur (not always in that order), I pretty good at forgetting various remarks, emails and texts I get throughout the day because I am constantly trying to check something off my never-ending list of things to do. Except this time, the writer’s text stayed with me. This morning, I woke up thinking about the Secret. Since I hadn’t heard the Secret’s ideology early in my career, I wondered what drove me? What would I attribute to my success? And it came to me: I was fearless.
FEARLESS: without fear; bold or brave
Sure there were moments when I was terrified but every time I gave into my fear, I failed. Whenever I faced it, I could overcome it. When I moved to L.A. to be in the movie business, I was complaining about not having a job to my good friend, Gary Harris. Gary is an accomplished music executive and overall superb tastemaker. He is always in touch with the zeitgeist. In fact, it was him who said, “You like to read and you’re visual – you should be in film”. How’s that for great movie advice? So I move to LA after recently being separated from my first husband (on second one, wish me luck), living with my brother and feeling lost. As always, Gary gives it to me straight, “Go get a job”.
That’s what I did; I made getting a job in the film business my job. Now, I may have had to do other menial work to feed myself but I saw getting a film job as my job. I was fearless in my pursuit. I didn’t care that people told me that you needed to have a film degree (which I didn’t), production experience (which I didn’t) or know someone (which I didn’t). As they say in the “Secret”, I believed I could work in the film business. I “felt it” with every pore of my being. I imagined working with writers and giving them film production notes. I could see myself setting up projects and making movies. Mind you, there was no evidence to indicate that this was my destiny.
I was just fearless.
And I did it. I started as a lowly assistant and worked my way into heading several production companies at Fox. I have worked with countless number of writers and directors, set up television and film projects and made a movie. I did it because I believed I could do it. Of course along the way I have had amazing filmmaking mentors such as Lauren Lloyd who were instrumental in my success.
Now as I develop my First Film Job Workshop Series and publish books on amazon.com (hey have you bought one yet?) I find myself in a way starting over. And it requires the same feeling: I have to be fearless. Of course, I try to excuse my fear with “reality”. The “reality” is that I am a busy wife and mother. The “reality” is that starting a business is challenging. So now I have to say “whatever about reality”, if I can make one dream come true, I can do it again. So if you’re hiding in your “reality” or openly afraid, remember it’s your choice. You can be fearless.
10 Commandents LA Style: Cut to Moses walking down the mountain with Hollywood sign in the background.
During this long Memorial Day weekend as we are on the cusp of the summer movie fever, I started thinking about the some of the ideals of working in film. Here are the 10 Commandants as it relates to the entertainment business.
1. Thou shall have no other gods before me
This is the mantra you must believe to be a ground breaking part of the entertainment business. This business demands tenacity, chutzpah and sacrifice. The first sacrificial lamb is your ego. How will you cope when you are no longer the smartest, prettiest or oddest person in the room? Be warned this rollercoaster is not for everyone.
2. Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image
We promise we know the real meaning of this commandment but for the folks at First Film Job, we will use the broad interpretation that it is “no form is greater than another”. Once upon a time, feature film professionals wouldn’t dream of working in TV. Now they would give their left foot to create something half as engaging as BREAKING BAD, HOMELAND, GAME OF THRONES, WALKING DEAD, or SILCION VALLEY. Two years ago it was inconceivable that Netflix would produce the massive hits HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. So don’t be a snob about where your art lives, simply make and market it. In fact Karen Kaufman’s books, THE STUDIO DIRECTORY and INDEPENDENT DIRECTORY happily thrive on Amazon.com versus the shelves of a book store.
3. Not takes the Lord’s name in vain
I know you are a frustrated artis but sitting around bitching about the business isn’t going to help. Also hating everything is short sighted. Instead, learn to like or at least appreciate work that is not yours. This is especially true for first time directors or first time writers. You only look like self centered diva and no wants to work with a difficult personality.
4. Remember the Sabbath day
Opening night! Premiere night! Any day when a product launches is our Sabbath. If you love a specific movie genre or writer/director, make sure you go to opening night of the film. With so many entertainment options, it is imperative that opening weekend/premiere night is a hit. Otherwise, it is quickly pulled from theaters or cancelled. We at First Film Job know that no amount of great product marketing can guarantee a hit so do your part as fan by participating immediately.
5. Honor thy father and mother
It is hard to spend time, money or energy on your family when you working in Hollywood. But if there is one of the most important pieces of film career advice I can give you is “family is first”. For some (like my staff at First Film Job), friends are extended family. Take your head out of your ass and stop taking your loved ones for granted.
6. Though shall not Kill
Unfortunately in Hollywood, we don’t follow this one. We are stellar assassins of the worst kind: we kill dreams. It’s not that we don’t care: we do. However, the motion picture industry or entertainment business overall has become more about commerce than art. At First Film Job’s weekly production meetings we have a rules when we discuss any script writing. Before the criticize it, we must find at least 5 genuine positive about a piece of material.. It’s imperative to teach yourself to appreciate the good in your work (and others) because you will hear far more criticism than compliments in the trenches of Hollywood, California.
7. Thou shall not commit adultery
That’s another one that is tricky in Hollywood. This business rarely rewards monogamy. Staying focused on one job/project/idea/script/ can be stifling and potentially dangerous. It’s crucial to always keep a few balls in the air. Part of the survival of Hollywood California is being nimble.
8. Thou shall not steal.
There are a few thieves amongst us but mostly we are copy cats. Don’t let your being afraid someone might steal your project stop you from submitting it to production companies or discussing it. There are no original ideas but saying “you’re afraid they will steal it” sounds like a rookie. Register your work at the WGA then stop worrying.
9. Thou shall not bear false witness
Ask any staff member at First Film Job and they will point to me, Karen Kaufman, as the queen of breaking this commandment. For years, I have pretended to watch or like something just because it is popular. For example, I used to say how much I loved THE SOPRANOS but had never watched an episode. Then my girl at HBO sent me the DVD set. I watched 3 years in 3 days. I lied because I knew it was ridiculous that I wasn’t watching a show of that caliber. So if you choose to follow in my footsteps then make sure you cover your ass.
10. Thou shall not covet
It’s hard to keep your eyes on your own feet when you see directors/writers/producers/production designers/special effects/stunt coordinators creating greatness. But don’t let their accomplishments make you bitter
, it should fuel you to be better. Challenge yourself to try something differently and see the outcome. Otherwise be OK with treading water.
The Urban hipster/Creative Influencer are like the Jocks, they are definitely a part of the popular crowd. Rarely have I seen these people in high power positions but they are strong influencers. And their proximity to those in power is unmatched. So don’t let their laissez faire attitude or model bored expression fool you. There are keenly aware of everything that goes on around them and can smell a “wannabe” a mile away. You can’t convince them you belong, they simply decide. Over twenty years ago, I met my first official urban hipster/creative influencer, Gary Harris. Because of him I work in the film business.
I was hanging out in Philadelphia when I met Gary who worked in the music business. When Gary invited me to concert with promises of going back stage, I stupidly said, “How can you do that?” The next day, he raved about the concert. I knew I had been both naïve and little snobbish. So when he invited me to Will Smith’s birthday party I quickly accepted. It was quite a spectacle. Laughing and drinking champagne with Will Smith, PDiddy, Andre Harrell and Russell Simmons who were not yet household names for being trailblazing pop culture icons. Gary and I became great friends. We spent hours on the phone discussing film, TV and music. When I told Gary I was moving to Los Angeles and planned to work in the music business, he immediately balked, “You like to read and are visual, you should be in the film business”. Through a lot of good networking, I met a creative influencer, Desiree DaCosta. At the time, Desiree was Eddie Murphy’s assistant. She recommended me for my first film job as an assistant position at a famous actor’s production company.
How do you fit in with the urban hipster/creative influencer? Don’t doubt their influence. Their closeness to power is not always obvious but don’t assume it doesn’t exist. I learned that lesson early from Gary and didn’t repeat with it with Desiree. Second, be yourself. As creative beings, this clique responds to authenticity. If you are nerd, jock or a cheerleader, don’t try to be of them. It’s not just what you do that gains acceptance by them, it is how they feel about you. This clique is very trusting about their gut reactions to people, places and things. What is their soft spot? They want critical recognition. Let them know their insight or suggestions was helpful to you. Perhaps their recommendation of book or film made you stand out in a conversation or inspired you to change a character in your script. A little acknowledgement goes a long way. What happened to Desiree and Gary? Desiree has been happily married to actor, Blair Underwood and is a stay at home mom. When Gary is not writing fascinating blogs or forwards for books about the business, we spend hours on the phone talking about films, TV and music (http://insideplaya.wordpress.com).
I am going to admit right away so you will read this knowing I am bias. The Nerds/Brains are my favorite clique in the film business. Because I am outgoing and very social, I am drawn to quiet passionate, industrious people. Since I am self-taught film professional, I am in awe of the extensive knowledge this clique has about film, TV, art and music,
When I was running the production company for A list director Carl Franklin (DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, ONE TRUE THING, OUT OF TIME), I had to hire a reader. Readers are paid for writing coverage which is a two page plot synopsis with one page of the reader’s opinion about the project. Coverage is one of the deadliest tools in the business. It can stop a project in its track if a reader gives it a “PASS”. Yet it is a necessary evil because executives/producers are submitted with more material than they can address. On a slow work week I would read 10 scripts and another 15 on the weekend. All of while having agents, managers and producers continually sending material. However, I couldn’t tackle the growing incoming pile when I had to turn my attention to new drafts from projects on the company’s development slate. That is why I had to farm the work to my assistant and a reader. For this exact reason, I choose my assistants and readers with great care. In an ideal world, they would read a script and respond exactly as I would. Otherwise, I risk their recommending a PASS on the potential blockbuster. Trust, no one wants to be the one said “PASS” to HEAT or WORLD WAR Z.
I interviewed this amazing kid, Jeff, who had just graduated from USC Film School and was walking movie encyclopedia. As usual, I went with my gut instinct and hired him on the spot. There was something special about Jeff. One afternoon when he came by to turn in his coverages, I invited him to chat. He told me about a panel he attended where they dissected the dialogue of the original PLANET OF THE APES. I was thrilled. Where else would I get such rich information? I didn’t even know this panel had taken place. So how do you deal with this clique of brilliant, hardworking, often no nonsense group? Be respectful and learn. It’s easy to be drawn to the flashy, sexy cliques…they are adept at attracting people. The Nerds/Brains are often overlooked and underappreciated. In fact, I strongly recommend you to take the time to know as many different kinds of people as you can in the film business. That lowly production accounting clerk on set may end up CFO of Warner Brothers or the editor for a horror short film may become Wes Craven’s longtime muse. Perfect your learning skills by remaining present and absorbing invaluable information. Where is Jeff now? Years ago he directed SPELLBOUND, a documentary which was nominated for an Academy Award (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5n_nMqH7CU). He has since gone on to win an Emmy for directing THE OFFICE. I have reputation for spotting talent and I am proud to say I knew Jeff Blitz was going to be special.
Without a doubt I would be labeled as a part of the Cheerleaders/Theater Arts crowd. Like many of my colleagues, I started off as an assistant. Entry level positions in the film business often require you to be presentable, hardworking, and subservient. It is rare that anyone wants your opinion. Initially you spend a lot of time diligently taking lunch orders, making copies and answering phones. I have had both kinds of bosses: ones who wanted a silent worker bee and others who wanted a worker bee with an informed opinion. The first boss I who hired me for my viewpoint was director Reggie Hudlin.
Reggie and I met socially. A self proclaimed nerd (with lots of swag) from East St Louis with a Harvard education, Reggie was a comic book aficionado who could break down the intricacies of comedy. As I do with all Nerds/Brains, I spend much of our conversations, nodding my head and soaking up the knowledge. I was shocked when he suddenly offered me a job as his post production assistant on BOOMERANG. Though it was a short term gig, I quickly quit my office job at the famous actor’s production company. I wanted the experience of really working on a film not just analyzing them.
First day on the job I watched the 3 hour version of BOOMERANG. With no guidance from Reggie, I scribbled my notes throughout the viewing. Afterwards, he asked for my opinion. Reggie listened intensely to my long list of suggestions. I was secretly thrilled when he agreed with many of my ideas. Every day we watched the movie, talked about what to cut then listened to music submissions for the sound track. I also took lunch orders, made copies and answered the phone. One night we shared a very sweet, magical moment. It was pitch dark as we walked back to the production office after a screening. He turned to me and quietly said, “They make movies here”. To date, that remains one of my fondest memories about working in film business. What is the way to win over the Cheerleaders/Theatre Arts? Treat us with the respect we rarely receive. Because we are often supportive of the powerful people, we are expected to well-coiffed. Yet, being presentable can be interpreted as we slept our way to success or are the recipient of nepotism. Now both may be true but this is competitive business that favors males. It is rare for a woman to succeed without real talent. Meryl Poster is a perfect example. Almost twenty years ago, she was Harvey Weinstein’s attractive, smart assistant. Over the years Meryl garnered a reputation for having great taste and tenacity. As the President of TV for the Weinstein Company, she is probably one of few people who can say no to him. So the assistant who is handing you coffee or slides at an audition may be greenlighting your movie in 10 years or a powerful casting director. I probably don’t have to update you on Reggie Hudlin (http://www.hudlinentertainment.com) as many know he recently produced the Academy Award nominated DJANGO UNCHAINED.
In every society both humans and animals, there is the “alpha”. They are described as passionate, composed, ambitious and always willing to tackle a problem. According to Worth Ethic Corporation, an executive coaching service, (http://www.worthethic.com/the-alpha-male-syndrome.html), the alpha male can also inspire fear and resentment rather than trust and respect, often causing expensive problems for their corporations. Though aforementioned article focuses on males, I have been subjected to working for several alpha females in the film business. My first film job was an assistant to a development executive who ran a famous actor’s production company. Our high rise office was located on the 18th floor with a beautiful view of polluted Burbank. One day, my boss was “dictating” story notes to me. While rattling off ideas on how to improve a script at super speed, the fire alarm went off. Though fire trucks arrived and the building was being evacuated, she insisted we ignore the commotion. The first set of firemen insisted but she refused. Instead, we continued with the story notes. Smoke bellowed down the hallway. As I coughed and typed, the second fireman said that if we didn’t leave we would be arrested. While my 5ft, 1in boss vehemently argued, I asked myself, “Was I willing to go to jail for my career?” As crazy as it may sound, I vacillated. It was a great job and I knew there would a slew of new candidates happy to fill my position. Finally, she caved in and we climbed down 18 stories to safety. Several years later, she was arrested for attacking a valet guy when she was late for a premiere.
She was insane. Yet, I wouldn’t be as versed in script analysis and strategy if it weren’t for her. She encouraged me to read and see everything, cultivate relationships with emerging talent and to look for the potential in a project. Her reputation for spotting trends and having good taste was the reason a number of young filmmakers got started. How did I survive her? First I learned how to shelve my prideful ego. Then I figured out her weakness: she had poor time management skills. Her lateness resulted in her forgetting important items for a meeting, missing flights and keeping the wrong people waiting. Not only did I create schedules with directions, gather the items she needed for meetings, I also lied about the times by 15 minutes. I interrupted calls/meetings to push her out of the door. This may seem small but it was life altering for her. Had the subsequent assistant done the same, she wouldn’t have been arrested. She was ultimately fired for trying to move our famous movie star boss to another agency. Once the actor’s agent heard she was “taking meetings on his behalf”, he squashed her. The company was left in my hands for six months while they searched for a replacement. A touch of ALL ABOUT EVE wouldn’t you say? Another lesson learned: there is always a bigger, more powerful alpha out here.
The alpha is not an easy personality to work for but everyone has a weakness. Learn it then help find a solution. Lastly, choose your battles carefully. If you must confront, be prepared to lose and to lose big. Regardless if they are right or wrong, they aren’t going to shelve their prideful ego….ever.
In the fifteen years I have worked in the film business, many have overheard, “The film business is high school with money”. Like high school, the cliques are divided by gender, race, social economics and talent. How do you fit into this creative world filled with former jocks, cheerleaders, nerds and hipsters? First step is knowledge. You must understand who you are dealing with in order to successfully compete. Here are the cliques I have stomached at Film High School:
These are the hardcore, aggressive, savvy take no prisoners film professionals. It’s ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAY on a combo of steroids and ecstasy. With laser jet focus, they relentlessly go after a goal. They range from agents, producers, studio executives, directors to first ADs and location managers. They don’t care what you think about them….as long as you think about them first.
Years ago, the majority of this group was female, however, as the film business has evolved it is now more gender balanced. For the most part, these professionals have started off as assistants and remain in “supportive” roles. They are quick thinkers with kinetic multi-tasking capabilities. Think Anne Hathaway in DEVIL WEARS PRADA or Debi Mazur or Constance Zimmer in ENTOURAGE. You will see them in the roles of publicists, glam squads (hair/makeup), human resources or development executives. The other key members of this group are actors. Though they don’t normally start off as assistants, many have been extras which can be as equally as horrendous. All feel unappreciated. They quietly want you to look pass their Prada sunglasses to see they are smart.
Want to know the director/leading actor/sound mixer/DP/whatever of an obscure French movie from the 1950s? Trying to decide which has more emphasis to “rack focus” or “reverse angle” a scene? This group can give you the answer in less than 30 seconds. Imagine an industrious, hardworking, nose to the grindstone version of Lena Dunham in GIRLS. They are often directors, editors, production accountants, sound editors or script supervisors. For many they are tired of being labeled “smart” and long to be “cool”. Others who have important yet seemingly invisible positions want to be “seen”.
This clique is normally closest to the talent or the power players. They are trend setters, talent spotters or in charge of making the overall project look great. Much like Cameron Calderon in HOW TO MAKE IN AMERICA, they have swag, skill with a pinch of hustler to boot. Talent loves hanging out with them (because they are cool) and corporate knows their creativity is essential. They are writers, casting directors, music supervisors, production designers and costumers. They always seeking “critical recognition” i.e. the coveted golden boy, Oscar or his cool cousin, Grammy.
Each group requires its own unique strategy to effectively compete and excel. Look out for next installment of Film High School to learn how to deal with these eccentric groups.
Recently, I met a woman who was looking for her first job in the film business. Like any seasoned entertainment professional, I asked about the progress of her networking in the film industry, she responded, “I’m not good at networking, how do I do it?” For over 15 years, I have worked in the film business as a development executive and an independent producer. This has required me to fine-tune my ability to access and communicate an idea. But, what do you do if you are shy? Unsure of what to say? How do you meet people that can help you get an entry level position in the film business? Here are my 3 tips for networking in the film industry.
Practice being brave.
Years ago, a producer told me that he had to practice being a good boyfriend. He said monogamy was challenging so he started by being completely attentive one date at a time. Practice being friendly and for some that means being brave. Make eye contact with a stranger in the elevator, smile and say hi. In line at the grocery store, ask the person next to you about an item they have bought. Why do they like it? It’s much easier to practice where there is nothing at stake. Plus in LA, you could be standing next to Jennifer Garner at Whole Foods — ultimate networking move in the film industry.
Go to film related events and follow up.
It sounds simple and it is: go to events that have to do with film. Unfortunately, posting on Facebook is not considered networking in the film business (even if Gale Ann Hurd is your friend). Subscribe to thewrap.com, they offer free screenings followed by a Q&A. Infolist.com advertises reasonably priced seminars. Attend, exchange information then follow up. Don’t blow off someone because you can’t see how they can help you today. The good thing about this business is it is always changing. An unemployed writer may sell a script next week. The bad thing about this business is it always changing. Your best friend’s cousin at CAA who promised you your first film job can get fired with no warning. Keep in touch with everyone because you never know.
Shut up (or learn to listen).
Listening is an underutilized skill. If you are lucky enough to be networking in the film industry and meet a seasoned professional, please shut up. I know you graduated from Brown and feel entitled to share your thoughts on social significance of HER. However, understand industry vets may love movies but we see them as widgets. We are constantly analyzing why one widget is more successful than a similar widget. So if you can succinctly explain why the African American audience responds to the Tyler Perry’s Madea series versus Eddie Murphy’s NORBIT then you may piqué some interest. Otherwise, listen and learn. You may find out the vet needs. Are they looking for the next HUNGER GAMES? Are they scouring YouTube for talent? Do they need a fresh approach to a project in development? In this business, knowledge is power …so learn.
I got my first film job after meeting director Reggie Hudlin at a party where we chatted about comedies. Actually, he talked and I listened. Months later, he asked me to be his assistant on BOOMERANG. Go out, networking in the film industry may feel daunting but on any given Sunday your life can change.