Tell me if this sounds like you: You’re building an entertainment career. You get gigs here and there, maybe on set or in a production office, but you’re hunting for a new job every week – maybe even the next day.
I’ve been there, so I am going to share with you some of my personal experiences from building my own entertainment career through a number of film production jobs, all so that you can learn the pitfalls… and successes.
Get ready, because you are now officially inside the Hollywood trenches.
Welcome to the party, pal.
Choose An Entertainment Career
Choose your entertainment career
Everyone comes to Los Angeles looking for their niche. Most people start in a production assistant job until they find what suits them best. I am very lucky that I got to start my career with a glimpse of production jobs in front of and behind the camera. Besides, I also got an inside look at executive career paths.
As a young man, I arrived in Hollywood as a writer and actor. I had graduated from a small liberal arts college in the midwest. After a few classes at the School of Visual Arts, some regional theater, local television and a background role in the film Chain Reaction, I was sure Steven Spielberg would meet me at the door with a role in his next film. So I did what anyone would do. I applied for a writing internship and waited for my ticket to Hollywood.
After all, I had done theater my whole life. My minor in dramatic arts was the fun part of my education, but my parents insisted on a degree in something besides theater. In retrospect, thank you, Mom and Dad.
I fortunately got the internship and I was on my way.
I wrote every day that first Summer. But, I still wanted to act. Though, I soon realized Hollywood wasn’t exactly beating down the door for black, Shakespearean-trained actors, even though my first audition in Los Angeles was for Spielberg’s Amistad.
I realized that I had bills to pay very quickly. I put down the Backstage West and picked up the Hollywood Reporter Classifieds. I sent resumes to every studio in a fifty-mile radius of the “Slums of Beverly Hills” where I lived in the standard pad o’ guys with friends from college.
I didn’t receive one call back for interviews. I mean the only sound was of the crickets in the palm trees. I faxed my resume to 200 production companies I found in the LA 41… and nothing. Far from being discouraged, I rationalized.
Well, if I’m trying to act anyway, might as well wait tables as I did in New York while at SVA. Dallas BBQ and Serendipity 3 if you must know. Tony Roma’s hired me on the spot. I was the employee of the month twice in three months.
Point is, I didn't sit around staring at the stars or scrolling through instagram. Probably because it didn't exist, but also because I refused to let my circumstances defeat me financially. I lived to fight another day... so to speak.
Let An Entertainment Career Choose you
Go with the flow of the river
After a much needed Christmas break from slinging ribs in a chain, I had a run-in with a neighbor that would change the course of my career or lack thereof. He was an assistant editor that worked for a company that cut trailers for movies. He knew of a position that was opening. I told him that I wanted to be in the film business and he said he would pass on my resume.
One month later, I was the production assistant and office coordinator for DarkLight Pictures and MovieTone Film. Not only did I now have two companies on my resume, but almost everyone I worked for, and with, were awesome. One of my bosses was even an Oscar-nominated director of photography, with pretty cute daughters who never gave me the time of day.
This was the best intro to Hollywood for anyone who had just figured out what Hollywood really did.
One side, MovieTone Films, was all post-production editing and trailers. The company was eventually bought by 20th Century Fox. The company did post-marketing for The Slums of Beverly Hills, PushingTin, Ronin, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and many other films.
The other side, DarkLight Pictures, was all commercial and film production and development.
It was here that I learned the amazing variety of positions available in production. It was here that I learned that there was more than one way to be a movie star. I loved learning about budgets, schedules, and unions. I would be there for two years before moving on.
More than a decade after my first Hollywood job, I have covered the gamut in my career. From PA to Producer, from background talent to leading actor. I have moved from non-profit copywriter to expectant Sundance finalist. But I have kept on moving forward in almost every area of film production. I have succeeded sometimes in spite of myself.
And for every success, I have also failed in every area of film production.
I have found myself ill-suited or ill-prepared for the role that I’ve taken on; I’m looking at you film instructor position. Who knew my passion for film was a bit much for academia?
But as anyone who has survived the trenches for more than ten years can tell you, this is a town in which you can fail upward. Oftentimes this failure may be the biggest success.
Go For Bigger Film Production Jobs
Don’t be afraid of a promotion
In the summer of 2008, I made the leap from production coordinator to production manager. It was an easy transition because it was a small production, essentially traveling around Baja, Chiapas, and Mexico City with a crew of 10 or so, including a friend who was a writer and producer.
We were in the middle of the Writers Guild strike, so the commercial shoots were flooded with willing workers.
Instead, I chose the low budget documentary position that was literally a trip to paradise for the better part of a year. I would try to repeat the experience in Port Au Prince but, it was a bit more trying to say the least.
After a year of filming as an actor in a movie, I was again ready to go behind the scenes. The opportunity came on another film in 2013, and I jumped at the chance.
The production manager and I clicked instantly. She assured me that even though the film was low-budget, it wouldn’t be a headache at all.
Shooting in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York began on July 6th, and I was ecstatic. I hadn’t worked in New York in a while, but I recalled fondly the commercials and promos I’d done over the years. This would be no different, right?
Then the universe said, “Wait a minute? This is your work, not a vacation?”
Six weeks into production and we are behind schedule, the production manager and line producer aren’t renewing their contracts, and our schedule is extended for another three weeks.
It’s my time to sink or swim. Wearing a new hat can’t be that hard right. Well….
In this instance, I have shadowed the PM and the LP, so I am fairly confident. Fake it... till you have a heart attack.
Film Production Jobs Qualifications
Learn what you don’t know
In the weekend leading up to the first day of the production with me at the helm, I read every how-to manual for film production that I could find. I wanted to be ready, I needed to be ready, for anything. I called friends who were farther along in their careers in film. I think I even prayed. The first week went by fine. I didn’t sit once the entire time.
The second week didn’t go nearly as smoothly.
The SFX Supervisor insults the 2nd AD, and the 1st AD decides they’re walking. That’s not in the manual. Now, I have one weekend to get the new 1st and 2nd up to speed! No problem, right?
Wrong, because all of the problems that were on set before are still there.
The Art Department is understaffed, but shooting the giant spacecraft scene is in two days. I have to trust that my art department can handle it. That’s what all-nighters are for! Order extra coffee or whatever they need to keep building!
I have one more week to go, I now have a full on bald spot. I haven’t lost so much weight in a few weeks since shooting in Haiti.
The first thing to do if you find yourself in this position: Breath.
The second thing you can do is take stock of the position. Pull out the schedule, budget and crew sheet and really understand the elements you’re working with.
Next, meet with any heads of departments that are going to need some extra hand holding. Here everyone out. Listen well, because you will have to immediately prioritize who needs your attention most.
Now that you know where you are in the process, get to work. Whether ordering supplies or finding a new coordinator, you don’t have time for whining.
The best part about being on set is, everyone knows their job. You are putting out fires around the clock, but also helping to make sure that no new ones begin. Now, don’t be afraid to reach out to friends who are in the same position. Ask for advice and then let the advice help you roll with the punches. You still have a lot to get done.
Wrapping out can’t be that hard, right? Of course, there is no “Wrapping Out For Dummies”... Don’t worry, you just undo everything you’ve done.
Suffice it to say, that trial by fire can often heat up the career and the ego. A feeling of accomplishment washed over me, even as I helped the PA/Intern brotherhood paint over the green set we’d created in Brooklyn.
The last image I have, of my tearing down the sign with the production title off the stage doors, kept my motivation for movie making going for another four months. Until the next one.
I was truly thankful to get “on the job training” that would lead me to the next series of films and pilots that I did over the next couple of years.
Climb The Career Ladder
Don’t burn out early
When I first walked across the studio lot, I was ecstatic. It felt new and right. Passing Ted on a daily basis or roaming the lot in my golf cart felt like the perfect fit. Taking friends and family on the backlot to see The War Of The Worlds set felt like I’d arrived. Experiencing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before it was open to the general public inflated my career ego, even if the ride and the butterbeer deflated my stomach.
What was more, I was directly involved in hundreds of commercials and projects that NBCUniversal offered. From detailing a treatment of The Wiz and Peter Pan for the live-action versions for my Department to attending ti-in shoots with Adam Levine and Blake Shelton for Red Nose Day, I was seeing an inside track of an industry meeting an art form.
My success at work showed me what was possible if I worked hard enough. Instead of resting on my laurels, I decided it was time for me to keep moving forward with my own ambitions and dreams.
I went on auditions on my lunch breaks and even booked a couple of acting gigs. I worked on my own scripts and friends projects with an eye towards producing. I would stay at my desk at NBC until midnight and return the next day at seven am. I was in heaven.
The feeling lasted nearly a full year. My work life was all-consuming and I didn’t care. Until one day I realized that there was more to the corporate waiting game than I thought.
Production Assistant Jobs
Take stock of what you’ve learned
It took a health scare to really make me realize that my all in with NBCUniversal was never going to make me completely fulfilled.
By the end of my two years commuting to Universal City it already felt like a chore. Moreover, I felt redundant in that I was doing the same job every day for the corporate giant. I also felt unappreciated in that I knew that I would have to be at my desk for more years to get any advancement. No one cared that I had been on sets from Mexico City to Port Au Prince. Unless you had a specific title in Universal City, your opinion was unwanted. Lastly, I felt stagnant.
I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, which I normally appreciate. But, I still knew that my days were numbered and forgettable. I even asked how people were able to do the same thing day after day and year after year. One of my confidantes at NBC Sports simply responded, “Kids.”
I was thankful that kids were not in the picture yet. But, I started to seriously consider what I wanted in a career.
My official title was Coordinating Producer and Project Manager NBCUniversal: Creative Partnerships. The position entailed one, and usually more, of the following jobs every day for two years: Department Coordinator, Post-Coordinator, Department Accountant, Office Manager, IT Liaison, Production Manager and Executive Assistant, Talent Wrangler, Gopher, Personal Assistant.
But, hey, I got to meet the cast of half a dozen NBC shows including The Voice. Heidi Klum winked at me when I showed up with the rest of the producers. I got to see Gwen Stefani on the regular. But, having Carson Daley sign paperwork couldn’t be the pinnacle of my career. How does one make a leap in the corporate arena? I realized pretty quickly that it didn’t matter what I knew, but who. Unfortunately, that is the state of corporate film and production industry. It was better that I learned this early.
A couple of years at NBCUniversal proved to me that I am definitely not a long-term “desk warrior” hoping that someone would move on so I could be noticed.In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers in The Gambler, “You gotta know when to fold em…”
Make your own career path
When I left the NBCUniversal machine, I felt the world was my oyster. What I wanted to do was chart my course. After all, the most compelling reason for anyone to come to Los Angeles, to Hollywood, is to find the place that is a perfect fit. And if you don’t find it, you make it.
I started to work with several writers and producers who were doing the same work that I was. I inserted myself into projects to bring them to life.
There is no standard path to becoming a producer. Many producers in Hollywood have an uncle at a studio. Others buy the position without knowing anything other than how to sign checks. This is a great career- path for trust fund babies. But for those of us whose parents are civil servants, we have to chart our own course and burn our paths.
Developing other artists is very rewarding. I brought directors and craftsmen on board the projects I began to shop, and their passion is infectious.
For a year, I traveled across Europe, gathering steam and support for projects. With my development pack in hand, budgets, mood boards, scripts, and treatments, I was off.
There is nothing as invigorating as running across London for a meeting with a talented young Swedish director for a project that you’re shepherding.
There is nothing as thrilling as landing in France with a script in hand and three meetings in non-neighboring arrondissements.
There is nothing as disheartening as being told you are biting off more than you can chew.
Believe it or not, the French don’t share American enthusiasm and can-do attitude. Some of them scoffed at my American “chutzpah.”
“You’ve never done this before? This is not how we do things in France.”
Hearing other producer’s tell me to slow down was not on my agenda. But, at least they took the meetings and I got some wisdom from those who had done what I was doing.
The best advice I received was, “Prepare for this to take a lot longer than you think.”
Note to self: “It has taken a lot longer than I thought, but my am I enjoying the process way more than my commute to Universal City.
Careers In Film
Go get what you came for
Luck, in Hollywood and beyond, is when preparation meets opportunity. For instance, on the recent Oscar-nominated film, Arrival, Bradford Young stepped in the Cinematographer’s position as a replacement for the director’s first choice.
Hollywood Institution, and director of photography, Roger Deakins was supposed to re-team with director Denis Villeneuve on the Amy Adams, sci-fi film. But when scheduling made this impossible, Bradford Young came on board. He earned his first Academy Award nomination.
Young must have known that he had some big shoes to fill. But he put the intimidation on the back burner. Bradford young used every resource at his disposal. He consulted with his peers. He took the opportunity to show his passion for his craft.
When the opportunity presents itself, no matter where on the career ladder you stand, you have to be prepared. Moreover, you have to be prepared to succeed. You can’t be prepared to succeed if you are worried that someone else would do a better job.
Do the best job you know how and don’t be afraid of something you’ve never done before in scale or story.
Multiple Production Jobs
Make A New Career and Keep the old
This is easy to say when you still love to dabble in front of the camera as well. Dilettante is not such a dirty word if you are creative or in Hollywood.
Many a career has been revived or transformed by switching hats or wearing more than one. Most recently, A Star Is Born was directed by a little actor named Bradley Cooper.
Bradley Cooper is a movie star with three Oscar nominations and a huge box office draw. In other words, he has nothing left to prove as an actor. Rather than be content in this position, Bradley Cooper decided to step up his game a bit. By becoming a producer and a formidable director, Cooper has brought his Hollywood legacy into the realm of legend.
Bradley Cooper came to the project after Clint Eastwood had to back out. He was a huge fan of the material and when his preferred director and actress, Beyonce, backed out because of schedules he took the reigns in his hand and stepped up.
Bradley had never directed before, but he had worked with some of the best in the business. For the opportunity not to pass him by, Bradley Cooper did what he had to do.
Directing himself in a starring role, as well as singing and writing for the soundtrack is the stuff that makes legends. Cooper bit off a giant piece, swallowed and came back for more.
Come February 2019, the Academy will take notice of Cooper’s American “chutzpah” and possibly reward him an Oscar.
Or maybe he’ll just get his next job.
Win Your Entertainment Career
You can have it all
One of the most amazing aspects of Hollywood is that you can switch careers, but you don’t have to. Your Hollywood resume is more valuable when you can do more than one thing. The old adage of “wearing more than one hat leaves one with a heavy head” is not true in tinsletown.
In fact, many a filmmaker has only grown from their experiences in front of and behind the camera. Before he was a super producer Brian Grazer was a Development executive, a Screenwriter and then a film producer.
His television producing didn’t come until he’d already worn three hats. This is also true for James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood and a huge number of film professionals.
Hopefully, some of my experiences have inspired you to bite off more than you can chew. Starting a new position is a daunting task even under the best of circumstances. In Hollywood, each opportunity is a new chance to grow and become the producer you were meant to be, win, lose, or draw. If you love the film industry, in all of its’ facets, just do it.
Up Next: How To Be a Diplomat On Set
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