Have you been dreaming of a career in film and television? Well, I’ve got good news for you: Lunacy Productions (and every other production company, agency, studio, and ancillary business in Los Angeles) is full of people who had that same dream and are making it a reality.
Below we share five tips for building a lasting career in Hollywood. But first, a caveat: if you just want to be a millionaire, you’re probably better off playing the stock market or working on your jump shot. There are many ways to make a living in the entertainment industry, but very few ways to become extravagantly wealthy. You have to love the work.
Still with us? Okay…
1. Do your homework
If you want to make movies and television, the first step is to watch movies and television! This should be the fun part, but many people don’t take it seriously enough. In order to learn from the media you consume you must be an attentive and active viewer. If you just have the TV on in the background while you play on your cell phone or do your taxes, you’ve gained nothing.
Also, if you only watch new releases, or one specific genre, you’re depriving yourself of the well-rounded film education that could separate you from your competition. Horror movies, for instance, inherit many of their techniques and tropes from silent German Expressionist cinema, noir thrillers of the 40s and 50s, and even the French New Wave. Acquainting yourself with these films will deepen your understanding of modern horror and might even stimulate new and original ideas.
Like any art form, film has also been extensively studied and written about. There’s a hundred years’ worth of instruction, memoir, and critical analysis of motion pictures in your local library, bookstore, or e-reader. Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, Steven D. Katz’s Film Directing: Shot by Shot, and Walter Murch’s In The Blink Of An Eye are a few favorites to get you started. And, of course, the Lunacy Blog updates every week with practical lessons from independent film production.
2. Go to school
Let’s get this out of the way up front: film school is not the best option for everyone, and a degree in film is not necessary to be successful in Hollywood. In fact, the degree itself is almost useless. The education, structure, community, and connections are the real reason to go the film school route. So think long and hard before you commit time and (often massive amounts of) money to this path.
With that in mind, here are some reasons a formal education in filmmaking might be right for you. First and foremost, if you’re the type of person who works better with deadlines, assignments, and outside motivation, the structure of a school environment should help you. You’ll be assigned books to read and films to watch; you’ll attend lectures and workshops; you’ll be expected to write scripts and film them. You still have to do the work, and if you want to be truly great, you’ll have to do more than just what’s assigned.
There’s also a big advantage in being a part of a community of other filmmakers. Being in a film program means having constant access to ready and willing collaborators. Your peers become your crew, and you learn from each other and benefit from your diverse perspectives and skill sets. You also critique each other’s work, developing a network of trusted colleagues that you will carry into your professional life.
In addition to your classmates, you also benefit from connections made with faculty, guest speakers, and industry internships. Very often your school will have a career services department that can connect you to an industry mentor or an entry-level position after graduation. This is particularly true of film schools situated in New York, Los Angeles, and other cities with a booming entertainment industry.
3. Put in the work
Some people can get pretty far in life coasting on talent, charm, or nepotism. This is as true in Hollywood as it is anywhere else. But when the rubber meets the road, nobody wants to work with someone who can’t pull their own weight. If you want to succeed in the film industry (or life in general) you need to be competent and you need to know how to work hard, and both of those things take practice.
No one is born a great filmmaker. Some might have innate skills that give them an advantage, but every aspect of filmmaking, from writing to directing to editing, takes practice. So get your reps in. If you want to be a writer, start writing. Your first scripts will probably be terrible, but writing them is the only way you’ll gain the experience you need to write a great one. The first time you step onto the set as a director, and everyone looks to you for instructions, you will be terrified! That’s okay. The only way to get comfortable in that position is to do it over and over and over again.
Hard work takes practice too. It’s easy to say, “When my big opportunity arrives, I’ll buckle down and focus. But today I’m going to take it easy.” But working hard is a habit, developed over time, not a switch that you flip on. Feature films typically shoot twelve-hour days, five or six days in a row, for several weeks. The work is physically and mentally demanding. Post-production jobs can be even worse. It’s a grind, and if you aren’t prepared it will grind you right down to nothing! So instead of delaying the hard work until some imaginary future day that might never arrive, start today! That way when you’re big break comes, you’ll be ready.
4. Play nice
As we’ve emphasized, making movies can be an intense, physically and emotionally grueling experience. Creative people can get passionate, angry, or cranky, especially when they feel their art is threatened. But no one wants to work with an asshole. In an industry that has been notoriously tolerant of “temperamental geniuses,” we are seeing more and more instances of producers and studios deciding that working with abrasive people just isn’t worth it.
It’s much more enjoyable to spend 12 hours a day working with people you like. So if you want to get hired, be the kind of person who brings a positive attitude and a sense of humor to the set every day. If you are prone to stirring up trouble, provoking confrontations, gossiping, or just going about your business with a foul attitude, it will cost you work. Everyone has a list of people they call first when a job opens up, and another list of people they’ll never work with again. You want to be on that first list!
It’s a good lesson to remember as you rise up in the industry. As a producer or director, you might be able to get away with talking down to someone or throwing a temper tantrum. But each time you do, you risk ending up on someone’s “never again” list. It’s a small town with a long memory.
5. Get lucky
Okay. It’s time for a tough dose of reality: Even if you take all the previous advice, you still might never become a successful screenwriter, director, or producer. You might never premiere at Sundance, win an Oscar, or get your dream project made. Knowledge, hard work, and even talent, can’t guarantee success in the film and television industry, or in life in general. At some point it all comes down to luck.
Almost every Hollywood success story involves an element of chance: being in the right place at the right time; a random encounter; a million-to-one shot. There’s no way to predict or replicate good fortune, but knowing your craft, honing your skills, and being active and well-regarded in the industry will increase the chances of a lucky break coming your way… and ensure you are prepared to make the most of it when it does!