Lots of people love movies, but few people out there actually know how to break into Hollywood and make them. There are a few things you can do to break into “the industry” if you’re really determined to see your name on the silver screen. As Steven Soderbergh wrote, "Talent + Perseverance = Luck. Be ready when it happens."
By Nathan Bloch
The following article does not represent the opinions of Spike TV or its affiliates.
1. Don’t go to film school
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Some of the best known directors out there never stepped foot inside a film school – or they stepped foot inside and promptly dropped out. Kevin Smith, Wes Anderson, James Cameron, P.T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh all had little to no formal training. Kevin Smith and P.T. Anderson both dropped out of their film programs – with the money he didn’t spend on tuition for a second semester, Smith spent on Clerks, his first film.
Film school can be a great source of connections, equipment and opportunity, but it comes with a hefty price tag and potential disappointment. Some of the best programs in the country – USC, NYU – don’t allow everyone to write and/or direct a thesis film, and the lucky few who do get to make their films don’t get to retain ownership of them.
But if you have your heart set on film school, choose a small program that focuses on the technical aspects of operating equipment and learning the craft. You’ll come out of it sooner, with much less debt, and films that actually belong to you.
2. Move to Los Angeles
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So you’ve graduated from film school – or you haven’t – and you’re ready to try your luck at making a career in this highly competitive trade. The city with the most opportunity and one of the largest economies in the country is Los Angeles, and it’s also the home of the movie studios.
Moving to Los Angeles is clearly not a novel idea and thousands do so each year, so come prepared. Most importantly, bring a car that will be rock solid for the next few years because you’re going to spend most of your life in it. Also, don’t come to L.A. hoping to easily snag a job as a waiter: everyone else has the same idea. If you have a marketable skill other than waiting tables or serving coffee, emphasize it on your resume. Computer programming, video editing, web and graphic design – all of these skills are always in high demand and usually pay well.
3. Get an internship
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Now that you’ve got a job web designing at a reputable company you can pay the bills, but doing web design for a company that markets skin moisturizer to octogenarians is not going to get your script onto celluloid. Apply for an internship at every production company you can think of until someone calls you back.
An internship at a production company will help for several reasons, the most important of which will be covered more in step five. Internships are good in general, though, because they’re your first step in the door. Assuming you acquit yourself competently and prove useful – nay, indispensable – you might just get hired on at the end of the internship. And then you have a job that can provide you with the experience, connections, and opportunities you need to progress in your career.
4. Get a credit card with a high limit
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This is as a last resort, but something you will need when you get to step five. It is an unfortunate fact that filmmaking is an expensive art that requires money, and lots of it. Taking out loans from parents and friends and rich relatives is always optimal, but frequently not an option – especially if you’ve already hit them up when you were in film school. On the upside of the whole going-into-debt-in-the-middle-of-a-free-falling-economy thing, money is cheaper right now than it has been for a long time. Interest rates are about as low as they are likely to get, so if you do have to max out your card you can rest assured you’re getting the best deal anyone’s gotten this entire decade.
5. Make a reel
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A “reel” is a director, actor or writer’s portfolio. Back in the day if a director wanted to show you his reel, he was referring to an actual reel of film that showcased some of his best work. In the ‘80s and ‘90s directors put their reels on videotapes, and then by the middle of this decade directors burned everything onto DVDs.
You need professional looking material to have a decent reel. Short form stuff is the best way to go because it’s more affordable, allows you to have more than one thing on your reel, and is logistically easier to pull off. Shooting several short films and/or spec commercials is a good way to show off your talents while still being able to maintain a professional look to everything you shoot. If you can’t afford to make it look as good as the stuff you see on TV, then don’t bother. You want to convince people you can make stuff look great when you shoot something – take the videos of the day on YouTube and up the ante several notches.
Since you have an internship at a production company and you are beloved by all who work there, you will be in good standing when you hit the head of production and/or executive producer up to use the company’s insurance. The HOP or EP will also be able to help set you up with a great director of photography, who in turn should be the one to assemble the crew and get you good deals on equipment rentals. Also: Panavision has a New Filmmaker program that allows a few young filmmakers to use their cameras and lenses for virtually nothing if your project is chosen. There are lots of great options for filmmakers just starting out – take advantage of all of them.
6. Make a website
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These days hard copies of reels are becoming a thing of the past, just as reels on film did. If you’re not a web designer then find a friend or acquaintance who is and get them to give you a good deal on a slick looking website. Post your short films and spec commercials onto yourname.com and now, when you meet someone who’s interested in looking at your stuff and you don’t happen to have a DVD of your reel on you, simply write your site down on a piece of paper and watch as the hits roll in.
7. Send copies of your reel to everyone
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Now that you’ve got your reel, and you’ve got 100 copies of it on DVD and you have a great looking website, it’s time to spread the word. First things first: show your reel to the executive producer and head of production at the company where you are working or interning and get their feedback. Have them send it out to other companies, reps, managers and agents.
Once you’ve done that, send your shorts to film festivals. It’s a great way to get your films seen and sometimes the right people will see them. There are more film festivals than you would believe, and the festival circuit is often where filmmakers get their first start in the biz. Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, Jared Hess, Darren Aronofsky, Alexander Payne, and many others got their start at Sundance and other festivals.
But don’t be discouraged if you get rejected from Sundance – films that don’t feature at least a celebrity or two, or that don’t have powerful producer’s reps, seldom gain entrance. There’s more to the festival circuit than Sundance alone.
8. Write your script
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Just as Steven Soderbergh says, when luck happens you better be ready. Once your reel floats out there for awhile someone’s going to take note, and when they do you want to be ready to give them your magnum opus. And don’t write a first draft and then stow it away for future reading. Few writers have ever written a production-ready first draft. Have your friends, relatives and co-workers read it, and make sure they’re telling you what they really think, not what they think you want to hear. Most people don’t have a script that’s ready for the cameras before the third or fourth drafts.
9. Be persistent, aggressive, and don’t take rejection personally
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Hollywood is teeming with would-be actors, writers, directors and producers. And you’re just another one of them fighting to get inside an industry that is notorious for being the most exclusive in the world. Learn to let rejection slide off your back, and learn it early. Despite the fact that all we ever hear about are the overnight success stories, they are few and far between – and usually they’re not overnight at all. Most success stories involve people who’ve dedicated their lives to their craft and have been laboring for years and years. Everyone has to pay their dues.
In general, it’s better to be more impatient than patient. When you’ve found someone who’s in a position to notice your work and give you recognition, be persistent. There’s a fine line between persistence and harassment, but working in Hollywood is all about learning where that line is.
Aggressively believe in yourself and your work because for the first few years you live in Hollywood no one else is going to. Most people who make it in this business have a preternatural degree of self-confidence when it comes to their talent. This does not, however, mean that to be successful you must emulate what you believe to be a successful person’s lifestyle: drinking, doing drugs, and wasting money at posh clubs simply to be seen. Do good work and insist upon its goodness, and you will be seen.