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Breaking into Film

Contributed By Kenna McHugh

Finding a job in the film industry is like trying to find a sunken vessel lost at sea: it is not only difficult it's an art. This is because the movie making business is a hidden market. Employers and employees rely on reputation, word-of-mouth, and networking as primary tools of communication. By the time a project comes to town or starts production in one of the major cities, positions are usually filled.

The nature of producing a movie and the related jobs are short-term and project-oriented. As a rule, film producers and directors are independent contractors. Few companies other than major networks can afford to maintain a director or crew on permanent payroll. People who do have permanent jobs don't give them up, as one director put it, "even when they die. They try to pass them on to someone in their family."

It's not only whom you know and what you know, but what you have done and what you have done lately. In other words, you are always positioning yourself for the next job while maintaining your current job. If you are smart and maintain a positive attitude, you don't burn your bridges behind you, making it impossible to return. Ignorance of the nature of the business and how hiring really works can make your efforts flat and unprofitable. We'll start by taking a look at what are considered some of the most popular but ineffective strategies people use in attempting to secure employment in the film industry, as well as some of the most creative and effective strategies.

What strategies don't necessarily work? Unsolicited resumes (also known as junk mail to some producers and directors) have their place, but most newcomers can't afford to send out enough resumes to obtain the ideal opportunity for a quality interview. In fact if a job seeker is lucky, the resume will be placed on file in the dark, deep cabinet of the personnel department.

Jobs advertised in the classifieds are generally filled by the time the ad appears in the papers. Many personnel departments as a matter of course advertise jobs to satisfy their equal opportunity requirements. This makes it possible for them to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the job was open and published before anyone was hired by simply showing the resumes received before the date of hire.

The myth that "If I sleep with the producer, director or maybe the casting director, I get the job" is just that -- a myth. How could directors or casting directors ride their careers based on a one-night stand? Too much depends on the quality of work expected from their cast and crew to permit a roll in the hay to jeopardize their professional futures. Of course, there are exceptions to this, and some ambitious people do use the "casting couch" to get ahead. But these people are few and far between, and do not reflect the reality of getting a job in the film industry.

Act Like a Pro Before You're a Pro

Before you are hired, you may be tempted to make statements such as: "I don't pick up garbage," "I don't get coffee," "I don't run errands," "I don't get dry cleaning," "I've already paid my dues," "I have to leave by six," "I can't work overtime because I have an appointment to get my nails done," "I'm a single mother," or "I have a life." If you are going to do this, don't even bother going to the interview -- the film industry is simply not for you. What you need is a nine-to-five job, whereas in the film and television work, people are always adjusting their schedules. They never know when they will be home, and typically work a 10- to 12- hour day. When they are on a project, they don't see their family until the project is done. Most importantly, they love every minute of it.

Acting like a student or intern -- even when you are a student or intern -- will destroy your hopes for success faster than not showing up for work. The moment you are hired on to a set, you are a professional. The idea that "I am not going to act like a professional because I am not being paid enough to be a professional (or I am not being paid at all)" is the iceberg that will sink your chances for a career in film.

Professionals are people who can produce high-quality work, regardless of other considerations. It never enters his head that he is just there for the ride, or that it's enough just to be on the set and experience the so-called glamour of the film world. A professional knows the rules of the game as a matter of course and will seek to achieve the highest quality in his or her work. That means consistently striving to be the best at whatever you do and convincing your employer that it is not only worth it to keep you on this job but also to hire you for the next one.

You can't be a light bulb. Some producers or directors honestly believe that excellence is not a choice; it is a habit. A person can be in good spirits most of the time, and occasionally have an off day. That is understandable, because as the winds blow things happened, such as running out of gas, got a speeding ticket, feeling a little under the weather. That is understandable. But, if someone is continually off each day or like a light bulb -- on one day off the next -- he is not going to make it. A person either has the common sense of what it takes or he doesn't. Being on someone's payroll doesn't change a person's behavior just because he is getting paid, now. They have to impress the employer on that first day of work and staying employed is a constant liability.

Building The Credits

But how do you get the "first job" that gets your foot inside the door? You have the options: internships, volunteering, and demonstrating the ability to do whatever is needed and doing it well.

Most important to the process, however, is that you have to be willing -- in the beginning, at least -- to work on the cheap or even for free. The idea is to accumulate a list of "credits" -- that is, all your past work experience. You can only do this by being willing to take on whatever work is being offered at whatever pay is being offered, even if that's zero. Of course, even if you offer your services for free, you may still find it hard to attract any takers, as even unpaid crew member needs to be covered by insurance, shown the ropes, fed, etc.

Your best opportunity to build your credit list is to work on smaller independent shoots. Track these shoots down and volunteer! Once your resume begins to show the depth of your experience, you can start to aim for bigger crews on larger shoots.

It is best to start making contacts in your local area. You can contact your local film commission and see if they have a hotline number or a Web site. Most big city film commissions do. Check with your film commission once a week to find out if a production company is coming to town. Sometimes the production companies will leave a contact number with the film commission. You can contact local casting directors and see if they know of any production companies coming to town. As you call these contacts, make sure you find out about other production contracts. Here are some general numbers and Web sites to contact for information on film work in the area. My book Breaking Into Film provides a comprehensive listing of key film employees.

California Film Commission -- 800-858-4749

San Francisco Film Commission Hotline -- 415-554-4004

Los Angeles Film Commission -- 626-683-2619

New York Film Commission -- 212-803-2330

New York City Film Commission -- 212-489-6710

Orlando Film Commission -- 407-422-7159

Texas Film Commission -- 512-463-9200

There are also hotlines that can provide leads for jobs. Here is a partial list from by book, "Breaking Into Film".

Paramount Studios Jobline -- Los Angeles -- 213-956-5216

Amblin Entertainment (Dreamworks) -- Los Angeles -- 818-777-4600

© 1999 Kenna McHugh, All Rights Reserved

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