Los Angeles is the City of Angels — but also the City of Movies, the epicenter of the entertainment industry. Depending on what circles you run in, you’ll probably come across lots of people in this town who moved here specifically to pursue a career in film and/or TV
For some it seems like it’s super easy to get their name on that grand marquee, while for many others, it’s a life-long journey with many twists and turns that may or may not lead to the promised land.
Personally, I came here as a Hollywood hopeful and scored an MFA in screenwriting from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where the motto is “Reality ends here.”
Let me tell you, though, there was no Oscar waiting for me on graduation day, just the beginning of capital-R reality.
But despite all setbacks — and there have been many — I’m still willing to work toward the dreams that lead me to this city and you should, too. I’m no expert at how to make, but I can share with you a bit about what to expect as your journey begins.
1. It will be tougher than you think to break in
Most people are looking for that golden ticket to break in. I have gotten so much contradictory advice about it over the years and I’m sure you have, too. At USC, they kept telling my cohort you must must be an assistant in order to break in — and then one of my professors and several successful TV writers have told me otherwise. I’ve been advised by several different sources to only write scripts and not produce them, just write something for the sake of filming it, and don’t write, just video blog.
At the end of the day, you need to decide what’s right for you and how you’re going to make your own golden ticket.
One of my favorite sayings is, “Breaking into the entertainment industry is like breaking into prison: Once someone has done it one way, that way is blocked from everyone else. ” My other favorite quote is from comedian Jason Mantzoukas: “Everyone is dropped in the jungle, given a machete and told ‘Success is out there!’ And everyone has to cut their own path, which means if you find someone else’s path, don’t follow it because it’s not yours.”
2. People can (and will) be as awful as you see in the movies (narcissism, jealousy, stolen ideas etc…)
When I was in film school, many professors regaled my idealistic cohort with tales of their success, and, well, being allegedly getting pushed out of being credited on their hard work. It sucks, but it does happen due to certain circumstances. The world isn’t a perfect place and neither is Hollywood.
I’ve had friends (yes, friends) appropriate my own personal anecdotes for their screenplays, which was always fun to find out when they send you the script for your feedback and then use it to get signed to an agent. When you do have some success, you’ll notice that your colleagues aren’t as eager to celebrate it as you might have thought, but on the flip side, you too will feel that sting when someone else gets what you’ve been striving for.
It happens, because everyone in this industry is a little bit (or a lot) narcissistic. I once interviewed a psychologist for an article and she mentioned that one of her specialties is treating narcissists in Hollywood, because “we need it here more than anywhere else,” she said.
3. That said, you’d better have a thick skin
You know when you see all of those Hollywood assistant job postings that say you “must have a thick skin”? It’s true and definitely a requirement. Entry-level Hollywood jobs — whether you’re an assistant, gofer, PA, or working in an agency mailroom — require a lot of long hours, lumps taken, and coffee fetched.
My interview at a top movie studio included the test question, “Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper are in a brawl in front of you. What do you do?” I once interviewed to be the assistant of a top Hollywood agent, who saw my MFA and my journalism career on my resume, and dismissed me by saying, “You’re overqualified. Go write and be poor.” I worked for a talent manager who told me, “In order to do the glamorous stuff, we have to do all tedious stuff.” And that’s true — Hollywood life isn’t a glamorous red carpet.
(Actually, red carpets themselves aren’t that glamorous on the journalism side of things, either. I’ve covered a bunch as an entertainment journalist and it’s 85 percent waiting around and 15 percent glamour. Perhaps it’s a metaphor.)
4. Talent alone isn’t enough (work ridiculously hard, leverage your network, play the game a bit…)
There’s an old saying that says, “The cream rises to the top.” When it comes to the entertainment industry, that doesn’t happen without a ton of work and rejection behind it. I recently attended a Writers Guild of America event during which the Q&A session was filled with questions grilling a successful TV writer about how they broke into the industry. Their answer: Years and years of hard work — and setbacks. You have to be in it for the long haul.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get noticed these days — you just have to be creative with it. You can fund your passion project on Kickstarter, but you need actually follow through with it. You can put your webseries or vlogs on YouTube and, well, pray for a viral moment. You can enter all the film festivals and screenwriting competitions, but beware that costs will add up and you may not even place in the quarterfinals. You need to network, network, network, and find that person who thinks you have potential and is willing to check out your reel or read your script. They’re out there somewhere.
5. You will get criticized for your dream
I had a friend who literally laughed in my face when I told her I was applying to USC’s screenwriting program. I graduated with that MFA degree two years later.
I had an extended family member yell at me that I would never make it in Hollywood and moving to LA was useless, so I should just give up. Sure, I haven’t made it, but I really like LA as a place to live and I’m not ready to give up.
At a recent event, I encountered a screenwriting colleague who I admired greatly and told this person I had returned to journalism. Their reaction? “Ew.” Minutes later, two TV executive producers praised my choice.
I mention those stories, because it’s only a sampling of the criticism I’ve got over the years from people close to me, but you know what? As the meme says, haters gonna hate.
6. You should go after it if you have the conviction
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank lived in a car with her mother as she auditioned for roles. Tyler Perry was homeless in Atlanta for six years while trying to fund the stage play that would launch his career. Charlie Chaplin, one of the most legendary figures in cinema, was homeless as a young boy and the experience would later inspire his most iconic character “The Tramp.”
These stories aren’t meant to depress you, but remind you that even those with great success had humble beginnings, hard times, and rejection. Remember: Even after all of those no’s, all you need to hear is one “yes” — from an agent, manager, casting director, producer, or executive — and then keep striving for the next one.
What’s your story like after you moved to L.A.? Let us know in the comments below!