I fell in love with filmmaking as a teenager, and I was determined to be a filmmaker, specifically a producer.
I set my sights on USC because on a list of film schools, they were ranked as the best in the world. So, because I was a Shakespeare geek in high school, I sent in my application with an essay that was modeled after a Shakespearean scene, in iambic pentameter and everything. Three months later, I was rejected.
I wound up going to Dodge College film school at Chapman University, but I was determined to go to USC. So, I applied as a sophomore, kept the iambic pentameter essay, honed all my supplemental essays, and got the best letters of recommendation I could, and I was rejected from USC film school again.
So, I applied one more time as a junior, threw out my Shakespearean essay, and started my new essay with, “This is my third and final application to USC film school, and if you don’t take me this time, you can go to hell.”
Three months later I got my acceptance letter.
So, I graduated from USC, and felt immensely prepared to go and conquer Hollywood, and I made big strides early on. One of my first jobs after graduating was becoming Penny Marshall’s assistant. This was a big deal. Not only was she a legend in Hollywood, and one of the top 5 women in film history, but I would be working directly for her at her production company. This was exactly the strategy recommended to me in film school; work for a small production company, become invaluable to the head of that company, and then they would promote me to creative executive and producer. In fact, one of her producing partners even said to me that after a 10 year hiatus, Penny was ready to get back into production, and direct another film.
That didn’t work out so well.
You see, Penny was 64 at the time. She liked to lie and say she was 62, but she was 64. She did not have the physical stamina for a rigorous feature film production, which calls for 14+ hour days, sometimes 6 or 7 day weeks, and (on a studio film) 6 months long. The truth was, Penny was retired in all but name, but she needed to keep up appearances of being a working director, because if she officially retired, she would stop getting celebrity perks.
Let me explain; being a Hollywood star is alluring, and wealthy people like to hang out with Hollywood stars, and say these stars are their friends. Also, I don’t blame them. It feels good to have famous friends. Even famous people enjoy hanging out with other famous people.
So, the wealthy will make all kinds of accommodations for their famous friends, including free trips on their private yachts, their private jets, in addition to other celebrity perks like the $10,000 gift bags.
That’s kind of why I don’t believe the whole, ‘everyone connected with Jeffrey Epstein was a pedophile,’ because wealthy people love courting the glamorous and powerful, and the glamorous and powerful accept it without a second thought.
Long story short, if Penny dropped the pretense of being a working director, she would lose all the perks she loved.
This put me in a difficult spot, because it was effectively a dead-end job with no chance of promotion. Also, most Hollywood assistants only get $400 per week, and even in 2006 Los Angeles, that wasn’t a lot to live on. It was even less when you factor in the 4 years of college and credit card debt I had accumulated. So, I did the only thing I could do, which was look for another job, and wait it out.
Now, I did get some benefits to being her assistant. For example, one of her contacts was interested in a project I was trying to produce, and introduced me to a real estate developer that wanted to get into movies. He wanted to invest $2 million into my project, and I had no clue what to do or what to ask for. It was here that I realized that going to the best film school in the world did not prepare me for a career in film. I had no training or education on how to negotiate a film contract.
You see, the dirty secret about (all) film schools is that they are essentially run as trade schools. They teach you the technical aspects of running a camera, how to edit, some film theory, and some storytelling components, but they don’t prepare you for the realities of having a career in film & TV.
Here are the things you absolutely need to know.
1. Be Prepared for a Freelance Career
What nobody told me about Hollywood is, because everybody wants to work in Hollywood, the industry has a glut of labor. Too many people want to work in too few positions. That gives the studios, production companies, and producers the upper hand to push for freelance contracts, flat fees, and other tactics that are detrimental to employees.
There’s no situation where someone can be hired to do a job in Hollywood, get paid a fare wage, and have all the perks and benefits most other companies offer.
There’s no sick days, no vacation time, no standard health benefits, and no regular cost of living increase.
You are a freelance employee, which means you need to pay your own payroll taxes and medical bills.
What’s most important from this is that there is no guarantee for work. You are reliant on other freelance employers to hire you, who are often in a hunt to find enough employment for them as well. When they do hire you, you may be hired onto a production for any length of time from 6 months to a single day.
If you want a career in Hollywood, you need to forge strong relationships with 5 people who would be in a position to hire you. What does a strong relationship look like? Well, I was advised to always reach out and remember birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but that always felt creepy. If you have recommendations on how to stay in the good graces of people who can hire you, let us know in the comments.
On top of that, it’s relative: if you want jobs as a Production Assistant, get in good with Assistant Directors and Production Managers; if you want jobs as an Assistant Directors or Production Manager, get in good with Line Producers; if you want jobs as a Line Producer, get in good with Directors and Executive Producers. It’s a constantly moving goal post, and I have known people who worked as department heads on one production, and production assistants on their next production.
However, even if you have good relationships with people who can hire you, your options are limited. The truth is, if you can string together 40 weeks of employment a year, you’re one of the lucky ones.
2. Hollywood Favors the Rich and Middle Class
Hollywood has a lot of systemic issues. One of their issues is a dependence on free labor, in the form of interns.
I’m not exaggerating, it’s ridiculous how many companies rely on office interns, production interns, and just generally using free labor for production assistants. There was actually a whole 2013 court case on it against Fox Searchlight on the movie BLACK SWAN: https://www.propublica.org/article/unpaid-interns-win-major-ruling-in-black-swan-case-now-what
“I hope this sends a shockwave through employers who think, ‘If I call someone an intern, I don’t have to pay them,’” Eric Glatt, one of the plaintiffs, told ProPublica. “Secondarily, it should send a signal to colleges and universities who are rubber-stamping this flow of free labor into the marketplace.”
The fact that Hollywood relies on free labor means that the only people who can afford to get the best entry level positions are the rich and middle class, who are often also white men.
3. Even Office Workers Get Underpaid
This glut of labor affects every part of the industry. Even if you get one of the boring “desk jobs” at a studio or production company, they can take advantage of you. I worked for a major Hollywood studio. I won’t mention their name, let’s just call them Mountaintop Studios.
I worked for them for 6 years in a low-glamour job, managing one of their post-production offices. I used to joke, if the studio had a basement, I would be under it. However, I made myself invaluable, and I was soon managing $19 million a year in revenue. However, the studio was cheap, and because they knew they had a glut of labor waiting in the wings, they underpaid me by 20%.
I would even go so far to say that ALL studios underpay ALL their employees by 20%.
Eventually I got sick and tired of being underpaid, and I threatened to quit. After several months of contentious back and forth, my raise was approved. However, this is no Hollywood ending. Because I was being underpaid so much, it had to go to the President of the Studio Group to approve, which he did. Then it had to go to the Vice President of Human Resources for their parent company for approval, which he did not.
So, I decided I was going to quit, and go back to pursuing a career as a producer, which was my original dream.
This is where the story takes a very dark turn.
4. Nobody Cares If You’re Gone
On my last day of work at the studio, I got into an accident. Accidents were common at the studio, because management did not care about workplace safety.
Anyway, I got hit in the head with a board of wood, twice, and suffered a concussion. Now, most people get a concussion, and they’re better after a week. However, about 15% of the population develops what’s called Post Concussive Syndrome (PCS). Classified as a traumatic brain injury, PCS can stretch out the recovery time from a month, to an entire year, during which time, you can’t work. Symptoms can vary widely from person to person, but they can include headaches, nausea, and cognitive fatigue, which basically means you’re mentally there one second, and gone the next.
I was one of those 15%.
On top of that, because of how the brain regulates the body, I had a whole host of other issues where things just stopped working correctly. I had issues with hearing, sight, gallbladder, even my body stopped regulating the sodium in my blood, and I had to go to the Emergency Room twice for it. I developed PTSD as a result of the whole thing.
I tried to claim workman’s comp, but the studio hired a slimy lawyer who basically threatened me during my deposition, saying he would have a private eye follow me, and get the court to throw me in jail for “faking” my injury. I came home after a 3-hour, grueling deposition, exhausted, and I broke down crying. I realized something that day. For all my work, my film school degree, my vigorous networking, my long hours, financial hardship, none of it mattered.
Hollywood did not want me.
The studio, my colleagues, even my close Hollywood friends turned their backs on me, not even visiting or checking in to see how I was coming along.
It took me 7.5 months to recover. During that time, I got 2 job offers: one was to be a production coordinator on an indie film that wound up getting cancelled because the financier and the director had an argument; the other job offer was to produce a series of commercials for a political consultant I knew, which would have been a week’s worth of work.
2 job offers over 7.5 months. That is not financially sustainable, and I realized that Hollywood did not want me.
What makes matters worse is, during this time, all my Hollywood friends forgot about me. I mean literally forgot about me.
None of them checked on me. None of them wished me a happy birthday, nothing. In fact, during this time, one of my friends died, and my colleagues didn’t even think to tell me about it until a MONTH after the funeral.
It was obvious that Hollywood did NOT want me.
And that brings us to our final point.
5. It’s All Bullshit
During my time in Hollywood, I pitched to a lot of companies and artists, and made several great connections. One thing that I really enjoyed doing was being on the Dodge College alumni committee. I know, it’s funny considering I didn’t even graduate from there.
However, while sitting on that board, I was privy to something nobody ever told me. You remember that ranking of film schools? The one that put USC at the best film school in the world? That’s not based on academic testing, surveys, or any other form of standing in the industry. It’s based on alumni donations. This whole time, I was basing my education and my career path on the fact that USC was able to get a lot of people to give them a lot of money, and I didn’t even know it.
And most major film schools use this misconception as a way to get students to pay them huge amounts of money. One of my old screenwriting professors would tell us, “Film schools don’t sell you the steak, they sell you the sizzle.” Meaning they construct a narrative that if you attend their four-year program, you’ll be able to become the next Spielberg, and we buy into it because we want to believe that we’re special.
But the truth is, we’re not special.
Also, film school doesn’t need to be a four year program. Even Orson Welles said, “You know technically that the whole bag of movies can be learned in about a day and a half.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLf0qFckh7o
And that misalignment between what we’re sold, and what’s actually possible pervades the entire industry. Hollywood is inherently a town of dreamers and schemers. https://youtu.be/YY8gLbeRddM
Literally, Los Angeles county has millions of people who are waiters, bartenders, or accountants, but came to this town because they wanted to be someone else, and they were willing to do anything to make it happen.
And that whole time, as I was running around, pitching myself and projects, to big companies, DreamWorks, Disney, JJ Abrams’ company, etc. I kept getting the same response, “It’s a great idea, but it’s a pass for us at this time. Let us know about the next thing you’re working on.” I never sold a dam thing in Hollywood.
You know, I went to film school and self-identified as a Producer, but looking back at my IMDB, out of the first 12 years of my career, I spent only 7.5 months working as and getting paid to be a producer.
Los Angeles is the only city where you can die of encouragement.