Breaking into the Entertainment Business

Introduction

There’s something insidious about the breaking into the entertainment business. Glim and glamour lure like praying mantis pheromones, secreted in heat, right before the female lops the top and dines on dome.  Nor can the heist be accomplished remotely; stories of landing The Break via telecommuting from Akron, Ohio are far and few between. The general consensus is to make something of yourself in this business, make the trip to Tinsel Town.

Put out or get out.

Put up or shut up.

Then you move out to Los Angeles, the Ellis Island for wannabe Entourages and Starlets, only to discover location is just about the only thing anyone managed to agree upon. If It is going to happen, it’ll happen in this city, but how? Or when? No one’s got a clue of what the next best step is. No one comes armed like a guidance counselor with a fluorescent Career Flow Chart, stepping stones attributed with useless annotation like, “Score 30 points or above on the MCAT,” or “Do research.” The only thing you can count on is this: you’re here. Here in one of the most expensive, overpriced, and image-conscious cities in the world, and your plan is to join the ranks of the rich and famous with no money, no connections, and no job.

(This is written under the assumption, of course, most of us set out to Los Angeles with limited financial means. We’re not benefactors of a sudden windfall, or the recipient of a surprise inheritance from Great-Aunt Sally. We are not Trust Fund Babies. We’re not Daddy’s Girls. We haven’t established consistent passive revenue, nor do we know what an IPO stands for.)

It’s a razor thin tight-rope we’re tip-toeing across, as we juggle flesh-tearing chainsaws; a precarious balancing act with no end in sight, unless we count the plunge into the chasm on either side of us. To our right, the Abyss that threatens those who live and die without pursing the Dream. To the left looms destitution; grasping after the almighty dollar and coming up empty handed. At the start, these two forces work in direct contradiction with one another.

Here’s the lay: you came here for a reason; to pursue your passion, to make art. But your art isn’t going to pay the rent, not for a while, maybe not ever. So you must make that cash money, which only sucks the passion out of the art you moved out here to create. It’s a twisted, sadistic cycle; yet there are thousands of stories of how others carried out the juggling act, each one as unlikely as the next. They all break down to making one of two choices:

The Plunge

Go after the industry job on Day One. You have X dollars banked, and Y expenses, so you’ll last Z number of days, and before Z reaches zero, you best get paid. They are plenty of ways to do it. Each and every one of them is a gamble, so which do you pursue?

Find work as a script reader?

Get an internship with a small talent agency? Or hump postage rates and flat rate boxes in the mail room?

Use Mandy, Hollywood Temp Diaries, or Craigslist to take on free PA gigs until they realize you’re too valuable not to pay?

Sneak onto a set, beg to be allowed to fetch coffee for the honchos in charge?

Become a personal assistant for a Big Wig?

It takes a great deal for this methodology to work: the ability to hustle hard and fast; nerves of steel, unaffected by the ticking clock and dwindling bank account; a large cash reserve; unshakable confidence that no matter the excuses or unemployment rate or odds against otherwise, you will be one of the fortunate few who make it.

You’ll struggle, but there’s something to be said about this methodology: you’re doing it. You left home to work in the business, and though you’re no star just yet, you’re closer than before. You’re networking, and getting a look at the industry you’d never get back home.

Toe in the Water

Mike McDermott nailed it when he rose from the green felt in Teddy KGB’s lair:  “That’s a safe play.” And you know what? After such a huge, initial risk, there’s zero shame in making the safe play. The “all-in” move is a powerful one, but only when executed at the proper time. You don’t whip it out every hand.

This methodology serves those without a large cash reserve, or prefer the semblance of stability in their lives. Don’t overlook stability. You’re in for an avalanche of rejection, but if your house is in order, you’ll weather the storm. Trying to do it while perched on a tectonic fault, on the other hand, and you’re asking to get eaten alive.

Find work to cover the rent, even if it doesn’t accelerate you towards your goals. Serving, bartending, working retail, whatever you can find that extends your stay another day, week, month. You never know who you’ll meet in the service industry, or where they’ll lead you. And contrary to popular belief, hating your day job isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. Reeking of the oil and grease that stowed away in your sweater’s cotton fibers, or staring at your uniform’s vomit-palette, reminds you what you’re trying to escape, and motivates you to keep working.

According to David Horvath, it’s finding a job you enjoy that is the real “dream killer.” Catching after-shift drinks. Seeking out the company of co-workers on the weekend. You become complacent when you must be hungry. You sit on your heels instead of doing what you should be doing – with any free time – working on your art, or networking to better position yourself in the industry.

Remember this: Toe in the Water was a better decision for you, but security has its price. There are loads of others who took The Plunge instead. All the hustle they’re doing at their nine to five, the networking, the education, the grunt work, you must accomplish in your free time.

Be sure you finish your scripts, sign up for the improve class, and make your own movies.

Read.

Establish yourself in the city.

You’ve got your work cut out for you.

How Do You Choose Your Path?

Revisit the most important question you asked yourself before moving to Los Angeles: Why are you out here?

Another way of putting it: what’s the ultimate goal?

Keep an eye on the prize, and you’ll know which path to take. It might surprise you, but once you’ve decided, stick to it. There’ll be countless distractions, hundreds of little hands tugging your limbs in directions foreign to Yoga instructors. Ultimately, you’re the one responsible for staying your own course.

Shoulder of Giants

Some reading material, for those interested in how others are getting their start in the entertainment business:

How to Break into the Film Industry by Brian Lee

Part Two by Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer

Starting Out in Hollywood by Adam Davis

So You’re Moving to Hollywood by George Sloan

Sidebar: My Self-Deception

Photo Credit: MagiktouchMonna

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