How does one break into the entertainment industry from a dorm room in the northeast?
March 13, 2006 12:19 AM   Subscribe

How does one break into the entertainment industry from a dorm room in the northeast?

I want to write/direct for television or cinema. I am a college student (first-year) at a "premier" northeastern liberal arts college, which does not educate its students in vocational work (e.g. finance, film, business administration). The film classes I've taken (2) have been through the English department. I will probably end up majoring in English/Political Science.

So, what can I do to explore this career? Sometimes I fear it's all about who you know, or being in the heart of it all (i.e. Hollywood). Is there a place I can submit some of my pieces? Any advice in respect to "grassroot" efforts? Internship opportunities? Post college advice?

Also, what are the caveats of going down this road? Income isn't a major issue, but I would like to maintain a healthy living standard. I know I could pursue something else but I feel very passionate about this means of expression.

Thanks in advance.
posted by jne1813 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The advice I can give: make movies. Write them. Direct them. Film them. Spend your life savings on a decent camera (if your college doesn't give you access to one). Submit them to film festivals. This will help you network with people in the business, or who will be in the business later. I don't think your major matters as much as your commitment will.
posted by muddgirl at 12:42 AM on March 13, 2006

Do as much work as you can locally: local theater groups, improv troupes, video production companies, student film organizations, etc. Write. Go to open-mike nights and try your stuff out, if you're doing comedy. Get a video camera and play around with it. Go to film festivals around your area, and chat people up. Write more. Apply for internships. Learn the software. Be prepared to have doors slammed in your face, and be ready to keep knocking. Nothing happens overnight, just keep plugging away at it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:47 AM on March 13, 2006

You can cross-register at another college in order to take film/writing classes that your school doesn't offer. Also instructive might be offering your scripts to directing students at schools with film programs -- seeing their resulting films would be great insight into your writing.
posted by xo at 12:57 AM on March 13, 2006

Make a video and add it to Google video, seems to be a very fast way to get noticed.
posted by lowster11 at 3:46 AM on March 13, 2006

Take a course on your own in film editing or sound recording. Volunteer to work for independant film makers as an editor or sound person - they always need help, and they always work on each others' projects simultaneously. You'll get to watch how projects go from concept to production to film festival to distributor. Takes a couple of years, but it is all about personal connections.
posted by zaelic at 4:04 AM on March 13, 2006

You can cross-register at another college in order to take film/writing classes that your school doesn't offer.

That's the right idea. Are you at Amherst College? Searching on the Five College Course Catalog for "film" brings up a lot of courses at UMass and Hampshire that you might find useful or enjoy. That's what the PVTA is for!
posted by puffin at 4:27 AM on March 13, 2006

Many years ago I made a fansite for my favourite music channel, which got the attention of everyone in the channel. Today I'm working for them as a scriptwriter and production assistant.

Don't be afraid of being unusual. It is largely a "who you know" thing, but getting to know these people isn't as hard as it may seem.
posted by divabat at 4:28 AM on March 13, 2006

Breaking into the entertainment industry at your age is a perfectly reasonable thing to accomplish. A few comments...

Innovation. Find your own way in through the skills and the passions that you already possess. Take an auxiliary course or two through one of your local art institutes. Or, conversely, make some friends who are students there, and get involved with their projects. Don't wait for someone to create the opportunity for you, because they won't. Besides, from a hiring perspective, nothing is more attractive than someone who has a proven dedication to their own vision, regardless of whether they had the proper means to pull it off or not.

Internships. Internships can be great things. Never again will you have the opportunity to be handed such a high-level and well-rounded exposure to a field you love. Either apply to intern at an actual film company or volunteer for a nonprofit organization that has its hands in creating films or video pieces. Some underground theater and performance groups around town may have film-based initiatives, or at the very least they may know where to look.

Persistence. This is where my hard-learned experience comes in. If you get down this road a ways, and you find yourself in a position to accept a job doing what you truly, truly love, even if it's for less pay than you'd like, STAY WITH IT. Don't let the short-term hardships sway you from your passion if you can help it. Things may get hard, times may get lean, or they may not. But, trust me, no financially secure office job can ever make up for the thrill of having a life in the art that drives you. And in the longer run, it may start paying better financial dividends to equal all the artistic ones.
posted by mykescipark at 4:52 AM on March 13, 2006

For now, don't worry too much about making contacts. Worry about getting good enough so that, when you do make contacts, you'll have something impressive to show them.

In other words:

Make a short film. Make another. Make another.

As a college student, you have a huge variety of resources available to you that you will never get again. There are student actors on campus who will work for free, and you'll have easy access to free locations, and you can probably borrow costumes and props from student theater groups. On top of that, there's a good chance that your school will have a decent digital camera you can borrow, and computers you can use to edit the film.

Submit your short films to festivals. Chris Gore's Film Festival Survival Guide will help you find festivals to submit to. Odds are that your first film won't be good enough to get into most festivals, but the more you make, the better you will get.

Also consider trying to get a show on either Channel 101 or Channel 102. Odds are that you won't be good enough to do so off the bat, but, again, the more you try, the better you'll get.

Oh, and one other bit of advice: do NOT rack up major credit card debt while you're in college. DO get in the habit of living as frugally as you can. The odds are good that, when you graduate, you'll be doing low-paying entry-level work for several years--possibly a decade or longer. The longer you can last, the greater your odds of getting your big break; and the more slowly you run through money, the longer you can last.

Once you graduate, move to LA. You can theoretically start a film career from elsewhere in the US, but it'll be much, much harder. In LA, you'll be surrounded by people who live, eat, and breath film. You'll pick up experience and knowledge just by talking to people at parties. Plus, you'll be more likely to encounter aspiring actors, editors, cinematographers, etc, who will help you make more short films.

The question of what you should do for a living in LA is a tricky one. For somebody who is interested in TV, it is a great idea to take pretty much ANY job that gets you in the door, even if you're just making copies/fetching coffee. I think fetching coffee is a little less useful for an aspiring film person--but since you're interested in both, I'd encourage you to try to get a job as a writers' assistant or a production assistant on a TV show. I started off as a writer's assistant, and that led to a staff writing job.

As for caveats: be prepared for a LOT of uncertainty. I moved to LA in 1995 to try to get work as a writer. I didn't get my first writing gig until late 1999. Then, from 1999-2002, I was a staff writer on a multiple-Emmy-winning TV show. I had two Writers Guild of America Award nominations, and I won one.

I'm not trying to brag--I'm just trying to establish that my career seemed to be going pretty well. But then, for close to two full years, I had a really bad cold streak. My agent dumped me; I began to wonder if I would ever get paid to write again. Then, for no visible reason, I suddenly had a hot streak and got a ton of work. Now most of that work is wrapping up, and I'm starting to get nervous again.

I made things harder on myself by leaving Los Angeles and moving to another country (long story), but it's a crazy and unpredictable business for everybody. A friend of mine who has four Emmy nominations and two Emmy wins -- an absolutely brilliant writer -- gave the whole thing up a few years ago because she was just fed up with the uncertainty.
posted by yankeefog at 6:03 AM on March 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

A few of my friends have had good luck with the paid internship at Sony Pictures. They pay 20-24k a year, which ain't bad for an intern. Two of my friends still work there after 5 years, one as an editor and one as marketing coordinator.
posted by ryanissuper at 8:56 AM on March 13, 2006

Hi, I might as well free-ride on this post--

(1) What's the best DV camera to buy within reasonable price constraints?

(2) Is film school worth going to? Everyone just says to spend the tuition money on making a 90 minute film.

Also see:
posted by kensanway at 9:43 AM on March 13, 2006

transfer to emerson.
posted by rschroed at 10:16 AM on March 13, 2006

Perhaps not helpful, but transfer to Wesleyan. They have perhaps the best undergraduate theory program, but you can also do production. More importantly, you can make contacts. It's going to be very difficult to break in without having any real undergrad experience.
Even better, transfer to a school that has very strong production. I can only think of NYU in the Northeast, but I'm sure there are others.
posted by ohio at 10:31 AM on March 13, 2006

Wow -- there's just so much here. First thing's first - don't worry about majoring in film. Plenty of people who work in film weren't film majors. Totally doesn't matter. Also, while Hollywood (like every other business) is about who you know, it isn't that hard to get to know people. Moving here (after school) will help, as will being outgoing. When I moved here I knew no one. Not so true now. It can be done.

You're years away from the time when you need to start thinking about 'making it' in Hollywood. Some things to put in your head right now -- you'll need to decide what you want to do. It's a big industry. Wanna be a film exec? Wanna be a producer? Wanna be creative? You mention writing and directing. That's a decent start, and I'd say 80% of the people in the business start off thinking like you.

Now you need to build some taste. Figure out what you like. You probably already have an idea of your favorite movies, now's the time to watch everything (past and present, high and low, classics and programmers) to get a feel for what floats your boat outside your comfort zone. Maybe you didn't know you had a passion for Danish Outsider Cinema. If you're really interested in writing, then start taking some creative writing classes. If there's a program for creative writing at your school (I know my college had a program you had to apply to get in to), take it. Start writing, doesn't matter what, and start thinking about story when you're watching all those movies.

There are a couple of ways to go here... You can do the short film thing or you can just keep on writing. This is entirely dependent on where you want to end up and if short films are really your thing. What short films can give you is a little mini-film school of your own. It's a great idea, but my own biases tend away from shorts. I get real tired real quick of that world, but that's just me. I also think while they're a good way to learn the technical aspects of making a movie, they aren't quite that for the narrative aspects of cinema. I made a short and tore my hair out and went back to writing scripts, which made me much happier. No one ever saw the short. Plenty of people saw those scripts. S'all I'm saying.

As for post-college advice, this'll depend on your taste in movies and where you want to end up. If you want to get into the studio world, move to Hollywood. If you're interested in independent film, then either LA or NYC. Some claim that you can make it 'anywhere.' They're right -- you can. But your chances increase exponentially when you move to Los Angeles. And if you want to work in TV, then you have no choice.

Yankee is right -- film is a tough business with no stability. That doesn't mean much to you now, but when you're thirty it will. If you aren't committed, you'll get chewed up by this town, and I've seen many people I thought would do anything to succeed just get beaten to a pulp. You'll never know if you don't try, though, but if you can see yourself doing something else, then for god's sake, do it. Those internships everyone's talking about will give you a good idea of what the business is really about. And it is, by the way, a business. I'd even take some business classes, an accounting class or two, a marketing class, just to get prepared.

Kensanway, film school is worth it in that it's a place where you go make films. It's concentrated time where you do nothing but devote yourself to learning the craft. Some people get a lot out of it, some don't, but I think it depends on your attitude going into it and your choice of school. I wouldn't go into debt to get my MA in film, but if I had the time and money hanging around, I'd think about it.
posted by incessant at 10:52 AM on March 13, 2006

Do a summer program at New York Film Academy. They have campuses all over the world.

See if you can get hired doing bitchwork on a local movie. Look for signs, talk to people, look on Craigslist. Even if you don't get paid you'll meet a bunch of people.
posted by radioamy at 11:06 AM on March 13, 2006

You say you want to write/direct. And you don't mention whether you want to make films or TV shows. I think you should pick one of the two and concentrate on it alone, for now. You will also need to figure out your preferred genre (procedural drama? quirky post-modern comedy? teen angst? romantic comedy?). And then you'll need to write your script (for movies) or a "spec script" (for TV) in that style. That's the thing you're going to shop around, to get you noticed and, hopefully, get you an agent.

For example, if you want to write quirky comedies for TV, then you might want to write a spec script--meaning a sample episode--of "Gilmore Girls". If courtroom drama is your thing, write an episode of one of the "Law and Order" spin-offs. Now here's the thing: you don't write a spec script for the show you want to apply to! Meaning, if your dream is to get on the writing staff at "King of Queens", you don't write a spec script of "King of Queens". That's because legally they can't take a look at your work, so they won't get accused of stealing your ideas. Instead, you would write an episode of a show that is structurally and thematically similar, like "Everybody Loves Raymond", and show that script to "King of Queens".

You will need to move to LA. You will need another form of income (parents, spouse, insurance settlement, stripping, etc.) for many years, because it is very, very hard to break into the business, and getting harder all the time. Hollywood writers and especially TV writers have changed a lot over the past thirty years. My father-in-law is a writer in the biz; he started in TV and later moved to screenwriting. He came out to LA over thirty years ago, from a lower-middle-class family in Queens, and lived in his car briefly, all to make his dreams come true. And it happened for him, in a big way. But he is slightly appalled at what he calls the "professionalization" of TV writing, at how competitive it is, how businessy instead of creative it's gotten. A college dropout like him may not have gotten hired today, even though he's one of the most intelligent and widely-read people I've ever met, because there's big money to be made in TV now, and people are getting snobby. And of course everyone in the family (his brother and two cousins work or worked in the biz too) hates the rise of reality TV, because it cuts out the need for writers!

Other things to think about: a lot of writers these days get their start at a college humor magazine. The Harvard Lampoon is a notorious feeder for "The Simpsons" staff--which goes back to whole snobby "professionalization" of writers thing--and other college humor magazines are well read in the young Hollywood community, especially among young agent-wannabes looking for talent to nurture. My husband and his writing partner--also now Hollywood writers--were co-editors of the Penn humor magazine. His younger brother (who also wants to be a writer someday--the whole family's got the bug!) is at Berkeley and works at their humor magazine, and he and his co-writers have gotten scouted.

Finally, I suggest you study English or Communications or Politics, or some mix of them. Take as many film and TV criticism classes as you can. But way more importantly, read a lot of books (and graphic novels), watch a lot of TV and movies. Read both professional and fan criticism, whether it's Pauline Kael or the Television Without Pity website forums. Figure out what it is you love about entertainment, and grab hold of that. Because once you get out here, it is going to be tough and you will have a lot of identity crises and you will very quickly start to compromise the things you want to create.

And good luck! My e-mail's in my profile if you want to talk more.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:17 PM on March 13, 2006

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