Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Leap of Faith

                          Should I Stay or Should I Go?*
   When that bird in the hand is no longer worth two in the bush...

While toiling as a Best Boy on a low-budget, non-union, flat-rate feature in Mississippi long ago, one of my juicers gave me a coffee cup embossed with the following quote: “Life’s a bitch and then you die.”  The whole crew had a good laugh, but there was a bitter grain of truth at the bottom of that cup, particularly while working six long, sweaty days each week followed by one very short Sunday off.  Location features are always hard, but wherever you are in your career or on the Industry food chain, this is a tough business -- and for those young people trying to gain a toehold in the biz, it's particularly hard.
I was reminded of this while reading a lively discussion sparked by a recent post from The Anonymous Production Assistant over the question of when to turn down a job at the usual grind (in TAPA's case, working as a PA) and wait for a better opportunity (more money, added responsibility, and another rung up the shit-stained ladder of Hollywood suck-cess) that might – or might not -- materialize.

Is that no-respect, low-paying-but-comfortably-familiar bird in the hand really better than two maybe-yes-maybe-no birds merrily chirping away out there in the smoggy Hollywood bush?

It depends on who you are, your own personal circumstances, and just which dream you're chasing.  Deciding whether to sit tight in whatever tenuously-safe-but-unsatisfying little niche you currently inhabit or make a leap of faith that could help you move up can be a difficult decision -- one that might increase the tension between personal and professional ambitions.  If raising a family is on your agenda, the time may come when you'll have to choose between your professional dreams and hard reality of making a decent living.  This is particularly true for those with big dreams of becoming writers, directors, and/or producers.  There is no real road map or tried-and-proven path to such elusive goals.  You'll just have to wing it and hope for the best... but life out there in that yes/no/maybe void where smiling faces and empty promises are the unbankable coin of the realm isn't going to be easy.  Some people write scripts and take meetings for twenty years with nothing tangible to show for their efforts, while others hit the Hollywood lottery and score with their first serious pitch.  You just never know, and that's the bitch of it.  But unless you’re prepared to remain mired in a rut until you age-out as an utterly miserable 40-something PA twenty years from now – in which case your reluctance to take a risk will have doomed your entire career -- you’ll have to make that leap of faith sometime. There’s just no avoiding it.

Like your Dad always said; "If you don't make your own decisions, they'll get made for you."

Embarking on a Hollywood career has never been for the faint of heart – this isn’t the place for anyone whose default setting is to play it safe. If a secure and predictable career is what you need from life, then you may as well stay home and find some other path far from the chaos of the film and television industry. But those who do come here should be prepared to roll the dice -- and the question isn’t whether you'll have to make that leap of faith, but when.

You've got to be smart about it, though.  If you jump before you’re ready to succeed at that new job, the taint of failure from the subsequent belly-flop can linger in your own head and among those who witness your own personal Hindenburg moment. But if a little fear of failure is healthy -- prodding you to do everything possible in preparing for new opportunities -- too much can paralyze and hold you back. Since most of us experience failure at one point or another (often several times), learning to absorb the lessons and move on is an essential survival skill for every free-lancer. The truth is, most of us who hammered out careers above or below-the-line in Hollywood were able to learn from our failures, emerging smarter, stronger, and better-equipped for the next opportunity.  That may sound like a cliche, but it's true.

The Hollywood road is harder than ever nowadays. With the Industry in the midst of an ongoing digital revolution, the ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting. The old ways don’t always work anymore, requiring fresh approaches across the boards. The resulting churn creates new opportunities, but most brand-newbies fresh from college haven’t had a chance to learn about real-world Hollywood yet, much less how to take advantage of the new and ever-evolving rules of the road.

I think another factor is the sheer glut of degree-holding wannabes desperate to get a break and start their own Industry careers.  A quick Google search of "film schools" turned up an astonishingly long list world-wide, with at least 180 private or public school film programs in the United States alone.  When I was in college, USC, UCLA, and NYU were the Big Three, and although there were certainly many smaller serious film schools at the time, I can't believe there was anything close to 180.  Back then -- spurred to an extent by the electrifying effect Easy Rider had on youth culture -- studying film was only just beginning to become popular in schools, but wasn't yet viewed as a practical career choice by so many young people lacking any family connections to the biz.  Many of the small crop of film school grads were able to get their professional start with Roger Corman or one the other small, low-budget feature production companies around at the time, most of which are long gone. 

With all those those film schools pumping out a flood of eager young graduates every year -- each hoping to succeed in an industry that can't possibly absorb them all -- it's no wonder so many smart, highly-educated young people have a hard time landing a paid entry-level job as a Production Assistant.  I was neither highly-educated nor particularly smart, but due to more favorable conditions (read: less competition) at the time, my own stint working for free only lasted a few weeks.  Nowadays, I hear of young people taking job after job working for nothing in their effort to get started, and many of these kids arrived in Hollywood dragging the ball-and-chain of big, fat student loans.

This is not a sustainable situation, which means something, somewhere, will have to give.

Unless Hollywood enjoys a dramatic upsurge in local production, the only way the pressure will ease is through a shift on the other end of the supply/demand equation. I suspect that may happen as the impractical reality of going deeply into debt for a film degree begins to sink in among the undergrad ranks. Incurring a huge debt load for medical school is one thing (a doctor can always get a job), but you’d better be one supremely talented whiz kid to justify borrowing a hundred thousand dollars for a degree in film. Rolling the dice on a career in Hollywood – above or below-the-line – is a path that should be taken only by those who see no other viable options in life.

Those recent grads now trying to make the best of a bad situation might be better off avoiding Hollywood altogether in going to where the jobs really are – and there’s a ton of television and feature production happening in the southeast these days. That spells opportunity. It won’t be easy, but breaking into this business has always been hard, and that’s not about to change. If Hollywood turns into a dead-end for you, then you might have to make adjustments in your expectations and career strategies.  As a piece in the LA Times recently pointed out, some Hollywood dreamers have had to go very far away to make their cinematic dreams come true, but that's been the story of humankind since we first marched out of  Africa -- when things don't work out here, we pack up and go somewhere else to roll the dice.

The best and brightest (along with the most-determined and best-connected) usually find a way to succeed in Hollywood and beyond, but not every Industry wannabe has all of that going for him-or-her.  The rest will need to keep their minds open and their eyes on all potential options -- and be ready to make the leap of faith when their time comes.

I don't mean to discourage brand-new film school grads. Indeed, I wish you all the best of luck as you prepare to enter the glittering charnel house of Hollywood.  Although life sometimes will be a bitch, and you certainly will wind up dead in the end, there's a lot of work to do and fun to be had in the meantime -- and if things aren't working out here, then maybe you should follow that soft southern breeze towards opportunity.

Go south, young grad, go south...

* With apologies to The Clash


Phillip Jackson said...

It's always great to read your perspective on all of this.

JB Bruno said...

Another great post, and the points about whatever clarity the path once held is gone in the digital world. I have a very bright woman who worked for me who is at that crossroads now - she went from production managing and coordinating with me on small projects to office pa and then APOC on bigger projects. The latter has brought her more security but is hardly the intellectual challenge she needs. We've talked back and forth, but there is no definitive answer. I made the decision a long time ago to be a big fish in a very small pond rather than the alternative. Practically, it seems like a bad decision, but for me, it was the only one, and I'd make it again. I was never a good follower and always needed the challenge. Each has to make their own decisions, and there are no guarantees.

Penny said...

I must say that I agree with you Michael. I tried having two "real" jobs (9 to 5) in the "real" world of being in offices at Art Galleries where the appearance of creativity had a chance - as did my bank account. But I couldn't shake the feeling of being a caged animal at the zoo...

To thine ownself be true.

Michael Taylor said...

Phil --

Glad to hear it -- and thanks for taking the time to tune in...

JB --

I'm not sure where practicality enters the film-and-television biz equation -- in some ways, the whole Industry is hopelessly impractical -- so your approach makes as much sense as any. And more importantly, it works for you. I think we're all wandering through the digital fog these days. By the time it finally lifts, I'll probably be collecting social security. But I'll still be watching with interest...

Penny --

I hear you. 9-to-5 sounds more like a prison sentence than a shift schedule...

C.B. said...

I've been in the industry for a while but I recently went from post to production and I do sometimes feel like I am a film grad. It's an odd feeling with the knowledge I've had for many years but in this case the digital revolution is helping. At first it was like going from high end delivery to the stations to creating indie projects and having to learn everything, doing as much as I could on my own. I would take very much at heart a "failure" in figuring out depth of field, lighting and the sorts, but I've learned to see life through the eyes of a graduate, although I never went to film school.
One thing for sure, nothing ever stays the same, the only path to follow is your own heart, even if it leads you far away.
I must be a little crazy.

Michael Taylor said...

CB --

Maybe we're all a little crazy to be in this business in the first place, but here we are. Still, when you do what you've gotta do -- whatever the reason or motivation -- you owe nobody an explanation... except the face in the mirror.