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Sunday, May 19, 2013
Chasing the Dream...
... and paying your dues.
Film students on the cusp of graduation all across the country will doubtless resonate with the last paragraph of Benjamin Puleo's recent offering at "Delusions of Fresh Meat," a post titled Job Hunting.
"It feels shitty to not be qualified for much more than script coverage or running errands. I know I could write for something or work on a crew, but for now I'm just trying to get past the initiation -- what everyone calls "paying your dues." There's a little comfort in knowing that everyone has to start at the bottom. Everyone was in my position at some point and in that way I know I just have to work with what I've got and stifle the panic. Fingers crossed."
Most graduating film students probably feel the same way -- but trust me on this: no soon-to-be-ex-student should take it for granted that he or she has what it takes to "write for something or work on a crew." Not for money, anyway. Sure, you can write for and crew on a student film -- where neither the stakes nor the standards are particularly high -- but the film and television industry is another world altogether. Until you've been there, you have no idea what it's like.
Remember, all those writing and crew jobs in Hollywood are currently filled by professionals who have spent years learning their craft, making and maintaining contacts, and earning their place in the industry. No matter how talented you think you are, or how prestigious and expensive your film degree, as of now -- graduation day -- most of you haven't accomplished much beyond acquiring an education in the cinematic arts, and at best have a theoretical notion of how things really work in the professional arena. Any recent graduate who thinks he/she can sashay into Hollywood, make a few calls, then be snapped up and handed a job on set or in the writer's room by some sharp-eyed producer has been smoking something much too strong.
I'm not being critical here. Ignorance is neither a crime nor a personal failing, but a simple state of being -- and we've all been there. You can't know what you don't yet know, and at the moment, the vast majority of film students desperate to break into the industry have no earthly clue just how much they don't know about the reality -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- of working in the professional arena.
The good news is that it's neither brain science nor rocket surgery. All will become clear as you hack your way through the Hollywood jungle... so in the spirit of reaching out to lend a hand, I'll offer a few words of encouragement to all you students about to be forcibly expelled from the warm comfort of the collegiate womb into a cold, uncaring world.
"Life's a bitch, and then you die."
This cheerful message was inscribed on a coffee cup one of my juicers gave me while we were slaving on a low budget feature down in Mississippi some twenty-five years ago. Like all those lost years between then and now, that coffee cup is long gone with the wind, but the bitter truth of the inscription it carried lives on. Whatever path you follow through this troubled world, life really will be a bitch at times, and in the end, your reward for all that hard work fighting the good fight is the eternal void of death.
Such is the unspeakably cruel nature of life -- and all the more reason not to settle for a grim, living-death existence of oh-so-quiet desperation under the pale fluorescent glow of some soulless corporate cube farm. Given that we all end up rotting in the grave anyway, what's the point of playing it safe? You might as well chase a dream while you're still young -- because if not now, when? Dream-chasing is a lot harder to do once you hit 40. Maybe it'll work out and maybe it won't, but pursuing that dream will teach you a lot about life and your place in the world. Besides, if push finally does come to shove on the Dream Chase, you can always back off the throttle to settle into a more financially stable groove. That's a very tough decision, but there's no shame in it -- life is an inherently unpredictable endeavor during which your circumstances can change on a dime. There are lots of ways to participate in the film-making process and make a decent living.
In the end, life will teach you what you really want and need -- all you have to do is pay attention and learn how to listen.
Just have some fun chasing your dream first. With enough talent, drive, and a little luck, you might catch it... but if the dream does eludes your grasp, at least you gave it a shot. That alone is worthy of respect, and will minimize your regrets later on down the line -- and believe me, we all accumulate our share of regrets as the years pile on. You'll make plenty of mistakes, but that's the price of a ticket to ride. The trick is to absorb your mistakes and learn from them, then keep moving forward.
So once the ceremony concludes on that fine Spring day in the very near future, toss your mortarboard in the air and cast the graduation gown aside. Go out and enjoy a kick-ass party to celebrate, then when you wake up the next morning with your stomach doing back-flips and head pounding like a pile-driver, understand that the sun now shines over a very different landscape. The prelims are over, and it's time for the main event that will be your life.
It's a brand new day.
And now a tip from the trenches...
The dirty little secret of Hollywood is that "paying your dues" has never been a one-time expenditure of sweat, groveling, and humiliation. You can't just pay your dues like an initiation fee and be done with it -- the world doesn't work that way. The hard truth is, you'll be making regular payments towards your industry dues for as long as your career lasts. "Paying your dues" is just a catch-phrase to describe the arduous task of proving yourself worthy, and if there will be occasional pauses in the flogging -- during which you can relax to enjoy the view ever so briefly -- never forget that there's always another beating waiting around the next corner. You'll have to prove yourself worthy over and over again on the way up and on the way back down the slippery slope of Hollywood suck-cess.
The struggle never stops. Never. Whatever path you choose to follow, the moment you stop making a serious, committed effort in this business is the day your career begins the slow fade to black. Above and below-the-line, Hollywood remains a dog-eat-dog world where there's always someone younger, smarter, stronger, and cheaper straining at the leash to take your job.
And if you let them, they will.
The first thing you should do (if you haven't already) is read this piece from Cracked.com. The Anonymous Production Assistant posted a link to it several months ago, and the lessons therein are invaluable for every young person dreaming of a career in the film and television industry. And if you have read it, read it again -- it's all true. Just remember, there's a reason TAPA called it "either the most inspiring or most depressing thing you will read all year."
It's a little of both.
The truth is powerful stuff, and although it can hurt sometimes (this being one of those times), in the end it will serve you well. The sooner you wise up to the reality of this world, the better off you'll be. Like every scared puppy, you won't like having your nose rubbed in this shit right now, but in five years, you'll be glad it happened
Or not. Either way, I'll be dead or retired by then, with this blog a ghost drifting on the digital wind in the unfathomable void of cyberspace. If you want a career in the film/television world -- above or below the figurative line -- you'll have to carve it out for yourself. Nobody else can (or will) do it for you, so get your idealistic young asses in gear and make it happen.
Take Ben's words to heart: "Everyone was in my position at some point, and in that way I know I just have to work with what I've got and stifle the panic."
Those are apt marching orders. Given that you've all got plenty to work with -- you're young, smart, and (hopefully...) willing to work very hard for a very long time -- it's time to stifle the panic and start chasing that dream.