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Sunday, June 23, 2013
"Bird in Hand" by Rogene Manas
If my recent posts on the subject of brand-newbies entering the real world of Hollywood (with the term "Hollywood" serving as shorthand for the film/television business wherever it exists in the U.S.) have taken the form of tough-love, bitch-slap truth-telling to the current crop of dewey-eyed cinema students still nursing their post-graduation hangovers, this week brings some cautionary tales to demonstrate how easily things can go wrong in this town -- or at least not nearly as right as you'd hope.
Again, this is not meant to discourage young people about to embark on their industry careers, but simply to note how tricky it can be to make all the right moves and succeed in this crazy business. Although an occasional lucky soul strides into town blessed with the Midas Touch of talent and good timing, the vast majority of hopefuls arrive much like the killer robot portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first "Terminator" movie -- landing in LA naked, with no contacts, and in immediate need of clothing.
In the case of Hollywood newbies, "clothing" equates to their first industry job.
Where the Terminator enjoyed the immense power of futuristic robotic technology in the quest to achieve its goals in LA, most newbies come to Hollywood much as I did, armed with a paper sword in the form of a useless college degree, a couple of phone numbers, a head full of ignorance, and a heart full of hope. They face daunting odds.
Once the formative, anything-goes era of Hollywood came to a close early in the 20th Century, the industry erected high walls to keep people out. This seemed terribly unfair to me when I was young and on the outside looking in, but experience and the passage of time broadened my perspective, and now I see a method to the apparent madness of such barriers. High walls topped with razor wire ensure that only those with sufficient drive and motivation will succeed in making it up and over, while the rest -- unlucky, or perhaps just more easily discouraged -- are turned away to find another path through life. In a perfect world where Unicorns fart rainbows, every Hollywood dreamer would have his/her career wishes come true... but that world does not exist. In the long run, it's better for those who lack the requisite motivation to find out early that Hollywood really isn't for them, rather than waste the best years of their lives before finally confronting the bitter truth.
Given the high barriers to entry, the first job is usually the hardest to get, but it's just one step on a long journey that will probably include a few detours along the way. However you choose to define it, progress rarely comes in a smooth, linear manner in this town, and often depends on luck, timing, and making the right decision based on woefully incomplete information. A job or opportunity that sounds rock-solid can evaporate overnight due to factors far beyond your control. You can't assume any offer is for real until you're on the job, and even then there's no certainty how things will turn out.
I recently ran into a PA I'd met a couple of years ago, who told me quite a tale of woe. Having landed a decent PA gig on a TV show last year, she was feeling pretty good. The money was nothing to write home about, and the daily commute rather long, but at least she had a steady job for the season and was making new contacts while getting an up-close view of the inner workings on a big production.
Then her phone rang, dangling an offer for a job on another show of equal stature with the same basic responsibilities, better pay, and the added bonus of a much shorter drive that would shave a full hundred miles off her weekly commute. At four bucks-and-change per gallon, the savings in gas alone would add up -- and as Founding Father/bespectacled sage Ben Franklin liked to remind us, money saved is just as good as money earned.
This sounded like a no-brainer, but deciding to bail on one show for a better opportunity can be a very tough call. Bottom-up loyalty means a lot in such an unstable industry, where the web of connections nurtured all the way through the early stages of your career forms the wings that keep you aloft -- and if like Icarus, you sail too close to the sun, those wings can fall apart in an instant, sending you into the gut-churning horror of free fall.
I've been there, and it's not a good place to be.
But there are only so many ways to move up the ladder in a business where the ability to recognize and willingness to grasp a good opportunity is a crucial survival skill. Otherwise you could remain a PA forever -- and believe me, nobody wants to be a 40 year old production assistant.
With the words "carpe diem" echoing through her head, the PA made her leap of faith. She took the new job, and for three weeks it was a smart move... but the Gods of Hollywood are cruel, fickle bastards who don't care a whit about the hopes and dreams of their puny human underlings. When some VIP far up the show's food chain decided that his nephew should have a job, the young man became a "must hire," meaning that the production manager had to find him a slot on the show. To make room, he fired the most recent hire.
And guess who that was?
Suddenly unemployed, she was well and truly screwed. Her old job had long since been filled, of course, so now she had nothing at all -- and with the television season well underway, there was little chance of a job opening up on another show. Five days a week, month after month, she had to wake up every morning to a bitter cup of self-inflicted remorse. Not only was she back to living on the low-budget gruel of unemployment checks, but she may well have burned a bridge by bailing on that job, with nothing good to show for it.
This was a harsh lesson, but what was she supposed to do? With no way of knowing how it would play out, she had to make a decision whether or not to take a seemingly better job based on the information available at the time. That's all anybody can do, and sometimes it just doesn't work out. The truth is, all of us in Hollywood ride atop a slippery bubble that can burst at any time. There is no job security, period. It's the nature of the beast.
Although there are murky lessons to be drawn from her experience, I wonder how she'll apply them in the future. Will she be more cautious about making another leap of faith, or still be willing to roll the dice and pray that everything works out for the best -- and either way, how will this affect her ability to advance her career?
Time will tell.
As it happens, that PA's goal is to become a paid member of the writing staff on a show. Many of the PAs I've talked with over the past few years share her desire to become professional writers, and one time-tested route to a chair in the Writer's Room is to become a writer's assistant. As I've heard it (and my understanding is incomplete at best), a writer's assistant sits in the room as long as the writers are there, taking notes during brainstorming sessions as the scripts are developed. In this case, familiarity can breed acceptance rather than contempt, and as a writer's assistant gains the confidence of the room, he or she may be allowed to toss ideas into the communal writing pot. Eventually, that kind of thing can lead to a real writing gig.
On the last season of my current show, the writer's assistant made that quantum leap all W. A.'s dream about -- he wrote (and recieved full pay and credit for) the season-ending episode. He was even introduced to the live studio audience with the director after the actors at curtain call. This was a huge moment for him, and I was glad to see it happen. So when the show made a Lazarus-like return from the dead for Season Three, I fully expected to see him back on the show as a full-fledged member of the writing staff... and sure enough, there he was on the first week of production, pencil and script in hand, foraging at the craft service table.
"How's it feel to finally make the writing staff?" I asked.
"I didn't," he replied.
"But you wrote the season finale -- how can you not be on the staff?"
He shook his head. "I wish I could answer that."
"What happened?" I persisted.
"I didn't work for a long time," he shrugged. "They offered me the assistant job again, so I took it."
I was stunned. If ever a writer's assistant had earned his way into that room, this was the guy. But justice is a rare and fleeting commodity here in Hollywood, where the logic behind each and every move can be opaque at the best of times. Sometimes, even when you do everything right, you still get hosed -- a lesson I've had to learn time and again.
So beware, all you newbies entering this bright and shiny labyrinth -- here there be dragons and hippogriffs, and things are not always as they seem...