Inside or out?
Regardless of your career goals -- whether you strive to become a grip or a director -- there are really only two roads to Hollywood: from inside or outside. Either you're born into the business via family/friend connections or you're not, and there are pluses and minuses to each path.
Although the doors of Hollywood swing open much easier for those connected through the web of family and friends, getting that push-start is no guarantee of success. You still have to learn the job, whatever it is, and become good at it -- or else somebody else with more fire in their belly will take your place. Still, most of those who grew up in the biz walk through those doors armed with a solid understanding of what to expect and what will be demanded of them, and thus aren't encumbered by romantic visions of life in the Dream Factory. Having been steeped in industry lore their entire lives, they're less likely to crash and burn than some who streak into town with stars in their eyes, hell-bent on lighting up the Hollywood sky like a meteor. You can see that in the solid careers of so many actors who grew up in the industry, with parents who were very successful on the big and/or small screen. Jeff and Beau Bridges, Laura Dern, Kate Hudson, Peter, Jane, and Bridgett Fonda, Jaime Lee Curtis, and Carrie Fisher are just a few of the many accomplished actors and actresses who made the most of their family connections and insider status.
It's still not easy to succeed -- it's never easy -- but coming up on the inside is a definite edge.
This holds true below-the-line as well, where there are several family dynasties represented in the grip/electric, camera, and the ranks of production. These people form the backbone of the industry, solid pros who know what they're doing and aren't phased by anything the job might throw at them on set. And although few of them can (or would) bore you silly spouting film theory or prattling on about the role of montage* and the cinematic resonance** of the seminal Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, many of their fathers, mothers, uncles, and/or grandfathers worked on Hollywood's most cherished classics.
They might not have a film school degree, but their roots go deep in the aquifer of LA's signature industry.
Example: the father of a Best Boy I worked with for many years down the final stretch of my career was an assistant cameraman for DP John Alonzo on Chinatown -- and in my book, that's a solid-gold pedigree.
It's very different for those of us who came from the outside. Although a few attended high profile film schools like USC, UCLA, or NYU -- where young people with sufficient talent, ambition, and drive could make industry connections and launch their careers -- a lot more of us came to Hollywood on the proverbial wing and a prayer. With the internet still fifteen years away, there were no industry blogs or websites to light the path when I came to town -- and since I didn't attend any kind of film school, I landed in Hollywood woefully unprepared to meet the challenge, with no clue where to even look for those doors to the industry.
That's where you need a little help from your friends. Without a boost from somebody at the right time (from several somebodies, truth be told, at critical moments), I might well have had to slink back home with my tail between my legs after six months in Hollywood... and lord knows what would have become of me then.
The road not taken will forever remain a mystery.
But I did get a little help; a tip here, a lead on a job there, a recommendation when that's exactly what I needed, and thus had the opportunity to prove myself, and -- eventually -- gain enough traction to earn a living in what often feels like a truly weightless free-lance world.
In the end -- once you've established yourself as a working pro in the industry -- I don't suppose it makes much difference whether you came up in the biz on the inside or had to crash the gates of Hollywood from outside. To earn the respect of your peers, succeed, and prosper, you'll have to to work your ass off no matter who you are -- just as I did while suffering through those all-night shoots in the rain, working in downtown LA's infamous "Shitter's Alley," or toiling in the brutal sun of Death Valley, doing whatever was required to make it.
The business has changed a lot since I came to town, and those changes keep coming at a dizzying pace. The old ways and established institutions I had to learn and work through are crumbling fast -- it takes a lot more than a strong back and the willingness to work hard to succeed nowadays -- but if the Digital Revolution has rendered much of what I know obsolete, it offers opportunity to those with the aptitude, ambition, and resilience to make the most of this new reality. Although there will always be the insiders with their built-in edge, this era of rapid change is ripe for young, hard-charging outsiders -- and there's no doubt that many will find their way inside the gates of Hollywood.
So go for, it kiddos. A new establishment is gradually emerging from the digital ether, so take full advantage while you can...
* Here you go...
** Don't ask me -- I'm just a broken down ex-juicer who didn't go to any fancy film school -- but if you really want to know, read this...