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, May 18, 2008

So You Want to Come to Hollywood...

Rule Number One: be very careful where you park.

Every now and then I get an e-mail from a film student living/studying somewhere far from Southern California wondering if he/she should come to LA and join those of us already chained to the spinning gears and grease-stained levers deep in the bowels of the Hollywood Machine. From the tone of their messages, it’s clear that these young men and women are passionate about film, and feel the call to make their own personal pilgrimage to the Mecca of Movie Land – and they want advice on how best to get started on a career here in the dark pulsing heart of the Industry.

These are never easy questions to answer. Part of me wants to scream “No! Turn back before it’s too late!” But I know how they feel -- I too was an outsider who came here to work behind the curtain of the Emerald City -- so I do my best to offer cautious encouragement. Finding the right path in life is hard enough for young people without having some grumpy old fart throw a bucket of ice water on their cherished fever-dreams.

I’m not sure that any advice I can offer is actually helpful. Hollywood was a very different place when I came here thirty-plus years ago, hoping to breach the walls of the Industry. Back then, a huge number of feature films and television shows were being filmed in Southern California, as well as productions based out of Hollywood filming on location all over the country -- usually with a full crew from L.A. For those without connections, the mainstream movie business above-the-line was a very exclusive club, while the unions erected sturdy defenses to make sure those who sought work below-the-line cooled their heels outside the studio gates.

This was not – and is not – an easy business to crack.

That said, my timing was pretty good. The huge success of “Easy Rider” had already helped break the studio-picture stranglehold, fostering a thriving sub-industry of low-budget, non-union features -- mostly cheesy exploitation pictures of one sort or another, following the path blazed by Roger Corman. It was in this churning cauldron of opportunity that my generation of Hollywood outsiders were able to get a start.

Much has changed since then. Canada began to siphon off TV movies from the U.S. back in the early 90’s, offering favorable currency exchange rates, friendly cooperation from the locals, and urban locations easy (and eager) to stand-in for cities in the United States. This didn’t worry me at the time, since I was then firmly entrenched in the soulless (but lucrative) world of television commercials, with no desire to work the four-to-eight week productions typical of TV movies. But like a ravenous hog, the Canadian government smelled a good thing, and by the mid-90’s, offered extremely generous government subsidies to any U.S. producers willing to bring their shows across the border. It didn’t take long for the mass exodus north to begin – first a trickle, then a flood. Within two years, my hard-won but reasonably stable life as a commercial gaffer had spiraled down the drain, leaving me high, dry, and gasping for air.*

There’s still a lot going on in Hollywood, but Canada is now a major player on the feature film/television scene. Increasingly fat state subsidies continue to lure ever larger chunks of production from Southern California to New Mexico, the South-East, and the East Coast. Even Michigan, once the manufacturing hub of the automotive world and now a cornerstone of the Rust Belt -– became an active player in the film subsidy game. This has been bad for Hollywood and those of us who work here, but it’s good for young people who now have opportunities to break into the film business without making the long trip west: they no longer have to come to Hollywood to get a start in the Industry.

But if the e-mails I receive reflect the sentiment out there, these kids aren’t really interested in whatever film/television scene is developing in their local or nearby communities. Whatever’s going on around the corner, they still want to come to Hollywood, where they think the action really is.

I can’t fault them for that. I felt the same way, deciding to head south for LA rather than attempt to penetrate the tight-knit and decidedly cliquish film scene in my own local market of San Francisco. In retrospect, this was probably the right choice for me: I needed to be immersed in the rugby scrum of low budget features, to meet people and learn the skills in a rough-and-tumble environment offering boundless opportunity. I came to LA a decidedly unfocused young man, sure of only one thing: I wanted to work on movies. Everything else was up for grabs. Most of the young film students who e-mail me are way ahead of where I was at the time -- they seem to know exactly what they want to do.

In some ways, what drew me here still holds: there’s lots of churn in LA, and the resulting turnover inevitably creates opportunity. If your ultimate goal is to work on feature films as a cameraman, editor, or producer, LA is probably where you need to be. You want to write for television? Sure, come to LA -- but don't even think about coming until you've written a few really good scripts. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen for you here -– far from it -- but if you don’t come, you’ll always wonder what might have been. Life is full of enough regrets without adding more to the pile. Besides, it’s only by coming here that you'll find out if the dream you’ve nurtured for so long is the path you really want to follow. If not, you can always go back with a pocketful of good stories to tell the hometown folks.

But if writing and directing films is your dream, I’m not sure slogging through the Hollywood jungle is the best way to make that happen. You might be better off honing a script until it "sings," enlisting actors from local theater groups, then use a cheap high-def video camera to make your own film. Do it hook or by crook, with bubble gum, bailing wire, and credit cards if necessary: just do whatever it takes to shoot and edit your film. At that point, you’ll have learned more about the reality of making movies than you ever thought possible -- and if you still want that Hollywood career, then maybe you do have what it takes. Send your movie to film festivals, get it out there to be seen by the public -- maybe even win a prize or two. That way you’ll have something to show – a calling card – that could help take you where you want to go a lot faster than simply driving a beat-up U Haul out west in the hopes of landing a production assistant job on the first low-budget nightmare that will have you. This is an Industry based on the high-stakes gamble, but it's a love/hate relationship at best. The truth is, Hollywood has always been scared to death to lay down those big bets, and thus continually seeks ways to minimize that risk. If you can prove you’re not a long-shot toss of the dice -- that you have the talent and drive to deliver -- then Hollywood will want you as much as you want it.

Until your first feature flops, that is – and at that point, nobody will return your phone calls. But that’s the nature of the biz, and you’d better understand that before you head for the West Coast try to break down the doors of Hollywood.

Whatever path you take, it won’t be easy. Quite the opposite. Hollywood is a free-lance jungle all the way, and a risky proposition from start to finish. But every young Hollywood hopeful needs to find out just how committed he/she really is, and whether that drive stems from a burning need to do something, or simply the desire to be something. If you really want to direct, then find a way to direct: make short films, direct plays, whatever -- just do it any way you can. The lessons you learn in those first halting efforts will prove invaluable in the long run. But – and this is a crucial point -- if you find your motivation stems from the desire to be a director rather than to simply direct, that’s something else altogether. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being someone whose joi de vivre stems from wielding the power, prestige, and perception of glamour that comes with being a director – and if that’s who you really are, so be it. Just be aware that this means you may well be the kind of insufferably egotistical douchebag the rest of us hate to be around, much less work with/for. Still, when properly focused and channeled, such supercharged ambition can accomplish a lot in a hurry -- maybe you too will turn out to be the next Michael Bay or Jim Cameron.

Truth be told, I doubt it matters what I say. Young people are fueled by powerfully complex motivations leading them to do pretty much whatever they want to do, regardless of any well-meaning advice -- and on balance, that’s probably a good thing. We all have to follow our own dreams, chart our own path, make our own mistakes, and learn our own lessons. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes doesn’t.  Whatever path is chosen will mete out plenty of grief, punishment, and misery along the way -- that much is unavoidable -- but the flip side is that you just might make your dreams come true. As long as young people aren't dreaming of becoming gang-bangers, drug dealers, serial killers, or kiddie pornographers, they’re better off chasing their own dreams (and learning those lessons) than following the dictates of others.

So to all of you planning to come here and tilt at windmills of Movie Land: whatever you think Hollywood might be like – the many illusions you’ve gleaned from movies, books, or magazines – your own experience will likely be completely different. In an Industry town, it’s rarely about the art, but usually about the money, and all too often, the acquisition of power. Try not to get caught up in that zero-sum game. Remember who you are and why you came here in the first place – and when in doubt, you won't go wrong following the advice of Davy Crockett (King of the Wild Frontier, in case you didn’t know): “Decide what’s right, then do it.”

One more thing: when you do come West, be careful where you leave the moving van. Take a lesson from the U-Haul pictured above, which was parked a little too long on the wrong street.

* At which point, it was goodbye light meter, hello gloves – and that’s when I discovered the world of sit-coms.

1 comment:

David Hughes said...

I came here via Ken Levine. You are one hell of a stylish writer and I just bookmarked you, so I will be back. Keep it going.