How to make it in The Show Biz
I can’t teach you how to be a good writer, but I can share with you some insights on how to be a good professional.
Let me start by congratulating you on already having so many samples. Not just having finished your first draft but specs and originals that have gone through the notes process and been written from page one over-and-over again. Good job on mastering formatting and understanding that copy editing is important. You are on your way to that gigantic toolbox we’re supposed to carry around with us. And I really think you’re on the right track with working as a P.A. on any and every shoot you can get access to — AND going after creating your own work.Rreally, you are already walking down the right road.
It just takes so so sooooo much time to get anywhere. And there are no shortcuts.
But that’s not helpful — so let me give you some advice for the long walk ahead of you: this is a risk adverse industry. It's also a very fashionable industry with everybody trying to break-in at least once in their lifetime. And that's one of the reasons it's so hard to "make it,” particularly as a writer. Steep competition and the powers-that-be have to weed through the same old stoner comedy by every dingdong who read Save the Cat. The powers-that-be are ALSO scared of anything that is different, and stoner comedies make money…contradictory? yes. Frustrating? yes. But the rewards are unimaginable if you dig your heels in and don't let anyone water you down. You are the only you out there and if you have something to say make sure you demand your place at the table.
So, how do you do that?
The first piece of advice is to watch out for people's advice. Always go with your gut. Bad advice is more damaging than no advice at all. There is no clear path. Success looks different to different people and we can only tell you about our experiences. Be aware of anyone who tells you what you "have to do," cuz they're usually wrong and if you get any sense of bitterness from someone --- run!
Now comes the fun part: How to Make It in Show Business by Gillian Muller ——> tempered with the biggest disclaimer in the world: it is really hard to get anywhere in this business. All your feelings are legit. Unless you have a parent who can pull a string for you it is going to be an uphill battle for a long long time. Even the legacy kids are having a hard time making waves when they have been given free opportunities. This is an industry in flux. It’s the wild west and when people feel unsafe they get stingy with their money and time. I stay motivated by having a tiny existential crisis a month, which reminds me what that the alternative is a desk job. Desk job = Death
Second - Never ever EVER give up.
The cream rises to the top - eventually - and we can't pull ourselves out of the game before it happens. It is a harder road for some of us, for reasons widely discussed on every forum imaginable, which is why we have to be three times more tenacious and not leave the business mid-(r)evolution. Believe you can do it. Know you can. Nothing is lofty. And Don’t compare yourself to others, they have their own path, keep an eye on yours.
Third - What do you want to write and are you ready to write it?
Good scripts get thrown out every day because they are a reiteration of something that's already been done. Spec scripts are a great exercise on something that the powers are looking for: be unique while following the rules. But original scripts are GOLD, and no one can take that work away from you. But make sure that you bleed on the page. They can tell. Be funnier, be smarter and be braver than you have ever been. The saying "write what you know" isn’t about writing from an autobiographical POV, it’s about being unique and specific and researched — and telling the truth. Trust that the truth makes you stand out from the dingdongs. Dingdongs think they know because they’ve seen a movie about it. If you really know, write in those details and get ready to blow minds.
Fourth - Be realistic about your goals by understanding how to get to them.
You seem smart about paying your dues and looking for entry level work, those jobs are ALSO almost impossible to get. Last year I was up against three people who all had years of showbiz experience to be the ASSISTANT to the showrunners. I am 40 years old, and my job last year was the same gig I did when I was 24 - but this time I got to assist the people I want to be when I grow up. That’s to make you feel motivated to beat my record.
Plan for a lifetime of building a career, which means skill-building:
Yes, write all the time, as much as you can, all the genres, all the formats, always have your fingers on the keyboard. But… Showrunners spend a lot of their time producing, so knowing production is a huge asset. They also spend a lot of time rewriting writers who don't know the limits and capabilities of production.
Suggestion: give yourself at least a YEAR to really understand production. Your gigs as a P.A. are going to help so much, try to get one of each kind of film, big budget and small, union and non. Ask to shadow, ask to visit. Volunteer everywhere that will have you.
“But how will I make money?” you ask - Money is for normals, do you want to be normal? or do you want to be a showrunner?
Fifth - Watch out for the fairy tales.
Don't plan to be successful NOW. Writing is a craft that we perfect over time, focus on that. Ambition sometimes makes us envious of the end result, particularly in showbiz with awards and red carpets and film festivals but we don’t see the whole story when we hear about a lady who made a webseries and then it became an HBO series. So much happened in between webseries and HBO series.
We don’t see the moments where she’s waiting for an answer from a potential agent for 6 months with no money and wants to give up and all her friends are telling her to be practical. Really hear it when they tell us the dark parts of the story. It makes you feel better when you’re going through them yourself.
Sixth - Age means nothing!
Yes, there are biases that will hold you back from working with some of the dinosaurs in charge and age is one of them. So is race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and if you have other important friends in the business. But the median age in writing is usually late-30s. Experience means EVERYTHING. POV means everything. Education means nothing — But what you learn while being educated means everything.
If you want to go back to school, don’t worry about your age - worry about what you’re going to learn. Masters? PhD? - pfft for a practical career. Portfolio building… ok, that sounds good. I liked the deadlines of the for-profit film school I went to at the age of 35 with my own money. I took it seriously and built my portfolio, I graduated with a tv spec, two features, a short film, a half dozen sketches, and a better understanding of deadlines and putting forward your best work. There are so many practical schools like that where the teachers are people who are supplementing their income while working in the business.
Seventh - People like to work with who they know so — community build.
People like to work with people that they know, so get to know them. Don’t spend time being pissed that someone must have got on that show because they know someone. This will always be true, including you, when you’re ready to be the boss. You are going to want to work with people you already know.
So how do we break in when we don’t know anyone: networking. You network by socializing, you network by working on other people’s stuff and you network by reaching out to people you want to know. You’d be surprised who will say yes to coffee if you ask with respect and reverence. Get to know everyone. Networking, meet-ups, go at least once and see if you’re feeling it. Keeping in contact with people who you randomly meet on Facebook forums or on film sets. Be well socialized. Don’t complain. Listen. You don’t have to be agreeable or sweet, but part of taking in all of the information is by making these moments about learning. Ask a hundred questions, learn how to kiss up without sounding like an ass kiss. Do not flirt, do not ask for anything, do not make promises or deals and do not pitch. And over time, knowing no one will turn into knowing everyone. And that’s when you can stop networking.
But more importantly, keep the friends you have, work with them on their stuff, they will help on yours. Spielberg and Lucas were besties as nobodies and look at them now. We help each other build a new infrastructure and working as a community means you’re not alone in the fight.
Eighth - Take advantage of the world waking up.
I don’t give a shit what any of the dinosaurs or dingdongs say, just because there’s a focus on increasing diversity does not mean it’s hard to be a straight white man. The playing field is not level and new voices are still working three times as hard. but new voices are the future. Position yourself to take advantage of any opportunity or initiative that becomes available. We need to flood in as much diversity as we can while the gate is unlocked, and then just never lock the gate again.
Ninth - Agents and pedigree programs.
See notes 7 & 8 above. THEY F-ING NEED YOU. But be great. They say the first read is free. Be good enough that they want to read you again and again. You need them to separate yourself from all them dingdongs.
CFC, NBC, Fox-Diversity and all the other prime-time programs in the world: After you’ve read the fine print, you have to be the best, it’s as simple as that. These programs are getting harder and harder every year that goes by and they are looking for more and more from their applicants. When I was applying to get into CFC, I took the year to apply and I got in on my first try. Look at what these programs want and spend three times the amount of effort to accomplish the ask. Rewrite your originals till they are better than you ever thought they would be. Pay for notes, organize table reads with your writing group, set your intentions, go after it HARD. DO THE WORK. Get in, leave the dingdongs behind, get an agent, be a millionaire. And remember - these programs perpetuate the fairy tale, you’re not done once you get in, you have to stand out from your cohort without stepping on toes because your cohort is the best friends you are ever going to make in the biz.
A lot of the point of these initiatives is to get an agent. Agents have huge rosters and in-depth relationships with everybody in the business; they are gatekeepers and playmakers. We need them. Production doesn’t really want to go into business with people who don’t have agents, they legitimize us. They know that and because they know that you need them, the first few years of having an agent mean that you work for them. They aren’t going to stick their neck out for you if you can’t follow through. It might seem like a no-brainer but we have to get them the scripts they need to sell us in a sea of other talented writers. No scripts, no meetings; no meetings, no work. And the job doesn’t stop when you get signed with an agent. Most of us get work that we found ourselves, not work our agents put us up for. When we are emerging we have to be everything for everybody and just because an agent has signed you doesn’t mean you’re the fresh new voice that everyone wants a piece of, as those fairy tales led us to believe.
Suggestion: Everybody wants to write for HBO, but have you considered writing for kids TV? If you have any interest in writing for kids and pre-teen, get those specs, watch those cartoons, know that world. They are the only part of the industry that is always hiring. They are actively looking for Women and POC and going to agents with a stack of specs for kids animation might get the agents listening faster because they know they can put you to work sooner.
Tenth - Make it on your own…?
It’s as simple as that. Write a thing, shoot a thing, post a thing. Apply for Arts Council grants. Make movies. The indi spirit is coming back to life after being squashed for 20 years and it’s never been easier to shoot, edit and post. Learn the craft on the job. Get them twitter followers and then the Show Biz will come to you. It might take a while, but can you think of a better way to spend your time and money?
I know this is a long blog to read but I spent a lot of time learning this information and if it helps remove some of the mystery of this business so that you can get to work then it will have been worth it. And at the end of it all my - laying it all out - is an attempt to open the doors and windows to air out this musty industry and change how we do things.