2010 was a wild year of personal sacrifice and amazing professional growth. I’ve endeavored to live a life that seems glamorous to the arm-chair filmmakers. (It’s not.) I’ve emerge embattled the last year with the following thoughts and reflections on life in Los Angeles and the entertainment industry at large:
1. Desperation looks ugly on you.
There is nothing more noticeable than the stench of desperation in the room. Los Angeles is the city of “keeping up appearances” and the way you carry yourself is as important as the message you carry. That’s not news, but be very careful not to confuse candor and aspiration for desperation, or the other way around.
This past year, I took what I thought was a mutual meeting with a peer. But as it turned out, he was “meeting with me.” He showed up, resume in hand and instead of approaching me like a person, he begged me for a job. I had hoped for a meeting of the minds. I was testing the waters for a new collaborative partner. But his demeanor was so needy, he talked about how little money he had, how his old man cut him off.
I’m no job fairy. Whilst we, collectively, are a woefully underemployed bunch at times, this was most definitely the wrong way to approach anyone. And honestly, if I did have a job to give him, I wouldn’t have. Awkward and desperate when cultivating new work partners = see ya later! Everyone can smell fear. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Shut up and listen if you ask for help.
I recently had lunch with an Emmy award winning fellow who was re-evaluating his “legacy.” After the writers’ strike, work dried up, and he, like most others in Los Angeles, is still looking for a new way to make a living. Teaching workshops, he asked, was it viable? Could he do it? I was enthusiastic and know people on the filmmaking workshop circuit and offered my help.
Much to my chagrin, he shot me down immediately; he gave me a litany of logistical and personal reasons why the solution, I hadn’t even offered, wasn’t viable. Not all who wax poetic about jump-starting their future are actually interested in getting on the bike. He wasn’t interested in networking to get on the workshop circuit or collecting his knowledge into what could be a publication. His impression: Someone would descend from the heavens, orchestrate and pay him top dollar for workshops based on his body of work. That’s as solid a plan as I had ever heard. I mean sure, that would be ideal and the least amount of work in man-power and time (and awesome!) it is also the least likely to ever happen in any universe, even Dr. Who.
If you really want options and ideas ask for them. If you’d rather be jaded about your success or lack thereof, check it at the door and keep it to yourself. Good advice is not for deaf ears. It’s for the bright-eyed individual who’s willing to take the tools and do the work.
3. Los Angeles: “Fuck Yo steady paycheck. Seriously.”
The sheen of L.A. is the most fabricated and heralded social ecosystem of the entertainment world. Expectations, “Hollywood Bullshit,” and cost of living exist on different planes.
Chances are you aren’t independently wealthy. I’m not. But if you ask me “Merrel how did you make a living in 2010?” I’d respond: “With every bit of love, sweat and pain I had.”
Living in Los Angeles is exciting and tough. But in this current economic climate, but it’s harder making a living solely on one craft. So you want to know the real deal? You got to pay the bills, with more than said skills.
During the week, I might be working at a production sound shop. At night, I do coverage or development clients. Early morning, it’s a bit of editing or graphic design work. Lunch time, I polish a magazine article for syndication. The scripts I sold last year were animated overseas, so yes, I am a “paid screenwriter.” But that’s not what brought the bread. In a game of keeping up appearances, this town is hard work. Check your company-man hat at the door, because the only way you will survive is to synthesize all your strong skills.
4. “Yes” Means “No”, “No” means “No”
So, you meet a “big producer” for lunch. Maybe you are looking to compare notes, test the waters, partner with him, pitch to him. You had a wonderful lunch, great conversation. You gave him your card, some materials, everyone smiles, “we’ll be in touch!” he says.
On the surface, that seems like a pretty great interaction. But the reality of the passive-aggressive, hyper-polite “yes” is aggressively aggravating! The producer said “yes” outloud to interest, but in his view, it’s the least confrontational way to pass on material or you. Xandy over at covermyscript.com calls it “aggressive obsequiousness” or when everyone is so hyper-polite because no one wants to accidentally tell off the next Scorsese.
The passive aggressive “yes” is like a sneak attack, especially if you have East-coast sensibilities. A meeting like that in NYC may have ended with a “thanks, no thanks” hand shake. At least you know where you stand. But, know that “yes” means “no” all the way to the bank. Be receptive and in the back of your mind know, most people will say “yes” but likely mean “no.”
5. Nepotism / Favoritism thy name is the studio system. Don’t take it personally.
In another life, I worked in the Washington D.C. corridor. The amount of inbreeding between government contractors and various agencies there is astounding (and makes for terrible oversight.) Every single person is somebody’s brother or cousin, close family friend. I once worked at a sixty person contractor — where all the team leads and middle management were cousins. Interns? Forget about it, we’ve got middle management’s children for that.
I asked Xandy if she could elucidate this phenomenon:
When I first moved out here, my uncle (a prominent and important television producer) made a call on my behalf to a production company and “asked” them to hire me. I put the “ask” in quotes, because when you come recommended from someone like my uncle, you fall into the “must hire” category; like being a legacy at a college. So, I went to the prod co for my, what I was lead to believe was just a perfunctory meeting, prior to an offer, but what I walked into was an ambush. The hiring manager was so annoyed that I was a “must hire” that she made me jump through a series of unnecessary hoops. I played along, knowing my uncle’s reputation was on the line. Over the course of the next six weeks, I was called back in to interview four more times. By our last meeting, I had lost interest in the hiring manager’s games and flat out asked her what the deal was. She laid it out for me. She didn’t like “must-hires” and she would never hire me. But she had to make it look like she was doing her job. She had already staffed the position with someone more qualified. And by “more qualified” of course I mean, her friend from Cornell. Ah the nepotism trump card; nepotism! The bottom line, being someone’s relative doesn’t always pave the way for your advancement, it usually opens the door for somebody else’s friend.
You must constantly navigate people. They all have their own motivations, and most people are acting to elevate, not your interest, but their own. Don’t take it personally.
6. The Dunning Kruger effect
I’d always been aware of this principal in sort of a storied sense, but it wasn’t until this past year that someone shared that there is a formal way to categorize “Dumb people are succeeding at an alarming rate, and smart people are languishing.”
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes. This leads to the situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence.(Courtesy Wikipedia.com)
When you see dumb people succeeding, don’t let it get you down. It’s not because they’re better than you, it’s because scientifically, they are so dumb they fail upwards. Remember this on every production on set, during every pre-production, during development meetings and when you park your car at Target. Trust me.
7. No one has scruples. Protect yourself.
Story time, again: For over a year and a half now, I’ve hosted Screenwriter Karaoke, a fun filmmakers network event that puts people together in a room with just a little bit of booze, a microphone and tambourine. I’m grateful, this past year was a boon for my baby event. It went from small bars in NYC, to regular dives in LA, to two major screenwriting conferences the Great American Pitchfest and the Creative Screenwriting Expo 2010. These were amazing opportunities to reach to a whole new crowd about my mantra of connecting to peers with a bit of song and drink.
So, you’d might imagine my out right anger when a script doctor that was attending one of these conferences, falsely represented himself as part of my organization. He created a slew of false and misleading website postings / pages, all claiming to be a premiere sponsor of my event while never once speaking to me. One page with an “official website” link lead to his own website and services page! All this, while I do have real premiere sponsors.
Standing up for yourself by protecting your blood and sweat equity from vultures is the only way you’ll set yourself apart. How do you respond to an astroturfer who unabashedly pretends to be part of your hard work? I sought him out, called him at 10:30 on a Sunday morning and laid out just how unacceptable his behavior was. Don’t let random people encroach on your success. Who the hell is he to come in, swoop up all my hard work and pretend he was there from square one in a lame attempt to drive sales in his own business?
I made it very clear who I was, and even introduced myself when I saw him at Screenwriter Karaoke. For the record, he stayed for one song before he bailed. But my mark is made, I protected myself and he will never pull this shit with me again.
8. Don’t write checks your ass can’t cash / Let people assume.
The two sided coin of entertainment work: you must at once not over promise, whilst still leaving an air of wonder in the room. You may have heard the adage “talk the talk, until you walk the walk” and while there is certainly some truth to presenting yourself well, don’t overstate who you are. We’ll know you’re lying. We always do.
People assume lots of things. Let them. There was a time in my early twenties where I felt the need to correct the real or perceived assumptions people made about me or my work. The correction never yielded more work. Usually, I’d just make more of an ass of of myself in the process.
If you talk a big game you better have the goods. For example, if you are pitching scripts, you should probably have it written. Sure, we all know the stories of pitches on napkins for millions, but what happens when you pitch, and they like it? Will you run home and do your vomit pass and hope for the best? That’s what I call a pay-day loan with strings attached versus writing your own checks.
Maybe the perception others have of you will be flattering, and perhaps not factual. People love to fill in the gaps, so let them. And just like a writer and mental spackle, people spackle their assumptions and personal experience over their view of you. If you find this happening, let it flow, people are going to think what they are going to think regardless if you correct them.
9. Being #2 on the list is like being an understudy. You never know when you have your opening night, so be prepared.
Building a support system of friends and peers is a slow process. It begins with letting people know who you are and what your about. There are ways to be well positioned. For example, seek out professionals you admire and cultivate a relationship with them. Exultation or demands for work won’t get you very far, but an earnest interest might.
In my travels this year I met a great fellow with a boutique production company. I made a good impression and we hit it off. We traded emails and then months later I got a call: “So and so dropped out, you were the first person who came to mind.” Ah, yes, music to my ears! I had an opportunity to meet with a great crew and DP on a top TV show in it’s seventh season and teach a workshop. Things lined up. It’s because I wasn’t bashful in letting him know who I am or what I do.
I was prepared and delighted to be able to try my hand at a new gig. The workshop went well, but I really did feel like an understudy. I knew all the lines, I’m just amazed I’d have a chance to recite them.
10. Opportunities aren’t presented, they are created.
Last story, I promise: I was staffed on a NAT GEO TV series. To get on, I contacted the executive producers, through a friend of a friend. The production company told me outright they weren’t hiring, they didn’t know the next series they were doing either. Basically, “go fly a kite, thanks.”
Most people would have stopped there. I was persistent. I landed a different gig in the interim, then called the following month and asked if I could come in to see the production offices. They obliged me, I went in and met the whole team. It was “Thanks for stopping by and seeing our digs!” and they sent me on my way.
By this point, I had made my intentions clear. It was a little discouraging to repeatedly hear “sorry, we got nothing for you.” But I kept in contact. Never overbearing, just a “hey this is what I’m doing now.” When the NAT GEO show came through, I was high on the list, and they staffed me for six months.
Even though I knew somebody personally who had done work for this production company and they referred me, I made this opportunity myself. Getting in front of somebody is the easy part, creating the opportunity for yourself is only way you’ll ever see success.