The Newb’s Guide to LA
I have lived in Los Angeles for five years now, to my own amazement. A handful of wonderful LA veterans, their skin hardened from the sun and years of tough bosses, mentored me when I first arrived. They assured me that since there are no seasons by which to keep track, time would fly. They were right. It’s been five years of summer. Without the bitter Midwest cold and the sudden uptick in depressed city dwellers to indicate the change in season, my time here has been a complete whirlwind. I have learned a lot, but have much more to learn. I have accomplished much, but am not nearly where I imagined myself to be at this time in my life when I first moved here. “Had I known,” I always say, but I quickly realize it’s silly to spend time wishing I’d known differently; the truth is, if I’d known how hard it would be once I moved here, if I’d known what I was really in for, I might have chickened out.
For those who want to know and are more strong-willed than I, I’d like to at least attempt to offer some kind of advice for aspiring creative types who move to Los Angeles from anywhere outside – most of us are transplants – and being “from outside LA” doesn’t just mean physical proximity, it goes beyond distance. David Mamet supposedly said that in order to make it, you needed access to money or access to celebrity (I don’t know if he really said that, someone probably paraphrased a much more sardonic overheard admonishment). Sometimes locals who grew up within the city limits can also be considered “not from LA”, because without family in the business or a hefty trust fund, you may as well be from Boise or Little Rock. If you don’t have a degree from USC, NYU, AFI or UCLA; if you aren’t related to at least a B-list talent or producer; if you aren’t rich; then you’re one of the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of aspiring writers, directors, actors, producers, content creators, or craftspeople moving to LA in droves, all competing for a place within the Hollywood Elite’s inner circle. And if you’re like I was, fresh off the coach United Airlines flight, eager to start a career in the film business, no family ties or wealth but a passion for movies and a heart of gold, you probably have no fucking clue what you’re in for.
I generally loathe the way grizzled Hollywood has-beens dole out this sort of dreary, patronizing “wisdom” to young aspirants, but one thing they all have a point about is that it’s better to be harsh and honest than to sugar-coat it. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t come to LA (even though the weather is actually quite nice). So there’s my one disclaimer: I’m gonna give it to ya straight, kid. Oh, and I’m not an expert, I’m a creative executive / writer’s assistant and I haven’t sold a script yet, so that means you really don’t have to listen to me. But I have one thing going for me that none of your film school dropout buddies have: I stuck it out and I’m still here like Joaquin Phoenix. If you come to LA, you better have come to stay, baby. Because the people who leave almost never come back.
There you have it. Now for the Power Point presentation-worthy topics:
1. Know what you want to do before you come out here, and have some experience doing it. Wanna be a writer? Have two completed and decent feature-length (or a few TV spec scripts if you’re a TV writer, which you should really try because it’s a little easier to break in. A little.) Wanna be a director or actor? Have a reel, good headshots, whatever. Want to be an agent? Well, read a ton of scripts, sign up for as many free tracking boards as you can, read Variety, Deadline, and Hollywood reporter. Know the names of the big talent agencies, studios, production companies, who runs them, who reps them, who they rep, blah blah blah. Seriously, know your shit.
2. When you move to LA, you must have at least $10,000 saved up. If you don’t have it, stay in Chicago or Florida or wherever you currently live and keep working and saving your money because, unless it’s New York City, you are living somewhere much more affordable and you aren’t spending as much time in your car. In LA you will pay a lot for rent, you MUST have a car that won’t constantly break down (but it will), gas is expensive, and you will inevitably rack up at least $600 in parking tickets because the parking signs in Los Angeles are more confusing than the plot of Inception.
3. You must be prepared to not work for a year. Chances are you will find some sort of supplemental income, but pretty much everyone starts as an intern (except those lucky few I mentioned earlier who have connections/money). It’s unethical, unfair, and brutal, but it’s just a fact of life. Though most other professions in today’s economy have to actually pay you at least a meager minimum wage if you do work, this is not most other professions. There is real money to be made in this business… eventually. The Hollywood studio system is cruel yet rewarding. But you should already have sensed that by now.
4. Unless you went to an Ivy League school or one of the big/ expensive film schools (USC, UCLA, AFI, or NYU), your degree doesn’t mean shit, so you’re going to have to bring something more impressive to the table than a Bachelor of Arts degree from Midwest City Art School or whatever. I don’t mean to talk down to you if you went elsewhere; I went to Columbia — College, in Chicago, not the legit Ivy League one — where plenty of successful and hardworking people went and made a solid living in this industry (even the world’s most popular college dropout, Kanye West, attended Columbua!) yet when I tell locals where I went to school they give me a blank stare. So just kind of get over your BA in Digital Arts and move on. It’s more about what you can show than where you came from. I can guarantee you a cool short or commercial you directed will be more impressive than your education.
5. Collaborate. Combine magical creative forces with your fellow graduates, make some films with your peers, read their scripts, get their feedback on your projects. Get involved! Your crew is absolutely crucial. I made a feature film with a handful of my college buddies and three years later these guys still go to every screening and are still jazzed about the project, and in turn I help them any chance I get to find work or pass on an opportunity. They say it’s all about “Who you know”, but what they don’t tell you is that you should know fucking everyone. Network, get coffee, get drinks, connect with others. Creation may be a lonely, solitary process, but no one will read your script or watch your stuff if you don’t have friends who support you, and no one will give you a job if they can’t find people who vouch for you. Be reliable, be supportive, be open-minded.
6. Be nice to everyone. Like, literally, everyone. I don’t care how douchey your Directing 3 classmate was, with his fucking fedora and his insistence that he absolutely needed that drone shot in his thesis film. That guy will probably end up working at Kinko’s, but he could also be your boss some day. Anyway that’s an extreme example and most people in LA are actually really nice, the ones who aren’t either have accumulated their bad attitude after a few hours of traffic compounded into unrequited road rage, or they just have a stick up their ass. Whatever their problem is, it’s not yours. Just smile and be friendly. People say this business is cutthroat, and you always hear stories of how your favorite auteurs are a complete nightmare on set or whatever, but a lot of successful people got where they were because people liked them. If you are someone people want to work with, they are more likely to hire you than someone they don’t want to work with. Very, very simple.
7. Getting your first job is a bizarre mystery and no one can really tell you how to do it. So I’m going to break in down by what you want to do, so that you can skip right to your desired career choice. You probably don’t know and it will take you some time and a few miserable jobs to figure it out, so the more research you can do ahead of time, the better.
–AGENT/MANAGER (Talent Representation) – Applying at an agency without knowing someone who works at said agency is a fruitless endeavor. Apply anyway, try to get a job in the mailroom (where EVERYONE starts). Cold call, ask around, find out who works at an agency and see if they can help you push your resume to the top of the pile at HR. They all have internship programs – start there.
–WRITER/DIRECTOR (Talent) – Make shit. See #5 – collaborate. If you are a director and have a camera, find a local band looking for a music video, shoot a spec commercial, submit to short film contests. If you don’t have a camera, make friends with someone who does, someone who has the same work ethic you do. Learn how to edit yourself, and while you’re at it, practice your skills using photoshop, After Effects, Color and other software – it looks good on a resume, and it minimizes the amount of people you have to beg to edit/ do color/sound/VFX on your film. It costs money to make films, especially in LA (you’d think the film capital of the country would be more friendly to indie filmmakers, but I won’t go into that right now). You need to build a reel, and don’t be too eager to show it to people right away. Wait until it’s good. The same goes for you, writers: Write a bunch of scripts, then get feedback and rewrite. Polish until perfect. Nothing kills a career faster than a half-assed script submitted to a professional. You may think your script is great now, but try reading a couple of produced scripts, then go back and read yours. Is it up to par? No? Keep working on it!
–PRODUCER (Baller Status) – Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate! Read the newspaper, listen to NPR, know what is going on in the world. Read read the trades (obviously), read blogs, watch director’s reels, get acquainted with the local talent. I put baller status in parenthetical because you need to be the hardest worker and the biggest hustler if you want to produce. Read tons of scripts. Be the smartest guy or girl in the room. And apply at a production company. It’s better to get work at a big company, but if you work at a smaller company you have more opportunities to take on projects. Show up to work early, stay late, and if you see someone taking shortcuts, pick up their slack. Sure, there’s competition, but if you’re smart and stay sharp and work hard, it’s actually fairly likely you could become an executive within five years of working in the business.
–CRAFTSPERSON (Cinematographer, Editor, VFX Artist, G&E crew, Lighting, Production, Post-production) – I don’t know too much about this category, except that you should just scour Craigslist and Mandy.com for posts about shoots and GET AS MUCH EXPERIENCE AS YOU CAN IN YOUR DESIRED FIELD. And do your research ahead of time so that all those hours of work you put in don’t go to waste and you can get into a guild ASAP.
8. Find a mentor, but don’t just arbitrarily approach a successful person out of the blue and ask them for advice – if you want someone to share their time and wisdom with you, it won’t be because you pestered them into giving you a job or something. It’s important not to burn any bridges, and people don’t respond well to people asking them for things. If they’re successful, then chances are they are very busy and don’t have a lot of time… so don’t ask for a lot. Start small, find common ground (like if you went to the same school, or they’re a friend of your uncle) and offer something in return, like buying them lunch. Even if they make like a billion dollars more that you, it’s the fact that you acknowledged that their time is valuable, and that makes a good first impression. And patience is key; the amazing people I consider my mentors didn’t pluck me out of a random networking event and tell me I was special enough to be taken under their wing, I either worked for or with them for years and soaked up their knowledge like a sponge. Not every good piece of advice you get is going to come from a book, seminar, or coffee meeting, so pay attention. Here are some more cleverly-written tips from Fast Company: http://www.fastcompany.com/3052068/know-it-all/8-successful-people-share-how-not-to-find-a-mentor
9. Resist the urge to rage. It will be difficult because Los Angeles is SO MUCH FUCKING FUN. The first night I went out in LA, I got off on the wrong subway stop (yes, I used to take public transportation) and ended up outside a weird warehouse party/rave where they immediately gave me free beer, offered me drugs, a hipster indie band dressed in fairy wings and face paint was playing a Little Tykes piano and yodeling, and a gay guy kissed me. Now that may not sound like your idea of fun, but my point is, adventure is around every corner in Los Angeles (well, not in the Valley, but definitely in downtown LA). The bars are fun, the people are hot, and the beach is tempting all year round. Keep your eye on the prize and don’t get too distracted! Sure, you need to go out and meet people, but don’t get carried away by the party lifestyle. I’ve seen too many people lose sight of their goals in favor of clubbing or being seen in the scene. Surviving the distraction and temptation is your first challenge that doesn’t feel like a challenge at all. Besides, you should have gotten all of the wild partying out of your system while you were in college. Oh wait, you went to art school…
10. If you have a backup plan, do that instead. If you think you’ll move out here and “give it a few years” and “see how it goes”, if it doesn’t work out you’ll move home and go to grad school and try a different (read: easier) career, you should seriously stop what you are doing right now and follow Plan B. LA takes serious applicants only. As soon as you step off the plane or drive your Toyota packed full of Ikea furniture past your first In-N-Out burger, you better be ready to hustle.
Good luck. You’ll need it!