Guest post by Jenny Yerrick Martin
“I want to be Shonda Rhimes. I want to create a whole night of TV!”
“I want to become a household name filmmaker and do cameos in my films!”
“I want to star on a network sitcom!”
People tell me their big dreams. When I am meeting students at the colleges where I speak or on the phone with potential clients for my career consulting, they often announce those dreams, sometimes by way of an introduction. Initially, I am impressed with the size of their vision for their entertainment career. But then they ask the follow-up. “How do I do that?”
How do you go from being a college senior outside of the entertainment industry to being Shonda Rhimes, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Parsons?
“Well, let’s see…,” I will say, stalling for time.
It feels like someone coming up to me on the corner of Santa Monica and Westwood Boulevards in West L.A. and asking me how to get to a particular street in Russia. As with a physical journey over a long distance, I don’t try to break down the entire trip from here (college student, industry neophyte) to there (showbiz bigwig). It would be a very long conversation and besides, there are many routes to get to the same place and sometimes there are lucky breaks and/or surprise setbacks along the way.
Instead, I focus on the big picture and give them advice that will get them started:
- Look for the opportunity to wear the fish head. Or be the fish’s head. That advice is meant both in a general way and specifically. In general, look for opportunities to contribute in small ways – to be a background player – because those types of opportunities are more plentiful and will at least get you started. Bigger opportunities will come once you show you can deliver in supporting ways.
The fish’s head also refers to the only part Seth Meyers had on his first episode on “Saturday Night Live.” It might seem unglamorous, maybe even a little bit of a letdown after getting to the promised land of comedy careers, but sometimes being given the opportunity to be a little-noticed face – or fish’s head – in a scene is a blessing. Meyers remembers it fondly and starting small turned into great things for him. He later became a “Weekend Update” anchor and head writer on “SNL” before transitioning into his own late night television show.
- Be a detective. As I said above, people talk to me all the time about their careers in entertainment. I am often surprised that people with very specific dreams have no idea how to make them a reality. There may not be a book titled “How to Become a TV Showrunner,” but there are plenty of show runner career profiles and articles about becoming a showrunner posted all over the internet. Oh, and there is a book called “Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show” based on the documentary by the same name, which contains plenty of information on getting to that job, as well as what a show runner does.
Though there is never just ONE way to get to a given position, there are best practices and common paths. Spend some of that dream time pre-moving to L.A. or when you first land here studying up. Knowing how you could do it will make you that much more ready and able to do it. And by studying up, you will likely learn that it’s also a good idea to…
- Get set up for the long haul. For practically your whole life, you’ve been dreaming of making it as an X in Hollywood. A screenwriter, a director, an actor, a film producer… Whatever it is, it feels like you’ve been wanting for it so long, you’re going to bust through whatever is standing between you and your dream pursuit as soon as you hit town. No years of toiling in obscurity for you. You. Are. READY.
Unfortunately, though you can dream the dream and fast forward in your mind, you have to live the reality. There is a chapter titled “The Myth of Overnight Success” in my book, “Breaking into the Biz: The Insider’s Guide to Launching an Entertainment Industry Career,” that talks about how, when I was new to the industry and a friend told me it took an average of 10 years for someone to become a working writer, I thought that was crazy. But now, knowing many writers both personally and professionally, and having interviewed many for YourIndustryInsider.com, that seems about accurate.
Yes, it could happen for you in less time, but if you study the careers of successful people doing what you want to do, you will discover the same typical time frame. So even if you aren’t interested in climbing the ladder to a job as an agent, studio executive, creative VP, etc., you would do well to find a livelihood that is reliable, that pays decently, and that you like enough to do it long-term (or that will lead to something you will like to do long-term).
If you are able to leave your day job before the 10 year average, great. In the meantime, without struggling to make ends meet, you will have a lot more time and energy to devote to pursing your dream.
- Join a Rock & Roll Band. Or start one. This is not literal advice – unless you have musical talent and a hankering to tear the roof off this place. I’m recommending you join an organization of like-minded individuals all pursuing a dream together. It could be an improv troupe or a writing group or a band of indie filmmakers working on each other with projects. You never know what could happen to your little troupe when some of you start getting traction in the industry. (Think Upright Citizens Brigade.)It’s also always easier to stick to a plan when you are accountable to others and, unless you are Guns & Roses or Van Halen, usually it’s more fun.
- Get Help. “Help” can mean any one of a number of things. A mentor, for instance, though mentors can be hard to come by unless you have a beloved uncle in the business. People are often too busy pursuing or maintaining their own dream career to be a reliable sage advisor for your career. Join an acting studio or take continuing ed classes at UCLA Extension or the other local schools. Or, if you are in L.A. and need help figuring out the job piece of your life, whether it’s a day job you are looking for to accompany your dream pursuit or you want to identify, market yourself and land the right next job on your career path, attend Your Industry Insider’s Breaking Into the Biz Workshop being held February 7th and 14th. You will get expert help with career planning and tailoring your resume to the job you are searing for, and learn how to be a job hunt ninja. Click here for more information and to sign up.
I hope if you have not started to work toward your dream, this gets you started, and if you have started in that direction, I hope this hastens your pace. I know the average journey to working at your dream pursuit sounds like an awful long time, but when you get there, I am confident you will fill that it has been worth it.
The creator and writer of Your Industry Insider, Jenny Yerrick Martin is a 20+ year veteran entertainment professional with experience in the film, television and music branches of the industry. She has spent the majority of her career as a hiring executive at a studio-based production company, where she found that the people she was interviewing had little idea how the industry worked or how the position they were up for would (or wouldn’t) get them where they wanted to be. Ten minutes with her provided more of a real-world industry education than anything they learned in college or since.