The last few years have been a bizarro in-between world for me. On one hand, I’m not deeply embedded in the LA entertainment industry, I don’t get paid millions of dollars, I don’t go to seventeen lunches a day and I don’t drive a hovercar. On the other hand, I’ve met with several networks, I’ve been inside the sexy onyx black cave that is the NBC Universal Film offices, I’ve pitched show ideas and I’ve had thousands of meetings that went nowhere.
So, I’m in a funny in-between place. I’ve licked the pole that is… no, bad analogy. I’ve tasted the sweet juices (okay, better) of the show business nectarine but I have not devoured the…
I’m not rich and famous yet, is what I’m saying.
But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve done things I never imagined I would and I am slowly, slowly pushing through the solid iron wall of douche toward success. I hope. The lessons I’ve learned are the lessons of someone fighting, scratching, punching at that wall — of someone not from LA, of someone taking a unique approach to film and television, of someone who doesn’t have rich parents or connections.
Of someone like most of you.
And so, without further ado, the things I’ve learned…
Set Your Sights
What do you want to do? “I’m sort of interested in editing” is not the correct answer. You need to figure out what you’re good at and what you enjoy the most and pursue it. The key is to know your own strengths well enough to make a good decision.
I absolutely adore acting (as my dad says — “You’re a writer, but if someone offered you an acting part, you’d drop everything to do it” — and he’s right), I’ve done it for years and I yearn for it. I miss it when I don’t do it for a while and it was the reason I even went into this field.
I started as an artist. I’ve taken art classes since I was 6 or 7, I’ve drawn and painted, I was an old high school friend away from going to Academy of Art College and majoring in computer animation. I love art, it’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid.
I started writing in college — and while I’ve had a decent amount of, “hey you’re pretty good”-comments toward my art and acting, I could immediately tell that writing was where my skill was. Don’t get me wrong — I’d explode if I couldn’t write, it really is one of my favorite things to do. But it came late and happened to be the thing I was not only good at, but, I thought, competitive in. In other words, I think there are plenty of actors and artists who are far more talented than I am, but I think as a writer, I can compete with professionals — which isn’t to say I don’t have a whole, whole, whole lot to learn and get better.
So, I’m a writer — and because I seem to be pretty good at organizing and getting stuff done, I’m a producer. It’s what I’m good at, it’s what I think I have the best chance of breaking into the industry with, and it’s what I had the most luck with.
Find your strength, your best skill — we all want to be Spielberg and Al Pacino, but if you’re a fantastic editor, that’s your way in.
Then, when you’re in, Spielberg it up.
Listen to People, But Also Don’t
Since I was a kid, I’ve often been told that this is how you do things. That this is the way, that you go down this path if you want A and you go down this path if you want B. To clarify — my parents never told me that — it was just a lot of other people.
And I hated it. Because, when I stubbornly refused to listen, I started realizing that generally, everyone is wrong. People tell you what they know from their experiences, but you’re not these people and your experiences will be significantly different. To be fortune cookie about it, there isn’t one path to success, everyone carves their own way. Your lucky numbers are 29, 20, 33, 29, and 9.
To break in as a writer in LA, I was always told you have to: write two spec scripts, send them to an agent, wait 7 to 10 years before an agent returns your email or letter (with a response that says, “Send me your samples” — and then it’s another 7 to 10 years, BUT STAY IN THERE!) and then wait as he tries to get you a third show that matches your strengths. At which point, if you’re lucky and better than the billions of other writers out there, you get a staff writing position on Moesha and in 20 years get a chance to pitch a script that you head write.
Okay, so, maybe I’m exaggerating — but that’s how it always sounded to me. I decided from the beginning that I wasn’t going to do that, I’m far too impatient and it just.. it wasn’t the way I wanted to take. So, we made Break a Leg when no one except The Burg was making web shows and now I’m here. Which, by the way, when we were making Break a Leg, everyone said, YOUR EPISODES ARE TOO LONG, NO ONE WATCHES ANYTHING ABOVE 115 SECONDS (oh yes, they counted in seconds) — but we ignored them. Average length now? 8-12 minutes. Which was our length.
Eat it, People Who Ran What Are Now Failed Video Sites!
That said, completely ignoring what professionals say is silly too. It’s a careful line to tread. Personally, I try to listen to what everyone says and then mangle it into what works for me. It’s like learning film structure — once you’re an expert in what a script is supposed to feel like, you can start twisting it and turning it in your own unique way.
So, listen, learn, and then do it your way — it’s the only way to succeed past “meh” and achieve the great heights of, “hey!”
Don’t Be A Douche
I know that everyone seems like a douche when you’re in LA. And they are. But you know what I noticed? Almost everyone I met who was higher — for example, the NBC executives — were like the nicest people ever. They were friendly, funny, helpful, easy to talk to and felt like real humans.
This leads me to believe, perhaps wrongly, two things:
1. While you can succeed as a douche, you can also succeed as a good person. The latter’s ladder seems more enjoyable to climb.
2. That these people in charge who I met got there because they were good people. And, since one of them helps run the comedy department and NBC Universal and the other one is charged with finding talent for NBC Universal’s film department, I feel like if I follow in their nice footsteps I’ll eventually get a nice job.
Quick story: the last douchey ‘higher-up’ I talked to was someone important at HBO Interactive. Half the conversation was him talking in a very self-important voice about what he did and what he was in charge of — a month later they closed HBO Interactive.
Don’t be a douche, it’s just so much better that way.
Don’t Wait For People To Do It For You
That seems like fortune cookie wisdom also, but this is something I really learned in the last few years. With Break a Leg, we waited for the marketing company we worked with to do something, after Break a Leg we waited on our “sort of manager, mostly friend” to get us jobs — and while both helped, nothing started happening quite as much as when I started doing it myself.
The same goes for agents, managers, friends who promise you things — whatever. The way I see it? Anyone who wants to help is completely welcome to help — but you should be working your ass off trying to push yourself further. My most recent approach has been to really follow-up on any quick ideas I have (hey, I should email this guy, why not?) and throw everything I’ve got at the proverbial wall to see what proverbially sticks.
Since I decided to do that in June or so, we’ve gotten a network deal, four or five production jobs (with plenty more coming), a blog that people read and sometimes like (hi people!), and a new show in the works that I have really high hopes for. I’m not bragging, I’m really not (I’d have to have a bank account that didn’t make African children laugh to brag), I’m just saying — the hard work is slowly paying off. I hope.
So, stop waiting for everyone, just get it done.
Periodically Leave Your Artistic Circle
Here’s what I mean — LA is bizarro world. I’m not sure if people living in it understand that and just adapt, or they think it’s like that everywhere, but I promise you, it’s bizarro world. Likewise, the web community is bizarro in its own way. The problem with constantly being surrounded by the same artistic community is you get insulated from the real world. You start forgetting what real people like, what real people look for, how real people talk. Forget the fact that it affects how you view and portray the world as an artist (our job is to show the real world, not the bizarro land in which we all live), it also starts forcing you to take the same paths as everyone else. For example, everyone is making a 3 minute web show? I’ll make a 3 minute web show! Everyone is succeeding by doing X? I’ll do X!
It hampers ideas and creative thought. So take a step back, hang out with a few normies, and then see what that does for you.
Have a Sense of Humor
Especially about yourself, your work and what you do. As soon as you start taking yourself too seriously, you’ve started becoming the douche of which we spoke of earlier.
Not because there’s a chance they’ll get famous and help you (but who knows?!) — but because of all the people who have helped you along the way. If you’ve had the bizarre experience of having fans follow your work — answer their questions, talk to them, talk to everyone, help anyone you can within the best of your abilities. I don’t mean to be San Francisco about it, but, good karma is like totally worth it, man.
Struggling in this business creates a very jungle, everyone-for-themselves environment and it’s very easy to be selfish. Very easy to help only when it helps you. Fight that urge, selflessness never killed anyone.
…unless you selflessly lose your life for someone… Just shut up and be nice.
Know Your Own Skill
It’s easy to be arrogant. It’s easy to doubt yourself. It’s easy to constantly evaluate yourself in one extreme or the other. That doesn’t help. If you can’t tell that your work is worse than other people’s and don’t try to get better, you’re not getting anywhere. If you’re too down on yourself to try and reach for the stars, the same goes for you.
Know your skill, but don’t, again, be a douche about it. Know what your truly capable of — only then can you actually get better.
Actually Talk To People
You remember what talking is like? It’s not waiting for them to finish so you can tell them about your movie idea. It’s not telling people about your successes while they struggle to stay away. It’s not even begging them to read your script. It’s actual, like, talking to people. Listen to what they say, respond in kind, show interest (and actually be interested) in their lives. Joke around, have fun, we’re all people here, we’re not just evil suits, flakey agents or insane artists — we’ve got similar motivations, similar struggles and we’re all worried that when we talk to people, they use their laser sight to note all of our imperfections.
So, just talk to people.
And don’t be a douche.
That, for now, is it! I’d love to hear all of the lessons you all have learned from your experiences! Share, please, please share!