It happens about once a year. I get a call from one of my civilian friends that starts out with “So, my nephew (or “niece”) just graduated from (blah-blah university) with a degree in (“communications,” “film production,” etc.) and I was wondering… (slight pause)…I know you’re really busy, but would you be willing to give him (or her) some advice on breaking into the business?” Truthfully, this is not my favorite call to get. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I find giving advice to people on how to break into show business strangely pointless. It's like trying to advise someone on how to find God, true love or a parking space at the Century City Mall. Who the fuck knows how anybody does it? That said, I also remember what it felt like to land in the big city, friendless and clueless, so I, of course, agree to meet the nephew/niece for a coffee. On arrival, I’m usually greeted by a bright, fresh-faced young person who looks about 15 years old. When I ask what they want to do with with their careers, their answer is almost always incredibly vague. They are often a little nervous -- and with good reason. Having just blown through a large sum of their parents’ money to earn a media degree, they are only now beginning to realize that said degree basically qualifies them to return home. Having zero knowledge of this young person’s abilities, I do my best to give them a general overview of the entertainment business. I then offer a few ideas about entry level jobs and always try to finish up on an optimistic note. There are usually a couple of follow-up emails and then I never hear from them again. Hopefully, they go out and find happiness in this or some other field of endeavor.
Between you and me, I’ve always had a slight problem with the whole idea of academic training for show business. I once did an acting gig on a TV show with a friend of mine who is truly hilarious. We were shooting a scene outdoors and just as we were about to start, something went seriously wrong with the engine of a nearby truck. Without warning, it made this explosive, ear-shattering sound. We all just stood there as a puff of smoke billowed out from under the hood. Suddenly, my friend thrust his hands onto his hips, jutted his chin out like Superman and shouted in a loud, confident voice, “Perhaps I can help! I’m a theater major!” The reality is that although schools can put a camera (or a script) in your hand, they can’t really teach you what to do with it. Careers aren’t made in school. They’re made on the battlefield. Show business (unlike academia) follows no structured or logical course. It’s a job that requires moxy, instinct, ingenuity and chutzpah. And unfortunately, they don't offer degrees in those subjects.
It’s almost impossible for me to look into the face of a talented, ambitious young person and tell them what they are, in fact, signing up for. There is a very large initiation fee to get into this club. Most of us are well into our thirties before it dawns on us what a very expensive decision it ultimately turns out to be. The truth is, even if you did spell it out for the young applicant, they wouldn’t believe you. And that’s as it should be. They are, as of yet, un-charred by the fire and I sometimes sit there and envy their innocence almost as much as I envy their tiny little waistlines. They are at a place where they can see it all so clearly in their mind’s eye: That success. That happy life where work and spouse and family and civic duty all balance just perfectly and the lawn is green and the mortgage is paid and the car is new. Their name is in Variety every other day and when the baby pulls the Oscar off the mantle, they chuckle and say “Careful, Sport! That’s not a toy.” Far be it from me to be the one to point out how rarely that balance is ever achieved. I do think there is one thing truly worth saying to any young person who might (at this very moment) be contemplating a career in the entertainment industry. If that person is YOU, read on.
You’re not going to believe how lame this is going to sound, but here it is: Go with the Flow. The whole journey is so full of surprises. You won’t believe how many times your raft will survive the rapids only to go over the falls. It can be incredibly fun and it can also be unbelievably tough. The happiest and best careers are the ones that acknowledge and incorporate those facts into an ever-evolving game plan. Enjoy it. Even the shitty parts can be sort of fun. Whatever happens, I can promise you it will go by faster than you can imagine. Before you know it, somebody will be calling you and asking if you’ll talk with their niece or nephew. By that time, I’ll be enjoying my Tapioca up at the old actors’ home in Woodland Hills, so don’t bother calling me. I did my part. It’s your problem now. They will be counting on you, so don’t fuck up. Make sure you have something great to say to them. They deserve your best.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv