In 2006, I met a young filmmaker at a film festival who had just exited USC with a highly stylized short film that he was very proud of. I never saw his film, but he described it to me as being in the German Expressionist style. Needless to say, he was excited that his work was finally getting seen by industry professionals, instead of being trashed by fellow students or graded by instructors. Like all newbies, his enthusiasm was running high. Over the last couple of years, we’d traded a few emails, but last week, when he contacted me and asked if we could grab a coffee, I suspected I knew what was up.
There’s something sort of adorable about young filmmakers. They are such optimists and I always hate seeing them take their first beating by the big dominatrix we call Hollywood. My young friend looked a little glum when I met him at a local coffee house. Now three years out of film school, he had (in order to pay rent) careened from one production job to the next. Smart and industrious, he had been well-liked by his employers. In fact, the company he was currently working for had just offered him a promotion. The last three years had given him a tremendous amount of experience with the ever-exploding world of film technology. But the problem was that his dream of actually making films seemed to be quickly slipping away. He confessed that for the first time in his young life, he felt directionless; like he was just being swept along, possibly toward a career path that he didn’t really want. It was a familiar story.
Filmmaking is a tough art form. Unfortunately, films (even little films shot with minimal production values) are surprisingly expensive. Even if you manage to shoot a compelling story set in your living room and starring your friends, soon you are faced with post-production costs, reproducing DVD’s and shelling out entry fees for film festivals. And big festivals tend to frown on films shot on your cell phone. The competition is stiff and these days, how a film looks is now an almost bigger factor than the actual content.
As a starting point, I asked my young friend what exactly he wanted to do in the film business. Some of his plans sounded a bit idealistic. He wanted to make films that mattered. He didn’t want to make “Transformers 8.” I can understand. Very few of us do. The longer I remain in the business, the less I want to write (or go see) films that feature long blasts of machine gun fire or someone vomiting in the bushes. As much as my friend still wanted to make his mark as an artist, it was also clear that he was getting tired of being poor.
I asked him to give me specific examples of what sort of films he wanted to make. His slightly convoluted answer seemed to indicate that he wanted to make films that had never been made before. That’s when I lowered boom: Everything (well, almost everything) has been done before. Reinventing the wheel is a tough thing to do. I began to press him about what he did well. What did he actually like to do? What were his strengths?
We soon got down to brass tacks about how, although he liked to come up with stories, he didn’t particularly like to sit down and write them. He was good at structure, but wasn’t great when it came to fleshing out a story with characters, events and dialogue. I suggested that what he probably needed was a writing partner; someone with a skill set that complimented his own. Maybe a person who was imaginative, but lousy at organizing their ideas. I also asked him about his experience producing projects for the company he’d been working for. He said he’d really enjoyed it and felt he was good at it. I then suggested that if creating content didn’t pan out for him soon, maybe a producing career might be a better plan. I also encouraged him to think about the audience; something he’d never much considered. Hammering out a script is a long journey and can be exhausting. The last thing you want to discover at the end of that process is that you’ve churned a movie so quirky or narrow in scope that not even your family would want to see it.
I shared with him something that helped me enormously when I first came to Hollywood – taking a trip to Blockbuster. Strolling through the aisles, pen in hand, I would jot down the titles of movies that I’d particularly enjoyed. I’d then asked myself who had produced these films. Were they studio releases or indie projects? How much had they cost? Had the films been successful at the box office or were they lesser-known cult classics? When I hit on something that I really loved, I would ask myself “What is MY version of this story?” Little by little, I began to reshape my thinking; steering my ideas more toward the general marketplace. Before long, I started to sell my pitches to studios and I was in the game.
The last thing I left my friend with was what I think is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in Hollywood. Say “yes.” Everybody tends to come into this business with a very specific dream. Sometimes luck is with us. Other times change is the order of the day. For my money, the best game plan is to stay open to doing challenging work that uses your talents and creativity. If you came to L.A. to be an actor and find yourself working in casting, you are still in a highly creative business that requires a keen eye for talent. If your plan was to direct and you find yourself working as an editor, you’re still in a field that requires tremendous imagination and skill. Maybe you wanted to write for film, but wind up in TV, the good news is your work is being seen by millions of people every week. Not bad a deal, if you ask me.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge proponent of following your dream. If you know in your heart that you were born to do a particular thing in this business, then GO FOR IT! But if years are rolling by with no real movement on that front, why let your talent go to waste? Speaking as someone who is now on my fourth career in show business, I can honestly say that (in the end) I’ve never been sorry about changing direction. And I’ve never been bored. Trust me. No Hollywood job is ever quite as satisfying or glamorous as it looks from the outside. Mostly, I’m tremendously grateful that by staying open, I’ve been able to make a living doing creative work. If you manage to find any career that allows you to do that – Congratulations! -- You have won the big prize!
Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/