Because this site is largely aimed at aspiring screenwriters, I like to include their first-person perspective on those early steps, beginning with the move to Los Angeles. Over the last few years, we’ve had guest blog posts from Adam Davis, Kris Galuska, Jerome Schwartz and Jonny Summers — all of whom are due for an update.
George Sloan is a writers’ assistant on “How I Met Your Mother.” He graciously agreed to write up a primer for recent college grads considering making the move to Hollywood.
Hi. I’m George. You probably don’t know me. But that’s okay. We’re friends now.
Below is some information I’ve compiled over the last four-and-a-half years, based on my experience as a PA in the industry, as well as questions I’ve been asked by people considering the move to Los Angeles. Keep in mind, this is an unofficial and relatively shitty guide to working in Hollywood.
The Big Move
Every year, thousands of 20-something guys and girls pack up their cars, leave their beloved suburban towns and head west to Los Angeles. And with good reason. LA is the international capital of television and motion pictures. Argue all you want about other places — Ne w York, New Orleans, Vancouver and Eastern Europe — but when all is said and done, LA is where you need to be. Granted, that may change over the next ten years, but as of 2010, LA is still the place.
Leaving home and saying goodbye to my family and friends, though incredibly difficult, was a necessity. But before I packed my ’98 Accord to the roof, I asked myself a question. It’s the same question that I pose to anyone considering the move to LA. “Aside from film and television, is there anything else you can see yourself doing with your life?” If the answer is no, pack your stuff and get out here.
Recruit a friend to drive with you, if possible. I drove alone, however, and loved every minute of it. Those five days in the car, thinking and listening to music, allowed me to prepare myself mentally for the enormous change I was about to experience.
I moved to Los Angeles with $1,200 in savings. Dumb idea. I would suggest moving with no less than $5,000 in savings. LA is one of the more expensive cities in the country and you probably won’t have a job for the first few weeks. You’ll need enough to cover gas (about 50 cents more per gallon in LA than on the east coast), food, monthly bills (student loans, car loans, etc.), as well as your first/last month of rent and security deposit. You’ll also need money for furniture if you didn’t come out here with any. I moved in with a few guys I met on Craigslist who already had a fully-furnished house. That worked out well, but if you want to live alone, prepare to drop some cash at Ikea.
The First Job
Finding a job in LA is not that hard. Finding a good-paying job that you enjoy is very hard. I did freelance PA (production assistant) work for my first year out here (additionally, I had worked as a PA back in Boston for over a year), working on some embarrassing low-budget feature films, as well as some embarrassing big-budget reality shows. The hours were impossibly long and the pay was hilariously low. The tasks I was asked to complete were menial and beneath anybody with a high school diploma. My friends like to refer to some of the jobs I had as “pride-swallowing.” I prefer the term “soul-crushing.”
The Long and Winding Road
After a year or so, I got a job as an office PA on a big-budget studio feature. It was thrilling, but eight months later, I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new and decided to leave. I scored an internship at a well-respected production company, eventually transitioning into a full-time job as an executive assistant. But after a year, I again grew restless. I thought about why I moved to LA in the first place: to pursue my dream of writing and directing. My two years in LA had certainly not been a waste (I had fun, I learned a lot and I made some great connections), but I didn’t feel any closer to my dream of writing and directing. So I set what I considered to be a realistic goal for myself: I would become a writers’ assistant on a TV show. I had heard there was a “ladder” to climb in television writing (start as an office PA, get promoted to writers’ PA, then get promoted to writers’ assistant), and was growing increasingly frustrated by the fact that no such ladder exists in the feature world.
Luckily, around this time, I received a call from a former employer who said “How I Met Your Mother” was looking for a new office PA. It seemed destined, so I started there over the summer, and busted my ass. When shooting began in the fall, a writers’ assistant position opened up and I made it clear that I was interested and prepared to do the job. I got the promotion. It took me two and a half years to find a job that I didn’t consider “soul-crushing,” but it finally happened. I still consider myself “just starting out” in the industry, but I now feel more confident in my future.
A Necessary Evil
The best advice I can give to anyone starting out in Hollywood is to find a job as a production assistant. It sucks hard, but it’s a necessary evil. Working as a PA is thankless. Truly. But it’s the nature of the beast. You must pay your dues. You’ll make shitty money, work long hours and be forced to swallow every ounce of pride that you have, but you’ll learn more in one day than you would in a lifetime of sitting in a classroom. You’ll also learn what you do and don’t want to do.
As a new PA on “How I Met Your Mother,” I was responsible for buying groceries and keeping the refrigerator stocked. Although it sounds silly, I took this job very seriously. Within a few days, the writers were telling me I was doing way better than the last guy and were offering to read any scripts I might be working on. Even the little things count. People notice.
The Giant Whirlpool
I think of Hollywood as a giant, freezing-cold, bacteria-ridden whirlpool. On the outside of the whirlpool, closest to the shore (and financial security), are the executives, the studio heads, the big-name actors, writers and directors. As you move towards the center, you come upon the lower-level employees. And moving further inwards still, you come to the PA’s. There’s thousands of them, all clamoring and clawing, trying desperately not to get sucked into the deep, dark hole of anonymity and sadness.
I’ve found, however, that if I focus on one particular point on the shore and swim hard enough, I begin to make some headway, inching further away from the center. At times I’ve felt very unmotivated. Those were the times that I lost focus and found myself swimming in a circle, passing the same people, also stuck, frustrated and sad.
Learn to swim.
Once you get your first PA job, move as quickly as possible into the field that you want to end up in. For example, if you want to write for television, try to get a PA gig on a scripted TV show. If you want to produce reality shows, try to get into reality. If you want to be a cinematographer on feature films, get a job as an office PA, befriend the camera department PA and make it known where your interest lies. On the next show, people may offer you the position you’re looking for.
Internships are a great way to make connections and learn what you’re interested in. If you can afford to work for free (some internships do pay), get as many internships as possible. Most internships are two or three days a week and usually you can work with the internship coordinator at the company to work around whatever paying job you might have.
Some places will only hire you as an intern if you’re getting school credit. There are, however, ways around this. If you’ve already graduated from college, you can sign up for an independent study or a UCLA extension class. The company I wanted to intern with turned out to be laidback about the school credit thing, so I never had to enroll in a college class.
If you’ve already done an internship, for the love of all that is holy, use it to your advantage. Stay in touch with your supervisors. If the internship was done on the east coast, ask the people there if they know anyone in LA. If the internship was here in LA, ask them if they’re hiring. Put together a bad-ass resume and ask your supervisors if you can use them as references. Then write a bad-ass cover letter, buy the Hollywood Creative Directory (amazon.com or any LA library should have a copy) and send your info out to every office in town. Be professional and follow the guidelines of a normal cover letter, but make sure your unique personality comes across.
Film school is a tricky subject that everyone has an opinion about. You can ask ten people if they recommend going to film school and you’re likely to get ten different answers. My opinion is that film school is not necessary. I went to Quinnipiac University, a small school in Connecticut, and majored in film and television production. I’m doing just fine out here. I’ve worked with people that went to the best film schools in the country — USC and UCLA and NYU and Columbia — and we’re all at the same level. The only difference is they have some awesome looking short films and a solid alumni network. Film school is certainly a great way to meet passionate people who want to do the same thing as you, but that simply isn’t enough to convince me that film school is vital. More schooling means more money and more time, when you could just jump right into the industry. But again, opinions about going to school for film vary widely.
Connections are huge in Hollywood. Everyone has them, everyone wants them. Your best friend might know an actor from “Twilight.” Your father might know the creator of “Lost.” Your cousin might know the key make-up artist on “Avatar.” But until you are actually working in Hollywood, in a production office or on a set, none of these connections matter.
I made a list of 25 people that I knew in Los Angeles before I moved out here. When I arrived, not a single one of those people was able to help me find a job. It’s not that they didn’t want to, it’s that they weren’t able to. But I continue to check in with them periodically. A month before you move, email everyone you know in California. Send them your resume, tell them what you want to do, tell them you’ll work for free. Anything to get a foot in the door. Spread the word that you’re moving and that you’ll need a job in a few weeks. Post it on Facebook, MySpace (if it still exists) and Twitter. Text people. Send telegrams. In the unlikely chance that your big Hollywood connection does get you a job, be ready, because once that door is open, you’re gonna have to work fast to prove that you’re the best.
Tracking Boards / Job Lists
Tracking boards are online forums that many assistants in Hollywood use to track upcoming film projects. In this manner, all participants can stay current on which companies are producing which films, which scripts have “heat,” which stars are signing which contracts, etc. These boards are also used to alert other members of new job openings. Often, you have to be invited to join a tracking board. For example, Boston University has a tracking board started by some of its alumni. If someone on the board hears about a job opening, they’ll email the group and hopefully secure the job for one of their friends. It’s a form of nepotism, but get used to it. There are also dozens of job lists circulating around Hollywood. The most popular is called the UTA Job List. UTA is one of the big talent agencies in town and every week they publish a comprehensive list of open assistant positions around Los Angeles. It’s very difficult to even get an interview based on this list because it’s so competitive, but usually the best jobs will be posted here.
Many people working in Hollywood insist that the best way to break into the industry is by getting a job in the mailroom at one of the major agencies (CAA, UTA, WME, ICM) or, if need be, one of the smaller agencies (Gersch, Paradigm, ATA). I have absolutely no agency experience, so I can’t speak with authority on the subject, but be aware that it’s an option. From what I’m told, you work in the mailroom and sort mail for a while, become a “floater,” where you fill in and answer calls for various agents, and eventually get promoted to a more permanent assistant position. From there, you can decide if you’ve had enough, or if you want to continue on that path and become an agent.
LA: The Pros and Cons
I’ve only been in LA for four-and-a-half years, but I can tell you it really is the best place in the world for film. Every major studio is based here, every major filmmaker is based here. Every coffee shop you go to is full of people writing screenplays on their laptops and every movie theater is packed with like-minded people, all trying to carve a place for themselves in the industry. If you want to write, direct or produce feature films or television shows, this is the place you need to be. You’ll eventually want an agent, a manager, or a lawyer, all of whom will be based in LA.
Like any major city, LA is far from perfect and will take some getting used to. Here are a few drawbacks of the city, in no particular order: traffic, smog, lack of public transportation (in some areas), superficiality, obsession with celebrity culture, earthquakes, high sales tax.
And here are a few nice things about the city: consistently beautiful weather, proximity to beaches and mountains (often possible within a few hours), free movie screenings, world-renowned museums, a burgeoning theater scene, great Mexican food, Tom Hanks.
In the end, it’s all in your hands. You need to be willing to work hard every single day. If you have any doubt that working in Hollywood is what you want to do with your life, then I would say don’t do it. As a PA, you’re replaceable. If you give up, there’s a hundred guys and girls waiting to take your job. You need to make yourself a vital component of the team. You need to observe what everyone does and ask lots of questions. You need to make friends with everybody. And most importantly, you need to want it more than everybody else. A lot of people in LA want to do nothing with their lives except work in film and television. They grew up thinking that and they’ll die thinking that. Those are the people you’re competing with.
There is also one tiny piece of information that people tend to forget. Moving to Los Angeles isn’t permanent. Nothing in life is. You might move out here and decide it’s not for you. A few of my friends have made that decision. There’s no shame in moving back home. More likely though, you’ll move out and jump right in. Just don’t get worried if it takes you a little while to figure out what you want to do and to find a job that you’re happy in. You’ll get where you want as long as you work hard, stay open-minded and remain passionate, even in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
Below is some additional information for future production assistants.
Things to remember:
- Keep your cell phone on you at all times. Keep it charged. Silence it while on set.
- Have a car. Maintain it. Invest in a navigation system.
- Write down any instructions from your boss so you don’t forget them.
- Take a small notepad with you everywhere.
- Ask questions if you’re unsure of something. Ask more questions if you’re still unsure.
- Keep track of your mileage.
- Learn proper walkie etiquette.
- Talk to everyone.
- Other PAs are your friends.
- Be nice to everyone. You never know who might be your boss someday.
- Be especially nice to security guards.
- Check, double check, and triple check lunch orders.
- Bridges burn easily.
- Set two alarm clocks.
- Don’t go to work hung over.
- Wash your hands often. Use soap.
- Read the script.
- Read the call sheet.
- Work on your own films/scripts at night and on the weekends.
- Drink lots of water.
- Never ask if it’s time to go home. Your boss will tell you when it’s time.
- Avoid craft services unless you have a gym membership.
- Don’t lie. Ever.
- Know the difference between grip and electric.
- Don’t loiter in video village.
- If you’re going to be late, call your boss.
- Seriously, if you’re going to be late, call your boss.
Movies to Rent:
- Project Greenlight (The Complete Series)
- The Hamster Effect
- Lost in La Mancha
- Hearts of Darkness
- State and Main
- An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn
- The Player
- Day for Night
DVD Production Diaries to Watch:
- Matchstick Men
- Lost in Translation
Books To Read:
- Screenplay – Syd Field
- Story – Robert McKee
- The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats – Cole/Haag
- The Screenwriter’s Bible – David Trottier
- The Elements of Style – William Strunk & E.B. White
- Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
- The Comedy Bible – Judy Carter
- The Eight Characters of Comedy – Scott Sedita
- How NOT to Write a Screenplay – Denny Martin Flinn
- The Third Act – Drew Yanno
- Save the Cat – Blake Snyder
- On Writing – Stephen King
- Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters – Michael Tierno Hyperion
- Creating Unforgettable Characters – Linda Seger
- Hello, Lied the Agent – Ian Gurvitz
- Making a Good Script Great – Linda Seger Samuel
- Successful Sitcom Writing – Jurgen Wolff
- The Art of Dramatic Writing – Lajos Egri
- The One-Hour Drama Series: Producing Episodic Television – Robert Del Valle
- The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell
- The Script is Finished, Now What Do I Do? – K. Callen
- The Sitcom Career Book – Mary Lou Belli & Phil Ramuno
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers – Christopher Vogler
- Wake Me When It’s Funny – Garry Marshall
- Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
- You’re Lucky You’re Funny – Phil Rosenthal
- Sit Ubu Sit – Gary David Goldberg
- Rebel Without a Crew – Robert Rodriguez
- Getting Away With It – Steven Soderbergh
- Thinking in Pictures – John Sayles
- Making Movies – Sidney Lumet
- I’ll Be in My Trailer – John Badham
- My First Movie – Stephen Lowenstein
- Directing Actors – Judith Weston
- Setting Up Your Shots – Jeremy Vineyard
- The Visual Story – Bruce Block
- Audition – Michael Shurtleff
- Respect for Acting – Uta Hagen
- Hello, He Lied – Lynda Obst
- The Five C’s of Cinematography – Joseph Mascelli Silman
- Notes on the Cinematographer – Robert Bresson
- In the Blink of an Eye (2nd Edition) – Walter Murch
- The Mailroom – David Rensin
- Hollywood 101 – Frederick Levy