Short answer: You don’t.
Slightly longer answer: The question is meaningless.
I recently co-hosted a series of panel discussions for the USC School of Cinema-Television aimed at helping current students and recent graduates think about the first years out in the real world. “How do I break in” was the unspoken question in almost every session, so much so that I had to call it out in the wrap-up.
Here’s why it’s an invalid question: there is no “breaking in.”
For people just starting their careers in the film industry, it often seems like there’s a wall keeping them out, or at least a velvet rope, manned by a burly guy with a clipboard and a bad attitude. But the wall, the rope and the bouncer are all illusions. There’s no systematic effort to keep newcomers out of Hollywood. (On the contrary, in many categories there’s a disturbing tendency to favor the young at all costs.)
So if there isn’t a wall, why does it feel like there’s a wall?
Well, okay. There’s a wall. But it’s not a keep-out-the-infidels kind of wall. Rather, it’s a keep-the-roof-from-falling-down kind of wall. There’s a structure to Hollywood, a kind of ramshackle mansion that’s always teetering on collapse. The front door isn’t so much jammed as inaccessible, stuffed full of take-out menus and other solicitations.
So if there isn’t a front door, how does one get inside? You look for a window, a side entrance, a dusty chimney.
That’s what the seminar was about: looking for windows.
A sizable number of attendees were aiming for the below-the-line trades (such as editors, DPs, and visual effects), where there’s a pretty clear career path, roughly approximating the apprenticeship of the old-tyme trades. Basically, one works countless hours for middling pay while learning from experts, then eventually strikes out to shoot, light, edit or visually effect on one’s own. I’m not saying it’s easy — it’s exhausting. But it’s comfortably predictable.
Not so for the writers, or the writer-directors. One panelist, explaining her search for an agent, described her incredibly focused campaign to win every writing award imaginable and target very specific agents whose clients were already working on the TV shows she was suited for. But she didn’t talk about “breaking in,” because once she was staffed on a show, it was clear that there was never really an inside. She was a working writer, but could just as easily find herself a non-working writer by the end of the season. There was no wall, fence or other boundary metaphor dividing those two states.
So I’d ask everyone to disabuse themselves of the idea of “breaking into Hollywood.” It’s not like pledging a fraternity, losing one’s virginity, or pulling off a heist. It’s just getting a job, which is boring and real, and difficult enough without any inflated imagery.