What Do You Want to Learn About the TV Industry?

career, how hollywood works: TV

I was 14-years-old when I started working in restaurants. As I slipped into a polo shirt and pleated khakis, my father gave me his version of a pep-talk, tinged with a sensitivity known only to drill sergeants and Asian fathers:

“Remember: You don’t know as much as you think you know.

“So keep you mouth shut,” he said. “Watch and listen.”

Inspiring! However…

14 years later and the advice stuck with me. What my father meant:

Go into everything with an open mind.

Listen before passing judgment.

And spend the time to learn about people and their opinions. They may know something you don’t.

[click to continue…]

The Playing Field is More Level Than You Think

career, internships

The process to become a trial lawyer in Ireland (a “barrister”) is different than in the states.

Instead of completing undergrad then going to law school, you declare you’re studying law upon entering University, at 17- or 18-years old.

After you have your law degree, you must pass an entrance exam into the King’s Inn, where after one more year of study, you get your JD equivalent.

Afterwards, you must go through a process called devilling. It’s like an extended, mandatory internship. For at least one year (sometimes two) you work on your “Master’s” cases, unpaid.

When you’re done, your Master may refer some business to you, unless he takes on another Devil (student).

Traditional marketing goes out the window. It’s against the law for barristers to advertise their services.

A barrister generates 100% of her business off relationships alone.

A current Devil explained this to me. She was frustrated by these notoriously archaic set of rules, and how they slowed down career growth. And the whole “working for free” part:

“Pretty much I’m not going to make any money for another 2 years.”

Of course, all barristers play by the same rules. Her competitors encounter the same frustrations.

When we get stuck, it’s easy to forget that — for the most part — we all play by the same rules.

For example, if I were in her position, this is what I’d do:

  • Find underrepresented niches in the market and make a point of addressing those areas in my research, work, and network

  • Differentiate myself by choosing areas or skillsets away from the core competencies of my master. She’s more likely to send me business (even if she takes on another Devil) if she knows my specialty and it’s different from hers

  • Begin to network with young solicitors (transactional lawyers) who need to build their own networks

This is a gross simplification. I know nothing about practicing law.

And I’m not trying to be glib, or suggest her frustrations aren’t real. It’s a problem we all face.

All the fields I’ve tried my hand at (and continue to work at), I still struggle to extract the simple strategies from my frustrations:

  • Poker (“play the person, not the cards”; “play premium hands”; “follow the fundamental theorem of poker”)

  • Stock market (“diversify”; “invest for the long run”; “buy low, sell high”)

  • Blogging (“content is king”; “post on a regular schedule”; “use social media”)

And of course:

  • Hollywood (“it’s not what you know, but who you know”; “pay your dues and someday it’ll be worth it”; “read the trades everyday”)

Incredibly simplified strategies. Doesn’t make them not true.

Executing the tactics that drive strategy can feel excruciating.

When you work insane hours… and no one appreciates it.

When you’re barely making rent… and all your friends are putting down payments on houses.

When you’re doing “everything right”… but your career has stalled.

When we’re in the thick of it, all we see are the frustrations. We lose sight of the overall strategy. That’s when it’s a worthy exercise to step back and observe the following from an outside perspective:

  • What are the rules everyone plays by?

  • What are 3 strategies that maximize the work you do given these rules?

  • Do my everyday tactics drive at least one of these strategies?

The Baggage of the Hollywood Dream

financial religion, personal stories

Last week in the Hollywood Career Anti-Plan I said:

“I believe the amount of work you put out into the universe is inversely proportional to the amount of baggage you carry. Just my theory.”

I wanted to explore the idea of (physical) baggage from the perspective of working in the Hollywood system. First, two stories I wanted to share:

The first is fact.

The second is fiction (but still illuminating).

The Fast Track to be a Hollywood Working Man

The first story is about David O. Russell.

He’s the director of critical darlings like FIGHTER, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, AMERICAN HUSTLE. Yet still calls himself a “working man… living from picture to picture.

Russell: … I’ve been a working man, I work to make a living; I take writing assignments. So I take a writing assignment to write this Uncharted film, because I have to support my family. I live from picture to picture, regardless of what anyone’s fantasy of Hollywood is.

Movies.com: In Hollywood terms, that’s paycheck to paycheck…

Russell: Yeah, I never found that pipeline, so I’m just picture to picture.

The second fictional story comes from Simon Rich. Rich is the youngest SNL writer in the history of the show. In a piece called SELL OUT for the New Yorker, he tells the story of a character named, uh, Simon, who is a screenwriter living in NY:

“I already said no to that!” he says. “No—I don’t want to punch up any more sequels. Because it’s completely unfulfilling. It’s someone else’s characters, someone else’s plot—I’m supposed to be working on my novel, for God’s sake.”

He pauses mid-stride.

“They’re offering what? For just six weeks? Holy shit.”

“You know what?” Simon says, in as cheerful a voice as he can make. “That’s actually an excellent idea for a ‘Zoo Crew’ movie. I mean, they already had Captain Cow go to outer space in the fifth one. But he’s never been to the moon.”

His voice lowers.

“Do you think we can get them to go up even higher? No? O.K.—just checking.”

(Hat-tip to Isaac Katz for the suggestion.)

The Hollywood Dream in 3 Steps

There’s a version of the American dream that’s pushed in the industry. It’s the Hollywood Dream: make absurd amounts of money on your art, then spend a major portion “rewarding” yourself for your hard work.

Those rewards paint you “successful”: the nice cars, the beautiful homes, and the entourage of people who drive your nice cars, clean your beautiful home, and watch your kids.

Then you realize to maintain that lifestyle, you have to keep working. Eventually, you’re making choices based on supporting the trappings of success, not the work that made you successful.

This doesn’t just happen at the highest levels of Hollywood. It’s ingrained at the start. It’s pressed onto the assistants. It’s passed onto the interns:

  • “Work really hard now, someday when you’re an executive it’ll be worth it.”

  • “Don’t expect a raise. You’re lucky you’re working here. Be grateful.”

  • “I know you can’t afford it, but you won’t make it unless you look the part.”

And young Hollywood hopefuls lap it up. They don’t question the Hollywood Dream — they covet it.

How to Eliminate Baggage

It’s not crazy to covet the Hollywood Dream.

It’s okay to like nice things. I like nice things. I like nice restaurants and good tequila and Uber Black Cars. The problem with UberX is the drivers really like to talk — about themselves. So I’ll pay a premium for silence.

If you want nice things, save the money. Buy those nice things.

What I DO think is insane is most people DON’T THINK ABOUT WHAT THEY WANT. They buy shit because it’s conveniently been decided for them it’s what they SHOULD WANT.

That’s what leads to baggage. Which in turn, means you’re able to put less out into the universe.

I’ve been sitting here, thinking about what I want. I came up with a lot of stuff. A Ghurka bag made several appearances. And a Boosted Board.

Eventually, I whittled it down to 3 crucial things, however:

  • Freedom to work on things I’m interested in

  • Spend more time with family and friends

  • Freedom to pay for dinner or drinks — and never think about the cost

Great! That was a wonderful exercise…

But what will I sacrifice so I can focus on these 3 things? What will help eliminate the baggage?

Here are some ideas. You’ll probably have your own, for what works best in your life. Or maybe you’ll think, “no way I could do without X.” That’s fine. Some of these used to be big parts of my life. Now they aren’t.

Shopping For Stuff

I can’t remember the last time I went shopping for stuff. I mean, going out into the world and waiting for the world to sell me something.

I’ve exchanged this activity for one I call, “Need it? Buy it.” It’s very simple. No more fretting about sales. No more “cost-cutting strategies” like off-season shopping.

I need something? I buy it.

My friends are getting married. All the time, it seems like. I like to buy a new shirt for these weddings, because I’m terrified these friends will get together without me and look through their wedding photos on Facebook, then burst out in laughing fits when they see what I’m wearing.

“He’s wearing the same shirt!” they’ll laugh, pointing. “He wore the same shirt twice!”

So I buy new shirts. I walk into the store, pick what I like and pay full-price. Then I leave, only to return before the next wedding.

There was a time I loved shopping. I loved those timed online stores, like Steepandcheap.com. Man, the savings! Once, they had this amazing Mountain Hardware jacket for 70% off. Nearly bought it, until I remembered I lived in Los Angeles.

Haven’t been back since.

The “Right” Clothes

In high school, I spent an unconscionable amount of time trying to get my jeans to fall perfectly over my sneakers. It felt like social suicide if they bunched up at the ankle like a slinky.

The “right” clothes back then was anything with the brand name prominently displayed. On your chest, your arms, your ass. I didn’t like it, but I remember feeling profoundly more confident in a GAP hoodie or AMERICAN EAGLE t-shirt.

I like to look neat. Not neat like “neat-o,” but you know, polished. Fortunately that takes a lot less time and energy today than it did in high school.

Plus, one of the perks of working at a home office is the “right clothes” are often basketball shorts and a t-shirt.

Shoes

I have about 10 pairs of shoes in the apartment right now. Haven’t bought a new pair in a while, but yeah, that’s too many. I’m working on it.

Brand Name for Brand-Name’s Sake

The last pair of sunglasses I bought were Ray-Ban.

Specifically, they’re a Ray-Ban’s model called “LA.” I bought them for the “LA” next to the Ray-Ban logo. I paid an extra $50. That’s $25 per letter.

The sunglasses themselves are okay. They do their job. But they slip down my nose a lot, so I was looking to buy a pair of Ray-Ban wayfarers. These cost $200.

I had them in one hand, and my credit card in another. Then I stopped. It wasn’t the price. It was the thought: “is the only reason I’m buying these because they say ‘Ray-Ban’ on them?”

Yes.

Did I actually care?

No.

I put them back.

Brand New

The table and chair I’m sitting at in the kitchen as I write this belonged to a UCLA grad student who was moving back to China.

The movable island behind me, I bought from a former neighbor, before he moved to Chicago. The sofa came from a couple in Venice. A couple years ago, I told Amy I needed a new desk. We walked outside, and 300 feet from the apartment, a guy was selling his on the street.

Are there reasons to buy brand new? If it’s important to you, sure. Buy new. Get the warranty and peace of mind.

Plenty of things don’t, though. Like this kitchen table. It’s got four legs. To my knowledge, those four legs will still stand upright tomorrow. No warranty needed. Is the idea I’m the only person who’s ever broken bread here something I’m willing to pay a premium for?

I understand if that’s important to you. For me it’s not.

Comfort

A world of possibilities opens up when you’re comfortable with discomfort.

You can drive across the United States with a lot less hassle and worry. Instead of searching for hotels or trying to save money on rate differentials, aim for a National Forest and throw up a tent. Or if you’re in Utah, drive a quarter mile off the road and do the same thing.

Comfort 100% of the time is great if you want to be a giant pansy. “It’s too cold, it’s too hot, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, boo-hoo.”

True story: when we used to go on long car rides, my siblings and I would complain we were thirsty. We wanted to stop at McDonald’s and get a Coke. My mother would tell us to stop whining. “Drink your spit,” she said.

Comfort on occasion is nice. You upgrade or whatever, it’s a great experience, but you don’t make it a way of life, because that lifestyle isn’t what’s important to you.

You know what is important to you?

No?

Better get working on it, then.

Mindless Television

family, television

During any visit to family, I wind up doing a lot of mindless television watching.

When visiting Albany, we’ll watch hours of ENTOURAGE together.

During this visit to Amy’s family, it’s only been a few days but we’ve already logged in hours of NCIS — a show I regularly and openly disparage.

(Actually, I credit NCIS as one of the reasons why I moved to LA: I was telling my mother how clunky it was.

“If you can do better, go do better,” she said.)

Like any good procedural (a series with stand-alone episodes that involve a “case-of-the week”, typically of the medical, law, or crime variety), the mindlessness was created mindfully: [click to continue…]

The 7-Step Hollywood Anti-Career Plan

career

I had this grand plan when I moved out to Los Angeles in 2010.

Want to hear it?

  • Year 1 – Survive. Write a lot. Don’t move back to Albany.

  • Year 2 – Stop waiting tables. Get an industry job.

  • Year 3 – Get representation.

  • Year 4 – Work on a television show OR sell a spec.

Writing this list down is a bit embarrassing. It’s hard to look at what I didn’t accomplish yet. I fell short of those big goals (get representation, work on a TV show, sell a spec).

Complete air balls.

Even some of those “easier” goals I only just accomplished:

I thought about moving back to Albany during Year 1… but didn’t.

I did stop waiting tables… only to have to ask for my job back, a year later. When I couldn’t find an industry job.

Then I quit again.

In my mind, Year 1 to Year 4 was a much neater journey. I didn’t expect the detours in casting, in physical production, unemployment, management.

It was never a straight shot along that grand career plan of mine. [click to continue…]

TV Networks and Vision

books, career, networks

Here’s an example of vision I read* last week:

In 1991, Bob Daly and Barry Meyer at Warner Bros. Studios realized their survival depended on forming their own network.

Across town, at Paramount Studios, executives felt the same way. For executive Kerry McCluggage, creating a network was a major point in his strategic plan.

The FCC’s Financial Interest and Syndication rules (laws that limited the Big Three networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) by putting strict limits on the amount of programming and syndication they could own) was coming to an end. If Warner Bros. and Paramount didn’t have their own networks to sell to, they could get locked out television by their competitors.

The negotiations to end fin-syn started in earnest in the late 80s. Daly was one of the key negotiators trying to uphold fin-syn, to buy his studio time:

“I negotiated for forever and a day. It was the first time I negotiated where it was important that I drag it on for as long as I could… I knew what you could do as a network when there was no government to tell you what to do.”

On February 8, 1996, Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, repealing fin-syn.

A year earlier, on January 11, 1995, both Warner Bros. and Paramount launched their networks (the WB and UPN, respectively).

UPN struggled.

The WB hit their stride, which led to a wave of shows that shaped a generation:

Dawson’s Creek

Felicity

Buffy

How many of us try to handle our careers with the same vision? When was the last time you asked, “where is this industry going?” Then bet accordingly?

Any bet is uncertain. It’s easy to be wrong, and to look foolish.

Much easier to float along with the market, and never take a position at all.

* SEASON FINALE by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton. HT to Bitter Script Reader for the suggestion.