how hollywood works: TV

How to get agents to ask YOU to read your script

Last week, I showed you a note requesting help from my friend, Jeff. Jeff’s friend wanted his contacts, so he could pitch a script for representation.

Jeff is a good dude. Instead of telling him to spend 4 years of his life building his own contacts (as others would have) he decided to help.

He showed him how to get agents to read his script.

Jeff’s email I’m sharing below is specifically about screenwriting, but the same principles apply to acting, music, photography, etc.  

A little context: Jeff moved to LA with no contacts, no car, and no job in 2010. Today he’s an associate producer on Vanderpump Rules and writes and produces the web series “Quality Time”. He drops A LOT of knowledge in this email, so I hope you enjoy.

Here’s his response. [click to continue…]

What entry-level Hollywood jobs pay $35K starting?

Jose asks:

How can I break in as a producer’s assistant? Do you know what the trajectory is to become a full-fledged film producer? I’ve been trying to figure out what other careers are out there with my skill set and want to do something in TV or film (TV might be more steady). I’m also looking for an entry level career that pays more than 35k starting salary. What do you think?

When I first joined the rank & file of Hollywood employees, I couldn’t tell the difference between an agent and a producer. Nevermind what the trajectory of either looked like.

One time, I asked, “what’s a mensch?”

“Wow. You’re green,” was someone’s response.

But if you genuinely don’t know, you have to start somewhere.

(My series, How Hollywood Works: TV, is a great place to start.)

But your questions trigger the Spidey-sense of anyone who’s worked in Hollywood for longer than a week. We’re seeing so many red flags it’s like red panty night came early.

I asked how other Hollywood assistants would respond to your question. Here’s what some had to say:

35K2

35K3

35K1

I’m going to answer your question, but first, I want to show you:

  • What’s wrong with this question?
  • The problem with this question?
  • What questions should you ask

How to get help and guidance from experts for free

Your questions reveal you’re too focused on goals:

  • How do I break-in as a producer’s assistant? (Goal: job)
  • How do I become a producer? (Goal: title)
  • Where can I earn $35K to start? (Goal: salary)

Goals are important. But at this stage, your focus — and, therefore, your questions — should be 100% centered on “How do I break in?”

In other words, you should focus on the process, not the goal.

It’s like, you’re standing atop a mountain, ready to ski for the first time. And you ask “what whiskey do they serve down at the lodge” when you should ask, “how do I turn in these things?”

Here’s what 3 questions could look like:

  • I’m interested in becoming X. I’ve read The Mailroom and the Producer’s Handbook, and it seems the best places to start might be A, B, and C. I’m leaning towards B. What do you think?
  • What skills can I work on now, that’d make me a no-brainer hire when I got to Hollywood?
  • I know I gotta work hard to make the big bucks in Hollywood. However, I’m curious because well, a girl’s has to eat: How much should I expect to earn at an entry-level job? Is $35K/year unreasonable?

Dude, if someone asked me these questions, I’d think: “Wow — you’re ready.”

These questions show:

  • They’ve done their research
  • They have the right expectations
  • They have the drive

And I’d do everything I could to help them.

What entry level careers pay more than $35K starting salary?

Time to get off my soapbox. Let’s tackle the biggest question:

“What entry level careers pay more than $35K starting?”

Three things to tackle to understand the answer to this question:

1. Think about your compensation as weekly salary, NOT yearly salary

Here’s a chart I created to help other assistants negotiate their salaries:

Hollywood Assistant Salary

You see that to earn $35K (gross, in other words, pre-tax) you need to make $675 per week.

2. Jobs that pay $675 starting are rare

Thus, these jobs are very competitive.

We’re talking about jobs like:

  • Well-paid production assistant jobs
  • Jobs at the big studios (e.g. Disney, Paramount, NBC-Universal, Sony, Warner Bros)

Most places will start you at either:

  • $10 – $12.75 per hour OR
  • $600 – $650 per week

3. It’s your job to fast track increases to your salary and earnings

Nobody’s gonna hand you a 3% annual raise. Here’s how you earn it:

Is this still what you want?

It’s OK to be uncertain about whether or not this path is for you. It’s okay to ask about the money or to find out if there’s a specific trajectory that most people go through. Like I said, you have to start asking questions.

Now you know that you can’t expect job security or a minimum salary of $35K a year when you’re breaking into Hollywood. So, my question is: Is this still what you want?

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Photo Credit: Andrew Quentin

What Do You Want to Learn About the TV Industry?

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…]

Why Movie Directors Are Starting to Direct Television

Separate but not equal.

Such has been the case for television and film in Hollywood, with film typically seen as “superior.” Like the cootie-ridden child on the playground, television has repelled feature directors for decades.

 The director

This is largely because the driving creative force in television has always been the showrunner, followed by the writers and producers. Directors are typically seen as hired guns, brought on to direct a show that mostly runs itself.

As Damon Lindelof said of Vince Gilligan post-BREAKING BAD:

“I will say I think it’ll be difficult for him to go into the movie world, unless he’s directing, which is what he should do. Speaking from personal experience, no matter how much creative autonomy you have as a showrunner, when you go to work in the movie business, the director is the showrunner.”

However, just like with actors, more and more big name film directors have transitioned from the silver to the small screen.

“We hear over and over again that television is the new features,” said CBS’ head of drama Christina Davis said.

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Cast and crew (including Martin Scorsese) of HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE

Most of these big name directors are hired to shoot the pilot of the series, and are in turn attached to the life of the series. Some sign on as executive producers, like Martin Scorsese (WOLF OF WALL STREET)  with HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE and David Fincher (THE SOCIAL NETWORK) with Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS. Others, meanwhile, are fully ingrained in the series as co-creators as well as directors, like Alfonso Cuarón (GRAVITY) with NBC’s BELIEVE and Neil Jordan (INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE) with Showtime’s THE BORGIAS.

So why this shift?

Television is Lucrative

Established names draw in bigger audiences, which gives hot shot directors the leverage they need to negotiate bigger contracts with studios and networks.

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On top of a bigger payday upfront, directors who shape the “look” of the show are often attached to the life of the series, which gives them executive producer credit, fees, and a percentage of profits. Or if the director is a creator or co-creator, they get a guarantee that they can write (and be paid for) a set number of episodes per season.

However, a larger payday in television, even for a show that lasts a few seasons, still pales in comparison to what the same big-name directors can make in film.

So what else is going on to make so many of them switch to television?

Television is More Fun (Creatively)

With Hollywood’s continued contraction in recent years, studios have narrowed their focus on their bottom line with tentpoles, reboots, and Oscar grabs.

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Total-Recall

This means there are fewer opportunities for directors to experiment with fresh creative content. And what A-list director wants to play with the same toy over and over again when there’s a new sandbox — television — to play in?

There are a number of ways television beats out film:

1: There’s Variety in TV

Television is brimming over with avant-garde projects. There is more diversity in television, with different networks experimenting with all sorts of stories ranging from period pieces like AMC’s MAD MEN, high fantasy like HBO’s GAME OF THRONES, and intense psychological thrillers like Fox’s THE FOLLOWING and NBC’s HANNIBAL. This plethora of creative material is exciting and fun for directors, eager to play with new and different stories.

2: TV Offers a More Flexible Schedule

When shooting a film, a director has to deal with MORE: more crew, more (and bigger) sets, more logistical headaches.

A film’s schedule typically involves 6+ weeks of shooting, PLUS months in pre-production and post-production, depending on the effects and the “heaviness” of the picture.

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David Fincher on set at Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS

In television, a director’s schedule usually lasts about 2 weeks: one week of prep, and another to shoot.

This means television directors can take on passion projects on the side, or direct episodes of another show, or just take a vacation; film directors, on the other hand, can’t.

3: Directing TV Pilots Provides Long-Term Influence on Projects

A big name director like Scorcese or Fincher carries a great deal of influence over his projects.

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Cast and crew (including co-creator Alfonso Cuarón) of NBC’s BELIEVE

The ones who are co-creators have more sway over a series’ direction, of course. But even in the more common situation of directors only directing the pilot — and getting attached as executive producer in the process — their work influences the series’ look and feel for its entire run.

So, since the pilot episode is what sets a series’ tone, a big name director only has to direct one-hour of television to leave his or her mark on a piece of work for years to come.

Why Actors Are Switching from Film to TV

The talent, e.g. actors, are the faces of shows, making them one of the most integral pieces of the television puzzle. They are usually signed on to projects last, after the showrunner and director, and oftentimes their attachment is what convinces networks to greenlight the project. Other times networks only allow a project to continue moving forward if it satisfies a cast-contingent clause.

Networks know how important it is to get the right talent for a show. Without the right talent attached, a show may never get off the ground.

Other times, shows are enormous successes because of the phenomenal work done by the actors… only to fail after they leave; take, for example, THE X FILES’ slowdown after David Duchovny’s departure.

It just wasn't the same without Mulder!

It just wasn’t the same without Mulder!

Successful television actors leave their shows for a number of reasons, but in the past the primary motivators  were to test their chops on the silver screen and make more money. Think George Clooney and Will Smith after their long and successful stints on ER and THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR, respectively.

Or, Katherine Heigel, who tried to make the jump and achieve film fame post-GREY’S ANATOMY — and, after struggling to do so (apart from KNOCKED UP) has now returned to her roots to star in NBC’s STATE OF AFFAIRS.

Film was once where all the fame, fortune, and glory was. It still is, to a certain extent…

But just like with directors, more and more high-profile stars are starting to switch from film to television.

Zooey Deschanel, for example, starred in films like ELF and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER only to then sign on to star in a little pilot for Fox called NEW GIRL in 2011, which wound up becoming one of the most acclaimed sitcoms currently on television, with five Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations.

Other stars who’ve made similar moves in the last few years include (but are not limited to) Kevin Bacon with Fox’s THE FOLLOWING, Laura Linney with THE BIG C at Showtime, William H. Macy with SHAMELESS also on Showtime, and Laurence Fishburne, first on CBS’ CSI and now on NBC’s HANNIBAL.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on HBO's TRUE DETECTIVE

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson on HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE

So why are so many of them making the switch from film to TV?

Great Roles in Television

The job opportunities in film are changing. As the film industry contracts, focus shifts more towards franchise flicks and Oscar grabs, which don’t offer film actors all that many options.

In television, on the other hand, there are a plethora of exciting and diverse roles available for actors to choose from. They get to pick from a range that spans psychopath politicians like Kevin Spacey’s character on HOUSE OF CARDS to snarky self-destructive lawyers like Greg Kinnear’s character on RAKE to kooky ad execs like the late Robin Williams’ character on the now-cancelled THE CRAZY ONES.

Kevin Spacey in Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS

Kevin Spacey in Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS

On top of this, some of these actors are signing on to straight-to-series projects that guarantee them airtime, bypassing the gamble that is the pilot structure. We discuss this more in our straight-to-series section.

Great Roles Help Revitalize and Advance Careers

These great TV roles help actors whose careers have stagnated become household names again.

They’re able to do this for two reasons:

  1. Television characters are well-written and memorable

  2. Television has an enormous audience

Zooey Deschanel in Fox's NEW GIRL

Zooey Deschanel in Fox’s NEW GIRL

 

Veteran film actors know they can use television to return to the screen and delight fans. The same holds true for younger actors, like Zooey Deschanel, who are using television to showcase their acting talents and build their fanbases.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Television?

All of this is good news television audiences. More seasoned and talented actors snatching up roles means that we the audience get better and more compelling television, especially when coupled with seasoned film directors at the helm.

The downside is it’s harder for fresh and untested talent to break into the industry. Networks typically prefer to attach the established names over unknowns, so it’s now a tougher battle to get the “big break” on television.

Of course, having a well-known actor attached to a show doesn’t automatically guarantee success. No matter who the star is, the show must find an audience, which didn’t happen with Michael J. Fox’s THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW, Christina Ricci’s PAN AM, and Robin Williams’ CRAZY ONES.

Michael J. Fox in NBC's THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW

Michael J. Fox in NBC’s THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW

But actors know failure is inherent in television, and in Hollywood in general. These flops won’t stop the flow of talent from film to television. Stars continue to sign onto pilots and straight-to-series project, like Halle Berry in TNT’s EXTANT, and there’s no reason to think that this trend will slow down.