I love watching celebrities’ stories. Not the ones on E! about their break ups and rehab, but the ones about their path to success.
As entertaining and inspiring as those stories are though, when you try to apply them to your own life is hard to know exactly what to do. After all, they all took different paths, they knew different sets of people, they all had different opportunities, etc.
All they seemed to have in common is that they fell in love with directing, acting, writing, etc, and they worked very hard at it. ‘Fine!’ You might say, ‘I like this career and I’ll work hard!’. The only problem is you have to know where to work hard at. You can bust your ass working for several years and still go nowhere. I know several people who have been around for several years trying to launch their career (some of them for a decade or more) and they still need to keep their day job to support their art. If you’re one of them keep reading.
At over 5000 words this post ended up being over 5 times longer than I originally planned, but the model i’m gonna share with you here is simple and can be applied to any career you want (in fact you can even apply to other things like relationships, but that’s a different matter altogether).
I’m not saying you don’t need to work hard because you do, but you’ll have a much better idea of where to put all that work, that is without mentioning that if you follow it correctly all the work will also flow with much less effort than if you don’t.
So let’s get to it then. In this model there are 4 essential aspects of your career, we’ll go into them a little more deeply but for now here’s the basics:
Heart = The emotional side (do you love what you’re doing?
Mind = The logical and practical aspect like your skills
Spirit = The social aspect of it like your sense of contribution and collaboration
Body = The external aspect of your career like money and other perks
All these sides of your career affect each other, the idea is to keep them all in balance because the lack of balance usually means an unfulfilling career.
I learned this model at a workshop by Steve Pavlina, he teaches it as ‘Quadrants’, I also saw a similar model in a book by Brian Klemmer, he talks about a ‘Square’. Both metaphors try to achieve balance between all 4 sides, you score yourself in each area try to work on the side that you lack the most to keep them all in balance.
That works pretty well in a lot of cases, but what happens if you have two or three weak sides? Where do you start? That’s why I like to go a step further and stack them like a tower you have to build up, just like success, I call it the Success Tower and when it’s perfectly balanced it looks like this:
As with any tower, you have to start building from the bottom up. The block at the bottom has to be the strongest one because it has to support the rest.
After looking at this diagram and seeing that the Body aspect is on top you might be thinking, ‘So the money comes last!?’ and the answer is yes, in this model the money comes last and you’ll see why. There might be other faster ways to get money and maybe even fame, but if what you want is a fulfilling career, this is the only one I know of that gives results consistently.
Now let’s take a deeper look to each one of them. Take in mind that the process is additive, which means that when you move from one step to the next you still have to keep working on all the previous steps.
The formula for success that I used in the past was:
It’s a pretty simple formula and it speaks the truth. It basically says that in order to get Success (a.k.a. money and fame or the Body side) you need to be ready with sufficient skill (Mind side) for when the opportunity comes (via the Spirit side). The only problem is that such formula is incomplete, it skips the Heart side completely and doesn’t tell you that you must love what you’re doing, which is by far the most important part of having a fulfilling career and the base of our Success Tower. If you don’t love what you’re doing, all the rest of the steps will feel like hard work, whereas if you do, everything will flow easily because you’ll want to do the work. In other words, Figure out what you want to do and make sure you love it!
Have you ever heard those statistics that say that less than 5% of the people that come to Hollywood will actually make it? Does that worry you? It doesn’t bother me because in my opinion, most of that 95% that failed just didn’t love it enough. I mean, it’s easy to say that you’re a writer, or an actor, even a director. What isn’t so easy is to actually make a living off it, it takes years of hard work! And if you don’t love what you’re doing you’ll give up before you achieve success.
Even if you forced yourself through it, it won’t matter how good you are at something, how appreciated you are by your peers or how much money you’re making off it, if you don’t love what you’re doing you’ll always feel like something’s missing. Of course, being good at something, getting recognition and make a lot of money off something feels nice and can make you happier than you are now, especially if you’ve been lacking in those areas for a while, but in the long run, those things get old very fast if the heart isn’t in it. You might think, If I was a millionaire I could then do what I really want. Well, I have a better idea for you genius: How about instead of spending years and a lot of work to be a millionaire by doing something you don’t like (which is very unlike to happen anyway), why don’t you spend the same amount of work and time to become a millionaire by doing something you love to do. It’ll be so much easier and you’ll feel much better!
Be very honest with yourself and make sure you’re pursuing this career because you love it. Not because it’s ‘cool’ being an actor or director, or because is what your parents do or wanted you to do, not even because you liked it in high school and now you don’t want to tell everyone you didn’t like it that much after all. You have to LOVE it, ‘pretty good’ is not enough.
Here’s a simple exercise: Picture yourself in five or ten years from today. What do you see yourself doing? Do you feel excited about it? Now, think of all the challenges you had to go through to get there, the uncooperative producer, all the projects you loved and spent a lot of time working on but that never made it into production. The long night shoots from 7PM to 10AM, the months spent out of town, away from your family… are you willing to pay the price?
If not, you’re in the wrong path and that’s OK, it happens to most of us. There’s absolutely no shame in realizing that a path you chose doesn’t make you happy, just don’t waste any more time in it and find something that you really love, even if it’s not glamorous (the film industry isn’t that glamorous in real life anyway) or ‘cool’. If you suddenly realize you want to act instead of direct, then be an actor, if you realize that you don’t want to be a film director but instead you like to work with wood, be a carpenter or a wood sculptor. The point is just make sure it’s something you love!
What if you’re not sure of what you love?
In that case you still have to take action and not just wait around, hoping something you love will come down to you. Just pick something you think you might love and start advancing through the Tower, move on to the Mind side and start learning it. As you progress, your feelings about it will get clearer and you’ll be able to make a choice. If you find that you love it keep moving, if you don’t, just try something else and build another Tower. Whatever time you invested in learning it is not wasted time, you gained new knowledge, maybe even a new skill (which you can keep as a hobby if you like it but don’t want to make a career out of it), most important of all you’re closer to figuring out what you DO want which is the bigger goal. If you don’t know what you want to do, you’ll end up what everybody else wants you to do.
Once you have something you love or want to try you have to start building the skills and knowledge that you’ll need. If you wanted to be a lawyer, doctor or engineer this part would be relatively easy to figure out: You go to school and get a degree. In the case of the film industry it becomes a bit more complicated than that, you don’t HAVE to go to school, you do need to know your craft and there are some positions like DP, where you do need to know all the theory that usually only comes from going to school. However, what you don’t need to have is a degree, you can learn most of what you need in the field and you can work without worrying about someone asking to see your $50,000 piece of cardboard from the film school. If you don’t believe me you can ask Steven Spielberg or James Cameron 🙂
Remember, even if you decide not to go to film school, you still have to learn your craft. My favorite way of doing it has always been jumping right into it and figure stuff out as I go. However, I learned over the years that it’s much more efficient to know at least some theory in advance, especially in this industry because film sets tend to be very frantic and nobody can stop to teach you all the time. If you know the basic theory of how everything works you can just see the people doing their jobs and the theory and will ‘click’ together in your head.
Another reason to know your theory, and it may even be a more important one is that you can get a deeper understanding of certain procedures and tools which can be very helpful if due to certain circumstances (like lack of resources or a restriction at a location, etc) you can’t do something the way you were planning to or the way people usually do it. It’s way easier to modify something according to your needs if you understand it’s basics.
There are tons of books, articles and workshops where you can get all your theory. The workshops last anywhere from a weekend to a few months. I posted some of the books and sites that I feel have been the most useful for me in the Resources page. The list is incomplete since I don’t remember all the names of the books and articles I’ve read over the years, but I’ll keep adding stuff to it as I’m always reading something new (and as I remember the books I already read).
Learning all this outside of a film school requires more commitment, but it can be way (way!) faster because you go at your own pace and can cut to the chase of what you want to learn. Also, if your Heart side is in check (meaning you love what you’re doing), the process will be exciting and not boring at all! You’ll be wanting for more books and articles!
Of course the point of all that theory is to help you in the field. To actually learn the craft you have to go out and get down to it! The main complaint I hear from people coming out of film school is that it’s too much theory! Like I said, theory is important, but the reason you go to film school in the first place is not to just talk about films, you want to make them!
There are two main ways of learning hands-on in this industry: Doing your own little projects and helping in other people’s projects. They both teach you different things and it’s my opinion that you should do both.
Your own projects
The main advantage of doing your own projects is obviously that you can practice your craft first hand, you get to be in the position you want to be and try what works and what doesn’t. What can your project be? If you’re a writer you can just write a scene, a short film or even a feature if you feel adventurous. If you’re an actor your project can be just getting a friend and do a scene you’ve been wanting to try, if you’re a DP or a director you can find a scene to shoot just for practice. If you need help don’t be shy and ask your friends for help, go to the film or theatre department of a local college and you’ll find lots of students eager to get their hands on a project.
Be advised that at the beginning you’ll most likely have limited resources (Unless your parents are rich, in which case have them contact me immediately, I have this idea for a movie…I’ll even let you intern), a limited crew, and your work probably won’t be Oscar worthy…that’s ok, remember that the point here is to learn, don’t let your ego get in the way and let yourself suck for now, you’ll get better over time if you keep doing it.
Someone else’s projects
The other way of learning on the job is by helping in other people’s projects. The trick here is to work with someone more experienced than you, this usually means interning at a production company or at least helping your more experienced friends with their little movies. You most likely won’t get paid and you probably won’t be in the position you want to be (just for fun, go to the producers of a movie you’re interning at, ask them if you can direct, make sure you take a picture of their face and email it to me) , but again, the point here is to learn. The main advantage of working on other projects is that they will be bigger than yours would be, and more important, with a crew more experienced than you, the more experienced the better. You can learn from them just by watching them do their jobs, ask questions (without getting in their way) and try helping all over the different positions around the crew, it’s fun and you’ll learn a lot of how films are really made.
Everybody in Hollywood knows the importance of making ‘connections’. Without them, you can’t get the opportunities that will get you to succeed (as long as the Heart and Mind sides are in check, of course). Well, connections fall in the Spirit side of your career, the social aspect. However there is more to the Spirit side than just connections, in this phase you’ll eventually need to feel that you’re making a contribution in either the macrocosm (via the audience of your work) or the microcosm (all the people you work with) or both.
You start by the microcosm, the people you work with, so let’s go back to the connections, how do you make them? People seem to think that the only ways of making connections are going to all the parties and stalking producers by the elevator. In reality, everyone you meet in the industry is a connection, so really ‘connections’ per se, are a dozen a dime. What you really want to build are real relationships with people you could work with, and since relationships are all about sharing, you need something to share. It can be anything: Your experience, time, skills, even a good idea for a movie you want to make. Remember that relationships are a two way street, if you share with people they’ll usually share back, so why not start yourself?
Share your skills
One of the most valuable things you can share in this business are your skills and experience, as a matter of fact that’s one of the main reason people will hire you for.
As you start gaining skills and experience you’ll be able to share more and more with people, of course you need to meet the people first. For an actor, this means auditioning as much as you can, for a crew member this means calling as many production companies as possible to see who needs a hand. Check the Resources page for some websites where you can start.
Keep in mind that at the beginning you don’t have much experience or skills to share, the only things you can share at this point are your time and your hard work. A good way to do this is by doing an internship. I like this because it involves both the Mind and the Spirit sides, you’re both contributing (and creating relationships) but you’re also learning at the same time. Treat internships like a real job, I can’t tell you how many interns I’ve seen that don’t take it seriously (usually because their Heart side isn’t in check) and it really is a waste of the company’s time. Maybe that’s why several companies are hesitant to take interns or simply don’t take them at all. Remember that you’re there to learn AND to help them.
If done right though, an internship can really boost your connections. You don’t need to show a lot of experience and skill yet, just the willingness to work hard to get them. It’s not easy to find good workers, so people tend to work with the good workers they’ve found in the past, so if you’re dedicated they’ll bring you in for their next gig and then the next one. Then, at some point in the not so far future, they’ll start paying you.
Because Film and TV productions involve a lot of people, you can get acquainted with other members of the crew and multiply your chances of being called for another gig. Try to get to know them a little deeper and try to make sure they know what other skills you have. If done right this can really branch out extensively. Today, roughly 70% of my current jobs come from someone who can be tracked down to the company I first interned at 5 years ago. Some of them are friends I met a project at that company who then introduced me to someone else who hired me and then recommended me to someone else, who then hired me, etc.
My rule of thumbs at the beginning is to always say yes, work in as many projects and with as many people as you can, don’t focus on getting paid yet but on getting better and helping them with their projects the best you can. That said try to keep in mind what you want to specialize on, if you want to be a DP try to steer into the camera department as much as you can, production designers should try to veer towards the art department, and so on. In some positions like directing or producing it’s useful to try every department to help you calibrate yourself to how things work on the inside all departments. This ‘wandering’ method can of course also help if you’re not sure of what you want to specialize on
Share your work
The other vital step is to share your work as much as you can. By this I don’t mean share your work by working for someone else, but to share your body of work, your personal projects. As I mentioned before, they won’t be great at the beginning, but as you keep learning they’ll get better, so share the ones you’re most proud of with anyone who’ll watch, even if your work is not ready for primetime you can get pointers by asking (which will also get you some extra points with the other person by subtly letting them know that you’re willing to learn), do make sure you ask though or people will just say something like “Cool man, congratulations”, “Nice job” or even the dreaded “Interesting”.
Quick disclaimer here: Notice I said you must show the projects you’re most proud of. If you’re at a party or meeting someone don’t try to show them EVERYTHING you’ve done. With attention spans so short these days it’s hard to keep someone engaged for more than a few minutes unless they’re in a dedicated, quiet enviroment. Also remember that you’ve improved over whatever time you’ve been doing this, if you show them something you did last year you’re showing something done with a year less of experience and learning.
By sharing your work you’ll eventually start to build an ‘audience’ of people who know what you can do. The more people you show your work to the bigger your audience. This audience will expand over time. It starts with your parents, then your extended family, your coworkers, facebook friends, etc. When your work gets better the audience will start growing exponentially as the current audience members will share your work as well.
The obvious reason why you need an audience is of course that the bigger your audience the more people will pay to see your work later. The other not-as-obvious reason is that eventually, most people that will hire or fund you in the future will be part of your audience, or at least you want them to. It’s way easier to get someone to invest in you if he’s already a fan!
A story I like to illustrate this is how the first Paranormal Activity got made. The movie was made for $15,000 and it was screened at the Screamfest festival where an assistant at CAA saw it and liked it. CAA then sent the DVD out to a lot of people until someone at Dreamworks saw it and showed it to his boss who in turn showed it to his boss. The cycle repeated for a few times until the DVD got to Steven Spielberg who liked it and cut a deal with the filmmakers. As you all probably know the movie ended up grossing almost $200 Million internationally and spawned into two sequels that added another $378 Milion in box office sales to the series.
The point is, you never know where an opportunity is gonna come from, so just put your work out there and let it speak for you. Maybe Steven Spielberg will like your movie 🙂
Make quality relationships
An important point here. There’s a lot of quality people in this industry, but there’s also a lot of fluff and people that are here for the wrong reasons. I don’t want to sound like your mom, but the reality is that who you relate to matters a lot both at a professional and personal level. They say you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with so try to spend some time with somebody more successful than you to raise your average, you’ll be surprised of all the little ideas and habits you’ll pick up.
How about going to the parties and stalking producers?
Let’s start with parties. In my experience, I’ve found that going to them can be a double edge sword. You can certainly make great connections at a party, the only problem is that unless Harvey Weinstein or Steven Spielberg are in the party it’s hard to tell who is a great connection and who’s just full of it. With some people you can of course tell from a mile away that they’re just BS (someone said to me at a party.
The point is, in parties it all seems to come down to social skills which can be deceiving.
I’ve worked with several people I met at parties with mixed results both when they hired me and when I hired them. As a matter of fact the worse worker I’ve hired was someone I met at a party. He was friendly and sounded quite experienced, but when the shoot came he was late, didn’t know what he was doing and kept watching the clock to see when he could leave.
Of course is not all bad and as I said before you can make GREAT connections there, especially if you know someone in particular who can be a good match for you and your project is going to be at the party. But if you want to build all your connections that way, it takes some energy and calibration to sort among the BS.
In my case I have fun at the parties, but I’ve found much greater success at making new connections by extending my current ones. I don’t even have to put energy into it, somebody always recommends me to someone else and I don’t have to do anything else other than being good at what I do.
Stalking producers can work as well (this includes parties). But for this I’d recommend either having a great idea or a great project, otherwise you’ll just be wasting a lot of time and energy to get to them, they’ll read or watch whatever you have (screenplay, reel, proposal, etc) and go… “meh” then throw it away. Make sure that whatever you bring is not just really good, make sure it’s amazing!
Now the part that most people wished it was first, the money!
Strangely enough, this part almost comes by itself if you’ve done everything else. Still, there’s a few things you need to know to keep yourself out of the ‘starving artist’ zone.
Know your value
Not that you’re in this for the money but you’ve been putting a lot of time and hard work to learn your craft. You’ve shared your craft or projects with people and gave them something they value (a service, a movie, etc.). It’s only fair that you get some value back.
In Harrison Ford’s words:
“When I came into this business I didn’t even know the names of the movie studios – I was under contract to a studio for $150 a week. One thing I learned is that the studios had no respect for a person who was willing to work for them for that amount. So I realized that the value I put on my own work was the value and respect I would get back.”
You must know the ‘market value’ of what you do. You’ll learn this as you go. At first you’ll probably take whatever anybody offers you, and that’s fine because it’s a reflection of the value you’re putting out there. If you’re interning somewhere and they upgrade you to a PA that means that you’re generating enough value for the company to get paid as a PA. Just make sure you keep ‘updating’ your value in your head as you acquire more experience and learn your craft better and not sell yourself short.
With time and practice you’ll calibrate better to how the value of your services translates into dollars. This will allow you to set fair prices for the value your skill, experience, creativity, etc. bring to the table.
Take in mind that money is not the only currency. You can also get ‘paid’ at least partially via the other blocks of the tower like building or strengthening a relationship or learning something new, for instance learning to working with stunts if you’ve never done that. For instance, I’d gladly accept if Steven Spielberg approached me to help him write Indiana Jones 5, even if there was no pay (which would probably not be the case anyway). Why? Because what I’m not getting in dollars I’m getting in relationships, knowledge and experience (not to mention the perks like being on the set and being able to brag about it :-P)
Keep your tower in check
I said it before but it’s worth mentioning, this whole process of building your career is additive. When you get to the Body side you still have to keep sharing, learning and loving your career for it to keep growing. Otherwise you run the risk of getting stuck and bored. All the sides of your tower are supposed to be the same size like in the first figure, but that’s only an ideal. In practice try to shape your tower so that lower the block the biggest and strongest it is, like this:
If you’re worried because the Body is the smallest of all the blocks, don’t. The more you work on the tower as a whole, the bigger the individual blocks will grow, this is just how the proportion should look like.
What this means is that you’ll share with others more than you get paid for, you’ll have acquired more skills and experience than you can share and you’ll make sure that your heart is in it to keep the whole process enjoyable and fun.
In other words, keep sharing and expanding your audience, keep learning and keep loving what you do.
Keep your eyes open for opportunities
If you’ve worked this tower right opportunities will come all the time, however you have to keep your eyes open to it. Sometimes it’ll be a friend asking you to help him with a project that eventually takes off, sometimes random people will call you out of the blue because a friend of his is a friend of yours and your friend recommended you to his friend who eventually recommended you to the guy who called you (true story) and sometimes you’ll read an open call, apply and get it.
Seven years ago a friend told me about an ad she saw in the paper and told me that I should apply. It looked cool so I went to the place. They made short test of my 3D animation skills and hire me the same day, voila! I was working with one of the Visual Effects teams for Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia. All I needed now was a letter from my parents saying that they allowed me to work because I was 17 at the time, that wasn’t as hard as telling them I’d drop a semester in college to do it :-).
The point here is to keep your eyes open, you never know where an opportunity is going to come from,
Learn to say no
The other side of the coin here is to be wary of some people who offer you a seemingly great oportunity but only want to take advantage of you and not return the value you give them. If they can’t pay you in this project and you have time to help or it’s a project you want to work for fun or to meet people or learn something, go ahead, just don’t do it because you feel you must do it in order to keep the relationship because he might hire you for real in the future. This is a tricky situation because you really don’t know. Sometimes the producers are really going to hire you later, sometimes they’re just taking advantage of you because they need free hands. Here I can only advise you to go by your gut. Obviously if they seem very unprofessional (they’re disorganized, show up late, etc) it’s very likely that they won’t get a good project where they can pay you, even if they do intend to hire you or even if they do get it and hire you, it might end up being a headache to work with them, so weigh your options and go with your gut. Just know that it’s ok to say no.
I think this post is already long enough, so I’ll wrap it up with a quick way to remember this model:
- Love it
- Learn it
- Share it
- Live off it