Stop Swimming With Sharks

In the annual Hollywood Reporter director round table, one of the points of conversation touched upon what everyone did before they got their industry break. The answers ranged from factory worker to landscaper and right up to their industry positions before being launched to fame. The one answer I really latched onto was Barry Jenkins response:

‘Oh, I want to be a filmmaker and this is my way,’ but I wasn’t really trying to be a filmmaker, you know? I was trying to be a development assistant. Realizing that about myself, I felt terrible.”

Barry Jenkins’ directed this years sensational drama MOONLIGHT. His rise to stardom couldn’t be any more atypical; he was raised in poverty in an overcrowded apartment in Miami. His real father died when he was 12. His mother was addicted to crack cocaine. In spite of this adversity, he went on to Florida State and became interested in film. Finally, he had an epiphany realizing that the road he was on – development assistant – wasn’t for him. He was more ambitious than that, he wanted to direct. He had an innate ability to tell harrowing stories and it dawned on him that in order to showcase his abilities he needed to move beyond the industry desk job.

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I titled this post stop swimming with sharks because I think it’s time someone challenge the notion that in order to achieve our industry goals we must settle for the traditional Hollywood route (agency to production company to whatever beyond). It’s time to challenge the notion that to get anyone to consider you or take you seriously you must have CAA or WME on your resume. It’s time to stop being a lemming for this lie.

You want respect in this industry? Here’s a start, how about you stop responding to job posts noting “must have thick skin or do not apply.” Why? Why should anyone who respects themselves apply to a position where they’re guaranteed to be treated with all the respect of a frat pledge? Why endure verbal abuse and a complete lack of respect for you, your work and your time? If you truly have thick skin you won’t take shit from anybody where it is not warranted. If you let people walk on you they’ll never stop walking all over you. Stand up for yourself. When you’re wrong, own it. But damn it, stand up for yourself. Don’t ever kiss someone’s ass who doesn’t deserve it.

What’s worse is so many of these positions are either unpaid or poorly paid with ridiculous hours and no overtime (illegal). This includes positions at the major agencies. Yet in order to get into the frat of Hollywood you must first pledge this abuse.

Uh wrong. Just so wrong.

Look up one of the directors or writers you’ve admired. Chances are none of them took this route. Why? Because they had too much self respect to devalue themselves before people who would ridicule them and treat them like shit – and who were likely half as smart. They knew they were intelligent and took any job they could in order to invest in their creative passions. You enter the cesspit aforementioned and you’ll be so mentally drained you’ll be lucky you ever write or direct something again. That is until you move on – like Jenkins.

Now that’s not to say all bosses or companies are like that but many are. Many, many, many are. That’s because they once endured that abuse so now they think they can give it. This is a toxic cycle that will never end until people stop accepting this behavior as normal. Literally just quit or find a better placement. I have almost entirely avoided working with Sharks and jerks because I am selective in where I will work and have thus far avoided the agency grind.

You are in my opinion ten times better off finding a group of filmmakers who want to go out and make things. Make something and get it into a festival. Put yourself out there. Finance your passion any way you can. That’s something I’m doing now and I’ve found I have expanded my network considerably versus fetching coffee and making copies.

Another alternative of the agency route, production. Granted you’ll endure some abuse here too, but you’ll transcend it faster and move up quicker if you work hard and are reliable. There’s more camaraderie and appreciation for what you do on set. It’s also easier to meet people higher up. Of those I know who are assistants now, many started as PAs, became office PAs and are now producer and director assistants. I include myself in this; I worked Production and events at Tribeca and then went on to be a development assistant and an academy award nominated producers’ assistant in New York. I’d still be there now if I could afford to live on independent film wages, but there’s a lot of famine to the feast in this industry so it’s understandable it doesn’t always work out.

Point is there are so many paths to what you want in this business. Stop settling for abuse. Stop fearing what you say on Twitter will cost you opportunities- definitely don’t be an asshole or act nuts – but don’t censor yourself too much either. I didn’t get attention from those in the business by being a bland as fuck writer who does nothing but talk the business and play diplomat by complementing people. I call bull shit when I see it. And I’m calling bull shit right now. Go be you and stop accepting abuse as normal – it’s not.

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