How Do You Measure Progress Without Meritocracy?

It goes without saying that Hollywood is not a meritocracy. That’s evident even to those not actively pursuing it as a career. I wanted to focus on dissecting why this is particularly problematic for those without connections. More specifically, I want to see if I can answer the question of: ‘how does one succeed in an industry which is not merit-based?’

Around the time I moved to LA, I leveraged previous professional networks of mine from back in NY to have my resume reviewed by a major talent agency for the coveted agent training program. I quickly followed up, and within two weeks I was attending a recruitment seminar that less than one percent of all applicants get to attend. In a way this seminar is meant to assess whether candidates have what it takes to make a good agent. During panels, you will ask questions of employees all the while both agents and HR will be judging your questions, and general interaction with other candidates, and composure on the campus.

At the end of this two-day event, in which I did all ‘optional’ extra activities (a late night screening which kept us on campus for a total of 12h), I was offered a panel interview. I was the only LA-based candidate to be offered an interview with equity partners. The others all got one because they flew in. Some of my peers didn’t even get an interview weeks later. So this was a good sign. Also a good sign was that my peers considered me to be the strongest candidate. Many complemented me on my questions asked, and general knowledge. I emerged a leader in that recruitment class beyond a doubt. I also aced my panel interview, because I prepared a week in advance and knew how to pitch and confidently sell myself (a vital skill set for an agent). The HR person even gave me a wink of confidence as I left the room.

I felt amazing. I started to act like there was no way I didn’t get it. I truly believed I was on my way.

Three weeks later and my follow ups have gone unanswered. While some of the friends I made during the seminar also haven’t heard back, they never got a panel interview — I did. I was the only candidate not right out of school. At 28, almost 29, I was an average of 7 to 8 years older than my peers with 3 to 4 years of unrelated *paid* industry experience. At most they had internships, granted for top companies, studios and other agencies. We were told we’d hear back within two weeks, which is confirmed by Glassdoor.com in reviews of the whole process by those who got verbal offers. So as of this writing it looks as if I didn’t get the gig.

Shortly after my interview I had lunch with a friend who proffered similar advice to another friend (who herself went through the agency world). Both friends noted that even if I was the best candidate, I may not get the job. I didn’t really accept that because I didn’t want to. They noted sometimes it comes down to favors owed. Perhaps an agent needs to get his friends daughter on board because that friend helped his daughter get a job in another field. Maybe an agent has a family member they need to get a job, or a neighbor. Perhaps by hiring a certain candidate, it could give an agent an in with another company, investor or high net worth individual. All those candidates will be given priority over the best interview performance or the most qualified.

So how does one assess their progress in a system which is not merit based? I was given excellent feedback but still didn’t make the cut. I was considered a leader among my peers, and wasn’t offered a job.

The reality is you can’t assess your progress this way because those things don’t hold weight in a system which is not merit-based. Merit-based indicators therefore hold less weight than external factors such as professional or interpersonal networks and favors owed. Even writers who win contests will be placed lower on the priority scale than a recommend from someone an agent, manager or producer trusts and knows has good taste. Someone that is staffing a department or position will take someone they personally like over the most qualified as well – especially given the long hours spent together in this field.

So any advice peddler who tells you it’s about talent is leaving out critical context – it is about networks, personality and favors owed before talent. Yes to get anywhere you must still work extremely hard and be talented. However, one should still use those merit based indicators to prove to themselves that they are on the right path. I still got a panel interview. I advanced further than thousands of others who never got a reply. I was considered a leader by my peers. A producer has paid me attention for years. Others in the industry have praised my intellect and complimented my writing. People ask to read my work now. I get asked to meet in person (just not by Paris).

Eventually it becomes a numbers game. The more your stick it out, beyond mind numbering rejection, something will eventually pan out. So don’t be discouraged just because you didn’t get a gig, even if it went to someone’s nephew. Why? Because that’s not on you. It is not a reflection of you or your work. While it’s not meritocratic, it’s not a personal failure either. As long as you’re smart, capable and still drawing attention it’s not time to throw in the towel. It’d be a lot different if you got no feedback, or negative feedback. So keep trying and take stock in any positive feedback you get because you’re on the right path at the very least.

It’s not easy to find reasons to keep going in this field. Hollywood is an insanely difficult and very unfair business. It takes a certain charismatic and extraordinarily confident person to keep going despite all the rejection, little to no help and no high level ‘ins’ to the most coveted of jobs (like Agency work which opens doors like no other and is often required experience by many industry employers). So know what you’re up against, an unfair and unmeritocratic business that will punish more than praise you. When it does praise you, take stock in that and know you’re on the right path.

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