ASIDE FROM ENVIABLE INCOMES and an addiction to handheld gizmos, many Daily Variety subscribers share another common trait: having overcome the lottery-like odds against gaining admission to the show-business club.
How did they get there? That’s a topic I have cause to contemplate annually when UCLA hosts “Entertainment Night,” a networking forum allowing students to interact with alumni working in various aspects of the media.
The latest edition of this event will be held tonight, and I usually spend the evening twiddling my thumbs while the kids chat up producers, actors and agents in a position to actually assist them.
Nevertheless, it’s a good occasion to think about the jagged path that characterizes most showbiz careers, given the dearth of educational opportunities or apprenticeships providing direct points of entry.
Each year, the damn students get younger (or that’s the way I prefer to perceive it), listening wide-eyed while alums deliver their version of a commencement address, trying to answer such vexing questions as “How do I become a TV writer?” or “How do I get to do what you do?”
My guess is no two responses are the same. Yet despite a frustrating lack of specificity versus saying, “Pass the bar and you become a lawyer,” the exercise remains valuable not only for the kids but their mentors — forcing us to remember how we made it over the walls, which can’t hurt in keeping you inside them.
SO WHAT WISDOM is there to share with these undergrads, brimming with enthusiasm but frequently lacking the foggiest clue regarding where to gain a toehold for their grand ascent? Based on experience and observation, I’ve derived the following conclusions:
- Confidence and determination — not to be confused with arrogance and a sense of entitlement — surely help. Given that the kids at these gatherings are understandably anxious, someone like Gwendoline Yeo stood out — full of poise, cheerfully flitting from table to table with a copy of Daily Variety tucked under one arm. An aspiring actress, she collected business cards and followed up with emails, dutifully providing everyone a front-row seat to her progress.
This season, she’s landed a recurring part as the maid Xiao-Mei on “Desperate Housewives.” So much for my advice, which would have been to heed her academically minded family and become a doctor.
- Whenever possible, be born to successful, well-connected parents, or have friends with successful, well-connected parents. Nepotism is a fact of Hollywood, and whatever gets you through the door is fair game.
- Similarly, if you have a special skill, exploit it. Speaking fluent Japanese, say, has to be an asset to somebody — unless, as Howard Stringer is fond of pointing out, you happen to run Sony.
- Almost everything in media is highly subjective, so if you’re truly committed to doing something, don’t let one negative evaluation or rejection discourage you. That said, don’t be blinded by ambition. Despite what the “Rocky” movies teach us, hard work and perseverance do not always triumph, and if the knockdowns keep coming, you eventually must realize when to throw in the towel.
- Starting out, consider whether you’d rather work or intern for a small company, where you can learn how to do everything; or a large company, which might look better on a resume but where it’s easier to get lost in the shuffle.
- First jobs generally suck and seldom last very long. The point is to demonstrate that someone, anyone, believes in you enough to hire you, providing potential bosses validation in choosing to gamble on you in the future.
- If you want a clearly marked path to your goal, think about law, medicine or any other field where the criteria are more objective and less capricious.
- Finally, because it’s a system of limited resources, most of us on the inside frankly have little incentive to hurry your advancement up the ladder, lest you knock us off it. On the plus side, you can torment the next generation when your turn comes.
So good luck, soon-to-be-graduates. It’s frightening, I know, but it can be done. Be patient. Every journey begins somewhere. Now go seize the day.
Just keep your grubby little paws off my job.