Member Post: How To Survive Your Hollywood Career (A Work In Progress)
After graduating from USC, I spent five years working at a studio, both under the head of the film division and then as a studio executive putting together low budget movies. Last year, my business partner and I started a production company, shooting our fifth feature this summer. In this time, there's a lot that I've learned about producing movies, but there's also a lot that I've learned about how to work in this business. The walls around Hollywood are high. But there are ways in, the most rock solid of which is: be good at your job. If you're good, people will give you stuff to do, and if you're great, people want to work with you for the rest of both of your careers.
YOU ARE YOUR JOB. This is a talent business. Even people who don't think they qualify as talent, qualify as talent. Really successful people in this business understand who they are and what they bring to the table and they polish their unique set of traits into their most valuable asset. And that becomes their brand. Look at Brian Grazer's hair, for just one example. That dude picked a lane and he made it his, the hair is just the icing on top that tells you that he's him. Don't be something you're not; embrace the something you are. Know where your power is, and use it to your advantage. For a writer, this is called a voice; for a director, this is called style; for the rest of us, it's called confidently doing what you need to do.
YOU ARE NOT YOUR JOB. At the same time, get used to telling yourself it's not about you. Egos are like black holes: the more you feed them, the bigger and hungrier they get. If you find yourself in meetings worrying about what shirt you're wearing or where to put your hands or whether the person likes you, you are screwing up that meeting. Why? Because you've already met yourself, this is about meeting someone else, listening to them and looking for ways to connect. There is nothing more boring than spending time with someone who is wholly focused on themselves. Your meeting isn't about your shirt or your hands, it's about your movie. Know who you are and then get over it and do your job.
GET GOOD AT SNAKES AND LADDERS. Or at least get used to it. I've seen really smart, talented people spend years trying and failing to get a foothold in the business and then land one of the best jobs in town. I've seen people rise with dizzying speed from promotion to promotion and then get fired. Jewel lived in her car, guys! Francis Ford Coppola directed Jack! George Clooney wore denim overalls on The Facts Of Life! It gets better… and worse… and better. Hang in there. And while you're at it...
GET GOOD AT POKER. You should know when someone is lying to you, or at least hone the BS filter that you pass information through. The people on camera aren't the only great actors in this business. Poker is also great for teaching you the fabulous and eternal lesson of shutting up and paying attention. It doesn't hurt to brush up on your chess either. Strategize and think several moves ahead, because the people who are gunning for the same prize as you are doing exactly that. It's about the forest, not the trees.
ADD VALUE. This is a pretty simple equation. Is what you are doing adding value? To your project, to your boss, to your crew? Is it making a better movie? It may take you some time to assess exactly where the value lies and what exactly you can do to add to it, but let this thought be the barbell that shapes you into the beefcake of making stuff better. My dad once told me to only hire people who had played competitive team sports. Why? Because those people know how to get the ball down the field whether they're the ones carrying it or not. Be of use.
BE A NINJA. I've had the privilege to work with some people who are truly masters of their trade. They've had long careers of making great movies, they are totally friendly and charming, and damn if they don't know what they're talking about when it comes to their craft. You'd think that working with these people would entail simply shutting up except to say yes to everything they think we should do. But film is collaborative, film is populist, and if you don't subscribe to "best idea wins" you will have a very short career. These people have had very long careers precisely because they know that the best idea wins, but also because they know how to participate in the exchange of ideas (and the egos that go along with them) with a velvet-gloved grace that is an art form in itself. The result is everyone walks away from the meeting with a project that is better and feeling good about how everything went down. It's like a magic trick for getting movies made.
THIS IS SORT OF CHEESY BUT go read Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If'. If you're a lady, substitute the "you'll be a man" part with "you'll be a woman".
WATCH MOVIES. You love movies, remember? Making movies is crazy hard! It takes forever! It can get really tiring and frustrating and make you question all your life choices! But you love movies, so go watch some when you need to remember that it's possible for human beings to not just get a movie made but to make a perfect movie. If you're a writer or in a job where you read a lot of scripts, this is especially important. Scripts aren't movies, they're blueprints for movies. Don't forget what the real thing actually feels like.
BE REAL. And as much as it's good to keep up a steady diet of movies, keep up with real life too. Know what the kids are up to these days. Don't be that person who thinks being called phat is an insult or doesn't know what whip-its are. It's part of your job to know the stuff that your audience knows. Make movies that are modern, that are about how people really think and act and talk, right now.
PLANT A GARDEN, OR WHATEVER. Find a hobby. Get into soufflés, build your own house, pop wheelies. Whatever. Just find something you can work on and see tangible results. Because your career is not going to be dependable in that department. It will be sometimes, then it won't, then it will be great for a while, then the rear wheels will fall off. It's hard to keep telling yourself that you are rad/fine/going to survive through all those ups and downs, so give yourself more than one way to measure how much you like yourself.
THIS IS IMPORTANT. We all know people who have jobs that "actually matter". You know, doctors, social workers, plumbers. These people do work with real benefit to society, and we movie people have all done that thing where we take a sip of our cocktail and say, "Well it's not like I'm saving lives or anything! Ha ha ha!" Stop it. Stories are the way we talk to ourselves about being human. They are predicated on empathy, they bring us closer together, remind us of who we are and teach us who we might be. Maybe it's the doctor that saves the life, but it could well be the work that you do that makes the saved life worth living.
And finally, HAVE FUN. You are living your dream.
Robyn Marshall (MFA Production, 2007)
Robyn produces movies and television in Los Angeles through her company Chapter One. While at Lionsgate, she produced "Rapturepalooza" with Anna Kendrick and Craig Robinson, "Gay Dude" with Dakota Johnson and Nicholas Braun, "Jessabelle" with Mark Webber and Sarah Snook, and "They Came Together" with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler. She's currently in post-production on "Lazarus," starring Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Evan Peters and Donald Glover and directed by David Gelb.