Here's What People Won't Tell You About How to Make it In the Entertainment Industry But I Will

Unless you have the nepotism thing working for you, Hollywood can be a confusing freaking place. Here are my very best secrets to get you one step closer to landing on that cover of Variety.
Publish date:
November 19, 2012
career, show business, M

When I first started making entertainment industry connections (along the lines of agents, managers and lawyers that could be useful to me as a writer and occasional performer), I knew nothing.

Some of these contacts indulged my ignorance, but I was actually more grateful for the ones that were 100% honest and brutal. While the initial sting of feeling stupid (oh, humiliation, you sweet emotion) could be rough at times, all it did was make me stronger and savvier in the end.

So I tried to put together a few of the lessons I've learned along the way for anyone who's interested in that sexy world of entertainment (be it book publishing, scriptwriting, TV or performing).

1. "But how do I get these 'meetings'?" you ask. "Or a manager? Or an agent, for that matter?"

Good question. There are a lot of ways, but usually people come out of the woodwork when you start doing notable work, you win some kind of recognition or you make a splash online. You can also cold-call, email submissions to different agencies you find online (Paradigm, ICM, WME), approach the person directly at a party, or -- if the time seems right and the relationship you have is deep -- ask friends who might have connections if they would be willing to introduce you. (And always demonstrate your value and gratitude as to why it's worth them putting their reputation and time on the line for you -- don't ask this of acquaintances.)

Eventually, a manager will take 10-15%, an agent will take 10-15% and lawyers, depending on their involvement, will sometimes do a 5% take. There are also plenty of managers and agents who aren't aligned with traditional big agencies (many have done their time there and left to embark out on their own); alternatively, someone interested in the business can mold themselves as a manager and break out that way (although oftentimes, if that person doesn't have a lot of connections or experience, the services provided will probably be more limited in terms of opening doors).

2. Speaking of which, don't be entitled or grubby. And, as Kathy Griffin says: Know your place.

I know one story from a manager who arranged a meeting at his company with an up-and-comer who demanded that all the higher-ups be present when he came in. While quite low level in his field, he stretched back and demanded what the company was going to do for him. He's an emerging talent, and he was talking to the company that manages some of the top performers in the world. Dude didn't know his place.

While I'm sure he was trying to do the confident move thing, it backfires when you don't recognize the correct power equilibrium in a situation. Recognize who's doing whom a favor or really opening a door. And try not to be a dick overall. It's kind of a bad look in general.

3. But how do I win a contest or do notable work or make a splash online?

I'm glad you asked. There are tons of ways depending on your interest. Moviebytes is a good legit resource for screenwriting contests that will get you an agent. I have a few friends who got staffed on TV shows after winning the Warner Bros. contest. Max Adams wrote a great book about her Hollywood tactics and her screenplay winning the Nicholls competition, which launched her career. Check "The Black List" for the hottest unproduced scripts (it's where "The Hangover" started) for a little inspiration and a great industry resource.

Speaking of resources, be careful about becoming a how-to-make-it-book addict because a lot of them suck and are written by people who have not made it. "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit" is written by two legit successful screenwriters. For comedy -- while kind of cheesy -- "The Comedy Bible" and near-mathematical "Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy" are good. So is "The Comic Toolbox," which still contains one of my favorite writing exercises of all time -- which is to just off the top of your head write a list of 10. One of them will be good. It helps get your internal censor out of the way.

So does doing morning pages, where you stream-of-conscious write three pages every day, as dictated by "The Artist's Way." All of this stuff is a balance. You can't do it all, obviously, but give yourself permission to dabble and dip and try different areas rather than having to do everything perfectly at once.

Oh, Charna Halpern's "Truth in Comedy" is also an essential read. And if you want to write screenplays, "My Story Can Beat Up Your Story" is a lovely book for breaking down structure.

As for making a splash online, think of something catchy, new, strong, simple, bold, authentic and calling-it-out true -- like the viral gold standard "Stuff White People Like" -- which is hilarious. Then do a Tumblr and Twitter of the same name and YouTube if you can. Boom, you just created your brand. Think: "Texts From Last Night." One idea. Stick to that, and see if it's fun and takes off. Nowadays anyone can become a brand or entrepreneur this way.

And don't forget self-publishing on Kindle. You get to keep 70% of the profits and can expand your empire. Here is one killer resource for exploring that world.

If you're interested in stand-up, obviously do your time at open mics (great resource here) until you get good and booked at shows. It can take years. Eventually you may find yourself auditioning for the Montreal comedy festival.

To write for a TV show, you need a few "spec" or sample scripts and to write for a lot of late-night shows, you need a "packet" of material you'll submit. Fun fact: for Letterman, you can actually call the show to request the packet guidelines to then submit -- and you can do so without having representation. (I have a friend on the show who did this years ago, got the job and still works there.)

Sometimes taking courses at UCB can help you put together material and give you access to industry-ish people or lead to you performing on a team at the theater where one day Lorne Michaels or one of his people may scout. A tip for performer/writer types: One of the best tried-and-true ways for showcasing yourself is to stage a one-person show.

4. Speaking of which, connections are good, but at the end of the day, they really don't matter if you haven't done the work.

This is one of the key lessons. You can network your brains out, but if you haven't produced/created/completed/delivered the project -- as in, written the book, started the blog, written the screenplay, shot the video, staged the one-person-show or developed the tight five minutes of material of standup -- you'll get nowhere.

Concentrate on creating something that you are passionate and excited about, and you'll be blown away by what happens. Even if it doesn't land you the exact career you dreamed of, you'll have created something that you love. I know it'd be cooler if it were guaranteed that it would make your career, but creating something you love will change and influence you in ways you never dreamed of.

Related: Here's a bit of inspiration if you have, say, a reality TV show idea. You really don't even need a production company attached nowadays to do a project if you can pull together a talented line producer, cameraman and editor. Several folks have successfully sold projects to networks -- rather than simply making the production companies rich. (And there's nothing wrong with making production companies rich, of course, but just don't limit yourself if you don't have or don't want to do a deal with them.) Look at the Lonely Island dudes. They were just some guys making videos online. They did the work.

5. "When people want to make a deal, you know."

This was the wonderful slap to the face I received when I met with an entertainment lawyer several years ago. I was prattling on and on to him about meetings, and this lawyer essentially told me: "Mandy, when people want to make a deal, you know."

The rest of it is smoke and mirrors and talk. Which is part of the game, too, but it's important to remember, that all of the "selling yourself" in the world doesn't mean much of anything unless an Actual Deal is outlined and a contract is in play.

Also: If you're doing way more chasing of an opportunity then they are chasing you, be realistic. Look for contacts who are also excited about you. Go with the ocean waves rather than against them, if you can forgive the shitty metaphor. And if you want it, keep putting yourself out there. Don't let the disappointments hold you back.

One of my favorite movies of all time "You and Me and Everyone We Know" was done by a performance artist Miranda July whose initial work was not embraced. She didn't give up, she just kept getting better and learning and eventually produced something quite wonderful.

6. Talk is just that: Talk.

"Your life just changed, Mandy," a millionaire once said to me over lunch as he introduced me to a production company. He was enjoying the swashbuckling, excitement and ego trip that comes with throwing down power. My life did not change. It was a good connection, and I was grateful for it, but it did not lead to an Actual Deal.

"What does a deal even mean?" you ask. It means a negotiated contract that spells out your relationship with a production company, a TV network, a literary agency, etc. Otherwise, it is all talk. Talk is great, and sometimes relationships can take a long time to develop into a deal being made, but just don't forget that as your end game. Without a deal, you have nothing.

There isn't really a Showbiz 101 course out there, and I see a lot of people who take meetings with TV networks who mine them for ideas and that's it.

7. People lie in the entertainment industry, and they don't think twice.

This isn't to sound cynical, but just to make you wary. If you can learn to not take disappointment and setbacks personally and to focus on what makes you happy (whatever project you are working on), this is a huge success. Focusing on the work that you like is everything -- and also results in better work rather than whorishly trying to create super-commercial stuff. (Which I'm not against, I just think remembering to actually have a good time is probably the most important lesson of them all.)

One of my favorite bits of advice that goes hand in hand with this is from Bryan Cranston on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast (which might be one of the closest things to Showbiz 101 in the form of a podcast, at least for anyone interested in comedy), when Cranston said that he's succeeded most in his career because he always detached himself from the outcome.

Sounds simple, but is so powerful it's absurd. It keeps you in the moment, remembering why you're excited about whatever it is that you're doing, and also shields you from disappointment.

And as one top manager told me when I asked him if he had any advice for this piece: "It's easy to be intimidated, but it's really an industry like most. There are also politics, assholes, egomaniacs, predators and mentors in the insurance world in Hartford or the credit card business in Omaha."

He also added to only get into it if it's your passion, be honest with yourself about your talent, know that there are other businesses where the money and success is easier and more guaranteed than the entertainment industry -- and have a backup plan. (He's seen a lot of people not make it.)

Related: If you're in it, be in it for the long game. Relationships are precious so treat them that way and be nice to everyone. Resist talking shit. Yes, there are some jerks, but that's their burden to live with. And don't be fazed if someone is a dick to you. That's often a hazing of sorts, and it's an industry of egos and eggshells.

Know who you are, surround yourself with real friends and that's all that matters. And if someone is crap to you, don't throw away the relationship just because of that. The most major-league people don't let their bruised egos determine their course of action. I mean, don't let yourself be abused, but be a tough cookie. Grudges, being precious and wounded pride end up holding you back more than anyone else.

8. Don't give it all away or work too much on spec.

I've written an entire book on spec before. Which is great experience and all, but if I were to go back, I wouldn't do it again. If it had been my passion, then that would have been great, but it was not. I did the project because it seemed highly viable and like a smart move. Had I listened to my heart instead, I would have worked on what I was most passionate about, rather than chasing something like that.

Related: If you do score a meeting with, say, a TV network and you are spitballing (God, I love saying that word -- "Bridesmaids"!), don't give it all away. Give a taste. Know your power and worth. There are countless stories of hungry young people meeting and dishing all their ideas away, which can then be sampled, repurposed and repackaged. Better to dazzle with your personality, your small talk, your banter while giving a general outline of the potential.

I hate to make the dating analogy, but let me make the dating analogy. It's the whole mystery, mystique, letting someone's imagination run wild with their stake in the possibilities -- and also letting them feel invested and like they are creating something with you.

9. On the opposite end of the spectrum, don't make the bush-league mistake of being super paranoid and afraid of being ripped off.

I have a specific memory of talking to a headliner comic once and saying how I was working on a project, but I didn't want to reveal to him what the book title was. Dude. He didn't give a shit. He probably thought it was hilarious that I was trying to be so secretive.

No one's trying to steal your idea. Tons and tons of people have similar ideas -- and at the end of the day, first to market and/or best or even luckiest wins. So while it's good to be wary of giving it all away, also don't worry too much about over-guarding as it looks just as naive.

10. Take advantage of all the free resources online and realize that the industry is totally different than it used to be.

As I mentioned, the WTF podcast is ridiculously educational for anyone interested in the ups and downs of show business and the comic behind it, Marc Maron, is a case of someone who has built an entire brand and business outside the traditional confines of the entertainment industry.

Podcasting is changing the industry; so is someone like Louis C.K. who is selling direct to fans. So is Twitter. As Seth Godin says: The way the industry is nowadays, no one is going to pick you. Pick yourself instead.


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