Breaking Into Hollywood: An Insider's Guide

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Breaking Into Hollywood: An Insider's Guide

Jun 08, 2016

Breaking Into Hollywood

The dream of seeing one's name in lights or walking down the red carpet may be clichéd but for many it is palpable. They want to work in the entertainment industry but few know where to start.

"How do I break into the entertainment industry?" is the most common question I'm asked after someone finds out that I'm an entertainment attorney.

Not long ago, I was asked by the Denver Press Club to give a talk about breaking into the industry. For several months before my presentation, I asked my clients what advice they'd give if they were giving the talk. What follows is a collection of advice from top talent agents as well as Emmy and Oscar winning producers.

Prepare Your Product.

Learn your craft and hone your skills. Going to a movie then having drinks with friends afterward to guess the film's opening weekend box office receipts is not what I'm talking about. I mean actual study.

If attending film school is not an option, take extension or screen writing courses. If you want to watch films, watch the classics. Citizen Kane, Psycho or Dumb and Dumber.

Write your way into the business. For most people, writing a spec script is the only way to break into the industry. That's how Quentin Tarantino got his start. Tarantino worked in a video store while he co-wrote and directed his first movie called My Best Friend's Birthday in 1987. The film was never officially released but formed the basis for True Romance. He went on to write and direct Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglorious Bastards.

The first several scripts will likely be horrible but as you continue to write, each one will get progressively better. When you finally have a great script you can couple the sale with the condition that you are attached as a director or producer.

Write what can be made. The top three grossing movies in 2015 were Star Wars, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The films were directed by J.J. Abrams, Colin Trevorrow and Joss Whedon. You are not them, at least not yet, and until you are, you must write with the film's budget in mind.

Science fiction, period pieces and action thrillers are incredibly expensive to shoot. It is highly unlikely that a studio will attach a rookie producer or director to a high budget project.

Get Noticed.

Write a book. John Grisham didn't break into the entertainment business by writing screenplays, he started writing books. He wrote a Time to Kill then The Firm and The Pelican Brief. Those books were made into movies staring Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts.

I have two clients who wrote lesser known books but both are currently negotiating to have their book optioned to be made into a movie.

Write a play. If you are the next Shakespeare, you don't need advice on how to break into the industry. You need help with the option agreements. IMDb gives Shakespeare writing credit for over 1,140 movies and television projects.

Aaron Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men while bartending in New York before it was optioned. My Big Fat Greet Wedding started as a one-woman play.

Get a job. The mailrooms of Los Angeles' top talent agencies are overrepresented by lawyers who gave up their day jobs to chase their dreams.

The general counsel for my first major entertainment client hired lawyers as his assistants (think secretary, not associate or paralegal) and one has gone on to become a television writer.

Develop Access.

Network. Go to industry functions. USC and UCLA put on annual entertainment law symposiums attended by industry leaders. The panelists and attendees include industry heavyweights.

Master the art of the pitch. Every great trial lawyer understands the importance of the theme of the case. The same is true for selling your idea for a film. Even the most complex stories have key elements and can be told in a few sentences. Watch The Player.

Change your zip code. Let's face it, the majority of entertainment deals are done in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville.

Many of my clients came from my son's school activities. My oldest son became friends with the daughter of the head of world wide television for one of the major talent agencies. My youngest son's little league coaches included the former lead singer of a rock band and an Academy Award-winning actor.

If you've ever watched a little league game, you know that there is very little action and lots of downtime. That provides ample opportunity to get to know the coaches and parents.

Be Persistent.

The secret sauce to success in the entertainment industry is persistence. Talent will only get you so far but persistence will keep you in the game. Breaking in is a marathon, not a sprint.

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Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. The class covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.

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