This is a tough question, and a tough business. If you’re going to try it, it’s smart to think about what else you might enjoy or be good at if you “don’t” make it. We know people who have quit the business because the hours were too long, the politics too nasty, the work too irregular and uncertain. They’re now happy doing completely different things in places less stressful than L.A.
But for those who are determined to try, we can offer some advice. Over the years we’ve heard all kinds of crazy stories about how people broke in — sneaking on to sets, pretending to be producers, making movies by borrowing on credit cards, auditioning in restaurants. Almost everything has worked at least once, but most of the time most of the wackier things just annoy people.
We’ll try to list a few of the more normal ways in (S.S. Wilson tried everything we mention below). If you want to write, or think you can write, you should try it. It doesn’t cost much, you can do it in your spare time, and you can do it anywhere. (S.S. Wilson dictated one script into a tape-recorder while commuting long hours to an animation job everyday). If you can sell a script, it can be the fastest way in. So, get books on screenplay writing. Learn the correct script format. Look for published screenplays of movies you like (there are also places that sell scripts). Read them. Learn from them. Nancy Roberts (in her days as an agent) is quoted on screenwriting in Syd Fields’ book, “Selling the Screenplay”. Get that book and read it! What she said then still applies. But to be honest, getting anybody to “read” your script will be difficult. Contact the Writers Guild of America (in New York or Los Angeles) to see if they have a current list of movie agents who will read unsolicited scripts (that is, scripts from people they don’t already know). Most agents do not, but some do. Even if they accept your script, they may take a long time to read it, or they may not read it at all (that happens quite a bit), but you have to try everything.
Here at Stampede Entertainment, we DO NOT have a big enough staff to read unsolicited scripts. You’ll find that is the case with most agents and production companies.
If you do write a script be sure to copyright it and register it with the Writer’s Guild before you send it to anyone. Again, contact the Guild for information on how to do this. Basically you send the Guild a copy of the script, which they keep on file for a set amount of time. The Guild charges a fee for this service. But it can help protect you in the unlikely event that an unscrupulous producer takes your idea and tries to make a movie without paying you or giving you credit.
If you don’t feel you’re a writer, maybe you’d enjoy one of many other jobs that contribute to filmmaking (acting, cinematography, set design, wardrobe, etc.) Look for every opportunity to practice and/or demonstrate your craft. You have a big advantage over the days of 8mm movies, since today you can work in video much more cheaply — and have sound! Practice lighting. Work with sound. Work with editing (not as easy in video as film, unless you get some video editing equipment). Script and story board a short movie, then try to make it. Estimate what it’s going to cost and see how far you go over budget.
Enter student and amateur film and video contests. If you win, it’s more reason for people to take time to look at your work.
Try animation (either on film or on a computer).
Try to get work in film or television production. Can you get a job at your local TV station? Will they let you “intern” for free?
Finally, very important, try to make contacts. You may have heard the expression, “It’s who you know.” Well, it’s true. If you know or are related to anyone in the film or TV business, call them. Can they help you get your work seen or read by anyone? Can they get you a job on a movie, working as a production assistant, or “go-fer?” When Brent Maddock and Steve Wilson finally sold *Short Circuit, it happened because they’d been continuing to make contacts and friends. One friend Brent met in a screen-writing workshop. He was the friend of the son of the producer who eventually bought it, and he happened to know that the producer was looking for any script with a robot in it. Four months later they had a major movie in production. The trade papers said they were overnight successes — actually they’d been trying for years, but it made a good story.
But what if you don’t know anybody? Agents don’t want to read your scripts. Producers don’t want see your short films.
Go to film/video schools. There are lots of good ones. They can’t guarantee a job in the movie business, but they’re still good places to learn the basics. These days, some agents check out the students graduating from the better known schools, so sometimes you can get spotted in that way.
But more importantly, at a film school you get to know a lot of other people who are also trying to break in. Some of them will make it and they become the “who you know.” S.S. Wilson’s first paying animation job was for a friend he met at USC. The friend had started making commercials and shorts and remembered Wilson’s student stop-motion animation movies. After selling Short Circuit, Brent Maddock, Wilson, and then-agent Nancy Roberts helped him get his first feature film. He was Ron Underwood, director of Tremors.
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