Grips Make Good Money: Another Thing I Learned in Film School

It’s 1996, my first year in graduate school, in the Graduate Screenwriting Program. I am taking CNTV 190 (if I recall correctly) which was a basic production course. In it, we use video cameras, mostly Hi8 digital video, and shoot and edit short films. There were, I think, about 15 or 20 of us in the class and it was taught by a man whose name I have forgotten. He was tall and had curly, sandy blonde hair. If I’m being truthful, I will say that he seemed like a nice guy but was kinda goofy.

And, being a GSP student I had no respect for him.

I mean, I started out the class having respect for him but then as we went on, he just killed it. First off, he let us know that he wasn’t some kind of terribly successful screenwriter or filmmaker, which was a major disappointment. And, it’s not as if he’d worked on a bunch of cool movies or TV shows. Then, finally, he had the temerity to say during one class that working as a boom operator was a good job because it was easy, steady money.

Bear in mind, we all think we are going to be rich screenwriters and filmmakers. We think we will all be selling scripts like Shane Black, Joe Esterhaus or Shonda Rimes and not because we were necessarily that good (or lucky!) but we thought we were and would be. Part of what contributed to that was the fact that the 34 of us had been chosen to be in the GSP out of hundreds (I had heard over 600 applicants had applied that year). That seems to me to be rare company in which to be. And, I should also make clear that when I say “we” I should say that not all of us thought this way, but there were several. And, probably several of the GSP students really were that good. It seemed as if there was also someone on the cusp of “making it.”

But, here’s this guy telling us that, gasp, holding a microphone on a stick over your head to help the crew record the sound of the actors is good work if you can get it. And, to me, and probably others it was ludicrous, the sound of throwing in the towel, true nightmare death. Like, when a cancer patient is tired of fighting, tired of the chemotherapy, the radiation, the surgeries and just wants to rest. And, they resign from the fight. That’s what this sounded like, only in filmmaking terms.

The sad and true thing is that this man was giving us good advice. He was giving us something good and we treated it like someone in the room farted. Why was it good? Because the truth was that most of us would never really “make it” in the film industry. Most of us would never make that big script sale like we wanted. Heck, most of us wouldn’t even work long term in the film industry. You know how many thousands and thousands of people are writing a great script? You know how many thousands upon thousands think they will be great directors, actors, producers and so on? But, something like 120 films get made every year. Some more go straight to video. A bunch of others films go into turnaround and/or get stuck in development. And thousands get recycled. I mean they are run through a shredder and recycled.

Because that’s the business. Most of the Screen Actor’s Guild is out of work at any given time. Most screenplays “aren’t right for us at this time.” They “just aren’t what we’re looking for.” Working in film as “above the line” talent (as in, the director, screenwriter, main actors, producers) is very rare, relatively speaking. Most of the jobs in Hollywood are “below the line.”

And, let me just say, as I write this, that if any of this is factually wrong it’s probably because I have been teaching for ten years and haven’t actually worked in the industry for about 11 years. But, my point remains true. And important.

It’s that turning up your nose at a decent paycheck is just dumb. See, if you want to work in the industry, you should look for work that’s in demand. Yes, write your screenplay, yes, take acting classes, yes go to your auditions. But, realize that most likely, if you’re lucky, you will work in far less glamourous activities if you want a career in show business. And, for me, I would think that if you really love filmmaking, then why not do it? That’s living the dream!

I have a friend whom shall remain nameless because I don’t have his permission to tell his story (though I doubt he would mind, but still) and he “made it.” He sold a screenplay for a fistful of cash. He got a lawyer, a manager, a Writer’s Guild membership. He was, and is, still, to me, THE MAN. He took meetings, lunches, and probably a dinner or two. He went on all the studio lots, and sold some more work, did a few rewrites, met famous people. He was living the dream. And, then, after about three years, the money was running out and there wasn’t more work coming in. So, he had to get a job. He started working as an editor’s assistant. He was working in, gasp, reality TV. But, to me, he was still living the dream because he was surviving and working in the industry.

He didn’t give up like I did.

Of course, the punchline to this whole story is that if counted all the money I made since I graduated from ‘SC and all the money he made, even counting the screenplay he sold and compared the two piles, I think I made more than he did. Know why? ‘Cause teachers is crazy rich, yo!

No, not really. It’s because my paychecks were steadier than his is all.

More importantly, though, is that we both enjoyed our lives, as far as I could tell. We both survived and did work we liked. I directed school plays and he did sketch comedy. I graded essays and he made short films. And, both of us had lives.

So, the thing is that a job is a job. A paycheck pays the bills. Today, I don’t think your job title makes you a better person. But, I think a better measure of your success is if you are doing what you enjoy with your life. And, are you adding to other’s lives? You know, that teacher that I disrespected and scoffed at? He was trying to give me something useful and helpful, he was trying to have a positive effect on my life and I didn’t take it. The arrogance of youth and all that, I guess. But, now I know, grips can make good money, too.

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5 thoughts on “Grips Make Good Money: Another Thing I Learned in Film School”

  1. I'm outraged you told my story without my permission and had the gall to only slightly exaggerate my awesomeness.

    But yeah, it's all true (except for that part where Poirier says he and I made the same money over the years. He just tells himself that to keep from crying to sleep at night).

    Editing has been a nice second career for me. And it allows me to keep writing for occasional paychecks and maintain the family life I always wanted. It's not glamorous, but really, my big time screenwriting career wasn't glamorous either. Mostly, it was me doing a lot of work and a lot of worrying about what would happen if I couldn't make enough money at the writing.

    And when Poirier says that a lot of people scoffed at the notion of being anything but a Big Deal Screenwriter, he's not kidding. One teacher, on our first day, in our first class, told us point blank that only one out of the thirty-four of us would make it, if any at all. Most of the class got bent out of shape at that, and never took that teacher seriously for the rest of the term. They should've. That teacher was one of the few who literally gave us the handbook for a career path.

    (Not to bust Poirier's hump, but I was actually one of the few who believed all the warnings. I even tried to get into an editing class to learn a backup skill, and was denied. Why? I was a writer, and they wanted to save the spaces for production people who were serious about getting jobs.)

    By the by, if you think about that 1-in-34 average, our curve was blown before we even got there. There was a writing team in the class before ours that have been writing on a high-profile TV show for the last decade (on a show that actually started when we were in film school), and in the class before that was Shonda Rhimes (who pretty much blows the curve all on her own). So, that's 3 people in two years, meaning our class should have none.

    Which was actually pretty close.

    All a long way to say, yeah, don't laugh at the guy holding the boom mic. He's probably living better than all the writers in his graduating class.

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  2. Actually, John, I said I made more money than you did. And, i'm pretty sure I'm right. I bought two houses, had two kids, and I have way more HDTVs than you. And, I never said it keeps me from crying at night. Nothing does that. I weep like an old woman every night as I think about all the ways my life is a failure, and they are legion, friend. I keep a checklist on the nightstand just to be sure I don't miss any. On the plus side, well, there is no plus side.

    Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the feedback! 🙂

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  3. I know of at least two who have made decent careers writing on TV, as writers and then producers. Maybe not big-time screenwriters, but gainfully employed on network and cable series. They were, of course, the quiet ones that most of us forgot were in our class at all.

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