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.