Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ten Things You Should Do Before Pursuing a Career in Entertainment

I am often asked this question, what do I need to do to prepare for a career in film or television. That’s why the last class I teach in my film class is about this very subject. Perhaps you have taken a class or two on film or television production. Maybe you are a high school student who has a passion for film or you are someone looking for a career change. It’s never too early to start planning and preparing if you are serious about pursuing a career in media.

I think the first place to start is to examine if you have been called by God into media and entertainment. One of my mentors told me a long time ago “God has a plan for your life. The trick is discovering what that plan is.” So is God’s plan for you to go to Hollywood to make movies or television programs? How do you know?

There are no easy answers. This is a journey that will require some time and effort on your part. So I will offer you some points to consider. Your calling usually lies at the intersection of your passions, dreams and strengths. For most of us, it will take some time to clearly see God’s calling and plan for our lives. I would suggest reading Experiencing God, Knowing and Doing the Will of God by Henry T. Blackaby and Claud V. King. It’s one of the best books I have ever read on the subject.

But in the meantime as you are exploring what God’s will is for your life, here are ten suggestions that will help you prepare for a career in media.

1. Thanks to the digital revolution, you have access to a film school in your DVD player. Today’s DVDs offer a wealth of information and resources about the filmmaking process. Most DVDs offer a commentary track featuring, in some cases, the director, producer, cinematographer, and actors discussing the creative process behind the movie. Before DVDs this type of information was hard to find. I often ask my students if they listen to the commentaries or watch the special features on their DVDs. I’m surprised how few actually have. If you are serious about a career in film and TV, you should be taking advantage of the commentaries and the behind-the-scenes features.

And don’t just watch the usual suspects such as the latest popular Hollywood blockbusters. Diversify your choices. Check out the critically acclaimed films, such as art house and independent features. Chances are when you first start out in the film business, you will be working with a low budget. So why aren’t you watching independent films? Doesn’t that make sense? Learn how they did it. Forget about special effects and big explosions and learn how to tell a good story.

For those of you are thinking about a videographer or editor, I would recommend turning off the sound and concentrating on the visuals. For example, you’ll notice the editing process of how scenes are cut together, how transitions are handled between scenes, pacing, and the use of coverage shots.

2. Get around people who love media, film and television. Is there a movie being shot in your home town? One of your best resources is to call your local film commission. Find out what’s going on. Maybe you can volunteer so you can get some experience. Don’t expect anything big such as assisting the director. The point is you want to be on the set watching how a film is made.

If no movie is being shot in your town, there are other alternatives to check out. Think about your local cable access studio or your church video team. They are always looking for volunteers. What about joining a 48-hour film project team? It’s another good way to get some practical experience. What about a local production company? Perhaps, you can line up an internship. The point is, you are not going to get paid. But more valuable than that is you want to get around people who share your passion. Opportunity knocks for those who are willing to pursue it. Don’t expect it to come looking for you.

3. Get your own camera and editing system or at least find a way to have access to one. The gap between professional and consumer-grade equipment has dramatically narrowed in recent years. You can now buy a 3-chip camera for as low as $2,000. In the used market, it will be lower. I suggest taking a look at the DVX-100 from Panasonic. It’s an excellent camera with an external XLR input. Editing software today can cost less than a few hundred dollars. Video drives have also decreased in cost as well. The bottom line is why not start making your own short films now? Write your script and get your friends involved. Why wait?

4. I hate to use the term homework, but there’s no getting around it. You’d be surprised what you won’t learn in film school. So you have to do your homework. Start reading the trades now. For example, The Hollywood Reporter covers the industry from the inside. You will be surprised what you can learn by just following the trades. The information is out there if you are willing to do a little research. Hey, entertainment is America’s number one export, so somebody in Hollywood knows what they are doing. Take time to learn how the system works before you waste months or years banging on doors. Thanks to the internet, you have access to the entertainment industry right from your own home. So start using it.

5. Learn the secrets of marketing. For every dollar Hollywood spends on production, they also spend an additional .51 cents on marketing. So if marketing is important to Hollywood, shouldn’t it be important to you?. In this industry, you must become an effective marketer. Learn to brand yourself. We live in a culture where perception is more important than reality. So use it to your advantage.

Being a filmmaker is more than just understanding the principles of your craft. Take some marketing classes. They will come in handy at some point. You must also learn to distinguish yourself from the crowd. Having a topnotch demo reel with the right presentational materials can have a huge impact.

6. Become a problem solver. This principle applies to whatever you do in life. Whether that’s working in film or television or being a plumber or an electrician. Having the ability to make other people’s problems disappear is a pathway to success in life. In fact, you will never be out of work.

Here’s an idea that someone shared with me a few years ago. Your life will change when you realize your value in the workplace is in direct proportion to your ability to solve problems for other people. Recently, I met a young filmmaker who wants to produce and direct movies. He is starting at the bottom. Over the past couple of years, he’s worked on several major motion pictures as a production assistant. But he is always looking around for opportunities to help people on the set beyond his job description. In other works, he’s solving other people’s problems. As a result, he is moving up in the industry and getting more responsibility on every new project he works on.

7. As boring as this sounds, you need to learn the principles of business and finance. The entertainment industry is first and foremost a business, and money talks. I’ve said it many “times that’s why they call it show business”. There’s no show without the business. As a filmmaker, it’s a good bet that you will not have the resources to produce and finance your films on your own. You most certainly will have to find the money and make the deal work. That means working with investors who want a return on their money. No one’s going to give you resources to make your movie without some expectation of profit.

I don’t care what your role is in the film or television industry. Whether you’re an editor or a production designer, the bottom line is you will need to know something about business. Chances are you will be a freelancer at some point in your career, which means you will be self-employed. You will have to be able to find clients and keep them happy. So you can see why having a few business skills is essential.

8. Become a storyteller. The art of storytelling has become a lost art in the entertainment industry. But those who recognize a good story have a tremendous advantage. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a writer. To advance your career as an actor, producer, director or crew member, you must work on projects that embrace quality, excellence and, most importantly, a solid story. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize good writing and storytelling.

9. Start building relationships today. The people around you will most likely be your fellow colleagues. Whether you’re taking a film class or actor’s workshop or performing in a high school drama production, get to know your peers and make friends. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. That means you cannot do it alone. I don’t care how good you think you are, you will need help.

Recently, a friend of mine produced and directed his first feature film. He did not do it by himself. In fact, he had over 50 volunteers, including cast and crew. Without building relationships over the past few years, he would never have been able to get this project off the ground.

When they need help, they will call you. And when you need an editor or videographer, hopefully, you will have a friend you will be able to call. That’s how it works.

10 Find a training program in your home town. Today you can find film classes almost anywhere. Chances are there’s a film class near you. Take some classes before you decide to go to film school or before you get on a flight and go to Hollywood. The point is you must get some training.

Here in Cincinnati at Media Missionary School, we offer several high school film camps during the summer. If you are interested, we can find you accommodations. We’re available to help you. Check out our website ( for class schedules.

The Bottom Line

If you believe you’ve been called to the entertainment industry, then go for it. Protect your dream and push ahead. Remember, it won’t come looking for you. You’ll have to pursue it. But whatever you do, start preparing now. Follow these easy steps. There’s nothing ground shaking or revolutionary about what I’ve shared with you. It’s just plain old common sense. You have to put the work, the effort and the time into getting yourself ready. So go for it.

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