Breaking Into Show Biz
There are many different ways to enter the industry and build a career. It is largely a bootstrap business without initiation rites or designated steps for promotion. Each person finds his own path. Breakthroughs can occur at any time.
SoonTrending reports a new wave of resources are coming your way to help expertly navigate the waters of the Entertainment Industry:
By Mark Litwak: Portions of this article have been excerpted from the book “Reel Power ,” (Silman-James Press) by Mr. Litwak
BREAKING IN, MOVING UP, HOLDING ON
Academic training can help prepare one for an industry career but it by no means assures entry. The competition is so great that graduates of film, law and business schools often have to swallow their pride and begin their industry careers as secretaries or messengers.
Few formal training programs exist. CAA and William Morris operate two of the more renowned ones. Trainees work long hours in exchange for an opportunity to learn the ropes of the business. The programs have been criticized for their unscholarly approach. “All it does is teach you where people live and it puts a lot of wear and tear on your car,” says a studio executive who started in the CAA mailroom. “There was no learning process. In the mailroom you had college grads running foolish errands for agents.”
But most graduates think the experience was valuable, They “verbally abuse you every minute of every day for two years,” says one graduate. “It’s like hazing in a fraternity.” They tell you are a piece of shit. [However] when agents whip you, beat you, they are teaching you how to survive in Hollywood. After I was asked to get directions to a restaurant and couldn’t get through, I was yelled at for not calling up the Los Angeles Times food critic for directions. They teach you by yelling at you. It was the greatest experience of my life.”
“In the mailroom you learn who everyone is,” says CAA alumnus Ken Sherman. “You begin to learn the politics … you listen in on agents’ phone calls. They encouraged it so you would learn how deals were made.” Former CAA trainee Terry Danuser says, “You learned the language used and how to talk to people. How to negotiate. How to get what you want.”
“At CAA for two years I learned more than in my four years of college and three years in the industry,” says one graduate. “It was invaluable as an education.” Says former William Morris trainee Johnny Levin, “It’s such a business of personalities … I don’t know how you appreciate and learn that in an academic environment.”
The agencies like the training programs because they provide inexpensive labor. “It’s cheaper than hiring secretaries,” says Moscoe. “It’s much cheaper. They pay trainees less and [the trainees] work more because they are going after the carrot, the implied promise of becoming an agent.” Some participants do not feel they were exploited. “I figured it would be a good learning experience,” says CAA alumnus Adam Fields. “Rather than my paying a couple of thousand to go to school, they paid me a couple of thousand to learn.”
But the training programs can be tougher than school. “It sorts out the less determined. Weeds them out,” says manager-lawyer Michael Meyer, who worked in the CAA mailroom for seven weeks before quitting. “You have to really want it. It’s a grueling process. You deliver mail from eight A.M. to nine or ten at night. There is no lunch break. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life.” By one estimate, 60 percent of the trainees drop out.
Despite the hardships of the training programs, there is no shortage of applicants. One graduate explains that “the only place to start is in the mailroom of the big … agencies. Or as an NBC page. Those are the only places you can really learn the business.” William Morris has provided the start for so many executives and producers that it has been dubbed the “Harvard Graduate School of Show Business.”
“Assistants are enticed by the idea of being an agent”, says Danuser. “That enthusiasm lasts about six months. Then you realize your chances are very limited there. It takes about a year to quit.”
“At CAA they would know right off whether you would ever be an agent,” says a former trainee. “They would lead people on to think they would make it. But it never happens. When asked, they won’t say no. They give an ambiguous answer. They want to keep a good secretary.”
One estimate is that for every fifteen trainees only one or two will become agents. But many of those who don’t make the grade develop relationships during their training that help them secure jobs with producers, studios and other agencies. “Most of the people I was in the mailroom with three years ago are now making more than a hundred thousand dollars a year,” a former CAA trainee said in 1985.
Moreover, even if a trainee does not graduate to immediate riches, he benefits from the friendships made within the program. A strong camaraderie is forged among those who have suffered the trials and tribulations of training. “You grow up together,” says Levin, who now has an industry-wide network of close friends.
While the CAA and William Morris training programs are the best-known launching pads into the industry, there are others. The Directors Guild offers an apprenticeship program of four hundred days for those who want to become assistant directors or production managers. Participants receive a modest salary as they learn union and guild regulations and other practical Production knowhow. Approximately 1,100 people take the aptitude test each year to enter the program. Fewer than 20 are usually accepted.
Many industry observers believe the best method of breaking into the business is to write one’s way in. “If someone asks me what is the easiest way to break into the movie business, there is only one answer,” according to producer Don Simpson. “Write an original screenplay. There is no easier way. There is no quicker way, no cleaner way. There is no more certain way. You can go to all the schools you want, get all the degrees and have all the connections. Write an original screenplay that’s good and you’ll be a star overnight. It’s automatic, it’s a lock, a given.”
Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker broke into the industry that way. Their first script, WarGames, became the hot new script in town, says Parkes. “It was handed agent to agent. Everyone was taking us out to lunch and was interested in what we wanted to do. Even before WarGames was made we were able to make a deal at Twentieth Century-Fox to write another original [script]. Then when WarGames came out and was a hit, on the strength of that we made a deal at Paramount to write and produce….Then Spielberg wanted us to write Peter Pan for him. So we did that and had a great time working with him.”
But most of the scripts written by aspiring screenwriters do not open any doors for their authors. “I read what others send me,” says screenwriter-turned-executive Gary Devore (Back Roads). “You would be amazed at how many people spend months burning the midnight oil writing a script and the result is absolutely horrible.”
Screenwriting appears deceptively simple, but “it’s a lot tougher to write for the entertainment business than most people think,” says agent Rick Ray. “Every person who sits out there and says ‘My God, I could do better than that.’ Well, it’s not so. Ninety-nine and nine tenths of them can’t do better. It’s a genuine skill as well as a craft, and it’s not so easy to do.” Ron Koslow (Into the Night) says it took him fifteen years to master screenwriting- which is far longer than it took him to graduate from film and law schools.
“There aren’t a hell of a lot of people who can write a shootable screenplay starting from scratch,” according to Frank Pierson, who says about fifty writers out of the six thousand members of the Writers Guild can do it. “The rest can hack a scene and know a few things, but that’s it.”
Pierson explains that “there are a lot of matters of screen grammar which require some learning from the inside out. You go to school and you can be told about these things but unless you understand what rhythm and tempo mean in terms of dramatic structure, nobody can explain it to you. Writing a good movie is like writing music. You are thinking in terms of: this scene moves swiftly and then suddenly it comes to a stop. Then you go into another kind of scene with a different feeling and tempo and rhythm to it.”
A common failing of aspiring screenwriters is that they don’t understand the kind of stories that interest studios. They select subject matter deemed uncommercial, construct scenarios too expensive to shoot, and neglect to write roles for existing stars.
Moreover, “writers don’t think of original ideas,” according to Don Simpson. “Film school has destroyed the screenwriting process. Film schools have taught kids to think about movies, not about life…. They are emulating former films. And that’s just exactly the wrong thing to do [although that’s what producers often request]…. They choose the wrong ideas. They either try to be trendy or are derivative.”
Because the industry is deluged with so many bad screenplays, the problem for the gifted beginner is how to have his work recognized from the “sludge.” Many producers and most executives return unsolicited manuscript unopened, so as not to waste time and to avoid possible lawsuits from writers claiming their screenplays were plagiarized. Even if frivolous, the lawsuits are bothersome to defend.
A more common approach is to enlist intermediaries, whether they be gardeners, pool men, tennis instructors, exercise trainers, astrologers, gurus or anyone else willing to pass along a script. (Sometimes these go-betweens become producers in the process.) Other writers have tried a more direct approach, advertising in the trade papers or renting billboards.
Industry functions and seminars provide additional opportunities for access. “Anytime anyone speaks at USC or UCLA, there are sixteen guys with scripts standing around backstage,” quips veteran writer I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment). “They think they can get that lucky break if somebody will read their script. If Mr. Lucas or Mr. Spielberg gets interested, they got it made.”
With so many writers trying to break in, competition is intense. “It’s a very rough racket these days,” says Diamond. “There are sixty thousand film students, of whom thirty thousand come onto the market every year.” Gary Devore says, “It took me thirteen years to sell something. If I had known how tough it was, I would have become a bank robber instead.”
Until a writer has an agent representing him, he will have difficulty submitting his scripts to potential buyers. If you want to sell writing to the studios you virtually need to have an agent,” says writer-director Nicholas Meyer (The Day After), “because there are so many trees that have been ground up into screenplays that there are scarcely enough people to read them. So the agent acts as a kind of screening house, a clearinghouse.”
Agent Rick Ray agrees: “Without an agent it is awfully hard to function in this business if for no other reason than ninety-eight percent of the potential marketplace won’t even look at material submitted without one. Part of that is protection from a legal point of view, but part of it is the sure and certain knowledge that the agent, who is not operating an eleemosynary institution and is there to make money, must see something in this writer or he wouldn’t be wasting his time. If that is so, then maybe there is something worth pursuing.”
But agents, like executives, generally won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Moreover, they are reluctant to represent a beginning writer until he has demonstrated his marketability by selling a script — a difficult task when no one will read your work. It took writer Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark) six scripts and five years to get an agent.
While breaking into the industry for writers is tough, for directors the task is next to impossible. Indeed, many directors only get their chance to direct after they have established themselves as top writers. Holding their script as hostage, they refuse to sell it unless the studio will let them direct it.
“The way the business operates,” says writer-director Colin Higgins (Nine to Five), “you need something to sell. You don’t start out with your hand out. You go with your hand full. What you do is create a script. That was always the easiest way … because if you have a script and you have someone who wants to buy it then you can decide on what terms you’re going to sell it.”
One writer who did just that is Richard Tuggle. After being fired as editor of a health magazine, he bought a book on screenwriting and moved to Los Angeles. With only a few thousand dollars to his name, he spent six months researching and writing a screenplay about a famous escape from Alcatraz prison.
Tuggle then went to the Writers Guild and received a list of agents who would accept unsolicited manuscripts–agents Tuggle describes as “usually the worst.” He also submitted his screenplay to anybody else in the business he could cajole into reading it. “You use whatever connections you have to get your work read by people in the industry,” he says, “whether that be contacting a cousin’s dentist or a friend’s uncle.”
Everyone who read Tuggle’s script rejected it. They said it had poor dialogue and characters, lacked a love interest, and that the public wasn’t interested in prison stories. “I soon realized that those in the business didn’t know anything,” he says, “because I had written a good screenplay.”
He decided to bypass producers and executives and deal directly with filmmakers. He called the agent for director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and lied, saying he had met Siegel at a party and the director had expressed interest in reading his script. The agent forwarded the script to Siegel, who read it, liked it and passed it on to Clint Eastwood, who agreed to star in it. Escape from Alcatraz was a box-office hit.
With a credit to his name, studios offered Tuggle writing assignments. He agreed to write Earthquake II for Universal, but his script was abandoned when the sequel to another disaster movie performed poorly. He agreed to rewrite Rough Cut after a series of writers had been dismissed from the project. Tuggle soon joined them. He then wrote a screenplay about drug smuggling for Fox that was shelved. “I fell into the mishmash of Hollywood,” he says of the period.
Discouraged but not defeated, Tuggle set himself a new goal: to direct. He committed himself to sit in a room and write until he had a great script. He wrote ten drafts over the course of a year. Each draft he showed to friends, asking them to critique it, knowing that if he could not get them to like it, there was little chance of selling it to a studio. “The first three [drafts] everyone hated,” he says. “The next couple, people felt mixed. The last ones, people said, “This has a chance.”‘
Tuggle knew that he would have an especially difficult time persuading a studio to produce his script since he was demanding that he direct it. “Studios never want to take a chance with a first-time director,” he says. “If the director is lousy and the picture shuts down, the studio can lose everything. So they would rather take a mediocre director who they know will deliver. The slight benefit from good to great is not worth the terror they feel in taking a chance on a first timer.”
To make the project more palatable to a studio, he tried to recruit a star for it. When Clint Eastwood said he wanted to do it, Warner Brothers agreed to let Tuggle direct. Tightrope was a success, and Tuggle’s directing career was launched. “You have to take chances before you’re lucky,” Tuggle says in retrospect. “Because I was willing to take the chance and risk a year working on a script, I put myself in a position where I could get lucky.”
Some aspiring directors produce a short film in an attempt to persuade studios to let them direct. Former production executive Susan Merzbach says a good short will convince her to hire a director. “I’ll hire you as a director the moment I can see that you can direct,” she says. “Show me that you’re talented. All I need is proof that you can do it.”
But most executives and producers are reluctant to hire someone to direct a full-length feature on the basis of a short. After making several impressive shorts at UCLA, writer-director Colin Higgins showed his work to executives and was uniformly told: “Well that’s terrific…. You can do short films, that’s what it proves.” No one was willing to let him direct a feature.
However, shorts are useful for getting a student in the door to see producers and studio executives. Lawrence Bassoff used his twenty-minute comedy about an outer space themed Bar Mitzvah as his calling card. “Everybody goes around saying they want to direct,” says Bassoff, “but they have no film to show. You have to go out and shoot something so you have entrèe.”
But it may take many meetings to get results. “You have to be willing to push, to knock on doors and be willing to go back,” says Bassoff. “It took me several years to scope this out. There was no book on it. You have to go out there and knock heads with these people. Some are nice, some are not. It’s an incredible roller coaster every day…. It’s a treasure hunt out there … you look under every rock…. You have to be tough. You have to be willing to have people tell you your ideas and your short film are no good.” After three years of showing his short to anyone who would sit still to watch it, he finally received an offer from Crown International Pictures to write and direct the low-budget film Weekend Pass.
Many directors start their careers with low-budget features that more experienced directors are unwilling to accept because of the meager wages and spartan working conditions. “The first film is very important,” explains director Richard Pearce (Country), because it requires someone to trust you enough to risk a lot of money on your unproven ability to direct.”
Producers Sam Arkoff and Roger Corman have launched the careers of a generation of filmmakers. Arkoff financed John Milius’s first picture, Dillinger, and released Brian De Palma’s first hit, Sisters. Corman gave such directors as Peter Bogdanovich (Targets), Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Joe Dante (Hollywood Boulevard), Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto) and Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha) their starts. While these films lack great artistry, they gave the directors an opportunity to learn their craft and graduate to better pictures.
Jonathan Kaplan (Heart Like a Wheel) was offered his first feature when his NYU film instructor, Martin Scorsese, recommended him to Roger Corman. When Corman telephoned him at 4 A.M. to make the offer, Kaplan thought the call was a prank, and hung up. Fortunately, Corman called back. He offered Kaplan $2,000 to rewrite, direct and co-edit Night Call Nurses. Kaplan jumped at the opportunity and shot the film in thirteen days. Although he felt the film was “the worst thing ever made,” it did well at the box office. Corman then asked him to direct a similar story about student teachers. Kaplan’s directorial career was off and running.
After The Student Teachers was screened, Roger’s brother Gene made Kaplan an offer. Because he liked the way Kaplan had handled a black subplot in Night Call Nurses, Gene asked him to direct a black exploitation picture, The Slams. Despite his unfamiliarity with the genre and the fact that he is white, Kaplan made the film. It earned him credentials as a black exploitation director, which led to his being offered another such film, Truck Turner, for Sam Arkoff. That film opened to great business in Chicago.
When Truck Turner was released, Kaplan’s treatment for a film called White Line Fever happened to land on the desk of Columbia executive Peter Guber. Guber read in the trade papers that Kaplan’s Truck Turner picture had broken box office records in Chicago, and must have figured, says Kaplan, that it was a movie about trucking, and that White Line Fever was going to be Kaplan’s next truck movie. Of course, the first movie had nothing to do with trucks; Truck Turner was just the name of a character. But Columbia agreed to make the film. Out of such quirks careers are made.
Another route to the director’s chair is by way of the legitimate theater. The late writer-director Jim Bridges (Urban Cowboy) began his career by leaving Los Angeles to direct an Off-Off-Broadway play in New York. He frankly admits that he went East because “I knew I’d be reviewed, and I knew that it would say in the paper that he’s a director. Then I could come back.” Indeed, he was able to parlay his New York debut into directing several plays in Los Angeles. Then, armed with the reviews of his plays and a script called The Baby Maker, Bridges got his chance to direct a film.
But talent doesn’t necessarily determine who gets a chance to direct. “It’s not a matter of ‘Can you?’ ” said the late Robert Aldrich (director, The Longest Yard). “It’s who is going to let you. You see people who probably could be marvelous directors if somebody would say, ‘You start tomorrow.’ It really has so little to do with qualification and so much to do with luck that you’re very reluctant to tell young people that the harder they work the more chances there are for them to get a start. It really isn’t true. You see dummies get opportunities who don’t deserve it. Then you see people who are entitled to a shot and they don’t get it.”
Increasingly, those tired of waiting for their lucky break are making their own feature films outside of Hollywood. John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus 7) and Susan Seidelman (Smithereens) directed independent low-budget films with such skill that studio offers quickly followed.
David Zucker, Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams took the independent route after the studios rejected their proposal for Kentucky Fried Movie. The studios said audiences didn’t like movies comprised of sketches. But the three believed in their material, which they had honed in front of the audiences in their 140-seat improvisational theater. And so they decided to make the movie on their own.
A wealthy real estate investor offered to finance the picture if they would write a script. But after they completed a screenplay, the investor had second thoughts and decided that he didn’t want to finance the picture alone. He said he would try to attract other investors if the three filmmakers would produce a ten-minute excerpt of the film, which he would finance. But when the trio presented a budget for the short to the investor, he backed out.
However, the prospect of shooting the short so excited them that they decided to pay for it themselves. The ten minute film cost $35,000, and with it they approached the studios anew. This time they attached a young director named John Landis to the project. The studios again turned it down.
Curious as to how audiences would react to their film, they persuaded exhibitor Kim Jorgenson to show it before one of his regularly scheduled movies. When Jorgenson saw the short he “fell out of his seat laughing.” He was so impressed that he offered to raise the money needed to make the full-length version. By having his fellow exhibitors screen the film before audiences in their theaters, he convinced them to put up the $650,000 budget.
Kentucky Fried Movie was a box-office success, returning domestic rentals of $7.1 million. For their next picture, the threesome decided to write a film parodying the series of Airport movies. They spent a year writing Airplane! and then submitted it to the studios. Every one rejected it. Returning to their theater-owner friends, they were surprised to be turned down. The exhibitors liked the material but thought it wiser to make a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie than try something new. They suggested that the Airplane! material be incorporated as part of a sequel. The filmmakers declined.
The movie might never have been made had it not been for Susan Baerwald, a reader at United Artists. She loved the script and was disappointed when her studio turned it down. One night, over dinner with her friend Michael Eisner, then president of Paramount Pictures, she mentioned the Airplane! script. Eisner was intrigued. He immediately got up from the table and called Paramount executive Jeff Katzenberg and asked him to track down the screenplay.
Eisner and Katzenberg liked the script but wanted an experienced director to make it. Even though the project had been turned down everywhere else, the three refused to part with the project unless they could direct it. After protracted negotiations, Paramount relented with the proviso that if they were not happy with the dailies, they could bring in their own director. Fortunately, the Paramount executives liked what they saw.
Airplane! was a huge hit at the box office, bringing Paramount domestic rentals of $40 million while costing a mere $3.5 million to produce. Since then the three writer-directors have been actively courted by the studios. “It’s amazing what a difference a hit picture makes,” says Jerry Zucker. Adds brother David: “The movie business is impossible to get into or out of. Once you succeed there is so much pressure put on you by executives to continue.”
Jim Abrahams credits their success to single-mindedness and determination. “We’ve seen a lot of people with more raw talent come and go. [But] they get distracted by drugs, women, etcetera.” Jerry Zucker says their success is a result of having taken control of their careers. “When we first came in, we had the attitude that some big producer would discover us…. Later we decided to take things in our own hands.” “You have to ignore ninety percent of the advice you get,” says Abrahams, who notes that they lost several years because an agent had told them sketch movies were a waste of time.
While writers and directors find it difficult to break into the industry, for actors the path is truly tortuous. At least writers and directors are able to take the initiative and demonstrate their ability by writing scripts and making their own films. But actors can’t show their talent until they first persuade someone to give them a role. “As an actor you’re always waiting to be invited to the party,” says Tony Bill. “You have to wait for the person casting a movie to put you in the perfect part.”
The barriers against beginning actors are formidable. Usually one must be a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to be considered for even the most minor parts. While low-budget productions will use non-union crews and non-Guild writers and directors, they rarely employ non-SAG actors.
To join SAG an actor must convince a production company that is a SAG signatory to hire him. But a producer’s agreement with SAG generally requires the producer to give hiring preference to SAG members. One exception allows the producer to hire a non-SAG actor when no SAG member is available or qualified for a part. Thus , if the role calls for an Albanian midget who speaks French and can do motorcycle stunts, the producer will have little difficulty demonstrating his need to hire a non-SAG actor. But if the part calls for someone more ordinary, the producer hires outside the Guild at the risk of incurring a financial penalty.
An actor could conceivably join SAG by establishing his own production company, have it become a guild signatory, and then hire himself. But this is an expensive scheme not within the means of most actors. An actor’s admission into SAG is more typically gained by requesting a director to take advantage of a provision that allows directors to upgrade extras during production. If the director adds a line to the script during production and assigns it to a nonspeaking extra, even if that line is just a shout from a crowd, the extra becomes a “day Player” eligible to join SAG.
Another way to join SAG is to transfer in from its sister unions in the fields of television (AFTRA) or live theater (Equity). Persons who have been members of AFTRA or Equity for a year and performed in at least one principal role in a production under their jurisdiction are eligible to enter SAG. AFTRA is easy to join since it is open to anyone at any time. Therefore, the aspiring actor has only to enroll and obtain a speaking role in a soap opera, commercial or other taped television show in order to get into SAG.
But once an actor joins SAG his troubles are far from over. The number of persons pursuing acting careers has increased enormously. The number of roles are so limited that at any time 85 percent of SAG members are unemployed. Consequently, few members are able to support themselves from acting alone.
Beginning actors are always at a competitive disadvantage. Says casting director Mike Fenton, “There are too many people… we are more aware of.” For even secondary roles, casting directors look for actors whose names on a billboard might mean something to the public, perhaps piquing its interest. “What you try to do is put together a cast with people who have some visibility,” explains Fenton.
Because casting directors have so many actors to choose from, they usually will not even consider hiring one who does not have an agent. So many candidates have representation that there is little need to look further. Moreover, casting directors complain that negotiating with actors can be exasperating. They often do not understand the fine points of deal-making and they tend to become emotionally involved in their negotiations. It’s far easier to deal with an agent who understands industry shorthand.
For the beginning actor, getting an agent can be an insurmountable obstacle. Explained the late Joyce Selznick, a casting director, “It takes an enormous amount of spadework to take beginning actors and go through all the beginning motions of introducing them to casting directors and getting them their start. It’s very painful, it takes a long time, and it costs the agent a lot of money. So for the most part, agents don’t like to fool around with unknown people. It takes so long that by the time they’ve made all those steps to get an actor started, he has already gone off to another agent.”
Actors go about seeking representation in a variety of ways. Some wander around town dropping off resumes at agents’ offices. This approach rarely works, because agents want to see an actor perform. Consequently, to gain exposure, actors will take roles for little or no pay in small theater productions. They also appear in showcases sponsored by acting schools. Here short scenes are performed before agents lured in with a free lunch.
Of course, actors sometimes employ other, more outrageous, methods. Agent Ken Sherman recalls a particularly memorable encounter with an actor and actress. The pair offered to act out a scene for him in his office, and when Sherman agreed, they stepped outside to change into their “costumes.” The scene began as the actor returned in his Jockey shorts and lay down on the couch. The actress entered, removed her clothes down to sheer bra and panties, and began singing at the top of her lungs. Sherman was aghast, and worried that a VIP visiting next door might drop in to find out what all the noise was about. Needless to say, the performance did not get the pair an agent.
A more businesslike approach to breaking into the business was used by Northern California resident Peter Coyote (E.T.). He had his San Francisco agent arrange a series of meetings for him with casting directors in Los Angeles. After each meeting he wrote the person’s name and physical description and the topics they discussed on an index card. He then began corresponding with each one. “I sent them that book or article we talked about,” he recalls, “and I dated it on my file card. And every month I would go through those cards, and if I had review out I would send them with a little note….That impressed them. And they began to talk.”
A Hollywood agent heard about Coyote, flew up North to see him in a play, then signed him. “Everyone seemed to think that you couldn’t do it and live out of town,” says Coyote. But his domicile was an advantage because it allowed him to correspond with casting directors who probably wouldn’t have returned his phone calls had he lived in Los Angeles.
No matter how an actor obtains an agent, there remains the problem of securing work. Agents can only propose their clients for parts that may be appropriate for them. Ultimately, the actor must win the role himself, often in an audition.
Auditions are not ideal settings for demonstrating acting ability. It’s especially difficult to perform cold readings, where actors are handed a script on the way into the audition without time to prepare. “I never really understood what anybody gets out of a cold reading,” says Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man). “It’s not acting, it’s not doing the character. I know some actors who can read great, but can’t act worth a damn. Other actors can’t read at all, but they are great actors.”
“Cold readings are very difficult to do and I’m not sure they have anything to do with acting,” says personal manager Michael Meyer, “but they determine if you get the job.” Consequently, learning the art of auditioning is an integral part of becoming an actor.
“The key to auditioning well,” says Jane Fonda, “is learning how to both concentrate and relax at the same time. One must be able to ignore distractions and focus intently on one’s performance while also being relaxed enough to let one’s creative juices flow. A literal interpretation of the script is usually not impressive. What matters is … whether the actor brings you surprises. It is not just reading naturalistically. It is . do they bring you any presence…are they aware of the subtleties.'”
Sometimes an audition is in the form of a meeting to discuss the role. Peter Coyote says the key to success here is “understanding that ninety percent of the people that you meet know absolutely nothing about the art of acting. They’ll ask to see film on you, which is a big mistake [to supply] because the only film they’re going to be satisfied with is film of you playing the role they have in mind. They can’t extrapolate.
“So when I go in for a role I try to find those aspects of my personality that are already close to the role and emphasize those in the meeting. Or find some opportunity to tell a story in the meeting that will reveal those attributes. Because when you tell a good story you act it out. So a story is the perfect cover for acting, without saying, . Hey, I am acting for you.’ And then they think they’ve discovered you. They think they saw something. Because most of them have no idea of the mobility and external plasticity that an actor can have. When they want a neurotic ship captain they hire a neurotic ship captain.
“After I did E.T., I got twenty offers for compassionate scientists in science fiction movies. After I did Cross Creek, I got twenty offers for laconic Southern gentlemen. After I did Timerider I got twenty offers for psychopathic idiot cowboys. So you have to understand they don’t know anything about the art except for a few of the very best.”
Some actors believe it wise to stay in character in all their dealings with casting people so it appears they are the character. It can be difficult to detect the impersonations of a proficient actor. American actress Lisa Eichhorn spoke with such an authentic-sounding accent that she was able to trick veteran director John Schlesinger into hiring her for Yanks. Because Schlesinger was only willing to audition English actresses, Eichhorn’s agent warned her that she must deceive him if she hoped to get the job.
Eichhorn passed two screen tests and was awarded the part. But she felt guilty about lying and several days later confessed that she was an American. Schlesinger dismissed the revelation, saying: “Oh, I know that.” Several years later he admitted that she had indeed fooled him.
It’s the audacious actor who often wins the part. Although Teri Garr failed to pass the first round of auditions for the play West Side Story, she marched right into the finals, figuring nobody would remember she had been cut. Sure enough, she got the part.
The “chutzpah” approach helped Peter Coyote land a part in a prison picture. “I went to an open cattle call to read for a one-liner, as a leg breaker,” he recalls, “and when I walked into the room it was full of guys who could have ripped my thighs off and beaten me to death. Next to these guys I was not going to convince anyone that I was a leg breaker.
“There were sides [pages of script] spread all around the room. So I looked through about fifteen sides and found this one marvelous soliloquy written for a sixty-year-old con….And I worked on that soliloquy for two hours as I sat there. And then I went in for this one-line audition and I said, . Gentlemen, I would like to audition with this speech. I know I am up for a one-liner, but you can’t possibly learn anything about my work in one line. I have waited two hours, and I know you are running late, but could you give me the courtesy of hearing this speech?” And they did.
“I read the speech and they all looked at each other. And I got that part. They rewrote it for a thirty-five-year-old guy…that taught me a lesson…. . If they don’t say no, you’re not asking for enough.'”
Mastering the art of auditioning is important because it’s a skill needed throughout one’s career. Even veterans are asked to audition. Only stars are spared the ordeal.
Actors usually solicit work for many years before they become sought-after talent. Great performances and reviews have little impact unless an actor is in a high-visibility production. Actors are only considered as good as the films they are in, says Joyce Selznick. “Unless they’re in a runaway hit, whereby their exposure to the public is so tremendous that they become known overnight, they can forget it. If they’re in a film that doesn’t make it, even with good notices, they start their career over again. They look for the next picture that is going to do it for them.”
“In every career it’s one picture that shoots them up,” said director Jim Bridges. Shrewd agents are less concerned with wages a beginning actor can earn than with getting that breakthrough role. A part in the next Steven Spielberg film can be a tremendous career boost and enable the actor to get the top dollar next time out.
But there is little an actor can do to generate that breakthrough role. Notwithstanding all his dedication and talent, he often must wait a long time to be offered the right part. As Boris Karloff said, “You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time.”
Moreover, unless an actor has mastered his craft while awaiting his lucky break, all may be for naught. You need “a foundation of craftsmanship beneath you to be able to capitalize on luck if it should strike you,” says Paul Newman. How one obtains that mastery without regular opportunity to work is a dilemma many actors face.
Just as writers, directors and actors struggle to break into the business, so do producers. Many serve lengthy apprenticeships as production managers, agents, personal managers or studio executives. A good number of writers, directors and stars also become producers, often in a dual capacity.
And then there are the pseudo-producers, who know little about producing but wear the title. This can be anyone from unemployed hustlers to wealthy businessmen willing to finance a production. “We find appalling those people who are called producers who don’t know the first thing about producing,” says Producers Guild president Renée Valente. “Most of these people don’t perform the function, are not capable of performing the function and don’t want to perform the function,” says producer Walter Coblenz (All the President’s Men). “They just want to see their names in lights.”
The Producers Guild has been unable to restrict who may be designated a producer because it does not have a union contract with the studios. The studios have refused to recognize the Guild on the grounds that producers are part of management. The National Labor Relations Board has agreed with this and therefore declined to intervene. Without government intercession and lacking enough clout of its own, the Guild aligned itself with the Teamsters in the hope that their muscle might force the studios to negotiate. Under threat of a strike, the studios have finally relented, agreeing to negotiate with the Guild on issues of mutual concern but still refusing to recognize it as a labor union.
Until the Producers Guild and the studios can come to terms on who may be designated a producer, such credits can be freely assigned. Because it doesn’t cost the studio anything to bestow such credits, they’re frequently used to reward stars, writers, agents or anyone else who has a hand in putting together a deal or needs to be placated. But the proliferation of credits has diluted their value. When a picture is loaded with “associated producers,” “co-producers,” “supervising producers,” and “executives in charge of production,” the credits become meaningless.
Today it’s unusual for a picture to have just one producer. Notwithstanding the titles given to pseudo-producers, the producing function is generally split in two. The person who arranges the financing, packages the project and cuts the deals is designated the “executive producer.” The supervision of the logistics of production is given to a “nuts and bolts” guy who is referred to as the “line producer,” and whose screen credit reads “producer.” (However, executive producers sometimes take the producer credit in order to be eligible for the Academy Award for best picture.)
The new species of producer, who has evolved by ingratiating himself with a star or director, may be reluctant to exercise authority over cast and crew in the belief that it’s important for everyone to like him. Says producer Martin Bregman: “Some of the young producers are more interested in having dinner with the star than in keeping in touch with what is happening on the set.”
“Unfortunately, most producers today call themselves producers but what they really do is stay in their offices and make phone calls,” says Don Simpson. “That’s why producers have…gotten a bad name. They’re not filmmakers by and large. They’re deal-makers. And they’re not developers. They don’t know anything about script. They are businessmen. They are smart with money. The good producers are self-generators. They come up with original ideas. [The others] go to lunch. They wait for agents to give them scripts. They’re packagers.”
Depending on their background, individuals make the transition to producing in different ways. For the businessman who has made his fortune in another field and now wants to try producing, the key to success is surrounding himself with experienced hands and hoping he learns the business before he runs out of money. Shopping-center developer Melvin Simon financed a number of flops before he had a hit with Porky’s. He has subsequently closed shop and left the film business.
Writers and directors who become producers need to learn deal-making and the logistical aspects of production. Agents and attorneys can help with the former, while an experienced line producer can help with the latter.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two of the most successful writer-directors who have graduated to producing. Their experience as filmmakers makes them ideal supervisors and collaborators for writers and directors, and their stature in the industry allows them to exercise great control over their productions. They’re the modern-day equivalent of the traditional producer. It may be that only those producers who have been successful filmmakers can amass that much authority today.
Stars have a history of using their clout to take control of their films. Back in 1919 Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks (with D.W. Griffith) formed their own studio, United Artists. They hired others to handle most of the producing chores so they could concentrate on their acting.
No matter how one first becomes a producer, it’s difficult to sustain a career. Studios don’t value producers as much for their skill as for their projects. Rarely will a studio suggest stories to a producer, or bring him into projects it’s developing, as it does with stars and directors. When a producer is no longer able to deliver desirable packages, his career is over.
Thus the burden is always on the producer to initiate projects. He is an independent entrepreneur for whom each picture is a struggle. He must overcome the resistance of frightened studio executives to convince them to make his movies. “The average office you walk into,” says producer Leonard Goldberg, “is an office where they hope they’ll be able to say no. Saying . yes’ puts themselves on the line. Not making the picture isn’t a bad decision because nobody can criticize you. Making a picture sets yourself up. And since they have so little faith in their own ability, they would rather say . no’.”
“You can’t just go in and get a film made,” says Martin Bregman. “You have to fight for it. It’s first time out every time. A little better, but not much. It’s selling. It’s pounding on doors. It’s hard.”
FOR THOSE WHO ASPIRE TO A CAREER IN ENTERTAINMENT LAW
Entertainment Law is considered a glamorous field, and thus there are many more lawyers seeking to employment than there are available jobs. Recently admitted lawyers have a particularly difficult time obtaining employment. It is helpful to be a member of either the California or New York Bar. There are relatively few full-time entertainment firms located elsewhere.
New York’s emphasis is in theatre and book publishing. Los Angeles dominates film and television. Music is split between the two, and Nashville. The multimedia industry is spread about much more, with outposts in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Austin.
While it is not imperative that a lawyer reside close to his clients (most communication is by phone and fax anyway) many clients want to be able to meet a lawyer periodically face to face. Moreover, in entertainment law, clients are not only seeking your expertise in negotiating and drafting contracts, often they are looking for someone to counsel them and make introductions for them.
There is a limited market for those without any entertainment law experience. Many law schools offer courses in copyright or intellectual property and, of course, those aspiring to work in this field should take these courses. But much of what an entertainment lawyer needs to know is learned on the job. Most studios and law firms are not interested in hiring lawyers who need to be trained. After two or three years of experience, however, a lawyer becomes a desirable commodity. Employers like to hire lawyers they can hand a file to and have them handle the matter without a lot of supervision.
Most law firms are interested in hiring two types of people:
1) relatively young lawyers who will work as associates, put in long hours, and not draw a large salary,
2) partner-level attorneys who bring clients with them.
Law students aspiring to work in entertainment should try to make themselves experts in a developing area in the law. Gain a skill or expertise that a law firm might find attractive. For instance, you might write a law review article on a multimedia or other cutting-edge topic and become an expert in the area. More experienced lawyers may know little about law in an emerging field. Thus, you bring something valuable to the job if you have expertise where they have none.
It is also important to build relationships while you are in law school. Internships during the summer can be a good opportunity to meet lawyers and other potential employers. It can also be helpful to attend various conferences and join bar associations. The American Bar Association, Beverly Hill Bar Association, and other groups offered reduced rates to law students who want to join and participate in bar programs.