Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Breaking the Myth of "Breaking In"

I'm going to my 5 Year College Reunion this weekend and can't help but wax nostalgic about what I've been up to since my days as a Dartmouth boy... until I read Conan O'Brien's Commencement Speech to the Class of 2011 (check it out!).

One of the best Commencement Speeches I've read -- funny, entertaining, inspiring -- and Conan O'Brien even opened up a few old wounds to suggest we shift our perspective:

So, at the age of 47, after 25 years of obsessively pursuing my dream, that dream changed. For decades, in show business, the ultimate goal of every comedian was to host The Tonight Show. It was the Holy Grail, and like many people I thought that achieving that goal would define me as successful. But that is not true. No specific job or career goal defines me, and it should not define you. In 2000—in 2000—I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality... And there is no greater cliché in a commencement address than "follow your dream." Well I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that's okay.

After reading this, I went to a party with fellow USC writer/director Fawaz Al-Matrouk (do check out his awesome short film To Rest In Peace!) with a lot of other great film school friends, and also met a great rising comedienne Erikka Innes for lunch... and we seemed to share a similar experience...

In short: No one "breaks in" to Hollywood. Not ever.

Here's a quick refresher on the "Breaking In" Myth:
A starry-eyed, talented young filmmaker gets off the bus in L.A. with big dreams and empty pockets, all alone in the big city. So our filmmaker slaves away at a crappy job, working hard on his or her writing long into the night, meeting other up-and-coming filmmakers at parties, making beautiful short films on weekends, slowly but surely building a network of established film industry types until finally -- FINALLY -- our filmmaker meets some Big Hollywood Hotshot who takes a look at our filmmaker's work -- and says "This is great, kid! I'm gonna make you star!"
Growing up here in Los Angeles, I bought into that myth... Hell, who doesn't want the instant satisfaction of a media mogul bringing you into the fold of working filmmakers?

But taking an honest look at my life in L.A., I've never seen anyone "break in." I have seen a few make a meteoric rise to success -- getting signed by an agent who loved their script or short film, etc. -- but I haven't heard any big headlines from them since. Why?

Here's what usually happens:
The Hollywood Hotshot finishes going over the young filmmaker's work and says, "This is pretty good. So what are you doing next?"
Now if you buy into the myth, this looks like failure... a golden opportunity lost... if only I'd made my film better... if only I'd rewritten my script more... then I would've really knocked that guy's socks off and he'd be dying to find me big writing/directing jobs!

The hard truth is a real filmmaker's career has no defining moment... only baby step after baby step until you look back and see you've been running a marathon for years.

Now there are still milestones to strive for -- your first solid script, your first polished film, your first meeting with a manager, etc. -- but even when that fateful day comes and a Hollywood Hotshot says "So what's next for you?", there are still many baby steps to the next milestone and much, much more work to do.

5 years ago, my dream was to burst out of USC Film School with a solid script and a breathtaking short film that were so glorious I'd immediately get paid to write and direct...

Now the dream is changing. I'm focusing my career as an emerging writer. I'm polishing my scripts, generating new ideas, pitching new concepts, preparing for meetings, honing my writer's toolkit -- gradually growing into the role of a "working writer" until it's second nature.

Then, after all that work, after selling a few scripts... then I will have the relationships and the resources to get paid to direct... then I can make Another Life the feature.

Hollywood legend Samuel Goldwyn once said, "Give me a couple of years and I'll make that actress into an overnight success!" Still true today.

After all, no one fails in Hollywood -- you only fail if you give up.

Don't give up.


  1. There must be something in the air! You're so right- no one "breaks in". It is a total marathon. Great post!

  2. I know you are referring primarily to directors, writers, and actors but the same can be said for ALL key crew, i.e. cinematographers, editors, costume designers. Years and years of hard work and positive thinking :) Keep blogging!

  3. This is one of the best posts ever. Not just from your blog but from any blog. Smart. Wise. Great post, Nato.