Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOURCO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
Inklings: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: WORKING YOUR WAY TOWARD THE SILVER SCREEN, or, IT HELPS TO HAVE A DAY JOB IN THE MEANTIME...Much has been written about the serendipity of being in the right place at the right time to pitch a script to an actor/director/producer who just happened to be desperately in need of fresh material. While such happy occurrences are more the stuff of fiction than reality, there are nevertheless plenty of jobs in Los Angeles and New York which can put you in convenient proximity to the film industry's movers and shakers. These are, coincidentally, many of the same jobs that aspiring stars hold down whilst waiting for their big break; i.e., parking cars, serving food, driving taxis, tending bar, making deliveries, etc.
Where can you find such employment, you ask? Job listings are a-plenty in the classified sections of major metropolitan newspapers, especially if you reside in Southern California or New York. You may also want to start brushing up on the "star sightings" found in Hollywood and Broadway gossip columns as a basis for narrowing down target restaurants to approach for a job. For instance, you're more likely to encounter the glitterati at Spago's as opposed to the International House of Pancakes.
While the paycheck isn't necessarily stellar, such positions offer you a flexibility of schedule, are relatively mindless in scope, and provide you the warm and fuzzy support from your peers in the kitchen or at the garage who are all trying to do pretty much the same thing you're doing. They also put you in the nice position of overhearing good gossip, given the propensity of executives to talk fairly freely around those whom they put in the same class as 'servants'. If you're particularly skilled at whatever menial job is providing you sustenance until your big break, the scenario could even transpire of having a star or studio exec specifically request your table or your car.
What these jobs don't give you, however, is permission to intrude on their privacy (unless invited to do so) and/or use the job as an inappropriate forum to pitch your work. (i.e,, "Here's the Cobb salad you ordered, Mr. Hoffman, and by the way would you like to read this copy of my screenplay?") Not only will this alienate the person you're trying to impress but, more than likely, also get you fired.
Suffice it to say, of course, your clientele won't be limited to the rich and famous; while you're holding your breath and hoping Steven Spielberg will be the next one to hail your cab, you'll have to schlepp all of those total nobodies around town in the meantime. The plus side? Think of all the characters you'll meet that you could incorporate in a future plot!
There are also plenty of jobs within the industry that attract future screenwriters as well; i.e., clerical jobs, accounting jobs, technical jobs, personal assistant jobs, freelance readers. I even know of one enterprising scriptwriter who worked for a whole summer at Disneyland in the hope of rubbing elbows with Michael Eisner and casually giving him a script. He never managed to meet any of the Disney bigwigs while he was there but he did lose 12 pounds from sweltering in a Goofy costume.
By the way, there's generally a high turnover in lower-level staff at production studios, especially those positions that are filled by college-age applicants. They, too, are looking for a big break and will either find one, thus vacating the position to the next Hollywood-hopeful, or burn out from impatience and decide that driving a cab is a steadier source of income.
Another popular entry-level avenue is available to those who have specialized skills (i.e., costume design, construction, animal handling, stunt work). Yes, it puts you "on location" with the stars, but carries with it the two drawbacks that it will either "niche" yourself into being perceived as only able to do one thing well (for instance, falling off of buildings onto your head) or leave you so exhausted that you're too tired to work on that screenplay when you drag yourself home after a long day's work!
Listings for these "insider" types of positions can be found in the classified sections of metro newspapers and industry trades, as well as at studio websites. Rather than list them all in this column, I'd recommend that you go to your web browser and do a search on either "Film Companies" or "Movie Studios." This will generate a list that not only includes all of the major production companies but independents as well. The Human Resources Departments at these sites will post all of their available positions, appropriate contact people, filing deadlines, and how to apply (i.e., standardized application, resume, telephone call, or applying in person).
Just to get you started, I have listed a few of them below:
Whether you choose to interview for an insider job or a menial one, I do need to caution you against "the kiss of death line." Specifically, do not volunteer to them that you are an aspiring scriptwriter. Why? Because it suggests that you are only using this job as a springboard to getting discovered (even if, in fact, that's exactly what you're doing). Training someone new-even for a relatively mundane job-still takes time. Faced with the choice of hiring you, the aspiring screenwriter, or someone to whom washing cars is an unparalleled joy and lifelong ambition, which one do you think will get picked? Obviously if, after securing the requisite menial job to pay your rent, the word leaks out that you are penning your first flick, you can humbly acknowledge that yes, it's true.
Last but not least are what I call "well-paying-but-relatively-mindless" occupations. These are (1) jobs in which you're allowed to spend a lot of time by yourself (time to write, of course!) and (2) temp jobs that free you to leave at a moment's notice if a hot opportunity comes up. To paraphrase the late novelist Marion Zimmer Bradley, you need a job that will adequately take care of the bills yet not sorely tax your creativity and energy to still pursue your dream.
Have a comment on this article or suggestion for a future topic you'd like to see? The mailbox is open at Inkview@cswebmail.com