As a coordinator and production supervisor in television and film and now as the Chair of the Film Division of Chapman University, Barbara Freedman Doyle is an expert at the mistakes people just entering the film industry make. Here, in an excerpt from her new book Make Your Movie: What You Need to Know About the Business and Politics of Filmmaking, now available from Focal Press, she gives some tips on how anyone entering the film industry can make sure they stop themselves from saying what they really think and stay in the good graces of those with the power to hire.
REPUTATION IS ALL YOU HAVE. In a business where much of the deal-making and negotiations are verbal, your word and your reputation is EVERYTHING. The film industry is small. Everyone who is established can easily make contact with anyone else or can get the straight scoop by making a few calls. How much you are paid, your title on a project, how hard you work, how honest you are, how you treat people— there are no secrets. The business is populated by talkers. Even “enemies” communicate all the time. There is no place to hide. If you are seen as creative, reliable, capable, and easy to work with, you will find luck. If you are seen as difficult, a primadonna, high-strung, or irrational you will be known that way even by people who haven’t met you. No one cares that you’re tired or have had a rough day. With no track record, it won’t matter how talented you are. When it comes to a decision as to whether or not to work with you, the decision will be negative. They will say, “Life is too short.” If you promise things and don’t come through, that will follow you and you will have damaged your credibility. Delivering what you say you can deliver is key. Extenuating circumstances don’t count. You’re trying to break into an industry of impatient people. Rationalizations won’t work. These people have seen it all and maybe done it successfully themselves.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE ABOUT HISTORY, NOT FRIENDSHIPS. The word “relationship” is possibly the most overused word in the film business. Someone gives someone a chance because he and the other person have “a relationship.” Person X always works with Person Y because there is a “relationship.” A producer would prefer that a director hire a particular cinematographer but won’t interfere with the director’s first choice because the director and the second choice have “a relationship.” Relationships are not about friendship, they are about history. In the Industry people come and go and a shiny new flock of ambitious competitors fly and drive in every day. History—having worked together on a previous project, gone to school together, and experienced something together in the past—can feel like protection against the hostile unknown factors that arise when trying to make a film. A relationship is the sum of shared goals and the hope of mutual loyalty. Friendship might play a part, but in fact there are long-time filmmaking teams where the people involved never see each other outside of the office or the set. Successful working relationships are often based on astute co-mingling of strengths and weaknesses that might gel creatively but not socially. People trust an unpleasant history that resulted in success more than no history at all. People in the industry often believe, “better the devil you know.”
KNOW THAT YOU'RE DEALING WITH GAMBLERS. The people with the power to say yes to you are educated gamblers. They plays the odds, hedge their bets. An abundance of anxiety accompanies most decisions, and the most anxiety-provoking of all decisions are those that lead to the spending of cash. These decisions are rarely spontaneous. This philosophy extends even to something as minor as hiring someone for an assistant spot. If someone has held Industry internships, if they have some kind of pre-training with a stellar reference from someone the employer already knows or knows of, that diminishes the risk that the new hire (maybe you) will do or say the wrong thing, breach a confidence without even knowing it, or behave in some way that might prove embarrassing. It’s stacking the deck. In a business where most people work their way up from assistant—and on set from Production Assistant (PA) to almost every other position—the decision to hire someone at the lowest rung of the ladder is about potential. If you received a good reference or if someone with influence made a call for you, you must be at least OK. It’s common sense that the known is more comfortable than the unknown.