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The Six Things You Must Know to Make it in the Film Industry

By Barbara Freedman Doyle | Indiewire April 4, 2012 at 12:48PM

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.
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CAUTIONARY TALE #2: Just Because It’s in Your Head, It Doesn’t Have to Come Out Your Mouth. This is a sad one. Danny idolized a certain big-name director. Danny was charming, personable, and very smart. He spent a year digging up anyone who had a connection to his director hero. He wanted to “shadow” this director, to watch him work and to learn. 

Many beginning filmmakers make the mistake of thinking that Industry people are casual about behavior. They are not.

Someone who knew someone and was sympathetic to the cause arranged for Dan to meet the director. The director liked him, and finally after a prolonged process involving reference checks, phone calls, and emails that went unreturned, finally Dan was given the go-ahead. He was told when and where to show up on the first day of shooting a major film. He arrived on set early. So far, so good. As instructed, he found the director’s assistant, who promptly sent him to the catering truck to get the director his espresso. He was a little surprised that he was being told what to do by an assistant, but he did it. He got the coffee and handed the cup to the director. The director took it and continued his conversation with the cinematographer. The director handed his empty cup to Dan, who returned to the catering truck, got another, and handed the full cup to the director. Over the course of the morning, this was repeated several times. It was the only interaction Dan had with the director. Towards lunch, Dan’s girlfriend called him on his cell to ask how it was going. He told her, “OK, I guess. I’m the director’s coffee whore.”

This was overheard by the makeup person who told the director’s assistant who told the director, who fired his unpaid “shadow” at the end of his first day. The director had enough to deal with. He didn’t want anyone working close to him who was resentful and indiscreet. If Danny wanted to voice his opinion to his girlfriend, he could have waited until he was home and in private to do it. Danny thought he was being hip and funny, but the director’s assistant and the director felt he was being negative and rude.

What’s the point here? Neither Will or Danny did anything truly awful, they just didn’t understand the politics. The hesitation before you agree, the rolling of your eyes, what you say over your cell phone, even if you whisper, is noticed. What you post is PUBLIC. You are trying to convince people to invest in your talent, your skills, AND your ability to navigate the often treacherous waters of the business. They must trust in you personally.

You may say to yourself, “I hate politics, I can’t deal with this kind of BS.” But you have to learn. Some of it is common sense, some of it is courtesy, and some of it is BS, but it’s all part of the business. You may think, there are lots of jerks out there—I’ve read about their bad behavior, and they succeeded. True. But usually the bad behavior didn’t begin until after they were successful. And these bad guys or girls get work and are able to get their films financed because they bring in the big bucks. The minute a film is less than hot at the box office, they find that their calls are not returned as quickly, their scripts are not read as eagerly, and their green lights come more slowly, if they come at all. When people behave badly there is a crowd of people sitting back gleefully awaiting their failure. Human nature is such that payback often tastes sweet. Why go there at all?

Many beginning filmmakers make the mistake of thinking that Industry people are casual about behavior. They are not. Most people with the power to help you make your film are sharp observers, with acute instincts. They are constantly checking you out, consciously and unconsciously. Are you a good risk? Do they believe you? Do they believe in you? Perhaps because so much money and ego is tied up in the decisions they make, they feel betrayed if you prove their initial impression of you was incorrect. No one expects you to be perfect, but you are expected to be credible, and they remember when you’re not. Picture a neighborhood in a very small town, all the residents sitting out on the front porch, watching, noticing, and commenting. That’s the film business.