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

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

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.

ATTITUDE Your attitude is one of your most precious assets. Chances are given to young newcomers because they’re talented, bright, and have a great attitude. If you’re in a business where the tensions run high, you want to be able to count on “your” people to handle things well, efficiently, and with a lack of bad attitude. On a film set where the days are long and the working conditions often not ideal, the crew member with the bad attitude is the one who is complaining, finding fault with someone else’s work, laying blame, and nagging about how long until wrap. It doesn’t even matter if this person is correct in his judgments or if everyone else agrees that Yes, it sucks to be out all night in 20-degree weather in the mud and rain, and No, no one is making enough money for this. No one has to hear it. You must be agreeable, helpful, and in general happy that you’re on the set of a film (commercial, television show, music video). The whiners and troublemakers are noticed, and they are not invited back. Even if their complaints are justified, everyone is in the same boat—who needs to hear about it? Write it in your private diary or journal if you keep one. Tell your best friend. Do NOT blog or post about it!

Along with the whiners are the princes and princesses, the egos: “I could do it better”; “I saved their butts”; “They couldn’t have finished the movie without me.” I promise you, they can always finish the movie without you. You are expendable. There are lines of people behind you, waiting for you to leave or be told to leave.

In an office, the people with an attitude are the drama kings or queens. It’s all about them. They do everything. They work harder than anyone else. Everyone else is incompetent. Their ideas are the best. They don’t get the credit they deserve. And of course there is the gossip. The drama king or queen is the first with the bad news, the nasty comment, the information that may or may not be true but is certainly no one’s business. These people are a drain on the energy of the work environment. They are also the manipulators, the connivers, the liars who set their co-workers up for a fall. Succeeding in a hypercompetitive industry is hard. Stay away from the attitude-challenged. You’ll be stunned at how a bad attitude rubs off on you and how it effects other people’s perception of you. Keep your eye on the road ahead of you, SMILE, and be the first one anyone thinks of when they need someone they can count on to do the job with a minimum of fuss. You will do well.

What follows here are two cautionary tales. Both are entirely true, but the names are changed.

CAUTIONARY TALE #1: You’re at the Bottom of the Food Chain Until You Aren’t Will was volunteering on an independent film. Every day he was asked to run to a specific vegan cafe ́ to fetch lunch for the lead actress. He had to leave set and fight the L.A. traffic to do this, and he was quite put out about it. He felt that getting lunch for an actress he’d never heard of was demeaning, and that since he was working for free, he should at least be doing something worthwhile. 

On the third day of the shoot he was asked again to pick up the lunch. He rolled his eyes. The producer, who was himself doing the director a favor on this one and who usually made much more high-profile films, pulled Will aside. He told him, “No one should ever know you’re unhappy or that you think you’re better than this. You know why? Because when they started ALL these people, including me, had to do something we didn’t want to do. We were ALL better than that. Every job on a set is the same. It’s doing whatever has to be done to get the movie made. If getting the lunch helps, then that’s the most important contribution you can make, and you’d better hustle and do it gladly, until it’s not your job anymore. There are people waiting for you to get booted so they can snag your spot. Once you move up you’ll be telling the next guy what I’m telling you. You have to suck it up and look as if you’re having a good time.”

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. 

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.

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