How to Get into the Film Industry
“The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
I’ve been out of film school for 10 years… Almost 11. Writing that makes me feel a bit old ??, but it also means that at this stage in my life and career and those of my film school cohorts, it’s fairly clear to see who is going to be writing or making films (or working in the film industry in some other capacity) for the long haul, and who is not.
Want to know how?
The people who are going to be involved in the film industry are still doing it.
The people who aren’t? They aren’t, barring some sort of future change.
One of the questions we get asked a lot here at Lights Film School – by aspiring screenwriters, producers, film directors, editors, you name it – is, “How do I make it in the film industry? How do I make sure my career has staying power?” And although there’s no surefire way to do it (for most things, if there were step-by-step instructions, we’d all have an easier time) – the answer, having witnessed many of my friends just go through a decade of being out of school and trying to make it, is…
If you want your career to have staying power, you have to have staying power.
That means short term, project by project, but it also means long term.
The trouble with film school…
To be clear, I love film school. Formally studying a craft offers immense opportunities for rapid growth.
For example, you learn about cinema traditions and conventions; stylistic and technical foundations; and you’re encouraged to grapple with bigger, more philosophical questions, like what kind of films you want to make, what type of artistry you’re attracted to, and what you personally want to achieve as a filmmaker.
Film school also makes it easier to leverage two resources that are completely invaluable: time and focus.
I recently shared insights into how to become a more productive filmmaker, where I pointed out that in order to move our projects forward, we need – and I mean NEED – to dedicate time to them on a regular basis. It’s like going to the gym to get and stay in shape. I’ve since come across a great quote that’s related to my earlier musings and appropriate for our conversation here, too:
“The key is not to prioritize your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. For me, my schedule includes many things. Freelance writing deadlines, school appointments for my toddler, friends and family commitments… The list goes on, as it does for all of us, right? Oh, and I also have my own creative endeavors (I’m currently developing a novel). Guess what all too often gets pushed to the bottom of my list first?
That’s where this quote comes in.
It asks me not to prioritize my schedule, but to schedule my priorities. That means I need to put my novel on the calendar. 10 AM on Monday: time to write. 10 AM on Tuesday : time to write. 10 AM on Wednesday: time to write. If someone wants to schedule a call for that time? Sorry, I have an appointment at that time (my appointment to write).
The beautiful thing about when you’re deep into film studies – whether you’re physically attending a university, or you’re connecting with people around the world through, say, our online film school here at Lights Film School – is that while you’re engaged in the learning process, in order to be successful, you must schedule time and focus for your craft. In fact, unlike me, it’s not “another thing to juggle”. Writing your script, making progress on your film project, all of it is a part of the work of being in school!
It literally is your schedule.
“Hmmmmm”, you may be thinking. “This section is entitled ‘the trouble with film school’, and you’ve just spent a lot of time telling me what’s so great about it.” True! I told you I was a fan. ?
Okay, so actually, the problem isn’t with “film school” per se. It’s with a lack of film school.
Allow me to explain. I don’t mean people who haven’t had the inclination or opportunity to experience film school. I mean when you have – been in it with all that focus and all that promise and all that inspiration and excitement for your future! – and then suddenly, you’re out of it.
Suddenly you’ve finished your instruction, you’ve got your final project under your belt, the film industry feels “way out there”, and now you’re staring at a big heaping pile of “Now what?”
For many film school graduates, this is a real crossroads, and this is where the seeds for the “Who’s making films ten years later?” scenario I described get planted.
Those who continue to make art for the sake of doing it… Not necessarily because it’s an assignment that’s due, or because a studio has paid them to do it? They’re the ones who tend to start off on the right foot in this post-film-school world. And they’re the ones who, ten years later, have a classmate basically subtweeting them through an entire blog post, winking in their direction and saying, “You. You’re the ones who are still at it in the film industry. Good job, friends.”
To be clear, if you haven’t been to film school, the same principle applies. You’ve got to muster time and focus to actually keep at your craft and get the ball rolling on your film industry career.
You get good at what you spend time doing.
We artists tend to refer to our projects as “work”, because, well, they are. But much of society tends to refer to “work” as “the thing you do to make money.” As artists and humans, we need both kinds of work. If we stick with it, eventually we can find ways to meld the two into one thing, so that our “work” is also our “work.”
Here’s the thing, though. When I and my classmates got out of college, a lot of them came up against an obstacle of how to immediately meld the two kinds of “work” together.
In many cases, that proved impossible. The people who are still making films, or engaging in film in some way, today are the ones who saw the forest for the trees in that scenario and said, “I’m going to get a job of some sort doing something related to film, and in the meantime, I’m going to continue to work on my own projects.”
What kinds of jobs in the film industry did those classmates of mine have? To list a few, real examples, friends of mine got jobs as:
- Assistant sound technician
- Child wrangler on a kids’ TV show
- Casting assistant
- Assistant at a talent management firm, talent agency, or entertainment law office
- Production assistant
- Editorial assistant
- Screenwriting coach
- Screenwriting competition judge
What do all of these jobs have in common? They all got my friends in real-world situations that put them in touch with people who were making a living in the film industry, and they all helped my friends better understand the field that they essentially want to have management-level positions in.
Let’s pause there for a moment.
I’ve noticed that among many filmmakers, because we have a passion to express ourselves so strongly, we feel – sometimes deeply – that we want people to see our work right now. And while I agree (and will argue strongly, in short order) that we need to be making films and getting our work out there, I do notice an expectation sometimes from students and other new filmmakers that they should be skyrocketing right to the director’s chair as soon as they’ve completed their studies.
Can you imagine another industry in which that expectation would seem reasonable, such as a law student coming out of school and expecting to be made partner at a law firm? Or a brand new teacher coming out of college and expecting to be named principal?
In most industries, it takes a lot of work beyond school, beyond that internship or handful of gigs, learning the ins and outs to really earn one’s place at the top.
The director of a film, whether it’s an indie or a big Hollywood production, manages a lot of people. There’s often a lot of money on the line. That person needs to know their stuff, and have proven that, before the responsibility of such a weighty film industry job would be bestowed upon them. Get to know the backgrounds and bios of your favorite filmmakers, and you’ll find this to be a throughline more often than not (although the specific routes professionals take are unique and sometimes circuitous).
I’m really not trying to be a downer here. I very much hope that you aren’t reading these words and saying, “Well great. So I went to school and now I can’t just be a director.”
Not. The. Case.
You can be a director, and you are, so long as you’re practicing your craft.
But the people who wake up in the morning and go to the big film sets with the big budgets? Most were directing for a long time before they became household names. While they were in film school and from the minute they got out of it (or independently on their own the whole time), they were making their films. Regardless of deadlines, regardless of pay, they were expressing themselves, making movies, and getting them in front of audiences through film festivals and other channels. They were putting in the work.
By the way, I should mention that going after a traditional film industry job isn’t the only path you can take as a professional!
For a lot of people, getting a job on, say, a film set either isn’t feasible – because they don’t live in a place where the film industry tends to shoot movies or television shows – or because they simply don’t want to. Not everyone’s interested in learning how to rig a light, frame up a shot, or operate a boom pole, you know?
That’s fine. You can, and should, still be dedicating yourself to your craft if you want to build a filmmaking career of any sort. The most important thing you can do is the work, in the context and at a level that’s interesting to and attainable for you. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,00 hours rule. You get good at what you spend time doing.
Set quantifiable, realistic goals.
Of course, your network plays a role in growing your career – the “who you know” – but regardless of whether or not you’re not in a position to actively foster film industry relationships, it’s always a good idea to develop the skills you’ll need for when you do meet the right people at the right time. Be it in person through a university or a gig, or online through a community like Lights Film School.
Whatever the case, like I’ve shared before, you need to make quality, consistent time for your work. Depending on what your other “work” (?) is, that may mean waking up early to write every day and using your vacation time to make movies (I have two film school friends who do this – it’s how they use all of their vacation time!). The truth is, making it in any form of art takes a great deal of dedication. It means making your passion part of your job, even though, a lot of the times, people aren’t paying you to do it (yet).
If that all feels big and daunting, let’s break it down a bit.
Just like any long-term goal, sticking with your art means making small goals, achieving them, and making more. I have an acquaintance who is a playwright who makes writing goals for herself. She recently posted online that she’s written over 50 plays since graduating. Fifty! And she’s won a lot of attention for them, too. Know how? She makes goals for herself as to how many fellowships, festivals, and other accolade-granting endeavors she’s going to submit her work to on a monthly basis.
And then she sticks to those goals. They’ve become a habit. A mindset.
The thing about consistency is that it adds up.
Maybe you make a goal to write a 10-page screenplay each month for the next six months. At the end of those six months, you’ll have 6 finished short film scripts, and you’ll have 60 screenplay pages written. That’s a lot of work to show for yourself! Enough so that if a potential collaborator were to ask to see some of your writing to get a sense of whether or not you’d be a good artistic fit for one another, you’d actually have options for what to send. Pretty cool, right?
That classic film industry question, “What are you working on now?”
In addition to having options, it’s really great to have an answer to the question you will inevitably get in most conversations you’ll have at festivals or in otherwise film-focused settings: “What are you working on now?”
Particularly when you’re talking to someone like a manager or agent, they want to know that the thing they just saw isn’t all you’ve got. They want to know you are a focused, dedicated artist who is engaging consistently with your craft.
Your smaller goals can be anything that you think will help you meet a larger goal. For example:
- Maybe you want to have a feature-length film written by this time next year. Great! So, how many pages do you have to write per month? And how many pages does that mean per day?
- Maybe you want to write, produce, direct, edit, and sound design a short film in the next year – the whole deal, from end to end. Great! So, when do you have to have the script written by in order to make your short film in time, so that you’ll have enough leeway to cut it by a year from today? Record the date and work your way backwards. How long will it take to edit? Make estimates for every step of the filmmaking process.
- Maybe you want to think bigger. “In ten years, I want to have made 5 feature films.” Okay, great! But break that down. When is your first script going to be written by? When are you going to figure out how to finance that film? How are you going to take the time you need to make it? Most goals are doable if you are practical about how to go about them. If you have an aspirational goal like this one, that is awesome and I believe in you and know you can do it. But definitely start making a plan, today, for how you are going to make it happen.
As this list illustrates, goals come in different shapes and sizes. The most important thing about them, though, is that by having goals and engaging in them, we’re engaging in our work. Goals help us create time and focus – those two irreplaceable things that contexts like film school give us.
The absolute most important thing you can do to be closer to where you want to be long term in the film industry is to keep plugging away at those short term goals. This work is cumulative. The more you make, the more you’ll have, and the better you’ll get.