What's the Hot, New Way To Launch a Film-making Career?
By Si Dunn and Connie Dunn
These days, you can spend four years of your life and almost US $100,000 to obtain a prestigious film degree from a big-name university. Yet once you hit the streets looking for a job in the entertainment industry, that hard-earned diploma may not land as many interviews or bring you as much respect as you imagined.
Indeed, you may find yourself losing out to someone without a degree but who happens to have some production credits, plus good connections.
"The old adage is true–it's definitely who you know," says Sherwood Jones, an editor and postproduction supervisor at Tapestry Films in Beverly Hills. "This is why internships have become an increasingly effective way to get the proverbial foot in the door. Many producers and production managers no longer look to resumes but instead turn to colleagues for their hiring recommendations," Jones notes.
Experience sells, too, but good references are absolutely vital, especially in tight job markets. Producers and directors who are responsible for multimillion-dollar projects often have to hire quickly, and they must trust that the people who get the jobs will show up every day and give their best efforts.
Faced with a choice between a film school graduate with no professional experience and a high-school dropout who recently has worked on a few movie sets, many hiring managers will go for the dropout right away. He or she will need a lot less on-the-job training and will have references from other producers and directors
LEARNING BY DOING
"The best way to be successful in the entertainment industry is to be able to train with professionals on working television and movie sets," says Mark Gerard, a television producer at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.
Virtually gone, however, are the days when you could show up at a movie studio, beg for a chance to sweep floors or deliver the interoffice mail, then start working your way up the creative ladder.
Today, says James Petulla, founder of the Career Connection, "the big thing is who you know. But having the talent and the tenacity also are important."
To help create new opportunities within this trend, his Los Angeles-based firm operates a unique, "one-on-one externship" program. The Career Connection helps people who want to work in film or television pair up with production companies in or near their hometowns.
Petulla's firm has set up externships where students are able to keep their "day job," yet learn from a local mentor and get valuable, "real-world" production credits in their spare time.
What ensures that you can get an externship, of course, are (1) motivation and (2) money. In previous centuries, people usually paid for the opportunity to learn from a respected craftsman or artisan.
Those who qualify for Petulla's program pay tuition fees after they have had a successful screening interview with a film, television or video production company close to home. Part of the tuition then goes to pay the student's mentor at the production company–usually a producer, director or other high-level professional–"who guides the student through the program and shows them the ropes of the business," Petulla explains.
The program consists of working at the production facility once or twice a week under the mentor's guidance and working at home to complete self-paced training course materials supplied by the Career Connection. A bonus is paid to the mentor if the extern later is hired to fill a full-time position in the production company.
In recent months, the Career Connection has placed apprentices in numerous independent production companies, as well as several major entertainment companies in the United States and Canada. Some of these include Lion's Gate, Miramax, Fine Line, Alliance Atlantis, Paramount Pictures, Artisan Pictures, Turner Broadcasting, Sony Picture Classics and Spike Lee's 40 Acres and a Mule.
A MATTER OF COMMITMENT
While some of the apprentices barely are out of high school, "the bulk of my students are in their thirties," Petulla notes. "They may have a full-time job making okay money but hating what they do, and they've always dreamed of doing films or videos. I even have people in their sixties doing this."
Graduates of the program receive job placement assistance for seven years, and many, according to Petulla, have "moved high up the ladder to such positions as producer director, editor, studio manager and many others." Good workers often are hired by the mentoring companies before their externship ends.
Petulla notes that the Career Connection stays in direct contact with movie studios, television stations and other production facilities all over the United States and Canada, "so we are uniquely capable of opening some of the most sought-after doors in the world."
NOT FOR QUITTERS
The externship program is not for everyone, Petulla cautions. "It won't work for quitters." It also won't work for people who are more concerned about how much money they will make than about what they will learn."
He advises mentors to test the mettle and tenacity of apprentices by trying to talk them out of going into the film or television industry. And he warns that he has seen "a drop in tenacity in recent years. Ten years ago, I heard more people saying: "I would cut off my arm to get in. I know I'll have to pay my dues." Now, people think that just because they spent US $80,000 (to get a degree), they should get a morning drive and their own parking space and be the TV news anchor right away. I have found that true across the board in film, as well."
He blames part of the loss of tenacity on the fast pace of contemporary society. "I think our ancestors had it right. Look at their sculptures, look at their architecture. When you walked into a Victorian home, everything had been done by hand. Now, houses are put up in ten days."
"We're bringing back what people did before there were schools. If you wanted to learn art, you did an art externship. If you wanted to do something else, you found another aprenticeship. With one-on-one instruction, you can learn more in one hour than you can learn in 40 hours in a classroom," Petulla contends. "
Petulla is well familiar with the mentoring process. When he was 13, he rode his bicycle to a nearby radio station and began hanging out. After a while, the disk jockeys began showing him how to work some of the controls. "A DJ would take a break, and pretty soon, I was turning knobs and flipping switches for him when he was out of the room. By the time I was 15, I was a disk jockey. I would come home from school and go to work at the radio station. I got into the business off the street. Ironically, most of my friends in the business also got in off the street."
With these memories in mind, James Petulla launched the Connection concept about 15 years ago, to help newcomers get externships in broadcasting. Since then, he has helped more than 4,000 people land jobs in the highly competitive fields of radio, television, music recording, video and film.
A Career Connection externship does not guarantee employment in the film or TV industries, of course. But Petulla claims a great success rate. And Hugh Downs of the ABC News show "20/20," has said "it is amazing to see the amount of people" Petulla has placed "in radio and TV stations, recording studios and film companies all over the country."
Petulla definitely is no fan of crowded classrooms where teachers use blackboards and chalk to try to train students. "That's primitive," he grouses. "The blackboard and chalk take us back almost to the stick in the sand:"
He adds that "in the old days, royalty were about the only ones that really learned, because they could have one-on-one with tutors." The other fortunate students were those who could find externships with craftsmen, artists or noted experts in their fields.
In today's go-faster world of moviemaking and TV production, Petulla points out, slowing down long enough to do an old-fashioned externship "can be a win-win situation–for both the extern and the mentor."
HOW TO MAKE THE CONNECTION
"You can find a correspondence course or go to the library and get books on film or video production. Then you can find a mentor. If you approach four or five mentors in your area, someone may help you."
Si Dunn is a Cyber Film School staff writer. He and his wife, Connie, are magazine writers and screenwriters in Denton, Texas.