It’s a dream for every storyteller who has that spark of creativity that makes them want to go out there and make the movies that they want to make. Hollywood, the dream factory where all the magic happens. The glitz and glamour of the industry inspires many people to come out to sunny Southern California in the hopes of making it, but the sad reality is, very few actually do. That’s not to say that a dream here is impossible; it’s just the fact that the road to success through Hollywood has a very narrow passage. Sure, the explosion of streaming content has helped to broaden the field a bit, but even still, there is only enough money to go around to finance so many projects. And with people from all over the world and from all walks of life trying to get their own foot in the door in competition with so many others, inevitably there are going to be some people out there that may never make their dream come true. So, is it even worth it to try to break into the movie industry. That’s a question that every aspiring filmmaker or actor must ask at some point. I myself have had to consider my options many times. But, even with so many obstacles in the way, I have found that perseverance does bring about rewards eventually. And I believe that in many ways, one of the best moves I made was to take a shot in the first place. It hasn’t been easy, but I believe that there are many things that I have learned through adversity that have made me better equipped to navigate the precarious world of Hollywood and overcome the numerous road blocks in the way. Now, looking back on the 10-12 years that I have been embarking on this journey, I recognize that there are lessons that were important in shaping the person that I am today and how that will keep me going as I continue chasing that dream of Hollywood.
This week marks 10 years since I graduated from film school and made my move to a new home in Los Angeles. One thing that I do remember from those days is just how uncertain everything was for me in that moment. For the first time ever, there was no guarantee of what was about to come next. This was the end of the road for my education; no more returning for classes next year, no more homework and no more planning ahead. I was about to be set loose and I didn’t have a clue what I was about to get into. I had just secured a lease on an apartment in North Hollywood (an apartment that I still currently live in), but I had yet to secure a job to support myself. Living off savings for a while, I finally got some work from a local retail store (which did not survive during the 2020 pandemic) as well as a second gig doing part time work at a visual effects company that I interned for. And all the while, I tried to continue doing the thing that I started out to be from the very beginning hoping to become; working as a writer. I began this blog two years into my time post graduate life, in the hopes that I could gain a devoted following of readers as well as keep refining my writing skills. Whenever I had the time, I also continued to write screenplays, in the hopes of having something to send off to competitions and fellowships as a way of getting noticed. Over ten years, there are points where I felt that things were moving forward fairly well, and other times where I felt myself slipping backward. This last year in particular was rough, as I spent many months unemployed. It’s turned around finally in the last few weeks with a new job, but for a while, I was worried that my fragile time within reach of Hollywood was all going to come to an end because of the pandemic. But even as things looked bleak, I was determined not to give up hope. I managed to finish long in development screenplays that I’ve been putting off finishing for years and I used the opportunity to try for job positions that I normally would’ve had second thoughts over. And luckily, I managed to get a job that is film related, even if it isn’t quite filmmaking just yet. Perseverance and good luck go hand in hand in becoming something in this town, and ten years of experience has helped me learn a lot about what it takes to navigate one’s way in this town.
One thing that was important from the very beginning was that I didn’t foolishly make a go at breaking into the industry with nothing but my own ideas on hand. What I set out to do first was apply and get accepted into film school. Film programs are offered in higher education across the country, but for the most elite programs that train the most promising new talent of tomorrow, the best ones are almost exclusively in the Los Angeles area. There are outliers on the east coast like NYU or Wesleyan, but when you look at the most storied film schools in both the United States and even the world, they are usually USC, UCLA, the American FIlm Institute, Loyala Marymount University, and the one I ended up attending, Chapman University. All of these are accredited institutions with close access to the heart of Hollywood, and are often staffed with faculty made up of industry insiders. And when you look at many of the names currently working within the industry, most of them probably claim at least one of these schools as their alma mater. There were numerous reasons that I chose Chapman University as my ideal institution (and yeah, it’s close proximity to Disneyland was one of them). It had a much higher acceptance rate for one, and it’s more intimate, smaller capacity made it possible to have more one on one interactions with my instructors. It had the perfect blend of offering all the same perks of the bigger schools, but with smaller class sizes where you wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. One of the things I loved most about my time there was the first hand experience that I was able to have in all fields of filmmaking. Though I was in the screenwriting program, us writers were still encouraged to participate in the making of film projects by our fellow students. I managed to volunteer on two midterm film projects, with no added credits earned and mainly just for the experience itself. So even as I was studying to be a writer, I gained additional experience in editing, set work, and even some on screen time in front of the camera. Overall, Chapman delivered exactly the film school experience that I wanted.
There is a caveat to attending film school however: the cost. Film school is not cheap, especially the ones here in California. Those attending film school, like many world class institutions, usually enter it under three different circumstances; they are either coming from deep pocketed families where money is not an issue, they have been blessed with multiple scholarships to help them along the way, or like me they are willing to take the risk of accumulating substantial student loan debt after graduating. Now, I attended as a graduate student after already earning my bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, with no outstanding debt, so the financial risk seemed reasonable enough for me to still make a go at it. Even still, it’s a lot of student debt that I carry with me, and for some the cost doesn’t seem worth it in the end, especially with job markets not always being reliable once the diploma is in hand. So, what makes going to an elite program like Chapman worth the risk over say just participating in the Audio/Visual program at your local Community College. One of the important advantages is the networking. At schools like Chapman, you are likely to have a class taught by or being attended along with someone who has connections in the business. Never try to be a lone wolf in film school; make friends and ask questions constantly. The teachers and faculty may not be able to give you a job right out of school, but they can steer you in the right direction and can offer some really sound advice on how to sell yourself to the industry. Also, it’s important to open oneself up to collaboration as well. At Chapman, we had certain projects called Cycles that involved each writer pairing up with a director to work on a film in the second year together. It was a valuable lesson in understanding what goes into the development of a film from script to screen, but what it was also doing was getting us bonded as a team and allowing us to make new connections that helped to enhance the collaborative process. I still remain in contact with many of the people I worked on student films with, and I know may of my fellow classmates are even working together on projects over a decade later in the real field of filmmaking.
If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t network well enough. I spent most of my time in the screenwriting circles, but rarely introduced myself to fellow students in other departments. There are a couple of directors, editors, cinematographers, and producers that I did manage to make friends out of during my time there, but I feel like I could have made more. At least I didn’t make any enemies. It’s one of the things that’s part of the film school experience that doesn’t exactly fall within the curriculum. How you present yourself and endear yourself to others isn’t something anyone can teach in a school setting. Film school is there to equip you with the knowledge and the skills set that will make you ready for a career in filmmaking, but the actual ability to pitch yourself and your work is one you in the end. My professors offer their advice, but the strength of my chances in Hollywood depends solely on my ability to genuinely put myself out there. It’s not easy when you still have yet decided on the person that you want to be. Honestly, one of my mistakes was believing that film school would be the only thing I needed to pitch myself as a worthy addition to the film industry. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider what kind of voice I wanted to have. I tried so many different styles of writing during my time in the writing classes, leaning more in the comedy lane mostly. But, as I was trying so many different things, I was finding that none of it really stood out. It was just me trying to get the work done. I wasn’t finding my voice, or a purpose to motivate me to continue writing. And as a result, after graduating, I wasn’t able to make myself stand out as a writer. I was just putting out generic, crowd-pleasing stuff, when I should have been doing something more bold and truer to what I wanted to make. Starting this blog after the fact has helped me to refine my skills over time, and in particular, has helped put into focus the things that mean the most to me and what I do indeed want to write about. I was always a movie obsessed kid, and in my blog writing, I could give voice to my opinions with a film centered focus, and over time it even opened me up to talking about social issues and insider happenings as it relates to film. Had I allowed myself to open up earlier while I was at Chapman, I think I could have done a bit more immediately after graduating than I did.
Another important aspect of using film school as a means of breaking into the film industry is showing that you are a hard worker, both in the classroom and also in the internships that you will be working while you are in school. It helps that you also go into the internship field with a better knowledge of what openings are available to you. For one thing, this was another area where I felt that I could have shown better judgment with. I was too narrowly focused on getting an internship at a place where I could have seen a lot of movies actually being made. I should have known that this is not the best avenue for writers to take with their internships. I did get interviews with some exciting film companies across town, founded by some of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers, but nothing came of it. In the end, as I was worried that I wouldn’t find an internship at all, I ultimately was given a spot at a visual effects company in Santa Monica; a field of filmmaking that I knew absolutely nothing about. It was tough, exhausting work, but I did earn my credits in the end. Even still, after talking with fellow classmates, I learned that they had been working at agencies instead of production offices, spending their days reading scripts and writing coverage for agents. This seemed like something that felt more in line with what I was looking for, and as I learned, it’s another great networking opportunity as some of the agent’s assistants that you’d be working directly with would eventually becomes agents themselves, and be a valuable contact within your own network. It was an opportunity missed, and it’s mainly due to my own failure to actually take a better look at all the options that were laid out before me. My internship did lead to some post graduate work, but it was freelance, part-time, and ultimately became a dead end position that I probably shouldn’t have stayed in as long as I did. It really taught me to know what you’re getting yourself into before you say yes to anything. Especially when it comes to being a writer, do the hard work that helps you get seen much faster, and not get lost in a field that you are ill-equipped for.
I don’t feel like I wasted my time going through it though. Film school was never going to be a cake walk. It’s what you go to film school for anyway; to be better prepared for what lies ahead. Had I just stumbled into Hollywood on my own without an absolute clue what to do, and knowing not a single person in town, I would have been chewed up and spit out pretty quickly. Even with the diploma, and the knowledge and the skill set acquired from film school, it’s still an uphill struggle. I know of a couple of classmates that even chose a different career path afterwards, choosing to leave Hollywood behind. And I don’t blame them either. Their talents are well used in their new career paths; some that even utilize their film school training pretty well too. For me though, I am still swimming upriver and not giving up on the dream yet. Chapman’s track record of success has improved over the last decade, with Netflix being an especially good place for talent from the school, with alumnus from before my time like the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) and Justin Simien (Dear White People) landing big hits over there. A couple of my classmates have even placed as finalists in prestigious screenwriting competitions, and gotten representation out of it. So success isn’t impossible; it’s just on me to try even harder to achieve it. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is to keep writing. I need to get over my fear of failure and just keep writing stuff down no matter if it’s good or not. Nobody writes a masterpiece on the first draft. Nor even the second. Especially in screenwriting, I have found that the more I rewrite, the better a script gets. One thing that I have also done is offer my own input into the writing of my friends and former classmates. It’s important to keep that network open, and show that other writers can trust me to offer constructive criticism of their work in the hopes of making their script better. Always be helpful, and never dismissive. Also, I just like to read other people’s work, and see the formulation of their new ideas while it’s still in it’s infancy. That ultimately is the most important thing that I have learned in my ten years outside of film school; being able to show that you are trustworthy and good at what you do.
So, despite the hardships and struggles put in the way, I would say that I would still do it all over again if given the choice. I am determined to eventually be a filmmaker one day, and the dream has not faded yet. If anything, the struggles of the last decade has helped to shape me even more than what I got out of film school. I learned perseverance, patience, and even have managed to open myself up a little more and not be so guarded and afraid. Film school was still pretty valuable, as it gave me the knowledge and tools to make a go at a filmmaking career. What’s been nice about reminiscing about the last 10 years is that it’s helped me recognize all the things that I have managed to accomplish in that time, rather than lamenting on what I still don’t have. Sure, I’m still not any closer to having that dream job, but I was lucky enough to attend a prestigious film school, which not everyone manages to do. I have been able to somehow continue to live in Los Angeles, California, where I am only a stone’s throw away from some of the most historic and important movie studios in the world. I also am able to watch movies in some of the best theaters in the world, including the Chinese Theater, the Cinerama Dome, and other world-class venues that are just a short drive away. Also the weather here is perfect year round, and there’s also Universal Studio and Disneyland that I can spend my days off at. Not to mention I’ve been to incredible events like the D23 Expo and the Turner Classic Movies festival, which I’ve written about on this blog. The fact that I have a blog to share all these moments and thoughts with you on a weekly basis is another thing that I feel proud of having done in the last decade. Through it all, film school and life in Southern California, I believe that it has shaped me into a better person who I think is better prepared to become a part of Hollywood now than I was when I graduated. It’s been a long time, and there are regrets along the way, but I feel like the lessons I’ve learned through adversity are going to be a positive for me in the end. I’m still holding onto that Hollywood dream, and hopefully, the next ten years will find me closer to my goals than ever before.