Breaking In - A Novel Approach

Breaking into the motion picture industry is tough. That's a given.

Over the last few years there's been an acknowledgement of that fact demonstrated by an increasing number of  "how-to" books for first timers in the Film section of book stores on the topic, as well as one day courses at places like NYU and the New School.

Most assume that the reader's a recent film school graduate out hitting the bricks for the first time, and subsequently much of their emphasis is on job interview strategies. 

But what if you're starting out without a film background? What if you've no demo reel to show anyone? Can't afford the hefty tuition of film school? Or are considering a mid-life career change? How do you "break in"?

"Do anything!" was the mantra reply to that question that my film instructor, feature director Ralph Toporoff  (American Blue Note) gave on the last night of a class many years ago.

"Work as a PA"?
"Even on a student short"?
"Do anything".
"You mean work for free?"
"Yes, anything! If you're walking down the street and you see a bunch of movie equipment vans lined up, walk up, ask who's in charge and volunteer".

That you have to start somewhere would seem basic, and that it will likely be on the bottom rung of the ladder is almost a given.

Actors audition and take whatever roles they can land and get their headshots to managers. Screenwriters write spec scripts and try to get the attention of an agent. These are traditionally accepted routes for those circumscribed fields. 

Beyond the obvious approaches, simply stating that one's goal is to "Get into Production" is often perceived as too unfocused by potential employees.

Hopefully, once into their mid-twenties, most prospective filmmakers will have targeted a specific area of production (Animation, Art Direction, Cinematography, Composing, Directing, Editing, Producing, Sound, etc).

But let's assume for argument's sake though, that you're just starting out, and want to sample the various areas of production to gain as much experience as possible, so you can discover which arena your particular interests and talents really lie.

You've read those 'how to' books, asked every friend, relative and casual acquaintance, knocked on all the requisite doors, send out resumes and query letters by the score, answered every ad, gone the personnel agency route, and networked at all the industry related event possible.

If what you're looking at is a PA (Production Assistant  it reads better than "Go-fer" on a resume) position, chances are you will have had no problem breaking and entering, especially if it has been as an unpaid intern position.

Still, landing that first job, especially if it's in the movie industry has never been easy. So in the improbable event that none of the above approaches have yielded results, here's a different gambit you might want to try.

I claim zero credit for it.

I spotted it at a film organization in Manhattan years ago. The author's approach was so clever, simple and original in it's premise and execution, that it cried out to be read.

It stood out from the gaggle of other film notices, business cards and other much more fancy attention getting devices from people with laundry lists of movie experience and credits, that were tacked on the bulletin board at that time - that I saved it all these years, fishing it out specifically for this piece.

The announcement was typed on half of a simple yellow 8 ½ by 11" piece of colored twenty pound paper with individual tear-off tabs at the bottom with the job candidates name and phone number printed on every one, making it easy for a potential employer to save the information, even if he or she didn't have a pen on them. If there had been websites back then, I'm sure this young guy would've included that too.

I've changed the wording a bit for anonymity's sake, but I've left the essence  unchanged;

"Here's the deal; I'm graduating from Ohio State in May. At that time I plan to relocate to NY and want to work in the Film Industry. I will do ANY work to be on a film set. I can lift, walk for, or run for. I can answer, order, carry, push, pull, imagine, visualize, start, finish, help, think, fix, build, write and ?

I work smart. I work well. I am a valuable person to have around.

You want to speak to me IF  you are putting on or affiliated with a production this summer  you need a smart, dependable, eager, alert, efficient, young assistant to freelance for you in getting anything and everything done that needs to be done, on the set and off.

You want to hire someone who's eager to learn the ropes under your wing, easy to get along with, works well with others  or  if you've had trouble finding or keeping good help.

It's me.    I'm right for the job.   It's a good deal for both of us.

Contact me at "

What a novel approach!

Instead of tap dancing around and apologizing for his lack of experience, or concocting some false credit, he was totally upfront about it, as he was about the fact that he was amenable to working in virtually any area of Production. In only five simple paragraphs he also totally forgoes the stiff vernacular of the typical resume cover letter in favor of a highly personalized, one-on-one conversational approach. 

Cocky? Maybe, but one man's chutzpah is another man's self confidence and this young guy's message is brimming with it.

Did it work for him?

I can't say, but I feel it must have been effective. I certainly hope so.

By the time I spotted it, in the few weeks it had been posted, every one of the tabs with his name and number at the bottom was taken.

© by Jonathan Kaplan

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