How to Build Relationships in Hollywood: 10 Lessons from 20 Years in the Entertainment Business

hollywoodNote from John: This is a guest post by Billy Greenfield, who is a Writer/Producer and a member of the Directors Guild of America. He has worked on numerous television shows and feature films including “Glee,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and one of my favorites, “The West Wing.”

I worked in Hollywood early in my career, and I know relationships make or break your career. Billy has some good advice on how best to use relationships to build a successful career in Hollywood. Here’s Billy:

 

I was in the middle of nowhere on Highway 70 when I had the panic attack.

I pulled over on the side of the road and almost turned around. It had all been great a month earlier when I quit my comfy corporate job in St. Louis, Missouri and declared I was heading to Hollywood to work in the film business.

But here I was facing the cold reality that I knew almost no one in Los Angeles.

Even though I had studied Film in Graduate School, I had neither a student film, nor a screenplay to showcase my talents, nor any relatives with power positions in show business.

Yet I got back in my truck and kept driving west.

That was nearly twenty years ago. As I think back on that gut-wrenching moment on the side of the highway, I realize I have succeeded at building a career and in surviving in what is arguably one of the most competitive industries in the U.S.

It’s only recently that I understood it was because I had learned and utilized many of the principals of networking.

How I Broke into the Film Business

What I didn’t know was that almost the whole Hollywood Film, Television and Commercial industry is freelance.

And while a lot of it is what you know, and another big chunk is who you know, it really comes down to who knows you, or more important, who knows about you.

When I started out, I didn’t really know or understand how to network, or as I prefer to think of it, to connect with other people in the industry. But unconsciously, I started building connections.

It began, ironically, before I even left. I had run into a former teammate from my college football days in the steam room at a gym before I left St. Louis.

He was moving to L.A. to pursue acting and told me to look him up. A year later I took advantage of that and by coincidence, he was looking for a roommate. I had a place to stay.

His contacts were mostly in acting and theater and I wanted to get into screenwriting and film production, so at the time I had to make my own way (though later, through a contact he introduced me to, I would option a screenplay to a producer.)

At the time, companies were just starting to use the Internet and through searching the web I found an internship at a small production company.

While it didn’t pay, I was introduced to a production coordinator who would later hire me and recommend me. I also took time to get to know the other crew members, including in particular the Assistant Directors, who basically drive and manage the set for the director and producers.

From then on, I made sure I met and got to know all of the Assistant Directors when I was sent on “runs” down to a set with paperwork.

Unconsciously, I learned to view every job as a networking opportunity and I made sure to get to know crew members who would later start hiring me.

How a Free Ride Became Highly Lucrative

One day, the First Assistant Director for the 2nd Unit needed a ride home. It was pretty far out of the way but when someone on the production team asked me (actually they sort of told me) to drive him home, I readily agreed. We had about an hour in a half in the car.

We talked movies the whole way home. He was the first person I called after the show wrapped (it was “Children of the Corn V” for all you low-budget horror fans).

Low and behold, I found out he would be doing additional photography for the movie in the weeks ahead.

And he actually needed Production Assistants, the entry level set workers who grab coffees and food for actors and directors, to help with passing out paperwork and “locking up” the set when we were filming (which is basically asking people to be quiet and not walk into shots).

And just like that, I had my first paying gig.

He would take me along with him for numerous feature films and eventually I would become his Second Assistant. Finally, a few years later, I began doing First Assistant work on my own. We remain good friends to this day.

But that was not the only way I was able to advance myself through connecting.

Work for Free When You Have To

I had a rule I used early on that has paid big dividends: Never turn down work, even if it didn’t pay.

What you may not know is that when many producers and directors are doing their first projects, they do them ‘on spec’ to showcase their talent. Basically, they put up the money and do a student film or a micro-budget feature or a spec commercial.

I did many of these projects for free or very low pay early on, as a way to learn the business, meet people and build strong ties.

Some of the people I’ve met on those short films, music videos and ultra-low budget movies are my best friends now and have either passed my name on to people or hired me themselves.

Also, I have a broad base of contacts now so if one end of the business is slow, someone will probably be calling me from another side.

You have to play the long game. People move up in this business and if you maintain contact and relationships, they will take you along.

As I have moved into producing, I have built a wealth of contacts at all levels of the business. Pretty much any question I have, or resource I need, can be found in one phone call.

How to Relate to Celebrities and Powerful People

I’ve made my share of mistakes too.

I’m not intimidated by celebrity or power, but I have not always stayed in touch with powerful and famous people who I have met along the way, some of who have tried to help me with my career.

That was wrong. I should have kept in touch.

I’ve now learned that if someone wants to help you, there’s nothing wrong with that. If they don’t want to talk to you, they can make themselves unreachable.

Work With Who You Connect With

Now, I try to only work with people I like and who are great at what they do.

I think that by focusing on the people you connect with and who have similar work styles — whether they are an intern or a world-famous director — you can only grow and accomplish great things.

It’s All About Building Relationships

So when you look at all those credits of people at the end of the film and wonder what they do, well, part of it is to network continuously because once the show is over, they’re unemployed.

That is part of the nature of the business that I love. It’s nerve-wracking sometimes, and really exciting at others because you never know who’s going to call you.

In the end, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Along the way, here’s are 10 lessons I’ve learned from my 20 years of surviving and thriving in Hollywood:

1. A lukewarm call is better than a cold call.

The personal touch really matters. It’s always better to call a person than go the easy route, which is simply to fax or e-mail them a resume. It’s even better when someone refers you to them. That’s why whenever I get a connection to someone new, I try to make a personal connection. It takes more time but it’s more valuable.

2. It’s acceptable to call people and tell them you’re looking for work.

However, don’t ever phrase it, “Hey, when are you going to hire me?” or something equally crass. Just tell people you are looking.

Better yet, I tell them what project I just finished and that now “I’m available.” It’s better to sound busy than to let people think no one’s calling you.

3. Follow up. Stay on people’s radars, even when you think you’re annoying them.

You don’t always have to be everybody’s best friend, but it doesn’t hurt to be good friends. Just keep the contact brief and professional.

There are people who I might have hired, but I just forgot about them in the heat of crewing up a job (putting together the crew for a new production).

When a gig comes up where I can either recommend someone or hire him or her myself, I end up going with someone who steadily stays in touch.

I strongly suggest creating a system where you maintain your list of contacts and stay in touch, even if it’s just a call, text or e-mail to say hello on a regular basis.

4. Everyone knows everyone.

Always do your best work, no matter what the project or endeavor. This should go without saying, but sometimes it can be hard.

Everyone is watching, and anyone can possibly refer you, even people not in your department or working directly for you.

On one of my first feature films, I was working for $75 a week. Yeah you heard that right. I was the only production assistant and did pretty much everything. I almost never talked to the Director of Photography.

Then one of the first things he said as I ran to get some sandbags to help hold a light stand down was, “You hustle. I need to find you some work.” And he did.

A couple of weeks later I got a call from a producer who was a friend of that Director of Photography and I worked for him on a few commercial jobs.

5. Never talk bad about someone or a project you worked on.

That can be really hard. At least wait until you know the person you’re talking to really well, and even then be careful how you say anything. It always gets back to the people.

Plus two years later you may feel differently about the project or the people who worked on it.

6. Be the hub.

When I was starting out, after I worked with good Production Assistants I always referred them for two reasons: First, because of the law of reciprocity. What comes around goes around.

Secondly, I thought that if producers or Assistant Directors needed a P.A., they would call me first because if I wasn’t available I could give them a couple of solid recommendations. It seems to have worked.

7. Never refer anyone you don’t have complete faith in.

You will be blamed for any transgressions.

8. Think in reverse. And Take Feedback.

Would you recommend you? I recently worked with someone I really liked, but he did some things that were amateurish.

He’s a good guy actually, and his behavior was far from horrendous, but he just didn’t get it, and after the gig, when I tried to give him advice, he ignored me.

Ironically, he had been talking before about wanting to play at the next level.

A great gig came up – one he would have killed for — and I couldn’t recommend him. I would have gone to bat for him if he had at least listened to honest feedback.

Unfortunately, he’ll never know the opportunity was even there.
There’s just too many other people I know who can play at that level.

And to be honest, I’d rather hire someone less experienced who has a great attitude and is willing to learn. I can teach them.

9. Don’t be jealous.

Recommend someone as good or better than you if you can’t do the job. They may take a future job from you, but one day they’ll be either hiring you or recommending you so it all pays off.

I had to give up an amazing opportunity to work with a legendary writer because I was offered the gig at the last minute and I had made a previous commitment.

I recommended a fellow production assistant who had an amazing time doing the job I couldn’t do. The upshot was that the person I recommended has moved up and now he hires me all the time. He’s a blast to work with and he works on great projects.

10. Be the path of least resistance.

I once had a Producer tell me that she always called me first because I returned her calls quickly (I’m dating myself, but this was the time of pagers and pay phones.) I always called back quickly when I got a call or page, even if I wasn’t available.

So, from the outside, Hollywood looks big and intimidating. And it can be very large and quite intimidating. But if you want to make it in Hollywood, you have to just go for it.

Billy Greenfield is a Writer/Producer and a member of the Directors Guild of America. He has worked on numerous television shows and feature films in different capacities, including “Monk,” “Glee,” “Rizzoli & Isles,” “Parenthood,” “The West Wing,” “The Sessions,” “The To-Do-List” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He is currently developing “How to Kill a Rock Star” (Amazon affiliate link and IMDB), a novel by Tiffanie DeBartolo for the big screen with his wife and producing partner, Hayley Helmreich, as well as several other feature films.

His website is www.billygreenfield.com or you can reach him by email at directorbilly@mac.com.

 

Picture: Flickr/photographerglen.

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