I've never been a fan of the sentiment that "you have to know somebody" to get ahead in the film industry. I mean, you do, but that's not what I'm saying. Whenever I hear people say that you have to know somebody to break into the industry, they're using it as an excuse for why they haven't been able to get work. In actuality, they should realize that they're describing the basic concept of networking. Of course you have to know somebody to break in, but that applies to most industries, not just film. Also, good news, you only need to know one person to get started.
When I was starting out, my one person was my dad. Now, I can already see you rolling your eyes. "I knew it," you're probably saying to yourself as you go to self-righteously shut your computer, "another nepotism case in Hollywood. Is he going to say the first step to getting a job is to get adopted into a film family?"
Let's not pretend that the film industry invented nepotism. Hollywood gets a bad rap, but nepotism is in any industry you're looking to join. By networking effectively, you can get the same foot in the door as I had, and those initial connections will lead to jobs down the road. Here's how I got started:
My dad, Vinnie, has been a stand-by painter for big union features for almost 30 years. From the time he started back in the early 90's to now, he's kept every single one of his crew lists. For those of you who may be unfamiliar, large movies and TV shows distribute a crew list at the beginning of each show, which contains the names and contact information of everyone on the crew. He kept all those crew lists in a huge binder in our house. When I decided that I wanted to get into the camera department, I went through that binder and wrote down the contact info for every DP, camera operator and 1st AC. I then took that list to my dad and asked him who I could reach out to. Once I had that second list of names, I emailed every single person on the list with a script similar to this one:
"Hi, My name is Kyler, I got your info from my dad, Vinnie Jae. Hope your week is going well so far. I know this is a bit out of the blue, but I've been looking to get into the camera department, and I'm trying to figure out how to get started. If you've got some time for a quick chat this week, I'd love to pick your brain about your career and how you've gotten to where you are today. What's your schedule like Wednesday afternoon?
Nice to meet you,
A quick note about that email, notice how I ended by setting a tentative date for our chat? That's important for actually getting the other person on the phone. The email recipient can either say, "I'm free Wednesday afternoon, let's chat then," or, "I'm busy Wednesday afternoon," which gives you the opportunity to set a time that works with both of your schedules.
Using this email, I was able to get a number of high profile camera people on the phone and have conversations with them about the industry and getting started. That conversation was a great door opener, and I would always work in the fact that I was looking for a camera PA position. Eventually one of the focus pullers I called said he had an open camera PA position for a short project, and asked me if I knew how to use a GoPro camera. I told him I did, which was a lie. Always say what you need to say to get the job, and figure the rest out from there. He hired me over the phone, and told me to show up at Panavision on Friday for prep.
"Ok, Kyler," you're probably saying, "that's great for you, but what am I supposed to do? I don't have contact info for a ton of people in my chosen department."
Wrong. Do you have an Instagram? Problem solved. If you're passionate about film, you probably follow a ton of prominent industry people on Instagram. Following them is the same as having their contact information. Go through the list of people you follow and pick the ones you want to contact. Do some research on them. Look at their websites, the projects they've done, the work they're proud of showing off. Then send each person a DM similar to my email script. Instead of name-dropping someone they know, tell them why you want to work with them. Be specific; tell them which of their projects you liked. People are usually receptive to admirers. This strategy works whether you're just starting out in the industry or you're already established and looking to work with someone specific.
I showed up to Panavision having spent a few hours the day before at Radiant Images learning how to work with GoPros. I showed RJ, the focus puller who hired me, how to work the cameras, and spent the rest of the day building a set case for the GoPro kit. Good thing, too, because I didn't know what any of the other gear was or how to use it.
When you're starting out in an entry level position like camera PA, nobody expects you to know anything. Don't try to prove anything. Just do exactly what you're told to do, and do it well. My first day on set was as hectic a day as I've ever had. Legendary DP Dion Beebe was shooting a Call of Duty commercial in an abandoned mall in Hawthorne. All day, we set off explosions and shot automatic rifles. The explosions were so powerful I could feel the shockwaves reverberate off the concrete walls and shake the building. Immediately, I was hooked.
As the camera department PA, my job was to keep batteries charged, keep the truck clean, and do any other general department bitch work. The bitch work actually made up the lion's share of my responsibilities. One of the first things RJ did the first day of the six-day shoot was sit me down on the camera truck and show me how to make coffee the way Dion liked. Triple shot wet machiatto, I still remember how to make it. I knew that, knowing so little about film work and the actual mechanics of working on a set, one aspect of my job I could control was my enthusiasm in making that coffee. Whenever Dion said he was feeling ready for a coffee, I ran to the truck and made one as fast as I could. At one point during the shoot, we turned a huge section of the parking lot into a pool of water a foot-and-a-half deep. After I steamed the milk for Dion's machiatto, I put on a pair of unwieldy galoshes, stomped through the pool with the espresso and milk steamer in hand, and poured the milk into the coffee in front of Dion so he could tell me the perfect ratio of milk to coffee.
I credit my willingness to do whatever grunt work RJ asked of me as the reason he hired me on future projects. Those early jobs aren't about your film knowledge. They're about being somebody your boss is excited to have around. You have to check your ego and recognize that you're the lowest member of the team. Ask a lot of questions and follow directions to the letter, and you'll find specific moments to demonstrate your value.
The Call of Duty commercial was an incredible experience, but it only lasted six days. RJ didn't have another project coming up for a while, and on my next project, I took a step down to regular PA. I'll tell you all about that experience on Friday.