The traditional entry level day jobs, working as a barista, an Uber driver, a waiter, cocktail waitress or bartender (combined with writing) can be physically and emotionally exhausting. When these writers finally have time to knock off a few pages, they’re hardly at their best.
Meanwhile, the other key to film writing success, networking with other writers and entertainment workers, gets short shrift. How can they work all day, write all night and network?
What about getting a day job working on a studio lot or at a production company? You’re going to be working closely with others who have similar interests. Knowing these people will pay off some day.
When I was still at the USC Film School, I worked as a bartender weeknights and a “story analyst” during the day. The job involves reading a screenplay or a novel each day, then writing a very tight synopsis for the execs higher up to read.
We also had to rate the script’s concept, setting, production values, storyline, plot structure, character, dialogue and pacing from “poor” to “excellent.” This turned out to be almost as valuable an education as film school.
You’ll need a working knowledge of the three-act structure and other basics of screenwriting. Where do you pick up this knowledge? I learned from a class on story analysis in film school. You can also learn by taking extension courses or reading books like “Screenplay” by Syd Field. It definitely helps if you’ve written a few feature length spec scripts, too.
As a story analyst, you will also have access and be working closely with people who have the power to greenlight a project. You’ll make a lot of valuable and very close connections.
I would consider “personal assistant,” “studio office staff,” and “talent agency” jobs to be in the same category and just as valuable for contacts and networking.
I also worked as a production assistant, driving film canisters for TV and film projects around to labs, to screening rooms and occasionally delivering scripts to actors. It’s as entry-level as a job can be, but you’d be amazed at how many producers, directors, writers and even actors started out this way.
For example, Kathleen Kennedy, who has multiple Academy Award nominations, began as a PA for John Milius. Her connections from working various PA jobs eventually led her to producing films with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Today she produces films with her husband Frank Marshall.
When I was an Executive Producer, I co-created several TV series. We hired writing assistants to take notes in the writer’s room. One of them spent so much time in the writer’s room, he learned the voices of the characters and the tone of the show.
He worked so hard, for such long hours we rewarded him with his own script assignment. He did a nice job and was able to use that sale to get himself an agent. With representation, he was soon working as a staff writer on SpongeBob Squarepants. Eventually he became a showrunner for an animated show that won him an Emmy.
Another writing assistant, was afforded a similar opportunity. He was able to secure an agent based on a script he wrote for us. His interests took him into writing for hour dramas, where he landed a job on Dexter. He stayed on that show for seven years and eventually became an executive producer.
This happens all the time in television. Showrunners will give script assignments to their assistants as a bonus for hard work. To get this job you’ll need to submit a spec for a television show or an original pilot. For obvious reasons, every wannabe TV writer wants this gig. It helps (a lot) if you know somebody, so networking is essential.
The point is, when you’re just starting out as a filmmaker, you’re going to have to choose a day job. Some of these jobs can leave you feeling like you’re drifting away from your goals or like your soul is dying. With entry level studio jobs, you can be working closely with people who can literally make your career.
Image credit: Creative Commons, arri film set, 2014, by Gerard Murphy, is licensed under CC By 2.0