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By Valerie Kalfrin · June 9, 2017
You need more than “blazing hot” creative material to break into Hollywood, though that certainly helps, says development executive turned career coach Carole Kirschner.
Even if you’re not a writer, think of yourself as a creative project, complete with a logline and an “A Story” that makes you stand out from the crowd. “Hollywood is about telling stories, and you want to show that you’re a good storyteller,” she says.
Kirschner, director of the WGA’s Showrunner Training Program and creator and director of the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program, was a senior-level executive at CBS and Amblin Entertainment. She’s the author of Hollywood Game Plan: How to Land a Job in Film, TV or Digital Entertainment.
She’s now organized some advice from her decades in show business into an online course, Carole Kirschner’s Hollywood Boot Camp: How the Heck to Get Your First (or Next) Job in Entertainment. The material is divided into 20 short videos – roughly 10 to 15 minutes long each, easy to fit into a busy schedule – and arranged around four “weeks.” She covers navigating the entertainment industry, using your personal story to unlock doors, job-search strategies, and networking. (It’s feasible to cover all four “weeks” within a few days.
Given Kirschner’s emphasis on “breaking in,” a lot of her advice focuses on entry-level jobs such as production assistants, or PAs, and many examples use language related to college students or recent graduates. But Kirschner also is known for helping career-changers, so those looking to make a leap from another field or work their way up from another slot in entertainment can still find valuable tips.
Here are seven of them.
You’re in a marathon, not a sprint
Kirschner has met a lot of people who look only at the first entry-level job – the sprint – and don’t consider that a career in entertainment is ever-evolving, a marathon. So don’t become static in your thinking. Learn how the business works: who the players are; what’s in theaters, online, or on TV; what video has gone viral; what web series are getting huge numbers of views. Pick at least three publications such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Deadline.com to follow online and on Twitter.
“Knowing about the industry is respectful and generally flattering – and it makes you sound smart,” she says.
Develop a personal logline
Similar to the logline for a film, a personal logline piques interest in you. It also enables you to talk about your strengths in a confident but humble way. Craft more than one depending on the circumstances (pitch fest versus cocktail party). Just be sure to hit: what you aspire to do, why you’re good at it, what you’re passionate about, how you’re different from others, and any prior experience or credibility.
Perhaps you organized a 300-person wedding in a month, which shows the meticulous skills you’d need on set. Maybe your degree is relevant – or you have a creative view of the world. Kirschner once met someone who said, “When other girls were playing dress-up with Barbie, I was wrapping her in toilet paper and turning her into a mummy.” Prior experience can cover any successful professional endeavor; a person hiring others just wants to know you’ve delivered on a project in the past.
Build Your “Story”
An “A Story” is the main character’s journey in a screenplay – and since you’re the protagonist in your life, you have one, too. Your “A Story” is one most powerful elements in your arsenal, Kirschner says.
“The biggest sin in Hollywood is being boring!” she says. “The entertainment industry loves people with colorful backgrounds and stories.”
Your “A Story” should be about two minutes or less – and it’s focused. You’re telling a narrative description of your life, in chronological order, that highlights your accomplishments and emphasizes your successes – all without sounding like a jerk, she says. Pepper it with colorful details and some of your struggles, but nothing too personal, kind of like you’re on a date. Use it whenever someone says, “Tell me about yourself.”
Mine Your Memories
Stumped about how to write a good personal logline or “A Story”? Focus on the nuggets – a term Kirschner says she stole from The Walking Dead’s former showrunner Glen Mazzara – that will make you memorable. Divide your life into five-year increments. For each segment, write down two or more colorful situations or events that happened to you or your family. Also write down at least one success or accomplishment. Then, starting at about ages 10 to 15, choose one success and one colorful situation from each time period. String them together in chronological order, and cut any that don’t show you in a positive light.
Keep It Short
Just like the logline and “A Story,” your cover letter and resume should be brief but focused. The competition for entertainment jobs is intense – Kirschner says there can be 1,400 resumes for 80 internship slots at some companies – so you’ll stand out if you can convey: I’m sharp, I’m efficient, and I can save you time and energy because won’t have to explain things to me twice.
Your cover letter should be two to four short paragraphs, with no more than four sentences per paragraph. On your resume, in addition to Work Experience, list a section of Skills for experience with programs like Final Draft or any foreign languages you speak. An ‘Interests’ or ‘Personal’ section is a good place for quirky stuff (like collecting first-edition comics or gardening) that might spark a connection with an overloaded decision-maker. Put any creative endeavors in a nutshell under a Creative section: a blog with however-many followers, the number of short films you’ve made. If you choose to write an objective, make it about how you can contribute to a production’s success.
“Since this is such a crazy business, if you can say and show that you can be calm in the face of madness, that’ll score points,” she says.
Getting a job is a numbers game. Kirschner recommends putting in three to four hours a day among scouting listings, sending out resumes (she knows one woman who sent out 20 resumes a week), making contacts, and following up. Even people who want to help you might forget about you if you’re not on their radar.
If you’re concerned about being a pest, say something like, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to check back in in another month” about any openings in their production company, or wherever you’re applying. If you’ve been told it’s OK to follow up regularly, check back every three to four weeks. And if you’re dealing with an HR department and keep getting voice mail, try every two weeks. Just be sure to be brief and polite.
Some people you reach out to might be rude, but just tell yourself, “One down, ten more to go,” brush it off and keep moving forward.
Maintain the Right Attitude
Kirschner says an impressive Hollywood attitude is one that “lives to serve.” In other words, don’t act entitled. There are menial tasks that need to be done – fetching coffee and snacks, walking dogs, holding boom mikes – and you’ll probably be asked to do them. But if you do so with genuine enthusiasm and confidence, people will know you can transplant those qualities to other responsibilities.
That doesn’t mean you should accept work that doesn’t align with your values, Kirschner adds. She walks you through developing your own personal mission statement so that you can evaluate opportunities as they arise and still keep your eyes on the prize.
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Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning veteran crime journalist turned entertainment writer. A member of the Florida Film Network, she writes reviews and analysis for The Script Lab, Signature Reads (formerly known as Word and Film), and The Tampa Bay Times, among other publications. She’s also an emerging screenwriter and script consultant. She lives in Florida.