Breaking “Free” Into Hollywood

By Michael Schilf · November 27, 2010

I talk to a lot of people who suffer from the colossal illusion that the key to breaking through the walls of Hollywood is simply a lot of dedication and fortitude. I agree that a nose to the grindstone attitude helps – a lot – but the truth is that the best way to "get in" to the industry is to network, network, network, and one of the best ways to do that is to work for free.

Not everyone can get into film school, work on student films with a bunch of other like-minded people, and move up the ranks of Hollywood together. But even for those that can – trust me, the USC Movie Mafia is for real – the film school approach is still no golden ticket.

The irony is that if you graduate from med-school, you're a doctor, but when you graduate from film school, you're just a dweeb – qualified to brew coffee or make movies. But nobody hires a recent grad to make a movie. That's why so many film grads are so good at brewing a killer cup of Joe.

Some people will argue, however, that the best way to break in is by writing an amazing script. Their conclusion rests on the theory that an awesome script will find its way, that great material rises to the top. I would agree that a fantastic screenplay does find a home, but only if the writer knows a lot of people in the industry. A second irony is that Hollywood is a town that is specifically designed for screenwriters – because of course without scripts there would be no movies made – yet in a town that depends upon reading screenplays, the truth is that NOBODY READS.

Producers don't read. Agents don't read. Executives don't read. And actors definitely don't read. That's the catch 22. Nobody reads, unless… the script has been read by someone else they trust, AND that someone else is almost always a friend or colleague, who is a friend of a friend of yours… or something like that. It's one thing to write a great script; it's another thing entirely to get it read by someone of power. This is why you need lots and lots of friends. The real Hollywood golden ticket is the one with a large network and your ability to check your ego at the door and work for free. You already write for free, so if meeting people can help you get read, why not volunteer to work on a film production.

The easiest way – especially if you live in L.A. – is to join a student film production at USC, AFI, or UCLA, particularly grad films. Most shoots are on weekends, so the 9 to 5 working schedule is no excuse. Be early. Stay late. Bust your ass. Learn as much as you can, and hopefully the producers, director, and other crew will bond with you and hire or recommend you later when (if) they move up the ladder. Obviously, the more films you volunteer for, the better your chances are of making a winning connection. And it's the connections you make that help build your career – screenwriting or otherwise.

So if you think you can grab a sledgehammer and smash your way through the Hollywood wall alone, you are horribly mistaken. You're much better off working with a bunch of talented people to create something of quality, no sledgehammers required. Do that, and you use that project as the key to open the gates of Hollywood and walk through together.

Even George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Milius didn't do it alone. They paved their roads with a lot of help from their friends: "United, we stand. Divided, we fall."