So you want to be in show business. Maybe you’ve been working in a field that isn’t exciting enough or doesn’t use enough of your creativity. Or you’re just starting out and know that a regular desk job isn’t for you. Plus, you go to the movies and watch TV shows. How hard can it be to make one of those?
The bad news is that breaking into the film and television industries can be daunting and frustrating. The good news is that with hard work, a clear vision of your goals and a few tips on how to start, it’s possible to get a foothold in an extremely creative and fulfilling career. It happens every day to people who are willing to put in the time. Since it’s not all glamour and high pay, the most important qualification is a love of the work.
What to know about breaking into the film and television industries
Breaking into the entertainment business takes time and dedication. If you think you can step off the plane at LAX and immediately be an independent movie producer or write your own hit TV show, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. Every single person who arrives on a movie or TV set at 4 or 5 a.m. for 16 hours of hard, unglamorous work has spent considerable time honing their craft and then worked even harder at positioning themselves so they can get hired. From the hair and makeup artists to the art director to the production assistants, everyone has put in their time. Those “overnight successes” you’ve heard about are most often the result of years of struggle and hard work.
Here are some key things you should know about breaking into the film and television industries.
Everyone has a niche.
There are so many areas of the movie and TV business that there is almost something for everyone. Cinematographers work on set all day surrounded by hundreds of people, while editors work primarily alone in a dark room long after the production has wrapped. From pre- to post-production, there is a job to fit almost every personality and skill set. Know what you’re good at and where you fit in. If you’ve studied art, then you might consider production design. If you’ve spent hours splicing together your own videos on your home computer, then go for editing. But in the beginning, you should get whatever you can.
You may not make much money.
Be aware that while a few positions in the industry are incredibly lucrative, many more are less so. Writers, actors and directors are sometimes paid obscene amounts of money while grips, editors and the many people who fill out the various departments on a film or TV series, such as costume, props, art, photography, etc., are paid much more modestly and work very hard. Hours on the set are long and grueling. People do the work because they love it and can’t imagine doing anything else. [Read related article: The 5 Types of Employee Compensation]
Connections are everything.
This business is truly all about who you know. Most industry jobs are freelance, therefore, the most critical aspect of getting a job, be it your first or your hundred and first, is who you know. Plan to regularly attend industry events, cocktail parties and premieres to meet as many people as possible. And, like with job searching in other industries, you may want to get online. Consider using social media for personal branding and, if you have your own entertainment startup, creating a business profile on LinkedIn.
Hollywood is often known for workplace nepotism. Actor Ben Stiller found himself in hot water in 2021 when he argued on Twitter that show business “ultimately is a meritocracy” – even though he had the advantage of following in his famous parents’ footsteps.
Don’t be too good for grunt work.
Your ego is not your friend. While it is certainly advisable to get as much training as you can before you go looking for work, the best way to learn is on the job. In the beginning, get any entertainment job you can. ANY JOB. It will be lousy pay and long hours, but this is how you start learning and meeting people. A great example: A famous movie producer started out as a production assistant on horror movies. He spent his time on the set working hard and asking smart questions. He then produced his first low-budget horror movie and promptly got a job on another movie as a dolly grip for pennies a day. He didn’t turn down the job because it was beneath him. He took whatever jobs he could find and it eventually paid off.
How to break into the film and television industries
Not everyone gets their big break. But a career in the film and television industries is possible without ever making it to the A-list. To get started, follow these steps.
1. Do your homework.
Find out what types of jobs exist in the industry and which ones you’re best suited for. If you don’t live in Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver or Toronto, get a sense of what kind of industry exists in your area. If there is none, consider relocating. While there is a growing number of cities where movies and TV production are taking place, the movie industry will not come to you. Write a strong résumé that promotes your strengths without being unrealistic. There are many crossover skills from other fields, so be honest about your past experience.
You can use trend-tracking tools to stay up to date with changes in the film and television industries.
2. Get a job, any job.
Production assistants are not paid much, but it’s a great way to learn many aspects of how a production works. You might be asked to run from props to hair to editing to an actor’s trailer all within a day’s work, so it’s a golden opportunity to meet a lot of people and get a sense of what their jobs entail. If you have a more specific department in mind that you’d like to work for, go ahead and knock on the door, but be prepared to be turned away until you’ve had some on-set experience.
3. Look ahead to your next job.
Once on the job, be as helpful and enthusiastic as possible. And above all, be prepared. Know who’s who and if you don’t know, find out. Have business cards ready. Get contact information and keep it organized. If you hit it off with someone in a particular department that interests you, make sure to let them know you’re interested in working with them in the future.
4. Follow up with everyone.
When someone, anyone, offers to put you in touch with a producer or department head, absolutely follow up with a polite and brief phone call and make sure to use the name of the mutual contact (as long as that person has agreed). You may expect an assistant to answer the phone, but it could be the bigwig themselves. Don’t be flustered, and do not take up too much of their time. Be polite and friendly, express gratitude for the chance to connect and let them get back to their busy day.
5. Never forget these golden rules.
No matter how many obstacles you face or how fast you start to soar, there are principles that are key to making your entry into these industries last.
- Know the business. Go to the movies. Watch TV. Read the “trades” (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter). Learn as much as you can about the workings of film and TV production before you arrive on set for your first day of work. Know the difference between a director of photography and an assistant director, for example. Know what the production designer does, etc. Take classes at your local continuing studies program. You can meet people this way and continually build your network.
- Be professional and presentable. The movie and television businesses tend to be more casual than most, but that doesn’t mean you can be sloppy. Dress casually but respectfully. The only one who gets to be the worst-dressed person in the room is the director.
- Be nice to EVERYBODY. More than in other industries, today’s lackey is tomorrow’s showrunner (the head producer on a TV series) or Oscar-nominated director. Sucking up doesn’t help. Keep your dignity and self-respect. Be helpful and determined without groveling or begging. Your boundaries might be tested, but in the end, they will be respected.
The top film studios and television networks
Anyone hoping to break into the film and television networks needs to know what the top film studios and television networks are. You’ll likely have to start somewhere much smaller and independent, and the advent of streaming is upending everything, but having a basic knowledge of these companies won’t hurt.
- Paramount Pictures: Owned by Paramount Global, this studio had one of the biggest hits of the pandemic era when Maverick: Top Gun became one of the highest-grossing films ever at the domestic box office.
- Sony Pictures: This Sony company counts the Spider-man franchise as one of its properties and appeals to a wide swath of movie audiences with divisions that include Columbia Pictures, Tristar Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics and Screen Gems.
- Universal Pictures: The film side of Comcast’s NBCUniversal has a library containing the Halloween series, Dr. Seuss films, the Fast & Furious franchise and the Jurassic Park movies.
- Walt Disney Pictures: In 2019, this studio swallowed 20th Century Fox and renamed it 20th Century Studios after it was purchased by The Walt Disney Company. Other subsidiaries include Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and Pixar Animation Studios, all of which now have films on Disney+.
- Warner Bros. Pictures: After its parent company underwent a merger in 2022 to become Warner Bros. Discovery, the futures of DC Films, New Line Cinema and streaming platform HBO Max will be one of the most significant media stories over the next decade.
Some jobs in the entertainment industry, particularly in news media, require noncompete agreements, though some unions protect their members from having to sign them.
- ABC: Considered one of the “big five” with CBS, FOX, NBC and The CW, this network is owned by The Walt Disney Company. During the day, it broadcasts one of the few remaining soap operas (“General Hospital”) and is home to the long-running “Grey’s Anatomy” at night.
- CBS: Also owned by Paramount Global, this network typically has an older demographic. Its streaming offshoot, Paramount+, combines CBS television programming with Paramount Pictures movies and other content from the Paramount family.
- FOX: Often overshadowed by its politically driven sibling Fox News, this network doesn’t have an obvious political slant. Owner Rupert Murdoch and family are one of the biggest media clans in the world.
- NBC: NBC belongs to Comcast, which also operates MSNBC, Bravo, E!, Telemundo and other channels. All of them currently feed programming to Peacock, the streaming home for NBCUniversal programming.
- Univision: This channel, owned by TelevisaUnivision, is the largest provider of Spanish-language content in the U.S. The brand has been able to stake a larger footprint by scooping up other entities. For example, in 2000, Univision acquired the radio-focused Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, now known as Uforia Audio Network.