Cross Post: Breaking Into the Film Business

Features
by Megan Griffiths
December 20, 2012 2:00 PM
7 Comments
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So, recently I've been gaining a little modest traction in this oh-so-fickle business. And as I try to figure out what the next phase of my career will hold, I've been finding myself reflecting on the long and strange path that has led me here.

My time in the film industry hasn't been a straight line or an overnight phenomenon. I received my MFA in film production over a decade ago. A quick glance at my IMDb page will illustrate that it took me a while to find myself solidly in the director's chair. I've held a lot of different roles on a lot of different productions, almost entirely within the burgeoning independent film scene in Seattle.

During this period I learned and learned and learned. From my own mistakes, from other people's mistakes, from our occasional successes. Did I want to be making my own films?  Hell yes.  Desperately. The whole time. But looking back now, I am incredibly grateful for the years I spent working on other people's films. I am a better filmmaker because of the time I spent waiting, watching and learning.

People occasionally ask me my advice on breaking into this business, and rather than repeating myself ad nauseum, I thought maybe I should just write down my thoughts somewhere. Here, actually. So here you go...some tried and true, hard-earned lessons, from this cinechick to you:

LISTEN MORE THAN YOU SPEAK

This is a good rule in any business and, frankly, in life. Be an observer. If you want to direct (or write, or act), observation of human behavior is a super important skill. But whatever you want to do, it never hurts to understand people. And you will always learn more by listening to others than you will by listening to yourself. 

LIVE FRUGALLY

There are very few people who work in film who did not start off working for free. I personally spent about five years working a day job and volunteering my nights and weekends on small indies before I was able to get paid to be on a set. Five years is a long time. Granted I was starting off at a time when there were fewer films being shot in Seattle and most had much low budgets. I also think my case is a bit unique because I was focused from the outset on key positions on set.  I had the opportunity to pursue paid PA work earlier, but I chose to act as a DP (and eventually AD) on smaller films instead because I knew that would be more creatively fulfilling to me.

The point is, you don't just decide to work in film and then automatically get paid to do it. Working for free in those early years was a huge part of my development as a filmmaker. You have to pay your dues--it humbles you, it teaches you, and it makes you very grateful when your time finally comes. So unless you've got a trust fund, it helps to learn to live frugally. I kept my expenses as low as possible so I could retain the freedom to stay focused on independent film. To be honest, I'm still trying to figure out how to make a sustainable living in this business. But I chose this path and I love what I do. I regret nothing. 

MAKE YOURSELF INDISPENSABLE

As someone who has been on the hiring end of several films, I can tell you without question that skill is only one of many factors that I consider. When presented with two people of equal talent, I will always, every time, go with the person who has the better attitude. Actually, sometimes I'll hire the person with less experience just because I think they have the right disposition for the work. You can train people out of inexperience, but you can't train them out of perpetual grumpiness. People who show up to set on time, ready to work and with a smile on their face, whether they are an intern or a union professional, will always get hired again. Positivity and enthusiasm are two of the things I consider the most important traits in a crew member.

The third is focus. This goes along with what I already said (above) about listening more than speaking. If you are focused and paying attention on set, you will always know what's happening now, what's happening next, and how you can be a part of making it all happen more quickly. For a shining example of someone who exemplifies all of the above, see Garrett Cantrell, who I will have on every set forever if I have my way. I met Garrett when he was an unpaid art intern. First chance I got, I hired him as a key PA.  Next thing you know, he's one of the most sought-after key grips in the region. Yes, he's excellent at his job, but he honed his skills by getting on a lot of sets, and he got on those sets because he has a kickass attitude. Watch and learn, everyone.

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7 Comments

  • Ava Proscreenwriter | December 21, 2012 12:20 AMReply

    Megan, your advice is dead on.
    I believe all serious screenwriters should make it a goal to get a job, any job, on a film production to see and learn how the filmmaking process works. It will make you a better screenwriter.
    I worked on a feature film production as a paid script supervisor, and assisted in pre and post. It was a priceless education for me as a screenwriter.
    Everyone had a great attitude and worked long days and loved it -- except for one person who was a well known character actor. He had a terrible attitude, was extremely rude, and mean as a snake to the crew. Thankfully he wasn't on the set more than a few days. But the days he was working, we all dreaded his presence. If I had been the director, I would have fired him the first day he showed up. But even the director was afraid of him. This actor's talent was not worth putting up with his bad behavior and attitude. No one on that film production will ever want to work with him again.
    So, I agree 100% with Megan's advice. Be nice to everyone - always. No matter what your job is, be pleasant and kind. Show up early for work, have a great attitude, and be eager to do your very best work. Others working on the film production will notice and remember you and want to work with you again.
    Well said, Megan.
    www.twitter/come/Ava Screenwriter

  • Giacomo Ferrario | March 29, 2013 6:10 PM

    AVA....I was laughing and crying at the same time reading your message above. I just worked on 'several TV Shows' and it always irritates me to see those Actors many 'Think' are funny & Kind show up on Set and are actually RUDE and IGNORANT. They can memorize lines. Know where to stand with respect to camera's and have a 'following' but, the crew hates them. Fellow Actors just want to RUN off set or Slap them silly so they'll STOP Telling everyone how 'Special They Are'. I once heard a Character Actor we all know say, 'I'm an 'A' Actor I deserve a better Trailer. Better Attention. Blah blah..(actually try 'C Actor and 'F' for being Knd). I was stunned! And Saddened. I saw him again last week. Hasn't changed after 5 years. You see these people in Comedies too and 'off set' they are sad people and rude to everyone. Makes no sense to be this way. We are ALL struggling to be actors and be our best. Be Kind! Thanks AVA

  • Giacomo Ferrario | December 20, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    Dear Megan:
    I grew up in the Film Business in Malibu, California. My dad lived next door to Martin Sheen and his young boys, Sandy Kofax was in baseball but, was around Hollywood types at 'our Beach parties', and others (I hate name dropping just TRYING to make a point YOU made). After the US Army, Nato stint working for General Al Haig and Lt. Gen. Otstott, Army Intelligence, well, I earned my degree's at UCLA (Intern'l Bus., marketing, 4 languages fluently) and Woodbury (same). Met Carlo Rambaldi and his entire family (friends now for 34 years) who created E.T, King Kong, Alien and many others as well as producing several films (DECOY, etc.) SO, I thought after working in 9 countries and knowing all these people, experiences, places, up's and downs and being ON SET for various films (just for fun and to learn) that I'd write a Screenplay (Jimmy Halloway, Based on a True Story and Enduring Dream: Orphan, tenage years in 1960's and awesome characters, funny, sad, SUICIDE', etc.) Army exp., CIA, Las vegas and business/mafia, Italy, Germany, Maine, California. yes, a Wild ride Megan! But, keeps you on the edge of you seat! We laugh, Cry and wonder. An old man looking back at his life. Snap-shots. Flashbacks. So much more. My wife is VP, worldwide publicity Film. 27 years. Friends all in film bus. =Access. Morgan Freeman is a friend. I know small time directors and actors, however, even with a Thumbs UP by ALL who have read HUNDREDS of scripts and filmed & LOVE Mine, NOTHING HAS HAPPENED!!! LOL Yes, maybe I didn't Push hard enough. Try hard enough. Demand more? Your story re-energized me. You are a Champion. You WILL find your dream/s. I just know it. Thank you for the story. It helps those of us 'on the fringes' and NOT following our dream. Even if it is ONE! Not to do it would be stupid. At 'any cost'. Brava! James

  • Susan Cartsonis | December 20, 2012 3:37 PMReply

    Megan, you are smart and incredibly talented. I've had the privilege of seeing Megan's film and when it's released we ALL have to go see it and support her!

  • Giacomo Ferrario | March 29, 2013 6:02 PM

    Let us know when Megan' Film comes out. I want to be the first to see it. Thank you, GF

  • Giacomo Ferrario | December 20, 2012 6:34 PM

    Thank you Susan. I want to see this film so bad now! Maybe Megan will Invite us to her screening? We just handled the worldwide publicity for 'The Fighter' and working for and with Mark Wahlberg was special. He is the kindest person in Hollywood. True. We've worked with hundreds. We also handled 'The Ides of March' and went to the Venice Film Festival with G Clooney and his fellow actors. Ryan Gosling is another great guy. Very kind. Take care you two. Good luck Megan. You are on your way girl. (Director). Giacomo and Family (Merry Chritsmas)

  • Megan Griffiths | December 20, 2012 3:59 PM

    Thanks Susan!!

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