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10 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me in Film School

Professors teach you knowledge about your field – and that’s a huge challenge, which is why they don’t often have time to teach about the relational issues of your field. Here’s a handful of practical issues that I’ve learned over the years on TV and film sets around the world. Had I known them in college, it might have changed the direction of my career. Let me know what you think of this list:

1. Hollywood doesn’t care about you.  Silicon Valley doesn’t care about you. Nobody cares about you. You have to earn it. Don’t be the first in line at lunch. Give up your seat for a client. Don’t take the closest parking space. We all know you’re a genius and should actually be directing the movie, but right now, you need to pay your dues. Take charge of your career because nobody else will.

2. Resumes matter less than demo reels and portfolios.  It’s too easy to stretch the truth on a resume, plus, producers want to see your work. Make it compelling, and make it current. Here’s a few tips of making your demo reel memorable.

3. Write more.  It’s all about writing. Even if you won’t want to become a professional writer, study writing. After all, before you decide to spend the next year working on a film, you need to know if the script is worth it.

4. Know how television REALLY works.  When I started in my career, I had no idea what a “show runner” was. In fact, although the role existed, I don’t think that title was actually invented. But with my skill set, it would have been the perfect career path. But because I didn’t know the business, I spent too many years moving in the wrong direction.

5. Pursue YOUR vision, not someone else’s.  Certainly you can start your career doing projects for other people. But if you’re serious about changing the world, don’t live at someone else’s whim.

6. Learn the importance of the niche.  Be the best in the world at a really narrow brand. Read my book “One Big Thing.” It will transform your perception, focus, and identity in the industry.

7. Consider starting as an assistant.  When I left college, I wanted to direct, so it never occurred to me to get an office job, or work as an assistant. But recently, a former assistant of mine eventually moved to Disney, and now has taken a job as a financial manager for Marvel and is leaving this week to work on the next Spiderman movie. Another assistant of mine ended up taking the Director’s Guild assistant director’s test, and graduated to work on “The Office” and is now an A.D. on network TV dramas. Being an assistant allows you to develop relationships, and learn how the business is done from the inside. Being an assistant isn’t for everyone, but I’d encourage you to consider it.

8. Being a Christian isn’t the problem in Hollywood.  Being lousy is. In this post I talk about why Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian. What Hollywood happens to be is anti-lousy. Excellence matters.

9. C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham had it right:  We don’t need more Christian movies, we need more Christians making good movies.

10. Learn the power of networking, because it’s far more than simply shameless self-promotion.  The truth is, people just like to work with people they know. Work is always better when you’re doing it with friends. In my experience, most people would turn down a better candidate to work with someone they know and respect.

Anything else you wish you’d learned in film school?

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13 Comments

  1. Where’s the one about if you see someone more senior carrying something and you’re not you should offer….? The older I get the more I think of that quote! Matt

  2. Love all of this, and I would add one more.

    #11. On time is late!!! Show up early, stay late without complaining and you’ll get called back to work on the next gig.

  3. Great list, Phil. I would add..
    –Studies show that the most successful among us network laterally, not
    just vertically. Your future is less likely to ride on some hot shot
    producer liking your script than it is on successful collaborations
    among your current colleagues and recent alums.
    –Film school is just the beginning of learning and cannot prepare you for everything. In the industry – the one constant is change. Embrace the idea of constantly learning whether it’s technical, relational, creative, commercial, legal – whatever. Stop whining about what you didn’t learn, put your big boy pants on and figure it out!

  4. Great advice, Phil. I like #9 the best. Also, Lisa’s addition in Comments is so true. Help others along the way, and you add value to what talent and hard work can never achieve, gratitude and appreciation from others.

  5. All good, especially # 9. We can’t package everything as “Christian” and expect to reach the lost. We need to put out the best product available, then let Him bring them in.

  6. Thanks for this advice. I’m currently studying the craft of acting through the Meisner technique before taking little steps to audition and go for roles. And yes, I want to be good, authentic, and believable!

  7. Also– and this is huge– solid evidence exists demonstrating that in the entertainment business, the #1 reason you get hired (assuming you have the minimal requisite experience and skillsets): likability.

    1. Agreed Jody. I believe your ability to deal with people is just as important (if not more) than your ability to do your job. Well said and thanks for posting.

  8. Thanks, Phil. I loved the documentary on Netflix about “Showrunners”. Very insightful and encourages teamwork.

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