Brutal Honesty About the Film Business

Hiya Film Fans,
At least once a month I get asked advice (usually from a young artist or film student) about how to get into the film business. In fact, I got an e-mail letter this morning. I’d like to share the response and advice I gave to this young man.

Before you read my advice you should know that despite the brutally harsh tone of my advice I am not bitter about my experiences in The Biz. I have a strong sense of humor (particularly black humor) as well as a healthy sense of irony that helps me to keep any of the crap that’s thrown my way in fine perspective. I have met a lot of my very best friends in The Business, have made some decent money (although I must say I earned every single friggin’ penny I ever made in that screwy world) and have met some of the smartest and funniest people in the world. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, working in movies has been the best of times and the worst of times — often all at once.

But when someone asks me for advice about The Biz I figure that they already pretty much know (or think they know) the good stuff about working in film. I figure my job is to tell them the things I wish someone had told me the first day I was about to climb aboard this Cockeyed Caravan. So I deliver a kind of Reality Check about this biz we call Show.

Do not read the following if you wish to retain your fantasy that working in the film business is a fun, glamorous experience in which the annointed few of us who are in it feel just so darn peachy lucky to be a small part of the Magic that is Hollywood.

Here’s the response I wrote to the letter. If you’ve ever worked as a carny in a low rent circus, much of this will be familar to you.

Hi M***,
I hope you appreciate honesty. I would never willingly help someone get into the film business. I am too kind a person to do something that cruel to someone. Although I could have easily given them jobs or found work for them I have successfully discouraged all of my relatives from working in the movies. I always try to advise anyone who is thinking about getting into the film business not to. It is a hard, hard business and it will always eventually break your heart — repeatedly, if you let it. If you can do anything else, for God’s sake, do it.

If this all still sounds appealing to you, then here are ten points of advice (there’s much, much more, but I’ve got to get back to work):

1) Move to L. A. This is where the film business is. It’s not anywhere else in the country (well, there’s a little bit — and I do mean little — in New York).

2) If you have a wife or girlfriend, dump her. Now. Why prolong a relationship that is eventually going to be destroyed by the Business? Anyway, once you’re on a film you’ll only see her when she’s sleeping. Don’t even think about having kids.

3) Once here in Los Angeles, take any job in films that you can get in any department. Two reasons: You will learn more about making movies in two weeks spent as a P. A. (Production Assistant — a “Go-fer” — the lowest job on the film biz totem pole) on a feature film than you will in four years of film school. Also, your future film jobs will come from the people with whom you work on these films.

4) If you’re lucky (or unlucky) enough to get work on a film, work your ass off. When you’re on a film, do not work less than 18 hours a day, seven days a week. If you work less than that you are slacking and not really serious about a film career. There is a line of young people ready and willing to work that hard who will happily replace you.

5) Remember the name of every single person in the business that you encounter as well as what they do. They are your links to future work.

6) Never say a bad thing about ANYONE in the business. Often the people you hate the most are the source of your next job.

7) Be kind to everyone you encounter no matter how awful they are to you. That snotty little P. A. might just be a studio executive next year.

8) Don’t expect anything in the film world to make any kind of “normal” sense at first. The film biz culture has its own set of arcane rules, logic and moralities. It will take you years to learn the Unwritten Rules of Hollywood.

9) If you can at all avoid it, never try to ask anyone for a favor. The film biz is like the Mafia. Every single favor is counted and remembered. One day you will be asked to return that favor. When that happens you will probably be asked to do something that will make you feel uncomfortable, guilty or ashamed. Nevertheless, you will have to do it. That’s the rules.

10) Asking me to take valuable time (in the time it took to compose this response I could have made several hundred dollars) out from my intensely busy schedule and away from the precious little time I have for my enormously patient family to help you with advice was asking for a favor. Never forget who gave you the most honest (and maybe the only honest) advice you will ever get in this business and, in return, toss me a job once in awhile. You won’t regret it.

Good Luck!

Most Sincerely,

William Stout

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