Did you always know entertainment was the industry you wanted to work in?
My first exposure to entertainment was in the music business. As a freshman at UC Berkeley, I was given the chance to book all the music for the entire campus, including the brand new 3000 seat Zellerbach Auditorium for major acts (e.g. Joni Mitchell, Chuck Berry, Steve Miller Band) and smaller venues for ‘cabaret’ acts (e.g. Phil Ochs). At the same time, I was brought on board by Columbia Records to be their youngest A&R exec, promoting and working with their artists when in the Bay Area. If I’d not been such a purist Berkeley hippie and a bit disenchanted by the music executives I met at the time, I’d likely have stayed in that business, given my love of music.
The one thing I knew was that I wanted to tell great stories. From an early age, I was a voracious reader, a boy with a rich inner world and an endless love for great stories and characters, whether from books or song lyrics or film.
After Berkeley, I went to law school to become a criminal defense attorney and champion of the underdog. This aligned with my generation’s fierce determination to save the world, right wrongs, end wars and help our brothers and sisters in need. One of my heroes was a great political defense lawyer of the day who defended ‘The Chicago Seven’ and I determined I would follow in his footsteps. I would become a criminal defense attorney, tell brilliantly persuasive stories, influence all inside that courtroom and save people from going to jail. But I soon found criminal law was a harsh and ugly world, and I was a romantic. Bad match. So I ran away to Los Angeles, to the more fantasy-based world of storytelling and filmmaking.
I’d never been to Los Angeles, didn’t know a soul there, knew less about the film business, but packed up my care and headed south with a resolve to be anonymous but find my way, meet new people, discover a way in and a role for me to play in Hollywood so I could work with screenwriters and filmmakers. In the back of my head, I wanted to launch and guide their careers, much like my other hero, Max Perkins, had done for so many of the greatest authors of the 20th Century while at Scribner and Sons. I thought if he could discover, nuture, launch careers for Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Lardner and so many others, I’d try to emulate his success but on the film side.
Once in LA, I asked everyone I met about the business, job titles, how to break in. Someone mentioned being a ‘manager’ who, unlike an agent, didn’t require a license. I knew I didn’t want to be an attorney any longer, didn’t aspire to climb a corporate ladder, so the notion of hanging my own shingle, striking out as an entrepreneur made great sense. So I founded a literary management firm, but didn’t have clients. So I next joined an outdoor health club, played hours of tennis and paddle tennis every day, swimming in between. I made a point to befriend everyone I met poolside or on a court. Many were in the film or tv business or some form of entertainment. I asked everyone’s advice, sought their counsel, called them my 5-minute mentors and never asked a favor, just a little bit of their time and as much wisdom as I could get them to volunteer. After several months, I began asking whoever stepped onto the court to play what they did for a living. If they were a writer or writer-director, I let them know I managed people just like them ! And that’s how I found my early clients.
With a handful of clients, none of whom had ever been represented or produced, I began dialing executives and agents and producers. I let them know I was in the discovery business and had come across some of the best unknown writers imaginable. We had to meet. I’d go to their office, meet them at a coffee shop or buy them a meal, whatever it took. I made friends with every one of their assistants, so my calls were welcome and not an annoyance. Since day one, my motto has been ‘relationships trump results’ and that included everyone from the janitor to the CEO, and I fast learned the gatekeepers (aka assistants) held the keys to the kingdom.
Was there ever any doubt?
There’s always doubt. My father wanted me to go into his business. I loved my dad, but I knew becoming a merchant would be social suicide for me. I had to work with my creativity, my intellect, my brain. The problem for most, as it was for me, is that if you don’t come from a creative dynasty or lack any connections in Hollywood, that world looks and feels pretty random and mysterious. If you want to be chiropractor, a dentist or a plumber, it’s not hard to figure out how to do that. You study certain courses, take the appropriate exams, get certified, join the professional organization. As soon as you say “I’m going to be a creative”, however, there’s no blueprint or roadmap to show you how to get from where you are to where want to go.
Despite all our schooling, most of us exit with a degree yet remain functionally illiterate when it comes to bottom line realities like finance, entrepreneurship or how to influence real world outcomes. We’re simply not taught to actively manage our finances, take responsibility, be accountable for our health and well-being, and so many other life-critical skills.
The problem is only compounded when you enter the creative sphere. You’ve not only NOT been taught how to build a business, how to market your talents and position yourself for success, but likely you’ve inherited a sense that ‘creatives’ shouldn’t have to dirty their hands with such base activities as marketing or promotion or the business of their career.
Actors, writers, singers, directors, creatives of all stripes generally don’t jump out of bed in the morning excited as hell saying to themselves “Today, I get to tell the world the most persuasive way story about my goals, my talent, what my brand is, who I am, what I need”. If you can’t do that in business, and on a daily basis, you’re not going to have much of a business. You should want, crave, desire to preach the gospel of you, and practice that every single day. All the talent in the world is of no consequence if not heralded to the world so others take notice. And no one should be better equipped, more motivated, more articulate about that subject than you ! It’s not about your agent, manager, attorney, best friend, family, masseuse or herbalist. You are the one (fortunately !!) most responsible for you, your progress, your career.
Tell me a little about the portal for creatives you’re putting together?
Here’s the beautiful thing. We live in this delicious time where technology allows for opportunities not imaginable until this very moment. YouTube is the greatest talent showcase on earth and it’s just one of so many platforms and technologies, with more coming online for free, literally every day. Historically, entertainment was ‘delivered’ through well-controlled channels – major music labels, major film studios the three big TV networks. The gates have been crashed and you no longer need their permission to be creative and push your work out into the world.
There’s so many ways to produce content to effectively showcase your talent and find audience. There are TV shows on networks and cable platforms that started as webisodes, films launched on-line that have gone on to get theatrical releases. Social proof happens online and can quickly drive hundreds of thousands, if not millions of views. That’s where the walls come down and your opportunity is multiplied. Not to ignore institutional Hollywood or traditional media. It’s the blend and bleeding together of all these opportunities that makes this the most welcoming time ever for the truly talented.
I wrote two books about career strategy, one for screenwriters (which serves equally all creatives “behind the camera”, such as directors, producers, editors, cinematographers). The other book I wrote is specifically for actors who have a different vernacular and uniquely different toolkit. Both books lay bare the specific strategies that are simple, effective and the very things I did to launch careers for unknown filmmakers, writers, actors… even my own career. It’s a detailed roadmap that’s clear and doesn’t require huge amounts of your time. It just works. Six months after reading the book and putting some of the strategies into practice on a consistent basis, you won’t recognize the landscape of your creative career. You will have relationships with the folks that matter, which opens doors, attracts opportunities, changes everything.
The reason my team and I are doing this is to engage with and find our community, our enthusiasts, the people who want to be at the leading edge of the conversation about creativity, collaboration, new tools and opportunities.
Ultimately, our intention is to launch a free online portal for creatives and aspirational creatives to find one another, to find opportunity, collaborators or projects. I love creative people and this is my way to discover new voices and give back a little bit.
What advice would you give people seeking a creative career?
Invest 30 minutes every day, but don’t be random -- have a plan. Most creatives lack any plan, any sense of how to market themselves or create a path that moves them forward. Most approach their career as if it were some random affair like a lottery, hoping to be discovered, wasting a lot of time and struggling.
My advice is to stop listening to people who are struggling or don’t know what they’re talking about.
Treat this like a business. I have a simple theory and most of the strategies in my book have this as a goal: get to know people who’ve earned their way into the inner circle, get to know them, their assistants, their colleagues. It’s so much easier if you have a plan, know what to look for, who to target, how to enter a conversation, grow rapport over several interactions, keep walking (metaphorically and literally) through the right doors (or phone lines). I don’t care what industry you’re in, if you know 25, then 50, eventually 100 meaningful (connected, successful) people in a given sector in your industry, that’s all you need to be a success. Whatever your level of talent is, it doesn’t hold a candle to who you know. In less than one year, you can competley rewrite the trajectory of your career, the map of your relationships, and feel the velocity of your career’s momentum carrying you forward faster.
If you don’t care enough to invest the effort, then you don’t really deserve the career. If you honestly believe you can submit a headshot or a script to a total stranger and, because you’re so brilliant, they’re going to hire you or invest $15million to realize your dream, you may find you’ve a very long wait. If you care enough to identify the people, across a wide array of job titles (casting director, executive, filmmaker, producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc), whose body of work you respect and whose work is essentially aligned with your brand, and are willing to go out of your way just a little to introduce yourself as a real, breathing, living, unique human being and talent, then you’re in the game and very likely to ‘win’.
Invest in others, use smart strategies, make a difference in their lives and it will come back to you tenfold. Get in the business of building bridges, building rapport with the right people, be respectful and honest and develop rapport in a way that makes them want to know you. Walk across that bridge three times before ever asking a favor. Be the one who is different, thoughtful, memorable. Success is more than a query letter. You are the one who can work magic on your own behalf. It’s not as hard as you might imagine if you know what to do. And the universe loves magic, rewards magic, celebrates magic (magic = authentic, bold, respectful, thoughtful, consistent). Be a magician.