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May is upon us, and that means that college graduations should be beginning any time now. Though it sometimes makes me turn pale to realize just how many years it's been since I was in that position, it's not hard for me to cast my mind back to those days and come up with all the tips I wish someone had told me as I prepared to join "the real world." Well... scratch that. Hollywood has nothing to do with "the real world."
Those of you looking to come to L.A. from out of town, be warned - the job market is terrible here. Have money saved, or at least have parents who are committed to helping you stay afloat until you get a job. It could take anywhere from four to six months to get a job out here, so be prepared.
Number two - while you're still at school these last few weeks, take advantage of the resources that their Alumni department offers. Most schools should be able to give you a list of alumni by the industry that they work in, provided those people have kept their information current with the office. I'd guess that a lot of schools even have this set-up by email directory now and may even have some kind of Job Connections network in place. This is useful because you'll know that the people getting your email have basically put themselves out there to the school, saying they want to be in a position to mentor new grads.
Get that list, and start writing letters to those people. Do not beg for a job! If one of your alumni connections happens to be the star of a major network show, don't ask if he or she can get you an audition, or get your script to an agent. Introduce yourself, say that you're planning to move out to L.A. and are looking for advice about getting started. If you have professors in common with this individual, mention that. Don't be shy about bragging about what you accomplished in school. Most of us are nostalgic for our college days and it tickles us a bit to see what the recent classes are up to.
My school had several prominent alumni in the industry. In fact, there was one individual who was a major executive at the time. Originally I didn't even bother writing him a letter because I figured there was no way he'd read it. Then, on the advice of one alumni who contacted me following my first batch of letters, I wrote to him. I got back a nice email from one of his secretaries, explaining that while that individual's time was very booked and valuable, they would be more than happy to arrange a meeting with one of their VPs, who also happened to be a graduate of my college. I jumped at the chance. While that person didn't get me a job, they gave a lot of useful advice and helped me get the UTA list.
If you're starting out, you're probably going to need to do internships to get your foot in the door. While a lot of places require college credit, there are many internships that don't. Don't be too good to work for free when you get here. The goal is to get some industry experience on your resume so that you can very soon turn that into paid work. Most internships will only require you to come in two or three days a week, so you can use the rest of that time to get a part-time job and pound the pavement for work.
Also, don't be afraid to try the long shot approach of writing to some of your favorite people in the industry and ask them for advice. Sometimes they surprise you by writing back. When I graduated, writers, directors and producers were just on the verge of embracing the internet as a way of interacting with their fans. As such, their personal email addresses were hard to come by, and Twitter didn't even exist! Today, major people in the industry are probably a hundred times more accessible, so take advantage of that.
I've blogged before about how a fan letter to Ron Moore got a surprisingly personal response, and I also got a personal letter from Jane Espenson back before she started blogging. If there's someone you really admire in the business, take a shot at writing to them.
Always be gracious. Always thank people for their time, and don't come to town with an attitude. If you're a hard worker and give it your all, someone will notice and it will eventually pay off. Success doesn't happen overnight.
Oh, and since it can't be said enough - you know that script you wrote in Screenwriting class your senior year? Don't show it to everyone you meet as if you're sure it'll be the next hot spec. Keep rewriting it, and then wait at least a year before burning a major contact on it. Have other people read it before you give it to that manager you've been interning for. Trust me.