Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Reader questions: What should I study in college and how do you struggle afterwards?

You might have noticed that posts have gotten scarcer the last few weeks. I've been working on a new spec and have been trying to put together a short film, so my free time for this site has plummeted.  However, I am still getting all your emails and I'll respond to them as time and severity warrant.

As luck would have it, two recent emails seem to relate to each other in an interesting way so I thought I'd knock them both out here.  First up is Cecilia:

Hi, I realize you may be busy with other priorities and such and this may seem like a silly email but I really don't know who to ask. I ideally would like to go into a career in film (like directing or screenwriting most likely), but my parents will never let me study anything like that in college. Should I just write and do what I can on my own and then try to send in scripts? I truly love film so I don't want to waste my time and half ass something but I also don't want to be broke and have an unsympathetic family. Do you have any advice?

I do. Believe me, I can understand why parents would push their children to study something more stable than writing or directing.  My parents were very supportive of my choice to pursue such a path, but I entered college at the tail end of the Clinton Administration, back when we had a stable economy, no budget deficit and much lower unemployment. The economic picture is very different today and because of that, I would definitely recommend you study something that can pay the bills. Do what you can to make yourself employable down the line because it's a harsh job market out there.

That doesn't mean you can't take film classes as electives, though. Nor does it mean you can't make friends among the film majors and make movies with them in your spare time.  When I was in college, it was just before the boom where seemingly every student had their own digital video camera. Today, you probably won't have to go far to find someone with a copy of Final Cut Pro and it's a relatively cheap program to purchase.  I learned more about filmmaking from actually doing it than I did from just listening to lectures in a classroom, so there's no reason you can't pursue it as a hobby and build up your portfolio on your own.

Post-graduation you can always move out to L.A.  No one's going to care what's on your diploma.  Even though I was a Film major, I could have gotten the exact same jobs I netted out here even if I majored in Econ or English.  Heck, at least two successful screenwriters I know didn't even GO to college!

And now an email from Chris:

I know writing to you is a long shot. That's okay, for me, every day is a long shot. 23 years old, I moved to LA five months ago, after getting my B.A. I have been living on savings while simultaneously working four internships (one of which involves periodic script reading). 

I thought that by now I'd have the credits for a lowly PA/secretary job but that's not the case. I might've done something wrong, or am just unlucky. I don't want you to tell me it's all going to be okay. Or that if I keep working on my writing "it'll all pay off". I just want to know if you've ever been in my position before and, if so, what you did that helped you sleep at night. 

Cecilia - this is your future.

Chris - what you're experiencing is relatively normal for a 23 year-old in his first year in L.A. When I moved out to L.A. It took me almost seven months to get a real job that paid and until that time I did internships and worked on my writing on my own.

Some of the best advice I got was from a visiting alum who came to my school after becoming a rather big name in the industry.  She cautioned, "Your early twenties will suck." Yes, they will.

My first year in L.A. wasn't great. I knew maybe two people before I came to town, I was living off of the generosity of my parents, it felt like I was never going to be hired and I was 3,000 miles from everything I'd ever known.  I have definitely been in your position, Chris.

This is a hard place to make a living and even people who've been here for a while still struggle.  I've been on unemployment a few times myself. I'm fortunate in that my wife has been pretty consistently employed in the business and that she's extremely good and rather successful at what she does.  Over the years, my writing career has taken some steps forward and thanks to this blog and twitter, I've formed a lot of useful relationships with people in the business.

But the struggle never really ends, and especially now it's even worse because where in an economy where employers can't afford to take on many employees and they underpay the ones they do have.  It's a horrible way to treat people who've worked hard, but what can they do? Quit? HA! Then someone else will do the job for the meager pay.

Getting that first paying job in the industry will take time. I knew a guy who went almost a full year without landing his first job.  It won't be easy and I can't promise that it even will happen.  All I can tell you is that you're not alone.


  1. It sounds like you went to film school around the same time I did (95-99). I know a couple of classmates had middling success, but several of the LA migrants found their most common interaction with Hollywood talent to be over the counter of a video rental store.

    I went to college originally to be a journalist, but once there, all the classes sounded quite tedious, so I went into Film. Lots of Studies classes, as well as Writing and Producing. But, like you said, so much of that information (especially nowadays) can be found in one's spare time.

    Looking back 15 years later, I regret not being smarter with my college education. Doing what you love for a living is great, but having a "living" that pays the bills needs to come first.

  2. Hey Chris,

    I can relate as a 23 year old about to hit my one year mark. My advice for sleeping at night:

    1. Figure out your finances FIRST. Financial stress is awful. You've got to find a way to be self sufficient, even if its working at Chipotle. Your savings/parents patience won't last forever, you can't count on your internships turning into paid work. I did the whole unpaid internship thing, and everyone's experience is different, but I wish I had skipped it altogether. Don't fall for the dangling carrot.

    2. Treat this time as graduate school. Put in the time. Work on your craft. Give yourself a self imposed structure to your otherwise chaotic and unpredictable life.

    3. Don't set a timeline for success/moving up. Things will happen when they happen. One year in and I just now feel like I have some stability.

    The important thing to remember is at this stage in your life things will move slowly and there is only so much you can do. Control what you can control; learn to be happy with where you are at but don't become complacent. Don't give up.

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  4. Some advice to Cecilia: Double major.

    I majored in creative writing, and it worked out okay. But I really wish I'd double majored in business.

    At some point, most working writers will also have to produce -- whether it's an indie passion project or running your own TV show. On the job, I've had to teach myself about production budgeting, union rules, HR policies, marketing, rights and permissions, contracts, etc., etc.

    Studying something "practical" alongside film/writing courses isn't selling out. It's an investment in your long-term writing career.