Who You Know

There’s an often-said phrase that is guaranteed to break the hearts of aspiring writers everywhere. I heard it again recently. Actually, I think it was a Twitter-chat, so I read it. But I could here the pain in the writer’s voice:

“It really is ‘who you know’ isn’t it?”

The “it” he was referring to was “breaking into Hollywood”. And yes, it is “who you know”…but let’s face it: EVERY business in the entire world is “who you know”. Generally, the only people who are bummed by the “who you know” realities of Hollywood are people who don’t know anyone.

We can divide the people who don’t know anyone in Hollywood into two groups:

1) People who don’t live in Los Angeles

2) People who do.

If you don’t live in Los Angeles, I’ll admit it’s much harder to get to know people in the entertainment industry. But it is far from impossible. Since I live here, this is not my expertise. But if you want some insight, do yourself a favor and check out Screenwriting From Iowa…and other unlikely places. Also, read Austin Kleon’s amazing book How To Steal Like An Artist and pay special attention to Chapter 7: Geography is no longer our master.

But if you live in Los Angeles and don’t “know anyone”, there’s really no excuse. More importantly, there’s no excuse to have a bad attitude about it. What fuels our bad attitude about this? As with many things in Hollywood, it’s the language we choose to describe something.

When people face the dreaded “who they know”, I feel they’re looking at their general lack of “contacts”, or “people in the industry who can help my career”. Used in a sentence, someone might say, “I’m going to a networking event so I can meet some new contacts”.

I just threw up in my mouth a little. I hope you did, too. Let’s never, EVER say that above sentence again, okay? In fact, let’s stop using the word “contacts” altogether. I prefer two different words:

Friends. And fans.

If you live in Los Angeles, then it is virtually impossible to have friends that aren’t connected to the entertainment industry in some way. Your friend may not be J.J. Abrams, but if you live here, you’ll most likely have a circle of friends that share your interests and ambitions.

I moved here from Orlando where almost all of my friends were aspiring actors, writers, and filmmakers. And almost all of those friends moved here, too. So I instantly had a huge community of like-minded friends who were all in the same boat as me: we were all broke, deeply desiring to somehow make a living doing what we love. But we hunkered down and worked hard. Now, over eleven years later, most of those friends are still here. Some have jobs outside the entertainment industry. Some are TV showrunners, working actors, successful screenwriters, busy directors, and one is even the co-host for one of the longest running game shows in television history.

Yes, I was blessed with a rich community of friends when I moved out here. But that didn’t stop me from making plenty of new friends, and wouldn’t you know it, now I have friends in nearly every corner of the industry, including plenty of friends at a great theater where I get to play from time to time.

Do friends lead to work? Absolutely. An example that happened to a writer I know: he worked in children’s television years ago with a good buddy of his from college. That college friend is now running a hit TV show and called this writer and offered him a job. Is that an instance of “who you know”? Sure, but it’s also an instance of two friends who found a way to work together because working with your friends is FUN. Now, if this writer was lousy, we could all bitch and complain together. But he’s great. Which bring us to the other word I mentioned: fans.

If you’re good at what you do, if you work very hard to get better, and if you’re a nice person to be around, then you will cultivate what I like to call “fans”. Anytime an executive enjoys one of my scripts, calls me in for a general meeting, and we hit it off, I consider that executive a “fan”. Out of that initial round of thirty general meetings I had ten years ago, I feel I made 5 or 6 real fans. One of them gave me my first job in Hollywood and we’re still in touch to this day. Since then, I’ve made more fans in the industry, including producers, directors, and executives.

Of course, the ultimate goal is for your friends and fans to be one in the same. Two of my best friends created the incredibly successful web series Written By A Kid for the red-hot web channel Geek & Sundry. They are my friends, but I am also their biggest fan. I will tell anyone who will listen about their show and if I’m ever head of a network, they will have an hour of primetime a week to do whatever they please. Then again, when internet content overtakes television someday, I could be working for them. The point is: if you and your friends are mutual fans, then it makes perfect sense to work together someday. Why not make a lot of money and do it working with friends whose work you admire? I can’t imagine a better working life in Hollywood.

Now, I’ve been at this for a while. And if you’re just starting out, the mountain of “who you know”  seems to be a formidable one to climb, hopeless really. But remember that pretty much everyone starts out not knowing anyone. But anyone can make friends. And EVERYONE can work hard and make fans.

So first things first: let’s stop worrying about “who you know” and start enjoying a creative life filled with friends and fans. I promise that the “who you know” part of it will take care of itself.

9 thoughts on “Who You Know

  1. N.G. Davis

    Can’t like this post enough. “Who you know” is important, but it’s not the huge deal that some people would have you think it is. If you can write well and aren’t a douche, those “connections” tend to form themselves.

    I live in Massachusetts, yet have managed to make a ton of friends in the industry. It can truly be done from anywhere. That said, if the purchase on my option ever gets executed, I’ll be headed out your way. It’d be amazing to be able to just take a meeting when it comes up, rather than have to fly in for a bunch of them at once.

    Reply
  2. Geri Elsasser

    Insightful informatiion about making friends who can help you on the road to screenwriting. I’ve always disliked the term “contacts” as well. It denotes a wheeler-dealer whose only goal in life is to make these “contacts” to move up and miss out on valuable and lasting friendships along the way. (Sort of a J. Pierpont Finch in “How to Succeed in Business” . . .) I have lived in New York City the past two years, (I grew up here and moved out west when I got married.) and have met several people in the industry. I am also a member of SAG/AFTRA, and apply for background extra work to supplement my income.

    This brings me to other questions: Both L.A. and NY are expensive places in which to live, even though obviously better, based on the number of industry professionals around. Did you have a different full-time job while you were trying to break in? I currently live in one room in a three-bedroom-apartment in Queens with three other roommates. It’s all I can afford. I’ve always wondered about writers who talk about the ten plus years to break in. What do they do in order to eat? Working at some other full time job does not appear to be an option for me. I apply for jobs all the time, but based on the shear volume of people looking for work coupled with my age–mid-sixties–no one even interviews me. (I even have trouble getting extra work. I can walk down a street as well as the next guy without falling on my face, but casting personnel, usually young, tend to hire younger people, even just to be street pedestrians.) Like most young people, I guess they assume my age means I may keel over dead at anytime . . .)

    That’s my other question. Since entertainment is a “young” industry, unless you can actually get the attention of the top echelon, younger people generally ignore older citizens. I have made a few good friends, even a few younger ones, who seem to appreciate the fact that I am articulate and funny and have interesting life experience. It’s hard though. Since I’ve spent my whole working life–almost 50 years–taking jobs I didn’t want in order to raise two children, I refuse at this point to stop writing and I continue to make friends with those connected to the entertainment business to learn from them and receive guidance, but also because those are the people whose company I most enjoy. I know my age is against me, but I don’t want to cave and stop pursuing my goal, since my time is obviously more limited than that of the younger generation. Thank you, Bob, for your blog. You are a prince among men (screenwriters anyway!) .

    Reply
  3. Lauren Pritchard

    Thank you Bob! All true. I have never, and will never think of our Orlando friends (family/mafia) as “contacts”. Those friendships are the things that made the LA move exciting and hopeful. It’s those friends that make the non working times bearable.
    And yes, I will always hook up pals with work, if they are the most qualified for a job. Because I know and TRUST their work. And yes. It’s more fun! But hard work, being nice, and a pro, is the real deal.
    Our friend got me an audition for MadTV.
    He said “All I can do is get you in the door, booking it is all on you.”
    Your friend, and fan.
    Working actor
    (due to lots of hard heart breaking work, and some help from our friends)
    -Lauren Pritchard

    Reply
  4. Mike Lanahan

    I’ve been using the “Fans” concept for a couple years now, and it’s true. Such a better way to see the world and the industry – keep it up, Bob, you know I’m a HUGE fan!

    Reply
  5. Derek Griffith

    Admittedly, I have use the phrase, “It’s all about who you know” far too often. I am guilty as charged. Truth be told, my first job in LA was the result of a FRIEND who invited me aboard. And I am a FAN of his work. Throughout my time here, I have witnessed other examples of friends hiring friends and in fact, it happened again last week! Your blog is spot-on, Bob!!! Keep up the good work. Time to click the “follow” button. I’m excited to read more.

    Reply
  6. bobderosa Post author

    Geri, I’ll write a post about my first year in L.A. at another time, but the short version is: I was a professional actor in Orlando before I moved here and was able to make a living at that for the first year and a half in Los Angeles before getting my first professional writing gig. As for the age question: yes, it can be hard to “break in”, depending on what kind of writing you’re pursuing. A “new” writer in her 60’s would have a tough time getting staffed on a TV show, for instance. But good writing is good writing. Features screenplays don’t have ages on the cover and if the writing is solid, that’s what matters. If you’re focused on TV writing, you might consider trying out other forms of writing; novels, plays, and blogs generally have no age descrimination at all. Ray Bradbury was in his 80’s, turning his books into hit plays. The most important thing is to bring your authentic self to your work. You have a POV completely different than mine or a recent college grad. Using that to your advantage isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Good luck!

    Reply
    1. Geri Elsasser

      Thank you for your encouragement, Bob. I actually recently wrote my first stage play, and yes, it’s about a woman in her 60s dealing with how others respond to women at that age, and how she handles her own emotional and physical feelings about aging in this youth-oriented culture. (Write about what you know, right?) A local, not well-known Producer, whom I met at the SAG-AFTRA Christmas Open House in New York has it right now to read. She actually initially asked me to audition for an acting part in a play competition. I didn’t get the part, but when I told her about the play, she said she would like to read it. Yes, a good contact/friend. My first teleplay-writing experience was in my Scriptwriting class at CU. For final project I wrote an entire episode of “Northern Exposure,” in its second season at the time. The Professor liked it so much he had it submitted via his own agent. No go though. Still, I knew I could do this. I almost feel like it’s cheating, since the characters are already fleshed out for existing TV shows, so I feel the most difficult part is done, and Eastin did a helluva job on that. Once I have the idea, the characters write themselves. Mozzie, Neal, Peter, Elizabeth so formed, I can envision exactly how they would say or do something. It’s such fun, and only takes me four or five days to write ta first draft. Thank you again for allowing me to pick your brain, and considering me worthy of your time.

      Reply
  7. Dane Reade Wilson

    A great community is important. The screenwriting group I run is in it’s fifth year now. I still haven’t “made it” but I’m getting there and now my group is producing, writing, shooting an anthology web series that is pushing everyone to do more and create something that we can be proud of. It’s kind of awesome. Thanks for the blog. Thumbs UP!

    Reply

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