The #1 Way NOT To Break Into Hollywood

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Hey, folks—

Sorry I’ve been awol for a few days… I just returned this weekend from a week in Nashville. I run a program for my school, Vanderbilt, called Vandy-in-Hollywood, which is a networking organization for students and alumni working or interested in entertainment. The centerpiece of the group is the summer internship program, where we place students in internships in Hollywood… with networks, studios, agencies, production companies, etc.

It’s a great program… I love going back… and every year, as I talk to and interview students, I’m reminded of some of the do’s and don’t’s of trying to break in to Hollywood. This year, especially, I was reminded of one of the most important rules of trying to get your foot in Hollywood’s door…

The more specific you can be about exactly what you want to do, the further you’ll go, faster.

In other words, a lot of newbies coming in to interview believe the best way to make themselves employable is to say, “I’ll do anything… whatever you have. I just want to learn, and I need to get my foot in the door.” Or, “I want to write, direct, and produce… but I also like music. And sports. And I’d like to do stand-up comedy. Plus, I love editing.”

I think they believe that by making themselves blank slates, open to anything, they A) show they’re flexible and enthusiastic, and B) believe it’ll make it easier for employers and me to find them a spot… because hey—they’ll take anything!

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth (in this internship program OR the “real” world).

The truth is, employers are looking for laser-focused people who know what they want and aren’t afraid to articulate it. Why? For several reasons…

A) Laser-focused people tend to work harder. Someone who is working toward a pre-determined goal is probably going to work harder and learn faster than someone who’s just dabbling or exploring. After all, they have more at stake. They know what they want and they’re eager to move toward it; they’re not just sampling a smorgasbord.

B) Employers want to hire passionate people who WANT to work there.  Let’s say you’re interviewing for a position in comedy development at NBC. You may be a perfectly hard worker trying to figure out your career path (and you may be willing to work yourself to the bone to figure it out), but NBC would still rather hire the girl who says, “I grew up watching The Cosby Show and Seinfeld, and there’s nothing in this world I want to do more than develop sitcoms and shows for the network I was raised on.”

(There’s obviously nothing “wrong” with needing to figure out what you want to do—everyone has to—but employers aren’t in the business of investing time and energy on helping you figure out your place in the world. They want to hire the person who wants to be in their organization… desperately. Think of it like dating: you don’t want to date the person who simply wants a girlfriend or boyfriend, you want to date the person who wants YOU.)

C) Focused people tend to be more skilled. That doesn’t mean unfocused people AREN’T skilled… it simply means that if someone says “I want to design costumes for sci-fi movies,” I can assume they 1) know something about designing costumes, and 2) have seen and studied a large number of sci-fi movies. If someone says, “I want to design costumes… and act… and write screenplays. I also like sound mixing and special effects… and maybe painting,” I have no idea what their actual skill set is. And while you may be a jack of all trades, I don’t believe there are people out there who are equally talented as designers, actors, painters, writers, sound mixers, and special effects-makers.

D) Focused people tend to stick around. 
Someone who’s on a specific career path, and a path that includes my company, has a higher likelihood of getting promoted and staying in my organization. If I work in NBC’s comedy department, and I hire an intern/assistant who’s simply trying to figure out his life, there’s a good chance he WILL figure it out… and it’ll involve leaving. He may realize he wants to be an agent or a singer or a farmer or a lawyer or an accountant or a circus trainer. But if I hire the Seinfeld girl, who’s laser-focused about working specifically for me, she’ll (probably) want to move up the ranks at NBC, meaning I haven’t just hired an assistant or intern… I’ve hired a lifelong employee (or at least an employee who will be with me for several years).

E) Focused, articulate employees seem smarter and more mature. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. After all, no one knows you better than… well… YOU. And someone who can articulate what they want, personally and professionally, shows a deeper level of understanding about themselves. They’ve gone through mental processes that still-finding-themselves people haven’t. And as an employer, I want the smartest, most competent, most mature person I can find. It’s not my job to help you figure out your life… it’s YOUR job. And sure, everyone has to do it, but employers are looking for people who have already answered those questions and know where they want to be. So when an applicant comes in saying they DON’T know what they want, it signals immaturity and a more shallow understanding of themselves. (And again—I don’t say that as a criticism. Everyone has their own path and progresses at their own speed; employers simply want people who have reached a certain level of self-awareness and maturity… and not knowing what you want isn’t it.)

An employer, or an employee matchmaker (like me, in this case), wants to make sure both the company AND the intern/employee have a positive experience. Thus, for all these reasons, laser-focused people are much easier to place.

Anyway, just wanted to pass on this info… because the week was a good reminder of mistakes that I often see from both college students/interns… and people trying to get their first break.

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