Starting Out

Created on 5/7/2009

About two or three times a month I get a call from someone telling me that they have a younger relative, or the son or daughter of a friend who is looking to break into one part or other of show business.

Firstly let me make it very clear that there simply isn’t a one size fits all answer to the question of how to best get ahead in show business. Generally I am a fan of getting an education where and when you can, after all, a bit of knowledge can’t hurt can it? Well, in show business it actually could. There are leaps of faith in the creative arts that are best taken in sublime ignorance. I started that way, without any film education other than that I picked up on the run. I made my first few films in blissful ignorance, armed only with naïve self-belief, ambition and drive. Hopefully some talent was in that mix, but I dare say that came a long way behind dogged determination and optimism based on mostly wishful thinking.

It wasn’t until I was 21, some five years into my filmmaking career that I thought it would be a good idea to go back to formal education. I applied for the then fairly new National Film School, and was rejected. The reason given being that it was then just for post graduates and I needed to get a degree prior to applying again. However, based on my resume at that time, I was offered some teaching at an Associate Professor level. I could have taught the class I couldn’t get into!

I never took up anything other than an occasional Guest Lecturer role anywhere until many years later when I became an academic myself. But that’s another story.

I don’t want to appear to be too harsh, or negative, because I was once one of those kids looking to get ahead and I do realize that it can all seem very confusing and worrying when you’re starting out. The story of most of the aspiring talents reminds me of my bright friends when we were in our first schools who were then were sent to very good schools where everyone was as bright, or even brighter than they were. This was a shocking surprise for many of them, some of whom never really recovered their initial confidence, convinced of their own fallibility and lack of any consequence.

I also remember how frighteningly clever and prescient some of our film and media students were at the Bournemouth Film School. When we were running that course there were huge numbers of candidates for every place and half of them on the course already had an M level degree before they got to enter our program. It’s very intimidating and a great deal of it is unnecessary.

A great many of the people wanting to be in the creative industries simply are not suited to them. The prime reason is fairly obvious but needs stating here, it is because the majority of jobs within the industry are itinerant and therefore there is hardly any security, either economic or social. If, by your nature, you seek security and a warm, nurturing environment, then these are not the industries for you.

Naturally, every person proposing someone truly believes their relative or friend is the possessor of wonderful gifts as a talented ingénue, ready to be the best creative talent in the country. Usually they are described as being a bit shy, or not pushy enough but generally they are only lacking their first opportunity. Quite often when I speak to the prospective student or employee they are either not so convinced on the route they are pursuing or have any wish to listen to me, or anyone or anything else that contradicts their beliefs and aspirations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have spoken, as a favor, to these young people, and realized, after two minutes, that they’re simply not willing to listen.

Their families are most often looking for an opportunity in the form of a job, or a pointer in the right direction. Sometimes they seek advice on where to go to university to best further their chances in their future search for a career in entertainment.

I guess I get more than my fair share of these enquiries because I am in the business, and have extensive knowledge of, and still occasionally work in higher education. So this is my general answer to all those people who ask me, and others these same questions, now and for the future.

The first question is one you should ask yourself. Do you really want to be in a business that is hugely demanding, and will give you criticism, sometimes very tough employment opportunities, amazingly long hours, intense competition from large numbers of very talented people and more often than not, bad, poorly paid start up jobs?

That’s what you have to think about first. Not the dreams of amazing money, easy chances with the opposite sex, unlimited fun and the chance to prove how brilliant you are! If you’re very lucky, in fact, unbelievably lucky, you might get a reasonable career in the creative industries. Most people in it end up doing jobs that were not their original choices. There simply are not enough roles for you all to be stars, and not nearly enough jobs as director or producer to boss other people around.

Most of the newcomers will do well to become one of the many thousands of Prop people, carpenters, plasterers, painters, hairdressers, make up, CGI artists, stunt artists, extras, bit part players, camera assistants, sound recording team, editors and hundreds of other back up, but vital roles that there are always well paid jobs for in the industry.

Whatever a newcomer has to do, following an educational or apprenticeship route is fine, if it suits them. Sarah, one of my lovely daughters undertook a film degree at Surrey University’s Farnham campus. She obtained a very well deserved, good degree and her graduation film was, by common consent, one of the best produced at the college. It won awards and made money, both of which are rarities. The irony is that after achieving all of this, and having a father, grandfather and husband in the business, she quit it, loathing the industry with a healthy contempt.