If you want to be a filmmaker, don’t move to LA

Hell-A

Should I move to Hollywood to be in the film industry? Here’s an article about all the upsides. This article covers a few of the downsides….

There are few film jobs.

One of the goals many ‘green’ filmmakers have when they move to LA is get a job in ‘The Biz.’ What many newbies can’t possibly know is that paid industry work is pretty hard to secure. New Hollywood faces are typically competing against old guard veterans  for jobs.  The only advantage a new face has, is that she or he is willing to work for less. And when the job isn’t so critical, that can work in a newbie’s favor. But with the money that’s typically on the line for a studio film, there aren’t many, ‘not so critical’ roles. It’s a tough town, and contacts can only get you so far. Not in a union? Yeah, contacts can only really do so much.

Many newbies also aren’t aware that  a high number of jobs are subject to just, ‘dry up.’ Production deals end, companies fold, departments get outsourced. More than any other industry, Hollywood flexes and contracts based upon the overall economy. With the recent ‘cord cutting’ phenomenon -  where cable subscribers are canceling their subscriptions – Hollywood is taking an extra hit in the pocketbook, and that effects who can get hired. This doesn’t even account for a  ‘newbie’ getting let go for not really knowing what he’s doing, because he’s new.

Add to that,  ‘Runaway Production’,  which is the fact that more and more good paying film work actually occurs outside of LA, and you have a great let down for anyone who’s planning on driving or catching Greyhound out to LA to live the dream. For some, the jobs might have left LA and actually come to you! Texas, Florida, Georgia,  New York, New Mexico, and Colorado are just a few states where the filmmaking job markets are smaller with possibly better odds for the new kid on the block. According to the MPAA, New York’s film business is half of California’s, and Texas’ is just under half of that. If your plan is to get a job and learn the business, California might have the most jobs, but might not have the best odds.

Plenty of  folks come to LA expecting to work ‘any job’ if they can’t work in the business, but they don’t realize this hustle was played out long ago. Restaurants, law firms, real estate agencies and other ‘good paying gigs’ have been burned by creative types through the years and as soon as you suggest that filmmaking is even a hobby, many will see you right to the door. Everyone’s heard the one about the actress who couldn’t act like a good waitress. No one has time for you to ‘take meetings’ during your lunch because meetings always start late, often run over, and with LA traffic, you might as well call it a day. You can use up a lot of sick days and vacation time with that. Notice I don’t even list the minimum wage coffee shop, fast food, security guard options. LA is an expensive place.

There’s no money in LA

Which brings me to reason number two:  There’s no money in LA. This truth swings two ways: LA is expensive, and no-one is forking out the cash for you to make your movies.

LA isn’t London/New York/San Francisco expensive. You can live a pretty good life in LA for pretty cheap, once you find your way around. But you MUST have a reliable car. This isn’t me being the fashionista – as America’s second largest city, LA and its outlying areas is vast, and film locations can literally be anywhere within a 30 mile radius. I’ve bussed it to film sets – two hours of transportation to work 15 hours as a PA is no fun. So cars and gas cost money right? And many folks from outside of California aren’t prepared for $4.50 a gallon when it hits.

So you have to have a car, a residence, etc. and more often than not you have to come up with your own tools to make your own films. You want to be a filmmaker, right? Be that a beast of a machine to get your editing and video effects on, or your make-up kit, or your camera, lenses, filter, batteries and rig – filmmaking toys ain’t cheap. Even PA’s are expected to have their own radio ear piece for on set. You want the job, right? Actors don’t get off cheap – they need money to pay for classes and casting workshops and they need the idle  hours to go to audition after audition. And more and more frequently, actors are asked to shoot and edit their auditions and up load them. Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo money. Is one performance the same as another that is not well lit?

Then there is the myth of investors. It’s rare in LA that individuals will take a gamble on a film. The first rule of Hollywood filmmaking is, “Don’t spend your money on a film.” Hey, I didn’t make it up. So if a famous actor isn’t going to spend money on their film, why would they spend money on yours? Cause you’re cute? You’d have to give em’ a bit more than cute.

In film financing circles, it’s pretty common knowledge that ‘film investors’ don’t live in LA. Before there was Kickstarter and Indiegogo, people like Oscar award winning director Lee Daniels was fundraising across the country to get films done. His investors for the award winning film ‘Precious’ were in Colorado.

But more and more often, studios are making fewer and fewer films, and turning around and distributing more completed films. How and where the films get made isn’t their problem. They’re try to negotiate a shrewd bargain with you (read: less than you spent on the film) and if the film isn’t a blockbuster, you’ll learn about ‘Hollywood Accounting’ the hard way.

LA is hostile to filmmakers

LA is a hostile environment for filmmakers because often you never know where you stand. Everyone runs late, meetings get cancelled 10 minutes before they’re supposed to happen and , “I’ll call you,” really means “Goodbye.” The gatekeepers – people just like you who’ve been in town for a couple years, are paid to keep you away from the the people you think you want to see. Often, the people you think are the lynch pin to you getting your project funded, green-lighted or distributed, are themselves hustling to make things happen. In my opinion, Hollywood is best described as an M. C. Escher poster, where soon as you get oriented, what you thought was up will be down, and reality just becomes skewed. It might sound like a strange place down the rabbit hole, or someplace over a rainbow, but just wait until you try and get some work done in it. And this is before you try renting costumes, gear or licensing music for your production. Have you seen all those credits at the end of a feature film? That’s all the folks it takes to make a movie for a reason.

LA’s also full of charlatans. I’ve seen hustlers charge unwitting dupes for things that are quite obviously free. I’ve filmed live events that people have paid hundreds of dollars for, only to be told some stuff they could have googled. I’m pretty suspicious of people selling “access,” “secrets” and “formulas.” Especially when they haven’t walked down a red carpet in a while. Call me a cynic, but the only things I believe in are hard work, smart planning and trial and error. Hollywood is not a meritocracy – who you know is often more important than what you can do. But if there were such easy ‘tricks,’ everyone would be doing it, and the bottom feeders wouldn’t have time to collect your couple bucks to share how they made their millions.

And then there’s getting, “Side Tracked.” Most people in the Hollywood machine came to LA to be a creative, but in the process of making a living, ‘getting in where you’re fitting in’ and eyes opening to what ‘really’ goes on in town, a lot of people end up becoming agents, studio execs and running craft services companies. There’s a cliche that, ‘everyone’ in LA has a script. This comes from the fact that most folks moved to LA to make their movie. Life just gets in the way. (Look at me, how’d I become a blogger again?)  There’s a cliche that gets tossed around, ‘You don’t fail in Hollywood, you quit.’ I often like to add… “or you die.” I guess it comes down to a quality of life question really. Do you really want to spend 15- 20 years trying to ‘make a movie,’ or do you have better things to do with your life? I like the philosophy of Yoda; “No try, only do.”

Make your own movie

But you say you want to make a movie? Well go ahead. Get a camera and get started. Production tools are cheap, distribution is free (on YouTube) and the rules of the game have changed forever.

You want to see what can be done outside of LA? Check out Ryan Connolly over at Film Riot. He’s built a nice little niche that has plenty of sponsorship, and Hollywood folks like Kessler are calling him to produce stuff for them. He started on a t2i and now he shoots on a Red and a 5d – rough times, right? He’s from Florida. Then there’s Seth Worley, director of the Adventure Now series who was picked by Red Giant Software to be their go to director for product ‘trailers.’ I was introduced to him by an agent who said his short, Plot Device was the hottest thing in Hollywood a couple years ago. He’s from Nashville. These guys may have gone on to become pretty familiar in Hollywood, but now Hollywood is trying to emulate what they’re doing.

There are a ton of tutorials of how to do everything from light a scene to how to distribute your production. There are even resources that will help you with your script. Long gone are the days when Hollywood was an opaque curtain that obscured how the movie magic managed to happen. The curtains have since been ripped back and the anatomy of any great shot can be broken down, and probably already has. There are even people on YouTube who will show you how to build million dollar filmmaking tools out of PVC pipe and wood shaving. OK, that’s an exaggeration. But try drilling a straight hole in your Hollywood apartment – you need your dad’s drill press for this stuff. =)

It would be a gross exaggeration to say you can learn everything you need to know reading this blog, or watching anyone’s tutorial. The fact is that you learn filmmaking by making films. It’s work, and if you do the work, you’ll get the results, not fame, but quality films. You want to be famous? I don’t know what to tell you. You want to be rich? Study accounting. Become a stock broker. If you want to make other people’s films, drive to LA, stand in line and after a while, you’ll have a chance among the ranks of soldiers who make other people’s movies. If you have a vision, and you want to share it with others, it takes just a little more effort ‘at home,’ than it does in LA.

And don’t, “What if.” Your first film will not get distribution, and if so, it won’t make you rich. No one will see you at a club and actually read your script. Anyone in Los Angeles who has time to talk to a no-body, probably can’t get your movie made. The only person who’ll get your movie made is you. You’ll ‘produce’ a movie, not, “if you have a movie in you,” but if you learn the basics, and put them to work. Even Spielberg played with a Super 8 camera and mastered the craft before working on Jaws. When you have something that a studio can exploit, you can believe Hollywood will call you or steal it. Either way you’ll get paid.

LA is a ‘tired’ location

The Hollywood sign, the Capitol records building, Santa Monica Pier. You’ve seen it all before, it’s all been around for the last 50 years of cinema, or more. Don’t you think there are more interesting places to shoot than LA? Not only are most LA locations cliché, they undermine the basic film theory – making meaning and emotions with images. And without a studio budget, you typically don’t have access to use these building’s interiors. This can be cheated, but you won’t get away cheating much on Rodeo Drive. Ironically, the Indie filmmakers who are making a splash, shoot in South LA, ‘the Valley’ or under a freeway somewhere. You don’t really need to come to LA to find this variety of ‘normal’, ‘nondescript’ and ‘out of the way’

Aren’t there much more flavorful locations where you’re from? Swamps, deserts, deep forests, and islands? The endless plains of Kansas and Missouri? According to Seth Godin and many other digital evangelists, the age of generic ‘Entertainment’ is over. People want stories that are more personal, specific and relevant to their communities – Not generic ‘Holly-where’ locations. Local films won’t earn millions of dollars, but if they are well told, they don’t need to cost millions of dollars either. You may not realize it, but everywhere is ‘interesting.’ Fargo anyone? You may have all of the interesting in the world right under your feet so why move to LA and try to rebuild ‘home’ on a sound stage?

Support

I could have never imagined how important support could be until I moved to Los Angeles. Everyone is busy working on their thing, you better have a lot of motivation and charisma or money to gather a squad to work on your thing. Or you can just stay home. Home. Where your friends are, where your family is near. Where people like you because of who you are, not because your project has potential for lucre or fame.

It should never be taken for granted the time and place you are ‘happy’ to be. There’s a saying, never save for tomorrow what you can start today. It can also be said, never save ‘until I move’ what you can start doing at home. If you’re going to be a filmmaker, start making films. Yes, you can learn a lot going to LA, but as I mentioned earlier, you can learn a lot reading blogs online. But you will learn the most making films. Go get those ‘hideous mistakes’ out of your system, and start telling great stories. Use the social equity you’ve already earned where you’re at to collect a couple of locations, find some local theatrical actors and figure out how a scene works. No need to sacrifice everything of value and go off among the “lost angels.”

And none of this is important enough to miss your nieces and nephews growing up, helping your parents as they get older or falling in love with someone who isn’t looking for a leg up in their career. Maybe I’m getting old, but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Consider what you might be leaving behind before you set off to race a bunch of rats, to eat some dog.

But who am I to talk… I made the journey. I’ve found some great friends in ‘Hell-A’ and I’ve learned a ton to boot. Some days it’s a great place to be. Other days… at least the weather’s nice.

Los Angeles isn’t all bad, this article covers some real upsides to how Hollywood might be your land of milk and honey. Next week, If you’re going to come to Tinsletown, how to come with a plan.

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19 Responses to “If you want to be a filmmaker, don’t move to LA”

  1. [...] Reasons You Should Move to LA if You Want to Get into the Film Business” will be followed by “Top Reasons NOT to Move to LA to Get into the Film Business” and finally, “What to do Before You Move to LA to Get into the Film [...]

    • Jacqueline says:

      You nailed it! My dad said, “Learn how to do everything that directly impacts your life.” In doing so, I produced my first musical film short and won a film festival! I literally did everything, except the acting. It doesn’t matter where I live, I can make as many films as I want very cheaply. I love technology!

  2. Wow! This it’s a fantastic piece and has definitely inspired me to, “just make it happen.” I’ve been a firm believer in making my own opportunities happen for quite a while. Kudos for shedding some light on the L.A. film scene, you made done very strong points!

  3. Syreeta says:

    This is great! If you were to direct aspiring film makers to read one online resource to help them on their creative way – whether filming at home or in LA – where would you send us? Besides your blog, of course!

  4. [...] Next: If you want to be a filmmaker, don’t move to LA [...]

  5. I’m a filmmaker who’s been making my own movies in Seattle, now Southern Oregon, for 10 years. I’ve often thought of moving to LA, that it might be the only way to jump-start my struggling career. But I don’t really like LA, and I certainly don’t want to raise my kids there. But still thought that just maybe if I was in Hollywood, something magical would happen. I’ve continued to make my own stuff in my own way, confident that someday it might actually pay the bills. Thanks for your article… it’s beat the Hollywood urge out of me for at least a little while.

  6. Dan says:

    While I agree with most of the points I think it’s worth mentioning is does not hold true for actors and writers. While producers will chase the best tax credit and film incentives the casting and script pitching is usually all done in LA. I strongly believe you need to down there for that. While productions do cast locally the roles are usually smaller and supportive and at times are needed to fulfill a tax break stipulation.

    LA is still the business center of the Hollywood factory with all the large studios located there as well as the major talent agencies.

  7. [...] about the Pros and Cons of moving to LA. If you’ve got to come, and you think you’re ready, here are a few things [...]

  8. Traditionally, there are two types of films: the generic films & the themed films. When you shoot films in your local city, country, etc. you’re drawn to stick to the local themes, topics, languages, etc. whilst L.A. allows you to shoot generic films that can be broadcasted around the world since everyone will refer to them as “this story can happen at home as well”, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen in L.A. at all!!! Thank you.

  9. Derrick says:

    This holds to be so true. My cousin lives in La and I live in Delaware. While visiting LA I met with a semi famous actress who has done a major television show.i told her I was from Delaware, she had a good laugh stating that I must be the only black person who lives in Delaware. I just completed my first feature, BLISSFULLY UNMARRIED. It was shot in Delaware. I did have to obtain permits to shoot unless I needed to block off an intersection or shoot in a government building. When shooting on a shoestring budget, this was huge.every penny counts. We have a small film office but they are very helpful in finding resources since not a lot is being filmed in this state.

  10. Kinoeye says:

    Thanks for this. I came across it at just at the right time, because I’m trying to decide if I should leave LA. I moved to Los Angeles five years ago to pursue “the dream.” I got my foot in the door right away, and worked for a few years in editorial on studio films. Made great contact and just spent the last year working for a well-known director on one of the big summer blockbusters which will be released soon. But it’s been a struggle. I haven’t had much time to write my own things. Every time a job ends there are months of uncertainty about ever being employed again. These five years have gone by in a blur, and I wonder if what I gave up to come here was worth it.

    So, I’m actually thinking about leaving next month. The people I know back home, who I’ve entertained with stories about the people I’ve encountered through my time here (pretty much all the big names, including my hero Indiana Jones), they think I’m crazy to “give up” considering how lucky I was to get these jobs. But seriously, none of those stars were there to see me: I was just in the room. So although it sounds cool, it’s meaningless. And none of these industry jobs will ever lead to me being offered the director’s chair: you’ve got to do that on your own.

    I’d like to leave optimistically, though, and view these past five years as a top-notch graduate program on how big films get made. I can take that back with me, and perhaps start to make the small, beautiful films I admire (like Before Midnight) instead of working on “shit blowing-up” movies.

    And you’re absolutely right: “none of this is important enough to miss your nieces and nephews growing up…”

    Thanks for the post. I think you’ve helped me make the decision.

  11. amy says:

    I like the saying – if you can make it in your back garden you can make it anywhere.

  12. Dean Madonia says:

    Great article. Sounds a lot like an article about Nashville, (just replace all of the film jargon and locations with music jargon and locations)…. I feel ya bro…

  13. Independent film suppliers are demonstrating the fact that key studios no longer are the only real judges of the things the general public really want. Should you add to that distribution internet and, news, websites, from chat to whole movies. It is just a completely new world. A lot of it really good, some not.

  14. I read most of the article – the guy’s article is 100% accurately his experience… as negative and propagandist as it may be.

    Los Angeles is a haven for some, a coven for others, a tavern for most and a coffin for few.

    It’s also work and play for millions of aspiring entertainers – one of them, me.

    I’ve got my own stories of being screwed over or out of a fistful of cash. I’ve done my share of shitty jobs. I’ve had my share of furious flashes of rage in response to an avalanche of injustice (or someone talking to their “agent” behind me in the check out line at Ralphs). I’ve seen brilliant people be passed over for incompetent hacks in nepotistic tragedies and I’ve seen movies (and TV) that make me reassess my belief in humanity.

    (Oh, LA has horrible traffic, seasonal smog, no Walmarts, expensive rent, $0.63-pricier gasoline, and $16 cocktails.)

    If you can stomach these terrible blights, LA is a curiously special place. A commonality is this: everyone who calls LA home has worked incredibly hard to plant their flag and stretch out. Its an unspoken initiation that bonds beyond comprehension. A career in LA is a long-term strategy: even “over night sensations” are 10-years in the making.

    To dream is to know what its like to be without hope. To create you must know how it feels to be destroyed. To succeed you must know what it is to fail.

    LA is not for everyone. But for a small cult of believers, the City of Angels is the only place that is home.

    Instead of asking if LA is as bad as a blog says, the real question is: How much do you really want it and how hard will you work for your dream?

    • admin says:

      Hey Tom

      I appreciate the thoughtful words. First of all, not to get you to read it, but I agree, there are plenty great things happening in LA that would benefit an aspiring filmmaker. I wrote an article about the many benefits. But as you so eloquently put it, “Los Angeles is a haven for some, a coven for others, a tavern for most and a coffin for few.” (I’m going to borrow that)

      But more to the point, a lot of people feel that the only way they can, ‘make it,’ is to make it in LA. Most financiers are not in LA. Most paying gigs arn’t in LA (anymore.) And most people who come to LA to do one thing, end up getting side tracked to a lesser goal. I think it’s important to articulate that moving to LA to become famous and rich isn’t shooting for the stars… economics would prove it’s a pretty dumb idea. And if you want to make movies, you can do that elsewhere too.

      You can learn a lot in LA, about every aspect of the Business. You can train with some of the best. You can have access and job opportunities that you’ll never get outside of LA. But work is the magic elixir that makes it all happen… not being in LA.

      To much to really articulate in one post, that’s why I put it into 3. LA is as bad as this post says, as good as the other, and if you come prepared, a real place of opportunity. For most things in life, showing up is 80%. That’s not how it works in Hollywood, though.

      Moe

      • Marie says:

        Moe,

        I like your response to Tom even though, I’m a little late to the party. What do you mean by come prepared?

        The biggest problem I find with LA are the distractions of being pulled into someone else’s gig because there are other things to do in order to make money.

        Staying focus is a job in itself. One of the reasons I have not lived in Hollywood is because I know that once you take a job in the industry it is very difficult to switch you have to be very careful not to morph into what someone else thinks you should be or do.

        And, there is not just one roll a person has to perform. I’ve seen that many directors have to write and/or perform in the film in order to direct it.

        There are three advantages I think living in LA 1) Networking-the people you need to meet are there or have a representative who lives there.

        2) you are around like minds. Iron sharpens iron. This is what I miss the most even though family and friends are great they have no idea about what I do nor are they interested.

        And those who are in video production business have found their niche and not interested in the film industry.

        By not being in Hollywood I have to travel pretty far to attend events but I don’t make lasting relationship. And there is nothing like having coffee with a friend and discussing the industry.

        3) Everyone needs an Agent and Entertainment Lawyer and those who live and work in the town are the best. They know the players alone with whose doing what.

        • admin says:

          Hi Marie,

          thanks for stumbling upon my old, defunct blog. In the spirit of giving advice to someone not from around here here are a couple thoughts.

          It’s very difficult to make a living in LA making your own stuff. One thing that have helped as of late are the YouTube Studios. On the one hand, you can build a team to make your project. On the other, you almost need to become a one woman show to truly get anything done longer than a short film. Or you need money.

          When it comes to networking, most folks are full of ‘ish, and the rest don’t need you or your project. The real question is, what do you bring to the table? That’s what networking in LA is all about.

          It’s easy to work on eveyone else’s project and never get your own done. Some of those ‘everyone elses’ are studios and they’ll pay you minimum wage to work 16 hour days. And they’ll promise you 20 to thirty weeks of work if they really like you. And you might find that this isn’t really enough to rent your own apartment, so it works if you like dorm style living. So you can learn a lot, and if you just want to be part of the magic… there’s plenty room. If you want to make magic… that’s something else.

          Somedays, the promise of peership in LA is like the promise of health care in America. Yes, you live down the street from the best in the world… but you can’t afford it, so it pretty much doesn’t matter. Until the day it does. And that kind of ‘ish keeps people playing the lottery.

          What everyone doesn’t need is an Agent… Agents get you studio work for a cut. Mostly in Hollywood and New York. And they mostly specialize in ‘talent’ which is Hollywood for ‘actor.’ Entertainment Attorneys are important when money’s on the line. Some filmmakers accidentally make money, and then learn the hard way that they should have had paperwork on everything… but most don’t make any money, and so hiring an Attorney will help you divvy up and guarantee you full rights to all of nothing.

          What you didn’t mention, was Insurance, which you don’t need to live in LA to get, but living in LA will teach you quick why you need it. Want to rent equipment? Want to keep your house if someone injures them self on your shoot? Don’t have a house? Well the debt might get deep.

          Most of film financing these days happens outside of LA. The most sought after locations are outside of LA. Most productions happen outside of LA.

          With the low low cost of VFX… you don’t need to be in LA to have a film set in LA. Battlefield: Los Angeles anyone? (Filmed in New Mexico.) I mean, you won’t be able to do those kinds of effects on your macbook pro, but you can throw a still of Downtown on the horizon and call it a day. And the fewer aliens, guns and explosions, the cheaper your production anyway.

          At the end of the day, if you don’t move to LA, you may never become the next Spielberg. Some would say (including Spielberg himself) that there won’t be another ‘Spielberg’ because the industry is just different. But if you’re not a bad Mo-fo of a director with an amazing film under your belt when you get here… the odds are even slimmer.

          So my advice (and if you’ve read this far, I assume you might be open to it) is to become awesome. Check out FilmRiot and what those guys are doing. (Don’t worry, you’re a different person, so your awesome will be different.) Shoot, edit and distribute short films and be happy doing it. If someone offers you a million dollars to do it, great. if not, you can be happy knowing you did. It’s a nice journey, creating stuff. Sometimes it’s better not ruining it with ‘a price tag.’ There’s nothing to guarantee you won’t make the most awesome movie in the world, and no one will go see it. Look at Edge of Tomorrow. Really good film. Ruined some peoples careers.

          But if you can find that joyful place to be… you’ll be invited to speak at those conferences in your region. People will send you money to make movies (a la kickstarter.) You’ll be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. You’ll be appreciated. That’s an elusive thing in LA.

          Wow, with so much to say, maybe I should go back to blogging. LOL.

    • Marie says:

      Tom,

      I think you’re on to something. I think what is difficult is the learning curb because there isn’t a prescribe way into the system like being a nurse, dentist, engineer or computer programmer.

      Hollywood is a business however, a business that is built on who you know and what can you do for me. I think it’s imperative that a young person or anyone read about the industry as much as possible before they come.

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