Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hollywood 101: When Your 5-Year Plan Takes... Nearly 5 Years - Don't Give Up

      If you work in the media industry you need to have a plan. Not necessarily for every step of the way, since the industry is fluid and seismic, along with a chance of precipitation of corporate cliffhangers, mergers, buyouts, talent flaming out, talent being fired/laid-off, executive rollovers, your boss(es) being fired – anything can and will happen professionally. Whether you are just starting out in the business or been to more dances than you've remembered, 5-year plans rely much more on faith, fortitude, your own security in what you have to offer – and what you want.
   One big factor when it comes to 5-year plans is that so much of what your plan will entail depends on the state of the Industry when you enter it (read, take your place in line. It’s not even a Six Flags line, it’s one you could be standing in for years). 

    A plan for your career is something that is personal and unique to you, so instead of a how-to, I’ll share my five-year plan and how, despite constant effort, it didn’t come to pass until the last minute – like a lot of Hollywood! 

   I went back to visit the East Coast, from Chicago, before I moved to L.A. and spent time with my family since I didn’t know when I’d have a vacation next. My big brother took me to dinner, hugged me goodbye. His last words before I left: “Whatever you do, don’t do get out there and do porn!”  

   My 5-year plan was: to be working in the Industry in the L.A.-Hollywood market and drawing a steady paycheck from it by 2001. 

    I didn’t know the capacity it would be in, if it would be from a TV role or from an office gig, there was no way to tell. I figured no matter what job it was, all I needed was an in and then I could prove myself professionally in due time. I just needed to have it done in 5 years, by December 2001. 

California, here I come! I really wanted to land one X-Files episode, a character who could levitate nightclubs with his eye or something 21st Century like that. Year 1 of the 5-year plan. 1996.

     December 1996, I arrived to an unfurnished apartment in Los Feliz, CA that I’d never seen before and rented blind. I slept on my three-quarter length wool trenchcoat in my bedroom until I got a bed. I was an actor, 27, with a full resume of acting credits, mostly stage, from my career in Chicago theater. I’d read up on California stats, pre-Internet, as best I could – how the state of California was coming out of the recession, what the biggest industries were, the huge book consumption by Californians, financial per capita everything

     The state of the industry when I got to Los Angeles: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were the template for what casting directors were looking for, on the buzz of Good Will Hunting, taking a break from the omnipresent Tom Cruise side-parted look that never went out of vogue in casting. Male cast members couldn’t have mustaches at Disney. Sherry Lansing was still at Paramount. The town shut down from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. From May to August, there was virtually no work in TV – the window lending itself to features, MOWs, indies. Hiatus alone removed a good quarter of the year to get anything done – a huge handicap, especially when you aren’t known and no one knows you. And I needed all the time I could get.
   The unseens came quickly: the job I’d had when I moved out here folded 3 months later. My last check, expressed from the East Coast, was in a mail bag that fell out of the plane into Lake Michigan. I kid you not. I received it by hand, sopping wet, the four figures on the check barely legible. My bank, seeing the remains of the fireplace-dried check, held it for 5 business days. 

    I registered with 10 temp agencies. T-e-n. I called them all every Monday – my version of rolling calls. My attitude: may the first one with a gig win! I was an actor, which doesn’t lend itself to day work when that's all your driven to do, and a broadcast journalism major didn’t lend itself much bette. Still, I knew from my own ups-and-downs in entertainment to flow with it. Thus, I’d be temping at Coldwell Banker one week in downtown L.A. and the next week be at a porn studio in the Valley helping the mailroom out, discreetly boxing dildos of varying sizes and VHS copies of New Wave Hookers and Black Booty Busters (mostly for the Midwest market, if one wants to know). 

    I worked as a seat-filler for $7 per show on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher at Television City. I got signed to a manager in Beverly Hills who never bothered to see all the gigs I got myself. Hair and makeup tests at Universal, shooting for Fox at 3 a.m. downtown. A featured extra on-camera, onstage  I was a lead actor, something I’d worked for years to achieve. I got work in plays at UCB and The Coast Playhouse that ran for months. But plays end. Still not at my 5-year plan of a steady gig and by now it was 1999. 

     I got a day job, during third-shift. Steady check, benefits, but not what I ultimately wanted to be doing. It was on Sunset Blvd., right near The Hollywood Athletic Club. I watched A-list party, after-party,  from my office and the Blvd. on my breaks for years. I was literally across the street from creative people I knew I could work for and make a difference to their project if I could just audition or have an interview. Talk about being Under The Dome – it was like being on the first level of a video game for 3 years and wondering when the screen is going to change. I sent out stacks of headshots and resumes every day – the only arrows I had to pierce that invisible barrier keeping me from The Industry – the entire reason I’d moved here. Crickets. I still remember the rejection letter Tracey Edmonds sent me when I submitted for a movie she was producing. On real-letter head, real pen strokes, with advice to keep going. I treasured it. It was proof from somebody that I wasn't out of my mind to think I could do it. 

    By 2000, I was still working the same day job(at night)  to pay the bills in-between occasional gigs. I got an agent, who really wanted to push me for music videos. I’d turned most of them down even when I liked the artists, since the vogue then was to be as outlandish as possible – dancing in a toga, eye makeup so thick it was like wearing Ray Bans, glitter in yer hair for days.
Trying to throw off casting director ennui and get cast as anything in the Untitled Rick James Project. Yes, I sent this to Suzanne de Passe! Year 3 of the 5-year plan.
    Then one foggy Christmas Eve of 2000 – no, it wasn’t foggy, although there may have been a marine layer –  I got offered a part in Marilyn Manson’s The Fight Song video that was filming at a high school in The Valley. The premise given was Goths vs. Jocks, a twist on Columbine. 
     It was a great work opportunity but it was Christmas Eve – who works on Christmas Eve? Marilyn Manson does (or did)! I was also told to expect an overnight shoot, for obvious narco-pharmaceutical reasons, allegedly, that had to do with the band. I turned it down. Again, great opportunity, and I knew you needed to be ready at the drop of a dime, but I had no desire to be one of the few professionally sober members of an overnight Christmas Eve music video shoot on a football field in The Valley that could wrap who-knows-when. Not at my rate! It’s not like it was going to pay any of my bills in a significant way, I politely told my agents no, and that was that.   

     One night at my day gig I was late by 10 minutes, a rarity since we all publicly clocked-in on a Rubik’s Cube-looking Tron box on the wall. My supervisor, a former Marine who carried a gun in his attaché case in the event of disgruntled employees - or their significant others - held a meeting with me and three other male co-workers. “You guys better step it up is all I’m saying. Because if you don’t want to, you can all go right to Jack In The Box and work there!” Not something you want to hear at midnight, at work, at the age of 31. I told him I’d never have to work at a Jack In The Box – and if I did, I’d be the hottest guy on fries and be out of there in 3 months. I quit the job in May 2001. No job in the wings. 7 months away from the end of my 5-year plan, and with 37 cents in the bank – after bills – as I walked out of the office on Wilshire Blvd. at midnight. 
    Back to the drawing board. All 10 of my temp agencies were by now 4-year memories. I had to re-register, except the demands were much more specific. I didn’t know

PowerPoint from an Avid deck. I was still an aspiring actor, with two-tone hair. Acting work was out of the question as the SAG commercial actors strike was in full-effect. Scores of people filed down from the Hills to try to get some corporate work in the meantime. 

   I temped the entire summer of 2001, until I got assigned to The Hollywood Reporter’s Wilshire Bureau. They needed a guy in the mailroom for one day. I worked that day in the mailroom and got a call the next week to come back. I got there and the mailroom employee who trained me switched me and another temp who’d been double booked. I got sent to The Hollywood Reporter’s editorial newsroom and the other temp went to the mailroom. Like that. 

   Now, The Hollywood Reporter in 2001 was a daily trade making no less than $60M per year (I would be there to see when it made no less than $73M in gross revenue per year). To say it was nuts would be an understatement, but there was a method to it. I got put on the phones covering three news desks and knew pretty much everyone on the line – from years of reading THR and Variety, from submitting my headshot-resumes to their production companies, from years as a professional performer. 

    I temped there for 2 months and got made an offer, thanks to the Publisher, then-Deputy Editor and Office Manager who trained me and went to bat for me. It wasn’t an acting role, but it most definitely was a role in the industry. A company of that size and revenue is like a spaceship on warp- speed, there’s no stepping off. I signed my offer on October 21, 2001 – about 53 days short of my 5-year plan. I’d be there for nearly 7 more years and over 1,400 daily printed issues. It changed my entire career. As for my day job manager who told us to go work at Jack In The Box? He landed at Toys R' Us. 

    I early-on dissolved all of my agency and management ties to ensure there was no conflict-of-interest in my editorial work when I started. I can do a play anytime for the rest of my life if I want that outlet, but I knew as a Black actor there was no way I could take a gun-toting role (the majority of those on-camera offers) and then wield a notebook or mike to a studio head for a trade outlet with the same credibility. Hollywood would make me a thug, the Business of Hollywood would make me an analyst and a creative. It wasn't a hard decision. 

   I understand talent inherently and I understand the executive process that has to finance and make it – and the myriad relationships, praise and hostility that exists between the two, both real and imagined. If I can help bridge those gaps with dual perspectives, then I’m happy. The hucksters and monsters all fall off eventually. I've seen it up close and known it was going to happen before the first letter fell.
Awards Season 2014, Paramount Lot
     I say all of this about where my 5-year plan led to  because I know that there’s always aspirants you meet or people just getting into the industry who look at you as Establishment  when they really have no idea what your path was or entailed. I don’t malign or hate on the youth trying to make a career now. I know what it’s like to be 26 years old and seen with a side-eye as nothing more than shock value, a stock stereotype, someone only in it for the short haul. The business is not what it was in 1996, no more than it was in 1976, 1936 or how it will be in 2016. That’s what makes it exciting and the more prepared you are the better – which can occupy any 5-year plan. You need to know in your sleep the direction the business is going in, sometimes before the business knows itself. 

“Easy for you to say,” one aspiring director with his co-directing crew – a sideways, embryonic Funny or Die-ish collective – said to me after a premiere one night in 2002. “You’ve got a job. You go to this kind of thing every night, you’ve got it made.” I thought I detected a snort as he exhaled his Marlboro Light. He was maybe 23. We were at a backlot in Westwood. They looked like a nascent version of future Mumford & Sons and I understood the sneer – they believed they had what it takes too and were tired of waiting. 

“See that college over there?” I replied, pointing over the palms to the visage of the UCLA Education Building. “That’s where I was evaluating elementary school writing tests for a month last summer. Does that look like Hollywood to you?  And I don’t go to these every night and when I do you can bet that I’ve been at work for 9 hours beforehand. I’m not in the movie, I didn’t just arrive fresh from bed. Do you have a 5-year plan?” 

“Of course,” he said.

“Good,” I said, adding, “And can you handle it if it takes 4 years and 10 months before you hit? Because that’s how long it can take. Sometimes it’s gonna suck and if you don’t work through it, you and your friends here won’t even be friends by the end of it.” 

     I hope they made it. I know it sounded outlandish, but sometimes it does take nearly 5 years to literally get across the street. And if it takes 5 more to get to the next one, that’s okay.  From The Hollywood Reporter it took me 2 more years to get to The New York Times. And so on. But if you can get through the first 5-year plan, you can do it again. And again.
   As the late great Ernest Borgnine told me when he was nominated for a Golden Globe at the age of 90: “If somebody knows your work and calls you and wants to play? It beats breaking rocks!” 

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