I LOVE WHAT I DO
I love what I do, and that is part of my problem. Because when you love something, you want to chase it 24/7, you want to feed it, you want to nurture it, and if you love it enough, it eventually engulfs you and takes over your life. And for better or worse, that has happened to me.
My plan B is my plan A, and really, being a “Creative” is all I know how to do and what I love. Sometimes I wonder if I could be happy in an office crunching numbers, or drilling Baba Booey sized teeth, or maybe traveling across the country selling widgets (sorry, it’s all I could come up with). But try as I may to imagine this alternate existence, it’s just not me. Because at the end of the day I love what I do, and as much as I often struggle with the actual process, I really love that too.
I remember my first week on set as a production assistant. An iconic actor I used to babysit for got me the gig right out of college, and I busted ass to make sure I didn’t let him down. When it came time to collect my first paycheck, I tallied up my 70 hour work week and waited for the fat overtime-loaded check that was surely coming. Perhaps I would get a new pager, Z. Cavariccis, or something else that makes me sound ancient right now, I don’t remember. Regardless, I’ll spare you the extra words and just get to the point – P.A.’s only got overtime after 14 hours a day, not 8 as I anticipated, and my check reflected that. Shit. And that’s production in a nutshell…you work as many hours as it takes, because that’s the job requirement and it’s a labor of love. Money is nice, but it's the electricity on set that really drives us.
Another lesson I learned from my early years as a low-level production grunt was posted on the side of a bathroom. It read, “Be careful: The toes you step on today might be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow,” and I’m a shining example of that. Working your way up in any organization and treating everyone with equal respect is valuable for so many reasons, but that’s for another post. We’re talking about love here people, so focus! I do tend to drift, don’t I?
So, as I continue my love affair with the creative process, I embrace the late nights spent feverishly putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, sometimes with a glass of whiskey by my side. I welcome that brief panicked moment on-set as I plan the first shot, and have learned to really appreciate sitting in an edit bay for hours, giving story notes, and developing an idea for weeks, months, or years, because what comes out of that process is the closest thing to satiation and pride that I have ever felt. And lest anyone question that statement with your inside voice, we’re taking being a dad out of the equation here, so pipe down.
My addiction and love for the creative process also means that I set myself up for disappointment more than I care to, often must be uncomfortably vulnerable, and don’t get enough sleep or time with the people I love. And all of this leads me back to the title of this piece and my blessing/problem. I love what I do, and when you love something or someone, you have to take the bad with the good – because what the good makes you feel like brings about the realization that maybe the bad isn’t so bad after all.
FIND YOUR PASSION
“Find your passion” – sounds easy enough, right? Well, I’m not foolish enough to think it’s that easy for everyone, however I am foolish enough to have seen every episode of Beverly Hills 90210 at least 3 times, and still insist that my obsession with fidget toys does not mean I have adult ADD…but I digress. When thinking of topics to write about I always came back to one question: “What am I passionate about?” And that has been the core question whenever I have had a huge life decision to make. Well, almost all decisions. When I decided to cut off my mullet in 1990, it was probably less about passion and more about wanting someone to finally say yes to a date, but I digress again.
Passion is important for so many reasons and in every aspect of life. This isn’t a big secret, and I don’t claim to be telling you something new, but when you really take a step back and ask yourself what you are passionate about, it should either reassure you or reshift your priorities. For example, if you’re questioning an important decision, but know that you’re passionate about what you’re doing (or chasing), focus your energy on creating opportunities around that decision rather than thinking negatively and worrying about having chosen wrong. The universe has a way of working things out, so drop that anxiety and keep pushing forward – it’s wasted energy. On the flip side, if you aren’t happy in your life, often it’s because you’re chasing someone else’s dreams or trying to make everyone but yourself happy (i.e. money, marriage, kids, travel, etc.). Time to refocus and reshift. When I look back at my best and worst decisions, they always center around a lack or abundance of passion in my life at any given moment. My worst decisions specifically were made when I was either anxious, stressed, self-doubting/loathing, or lost in some sense. You impressed with how self-aware I am? Didn’t come without cost.
Something that most people probably don’t acknowledge or think about much is that your passion(s) often change with age, accessibility, and wisdom. What you’re passionate about at age 15 probably won’t be what you’re into at age 40, and what you’re chasing when broke as opposed to financially successful might also be different. And that’s how it should be. With age comes wisdom (for most of us at least), and with wisdom comes the realization that money doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. I should say I do like when I have it though, so if you’re not happy with your money, hit me on Paypal. Where was I? Embrace a change in what drives and motivates you…yes! Growth is good and evolution is healthy.
I have always known creativity was my passion, and family is as well. However, I didn’t know how passionate I was about family and being a good dad until I was mature enough to get past myself and put others first. It had to come at the right time and proper stage in my life. Sounds weird I’m sure, but being grateful for something and passionate about something are two different things. This is taking an odd turn so I’m just gonna readjust and get us back on track.
I’ve always been passionate about creativity and the process of creating. Anyone who is a creative knows that indescribable feeling of having completed something you think is great and might resonate with others. It’s like a drug, or so um I’ve heard. So much so that when drawing wasn’t enough I learned Photoshop, and when that wasn’t enough I started to paint. When I started writing, nothing felt better than finishing a script, and don’t get me started about being on set and the energy that collaboration and production brings. This is why creatives put ourselves through the torture and vulnerability of creating and letting others judge us. Because that need for self-expression is addictive, and the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment after is like no other. I imagine that great athletes or doctors must feel the same, but I suck at sports and don’t like gory shit so who knows.
So why point out the obvious and say find your passion? Because sometimes we get lost in life, work, emotion, crisis, and in chasing money. The reality is that it’s not always easy or possible to make money and pay bills with something you are passionate about. But, it is easy to take time out for yourself and feed your passion. As a matter of fact, it’s necessary for your mental and emotional health. I looked for a lot of quotes about passion and the one that stuck with me most was by Joss Whedon, so here it is –
“Passion, it lies in all of us, sleeping…waiting…and though unwanted…unbidden…it will stir…open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us…guides us…passion rules us all, and we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love…the clarity of hatred…and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion maybe we’d know some kind of peace…but we would be hollow…Empty rooms shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”
Now are you really gonna argue with the guy who wrote Toy Story and created Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I don’t think so. Feed that fire and stay laser focused on it, and if you are lucky enough to make a living following your passion, I hope you are grateful enough to appreciate it.
RIDING THE LASER UNICORN: AKA SOME THINGS I HAVE LEARNED ABOUT DEVELOPING & PRODUCING
Four years ago I did the unthinkable and decided to walk away from a company many envisioned as being Shangri-La to become a full-time creative. And holy $@!# did I underestimated the process and difficulty of developing, pitching, and producing television shows as an independent producer. Sure, it was a calculated risk and I had a plan, but here’s the thing about life…it’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’d compare the transition of jumping into self-employment from a steady paycheck to the following – imagine you are floating on a cloud while being massaged by cherubs. Actually, nevermind what was to be a semi-amusing analogy and let’s reset. You wake up from an amazing dream (feel free to insert yours here) and as your eyes open and your grin starts to fade, Mike Tyson punches you in the face and bites your ear. Then, Mike offers an apology hug and knees you in the privates as you embrace (see how I kept that gender neutral?). The next minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, are spent doubting your judgement, your abilities, and everything you [thought] you knew. Yeah, that’s how starting out on your own feels…give or take.
But as someone who’s had way more highs than lows personally and professionally, here’s the thing I’ve learned. A good shot of humility and adversity is good. It’s both a necessary/painful lesson and a blessing. And sure, it’s easy to look back and say this, but as you’re going through it things can seem hopeless. That is, until you keep trying – everyday – and stop listening to those “inside voices” spewing negativity and insecurity. Every entrepreneur says it, and they also all agree that you don’t give up. It’s tenacity and dedication that gets you to the finish line as much as (if not more than) talent and creativity…that should keep you there.
So why am I writing this? I’m glad I asked myself that question. I have some advice based on what I’ve learned. This isn’t just stuff I’ve read, it’s actually some useful info to help you develop your show, cut your sizzle reel, and produce your project. From me to you because we’re connected on this platform and this town is small. I also like to hear myself speak, and in this case type, so it’s good practice.
• An idea is great, but it’s not a fully formed show. When I first left Playboy, I started waking up every night with ideas – lots of them. Soon I had 15 treatments written and immediately sent them to my producing partner’s agent (he was kind enough to share that resource). I was crushed when none of my pitches were met with excitement, but I learned an important lesson…you need more than just an idea. You need a unique perspective, exclusive access, or the right talent. Someone who is an expert in their field, or so amazingly likeable or hateable (e.g. the offspring of Piers Morgan and Omarosa) that you can’t stop watching them. Don’t just say it’s a show about a zany bakery – find the actual business, identify the cast, and tell us why we want to devote an hour watching these people. What are their challenges, triumphs, storylines, etc? Everyone thinks their life would make good TV, and 99% of them are wrong. Find that 1%.
• Have a plan and more than one target network in mind. At the end of the day, it’s a numbers game, and you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. No matter how much you think your show is a perfect fit for “Network X”, it might not be, and network mandates change often. Speaking of which, most agencies have network mandates that they give their clients to help steer them in the right direction. These are summaries of what each network is looking for, even though they never seem to buy those ideas. Sorry, that was my inside voice again.
• You’ll need a sizzle reel or one-sheet – or both!. If you expect someone to shell out money to make your cockamamie show, then you better give them an idea of what the show is, who the talent is, and where the story is. *Also of note, that is the first time I have ever used cockamamie on paper. A sizzle reel is typically around 3 minutes or less because executives have the attention span of my 9 year old, and it’s usually best to shoot footage if you can. That being said, I have also cut reels based on ‘found footage’ I got from the interwebs. A one-sheet or deck (powerpoint/keynote presentation) is helpful to give more detail, style, or exposition to your show pitch. I like to give my decks a unique style and theme based on the pitch, but I have Jedi-like Photoshop & Keynote skills, and you might not. Over deliver and work with what you got, which leads me to my next point.
• You’ve got to be scrappy, hungry, persistent, blah, blah. I used to hire editors for everything and then I realized how #$@!! expensive that was, so I taught myself how to edit. If you have the resources, definitely hire a skill set above you, but if you don’t, use your contacts, use your friends, barter, trade, learn, invest, but for God’s sake, do something! Producing is about being resourceful and working with a kickass team, so do both. I also recommend a subscription to ‘The Studio System,’ which is expensive but really useful for getting information about industry people, projects, studios, etc.
• If you are lucky enough to pitch your idea, LISTEN and KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Be confident, charming, and know how to read the room (and re-adjust if needed). Often times when I was an exec, people would hear the word no and keep pitching me the idea I hated. You know who else does this, that 9 year old I told you about. I tell her ‘no’ and she keeps asking for sweets, so I’m not only mad, but I’m eager to say ‘no’ more while blissfully eating chocolate. Don’t do that. Stay woke and own that sh!t. You have a great idea and it’s up to you to show the network why it would make great TV.
• Lastly, don’t give up. I have never had so many doors slammed in my face, been told no, or been rejected so many times. If selling a show was easy, everyone would be doing it. I hate saying that as much as I hate hearing it, but it’s true. You have to brace yourself for a whole lotta no’s before you get to a yes…if you do. I keep thinking I have run out of ideas or interesting talent, and then miraculously I’m developing another show. That’s how it works and that’s the process. Keep pushing and keep being creative. Learn from everyone, connect with everyone, be humble, and give back.
I share what I know from experience, and I seek counsel from those who know more. Be fearless and stay vigilant, and you just might surprise yourself. I once snuck into Dr. Dre’s house on New Year’s Eve when he was on house arrest, and spent the night partying with him and the Lakers. You know how I did that – balls that’s how. Now go sell a show and hire my company. There’s more to tell but I doubt you even read down this far, so be complimentary about how this changed your life and I might write more.
YOU NEED TO UP YOUR GAME (AND BY YOU, I MEAN ME TOO)
This statement might make you want to hurl an expletive at me and tell me I don’t know you, your struggle, your experience, your pain, etc. etc., or it might make you take a moment and say, “you’re right.” I suppose a third option is you don’t give a shit what I say and decide to read the next Trump news story instead, but just know it won’t be as entertaining as this article, and my hair is way better. Seriously, I have pretty good hair.
So why am I telling you this? It’s simple and something that we have all seen coming. Everyone has access now…to everything. If you want to shoot a movie or music video, grab your 4K iPhone and have at it. If you want to edit something, grab your laptop (or phone) and cut away or watch the YouTube tutorial for Adobe Premiere. And if you want original music, there’s always Garage Band or other options. The bottom line is that the barrier to entry in our industry and most others has never been so low. And actually, this isn’t so bad. Here’s why…
We live in a world of connection and knowledge. Anyone can learn virtually anything with immediacy, and if you can’t quite get the hang of it, help is only a click or search away. Learning now is sort of like those instant downloads in The Matrix if you are old enough for that to make sense. Wow, saying The Matrix is an old reference just made me sad, but I digress. My point is, the Millennials coming up now are forcing Generation X & Y to be better and do more. Kids are learning creative skills in elementary school which means they are better prepared than we ever were. It’s not enough to just impart knowledge and bark orders for others to execute. To work within the confines of smaller budgets, more affordable technology, greater competition, and a “smaller” world, it behooves all of us to get our hands dirty and DO MORE. This is a good thing and should keep you hungry and constantly evolving creatively. Would you rather hire an executive with experience developing shows, or that same executive who can also put together a kickass presentation in Keynote if needed, and jump on Premiere to better communicate a creative shift in their vision? I choose the latter and I’m thinking you would too, unless you are that first person.
On the last series I produced, our budget was tight and we had an ambitious schedule to make it all work. I often jumped on Photoshop to create the news clipping graphics for my editor, played with styles for the show logo, and wrote several scripts. I’m sure if I had an AE, more support staff, and a bigger budget, my time would be spent elsewhere, but the trend in unscripted television is not moving in that direction. Traditional TV has now moved to content that lives and is produced for multiple platforms, and multiple screens means a re-assessment of how the money gets spent. People are expected to work smarter and leaner, and it doesn’t matter whether that’s right or wrong.
The bottom line is that the more you know how to do, coupled with your unique experience navigating rough waters will make you more sought after, so why not keep investing in yourself and your value? If my kid can learn iMovie and Garage Band in a day at the Apple Store and make me feel like a dinosaur, then damn it, you should be able to also! And learning new skill sets, or at least being more familiar with how they work, will only help you collaborate and communicate more effectively in the creative space. So, keep challenging yourself, learn more, and up your game. It might just be what keeps your job safe or secures a better one.