It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.
As a filmmaker, you’ve no doubt heard that saying. Maybe you’ve even been a little annoyed by it, not wanting to believe it, but knowing deep down that it’s true. I certainly have.
Whether we like it or not, the film industry is a relationship business. Most gigs, especially the good ones, come through your personal and extended networks. After all, filmmaking—more than many other professions—is deeply collaborative, and people will almost always choose to work with people they already like and trust. I mean, why take a risk on someone who might not work well with you and your team, especially if there’s a lot of money on the line?
It makes sense, but it creates an industry that’s fairly insular and difficult to break into. Very difficult.
That’s why one of the most common pieces of advice for aspiring filmmakers is also one of the best: if you want to break into the industry, spend as much time networking as you do building skills and honing your craft. Because in the end, that big break won’t come from keeping to yourself and working in obscurity; it’ll come from putting yourself out there, making sure that the right people know you’re not only great at your craft, but you’re trustworthy.
However, if you don’t have any industry contacts at all, this might feel like a mighty big mountain to climb. It might feel even more daunting if you, like many creatives, are a bit introverted.
If that describes you—an aspiring filmmaker with no industry contacts and a distaste for networking—you might be tempted to throw your hands in the air and just get a day job while making films in your spare time.
Not so fast, amigo.
The First Step When You Don’t Know Anyone
15 years ago, Zack Arnold didn’t know a soul in Hollywood. He moved to LA with dreams of editing dramatic TV shows and features, but he had zero contacts and an introverted disposition.
Fast forward to present day: Zack’s now an in-demand editor in the world of scripted TV, cutting shows like Burn Notice, Empire, Glee, and Shooter. He most recently edited the pilot for Unsolved, a new scripted show about the murder investigations of Tupac [Shakur] and Biggie [Smalls], and Universal has picked the show up for series.
And one of the major keys to that success was networking and building relationships with the right people. It wasn’t a fast process, but it was methodical, and in a recent chat, Zack and I dove head first into the specifics of that methodology.
When Zack moved to Los Angeles, he knew only one person in the entire city, and ended up sleeping in their hallway (the couch was already taken).
Within six months of the move, Zack found himself editing trailers, but realized very quickly that he didn’t want to be doing that forever. So he ditched a high-paying trailer job and took a scary leap into the world of low-budget features, some of which didn’t pay at all, but which gave him some much-needed credits to his name.
That lasted for upwards of 8 years.
And then his big break came in the most unexpected of ways.
“I started working on a web series called The Bannen Way, and I actually found the guys who did that series on Craigslist of all places. You’re probably thinking, ‘I’ve been on Craigslist and all the jobs are awful.’ You’re correct. This was absolutely a diamond in the rough. I got lucky, did a couple episodes for free, and then these guys ended up selling the series to Sony, and it became this huge web series that had a $1.5-2 million budget, and it looked really good. So I dedicated my life to doing the best cut of the show I could.
“What I did next, based on the momentum of that show, is I Facebook stalked everybody who worked on Burn Notice. They had no idea who I was, but I just went on Facebook and I sent the trailer to all of them. And it wasn’t like a spammy thing. I started off with, ‘I love Burn Notice and I’m really impressed with the work that you guys have done, and it’s really inspired me. I just did a project that was similar in style. I thought that you might like to see the trailer.’
“And of course, almost no one responded. But one person did, and it was one of the editors on the show. And he liked the trailer so much that we ended up having lunch. We totally hit it off, we were on the same page creatively, and we just got along together as people. So what I did at the end of that is I said, ‘Listen, here’s a few sample episodes of the show just in case you want to watch it. I know you’re busy, but I’d really love your feedback if you’ve ever got the time.’”
And two weeks later, that editor called back, saying he loved the show and that Zack did a great job with putting it together. That call alone made Zack’s year. But it was the next phone call that changed the course of his career.
About two months after that, the editor called again. This time, he was offering an interview to cut an episode of Burn Notice while he was off editing a pilot for another show. He flat out told Zack there was no way he’d get the job. He just didn’t have the credits or the TV experience, but getting in the room with a producer could only be a good thing.
Undeterred by the long-shot odds, Zack got to work.
“I watched the entire series. Twice. And there were three seasons at the time, which is about 60 episodes. All of this in the span of a few weeks. And I went into the interview and blew the executive producer away with my knowledge of the show, down to the tiniest details of how transitions worked and how they did act-outs and how they chose their music. He told me they’d interviewed other editors who’d been working in TV for years, but none of them knew the show like I did.”
Another two or three weeks later, the call finally came. Zack got the job. And though it was only supposed to be for a single episode, Zack stayed on the show for several more seasons.
Don’t Ask for Anything
Networking gets a bad rap, and for good reason. Just the word itself brings to mind cheesy events crammed with self-interested people handing out business cards and trying to get anyone to watch their reel.
This also happens to be the absolute worst possible way to think about networking. Take it from Zack, who’s been in the position of having to build a network from scratch, and who’s now successful enough that aspiring filmmakers are constantly reaching out to him.
“I think one of the biggest mistakes a lot of people make when they’re networking is they try to get something from it immediately, and that’s something I have seen from the other side, meaning that now that I’ve become a little bit more well known in the industry, and I speak on panels and have a website and a podcast, I’ve put myself in a position where I’ve opened myself up to people trying to find me.
“And the number one mistake, the cardinal rule that you should not break if you’re trying to network, is asking for something.
“I’ll have people that will come up to me in person after an event. They’ll get right in my face, they’ll hand me a business card and a demo reel, and they’ll say, ‘I’d love you to watch this, and hey, by the way, if you know of any openings for an assistant editor on a TV show, I’d love it if you’d consider me.’
“And I’m very polite about it, but in my head I’m thinking, ‘Why? Why would I consider you? I don’t know you. I’ve never been in a room with you. I don’t know how you handle a crisis situation, when things are going crazy. I don’t even know if you’re any good at what you do.’ That’s not how you approach somebody.”
Luckily, there’s a better way. It’s all about building relationships over the long term with the right people. But that raises another question: how on earth do you get the right people to even acknowledge your existence, let alone talk to you?
Be Patient. Build Relationships.
Kevin Spacey is often quoted as saying, “If you have done well in whatever business you are in, it is your duty to send the elevator back down and try to help bring up the next generation of undiscovered talent.”
For Zack, this metaphor is on point, and it’s the key to getting in touch with (and getting a response from) the hot shots of the film industry.
“People who are at a specific level in their career love to give information back and love to help people. For the most part, if you just ask a question, people love to answer them and help.
“So if you genuinely are just looking for some advice, there’s nobody that I know who’s a decent person, who if you said, ‘Listen, do you mind if I just sent you an email sometime and asked for your advice?’ Of course they’re going to say yes. They’re happy to help.
“Then if you’re patient, you can slowly develop a relationship. And over the course of six months to a year or whatever it is, you might get to the point where you’ve had an email back and forth once every two or three months, and you’ve started to develop trust, and you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be in your neighborhood, what would you think of grabbing lunch?’
This happens to be the exact path Zack took to finding one of his first mentors upon arriving in the city of angels.
“I started to seek out people that had already done what I wanted to do. I just started reaching out to big name editors who were immensely successful, and I just sent them letters in the actual mail. Not even emails, I just sent them letters, and let them know that I was young, I really wanted to learn, and that their story had inspired me.
“And the only person who responded at the time was Dody Dorn, who had edited Memento (which was my favorite film of all time from a filmmaking perspective). And she and I struck up a relationship and she kind of took me under her wing and became a mentor.”
Find the Right People. Ask the Right Questions
The film industry is a confusing place. It’s full of strange hierarchies and all sorts of inconsistencies across scripted TV, feature films, reality TV, commercials, you name it.
As a beginner, you’d benefit tremendously from knowing about all of these things, from knowing the inner workings of your dream job, but there’s no rule book, no online course, no set of commandments carved into a stone tablet hidden in the Hollywood hills.
Instead, if you really want to know how the industry works, you’ve got to ask questions. Here’s Zack again:
“I forced myself to go to networking events, and I forced myself to reach out, and to learn how the industry actually works, to learn who are the best people to actually reach out to. I didn’t even know if I wanted to send a resume to somebody in the world of feature films and television, and I didn’t know who to send it to—like, do I send it to a producer, or to a director, or does it go to the line producer, or the PA?
“So I always asked questions. I’d just find somebody, and I’d just ask more and ask more. And I feel like asking questions is something a lot of people are afraid to do, whether it’s in their own job, or just in a social situation, because it exposes that they don’t know something. And that’s a fear that I don’t have. All I do is ask questions.”
It’s through these questions that you’ll eventually piece together a set of strategies and best practices to get from where you are to where you want to be. You’ll also find right people to talk to. And once you find them, it’s all about small requests for them to send the elevator back down.
“What you do is you just show a genuine interest in this person. So for example, if somebody were coming to me, they’ll say, ‘I love the work you did on Burn Notice, and I’ve studied the show and I love how you did this transition and the way you did the music was really cool. I just wanted to let you know that I’m a big fan. Oh, and would you mind if I ever emailed you a question or two? Just because I’m trying to learn my way in the industry.’”
Like Zack mentioned, he and most of the people he knows in the industry are more than happy to oblige a request like that. And if you actually follow up in a few months, telling him what you’ve learned, how you’ve grown and found new opportunities, etc, he’ll be happy to answer your questions, and maybe even grab lunch.
And it’s from there that a relationship is built. And once that relationship starts forming, that’s when it’s time to start building trust.
Proof That This Works. Case in Point.
All of this stuff works. Like, it really works in the real world. If the example of how Zack went from no contacts to highly-acclaimed editor isn’t enough, take the story of Zack’s current assistant, who managed to pull off this playbook perfectly.
“The assistant editor that I have with me now is somebody that approached me two years ago at an editing event. I had never heard of him before, but he followed this exact formula, where he came up to me and said, ‘I really admire the work you do, would you ever mind if I just reached out and asked you a question? I just moved out here and I want to learn more about the industry.’
“And I said, ‘Of course.’”
“So we kept in touch every two to three months, then all the sudden I needed some work done on my website and I needed some videos edited, and he just jumped up and down and raised his hand and said ‘I’ll help!’ And it’s funny because in hindsight, he told me recently that he wasn’t really interested in doing that work, but he just wanted to get on my radar and show that he was capable. That’s the smart way to do it.
“So over the next year, he helped me with a few more things, we developed a relationship, and an opportunity finally came up where I needed a new assistant. He’s the first person I call because I don’t need to interview him. I don’t need to look at a resume. I don’t need to see his work. I already knew he was perfectly capable of doing that job for me, so it was a no-brainer.
“So that’s the right way to develop a relationship, but it takes a lot of consistency, and a whole lot of patience.”
Three Things That Must Happen
There’s obviously no prescriptive path to succeed in the world of film. It’s nothing like becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. You can’t go to school for set number of years, get an internship, then apply for your dream job.
The film industry is an unwieldy jungle, and it’s up to you to craft your own unique path through it.
With that said, Zack thinks there are three very specific things that must happen in order for any person to truly and sustainably succeed in the industry.
1. You have to be good at your craft
2. People have to know that you’re good at your craft
3. You have to be consistent
The first one is obvious. This industry isn’t a good fit for you unless you’re truly devoted to your craft. And devotion isn’t even enough. You have to be able to produce world class results every time you come on set or sit in front of your editing system.
Numbers two and three, though, those are the ones where this entire networking strategy we’ve been covering comes into play. You can be the best in the world at your craft, but if no one knows about it, you’re out of luck.
Frankly, no one is going to know about how good you are at your craft unless you promote yourself and network in a non-spammy way. And no one is going to give you an opportunity until you’ve built a relationship and proven that you’re capable and trustworthy.
Which, of course, is why point number three is so important. If you want to succeed in the film industry, you need to keep showing up, keep doing incredible work, and keep building authentic relationships with the people who matter. It won’t happen overnight. It might not even happen in one year or two or five.
But according to Zack, “If you follow those three steps and throw in a good amount of patience and discipline, there’s no question you’re going to make it. I can’t say how long it’s going to take, but you’ll make it.”