Pursuing a Career in Entertainment: A Primer

Joel Eisenberg

From exaggerating resumes to outright invention and self-delusion, take it from one who‘s been there.

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Pinocchio and Jiminy CricketWalt Disney’s “Pinocchio”; Copyright 1940, The Walt Disney Company

Do not lie, despite temptation.

That is the advice I will share with you from the outset.

The world of entertainment, in which I’ve made my living for nearly two decades as a writer and producer, is rarely what it appears to be on the surface.

Two friends of mine lost their lives to the allure, one to suicide and one to a drug overdose, in pursuit of the brass ring. Other friends have returned to their hometowns and now work in businesses as diverse as insurance, teaching (I’ve been there myself), or retail. Still others set out to Los Angeles with great fanfare and lost everything during the pandemic. The sad thing is one certainly does not have to live in Los Angeles to carve a lucrative entertainment career. That is a myth onto itself.

Regardless, those friends are now desperately searching for alternate means of income.

Unfortunately in my business, it does not take a pandemic to lose everything. What exacerbates the issue is lying. Lying to yourself to further your career, and deluding yourself into believing the lies of others.

The entertainment business is akin to a take-no-prisoners, cutthroat game of Leapfrog. In this case, the winner is the one who most intelligently plays the game while overtaking the other player(s) … which only means more than talent if you allow it.

In other words, if you do not believe this business is a competition, exit immediately, stage-left.

But that’s not to say you cannot compete with integrity.

We have all heard writers, for example, are not in competition with one another. To be honest, I proceed with that mindset. However, I am also honest enough with myself to realize I am not necessarily the norm in that regard.

There are indeed innumerable entertainment professionals with great integrity plying their trade as writers or producers. But there is also the seedier side, and if you are not prepared your talent will not be enough.

Continue to refine your craft, continue to network, and stay away from the following 10 lies:

  1. “They read my script and were crazy over it. The only reason they didn’t buy it is (insert excuse here).” I hear this constantly. First, “they” were not crazy about your script. If they were truly “crazy” about your script, they would have found a way to partner with you on it if an option was not financially feasible. Do not take this seriously if someone pitches you, and do not convince yourself of it if you are trying to sell your own project. It’s bullshit. Real talk.
  2. “I have Tom Cruise attached to my film.” No, you don’t, unless you have paid the actor a deposit through his agent (usually 10% of his upfront fee, in this case $2.5 million of his $25 million) and/or engaged in a pay-or-play agreement. “But the agent said my script would be read if I have the money. All I have to do is find it now and I have Cruise.” If you do not have the money, you have no contract and therefore no one is under any obligation to you. Period.
  3. “I have my financing.” Actors’ agents most frequently want to see a company escrow account, with funds resting until production is about to begin. This shows them the project is real. “But I have a third-of my money in tax incentives already, the rest is easy.” If that’s the case, you better be able to show me that money is in an account. Otherwise, the usual “I fit the requirements so I’ll be accepted for incentives once I have my last equity piece” doesn’t cut it.
  4. “I got an agent! My script is SOLD!” No, it’s not. First, not all agents are created equal. Some are capable of consistently selling, some are franchised by the WGA (Writers Guild of America) because they were lucky and sold once. You better hope that agent is capable, while also realizing you still have a great deal of work to do. Never count on your agent for everything. Note: I’ve been signed with CAA, Gersh and others. I know this road well.
  5. “My talent will win them over.” Really? There is more true talent in this world than you can imagine ... who will never be discovered. Who’s going to know you exist? What are your plans to be noticed? I strongly believe there is a great deal of truth to Steve Martin’s quote — “Be so good at something you can’t be ignored” — but that’s a true function of innate talent and/or consistently working on your craft. Never stop working towards where you need to be is the message here.
  6. “They’re not half as talented as I am, and they made it.” You may be right. And, if negative inspiration spurs you to work harder, great. But be careful. Keep it to yourself. If you have yet to be discovered, expressing this attitude can come across to others like sour grapes or, worse, an outright lie. You’re not known yet. Proceed with caution.
  7. “That company sucks!” Another lament I hear on a consistent basis. If someone turns down your project, it does not mean the company sucks. They have their reasons. Word gets around in this business. If you begin badmouthing companies, you may be surprised how quickly doors will close to future submissions.
  8. “We were going to start shooting next week, everything is in place, but we paused production to raise some more money.” Chances are you did not schedule everyone and suddenly stop. Your cast (save for a paid deposit) and crew would likely be off to find other work soon enough. I’ve noticed this is a common talking point to raise money. It doesn’t work, and frequently the person saying it … in truth has no money at all. It’s a common lie to give the impression of being further along in the process in an effort to leverage the perception of progress to find money for a given project.
  9. Lying on your resume. Yes, you can get away with this at times, as you can in most any field. But, as the entertainment business is highly competitive, your resumes are most often — not always — checked. You’re taking a chance. If the resume is flagged, you risk word getting out that you’re a bullshitter.
  10. Speaking of … Do not tell anyone you have a “bullshit meter” in this business to make yourself look good. You will come across as a mark, an amateur with no real experience.

The truth is there is no truth in the entertainment business. What do I mean by that? Film and television, particularly, are illusory mediums. Music and gaming perhaps not as much but in all cases image is all-important. Controls have tightened in our modern era, which is a welcome change.

Time was, everything from sexual misconduct (“I’m innocent of all charges!” being another lie) to financial improprieties were well covered-up. Today, in part due to the #MeToo movement, also in part due to our current pandemic, those with the power of making careers have taken closer looks at what’s being presented to them so as to save their own vocations.

The entertainment business in general can be hugely rewarding. You need to know how to play the game … but that does not mean you should play the game. People do business with people they want to do business with.

Be honest with yourself and others. Disarm your peers.

Try to break in on your terms. Even if you are an indie filmmaker, for example, where you are directly responsible for your own outcome, smarten up enough to realize where and when you are being lied to — which will happen with some frequency — or when you yourself are tempted to lie, and pivot before you go down that rabbit hole.

Many an entertainment professional has sold their soul to make it in a given entertainment business. And many have gone far. Stabbing friends in the back happens probably daily in this field, and yes it’s happened to me and most everyone I know with a track record as well.

I won’t preach to you in this regard. You’re an adult; you determine what you should and should not do in your career quest. I will say I know too many people, all multi-millionaires, who have sold out family and other close relations, who now feel largely lonely and regretful.

Shortcuts are no guarantee of either success or fulfillment. One’s personal definition of both is key, which I’ve noticed tends to evolve over time.

You can do this without selling out. And you absolutely should. But you are going to need to get smart, stay smart, and work your ass off to get to where you need to be.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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