I truly love the entertainment industry, which is why I can endure the inevitable hardships
Some people will do almost anything to make it in Hollywood – my friend Jason even set himself on fire. Granted, he was enrolled in a stunt acting class and someone blasted him with a fire extinguisher within seconds, but still… He then printed up dozens of 8×10 photos of himself engulfed in flames, and while they may have gotten him an A for effort, they never landed him a job.
This got me wondering: Why are some people so desperate to break into the entertainment industry? After all, no one sets themselves on fire to break into, say, the banking or real estate industries. What is it about Hollywood that makes its pursuers take it so deadly serious?
There are many answers to that, of course: the allure of making lots of money, the chance to be famous, to be known. And while those things are temptations for me as a TV writer, I do it for another reason: because I love it. (That, and I have no other marketable skills.)
I’ve wanted to make TV shows literally since I can remember. As a kid, I sat Indian-style in front of a bulky Magnavox and loved being swept up in stories and seeing my favorite characters week after week. In college, I learned that writing is a good way to forge a path in the entertainment industry. As a writer, you get to generate content, and if it’s good enough, people will pay you for it. So that’s what I set out to do for a career. I’ve had successes, failures, and lots of near misses.
I once wrote an episode for a TV show that was scheduled to start shooting on location in another state. I had my plane ticket and hotel booked to spend the week on set. The day before the shoot, the network cancelled the show – and my episode. One day, I had been making good money doing what I love. The next, I was out of a job.
Unless you’re extraordinarily fortunate, you’ll be unemployed more than you’ll work in the TV biz, and you’ll have more than a few months when you wonder where rent is coming from. It’s not for the faint of heart, so you have to love it.
But, as a Christian, I’ve come to believe that you also have to feel called to it. Not “called” in some super-spiritual sense, but in the normal way that people discern a vocation in life. Author Frederick Buechner said, “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I believe that. I suck at math, so I know I’m not called to be an accountant. And I can barely dribble a basketball, so I’m never going to play in the NBA. But when I’m writing and creating, I feel alive, and hopefully my shows bless people, so that’s as good a sign as any that working in television is a good thing for me to be doing.
But as fun and crazy and rewarding as working in Hollywood can be, you also have to keep it in perspective. Is a screenwriter’s work important? I think so, or I wouldn’t be doing it. When crafted well, a good television episode or movie can brighten someone’s day, influence, encourage, and move them. It has its place in the culture. At the same time, it’s not healing leprosy.
Years ago, as I was struggling to build my résumé, I scored a job as a producer’s assistant on a popular TV show. One weekend, I worked for 24 hours straight, making copies and phone calls, and delivering scripts. As the long night dissolved into morning and I struggled to stay awake, my boss – the show’s head writer – summoned me to her penthouse. I showed up and she cut me off in the foyer. Standing in her bathrobe, hair dripping wet, she ordered me to recount everything I’d done over the past 24 hours. I ticked off the list (delivered scripts, talked to actors, etc.).
She interrupted. “Did you fax the script revisions to the actors?”
She glared like a cheetah poised to pounce on a gazelle.
“Uh… no, but… I talked to the actors this morning and they all got their script revisions hand-delivered by the transpo department.”
“But you didn’t fax them first?”
Silence. Her eyes narrowed. A volcano boiled inside her. Then it erupted. She unleashed a torrent of rage unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Among other unprintable accusations, she assured me I was lazy, incompetent, and stupid.
I was also groggy and cranky, so I decided to take the road less traveled in Hollywood: I stood up for myself. I explained that I’d been working around-the-clock, so it was understandable that I might forget something. My strategy backfired; instead it was like I had poked a hornets’ nest.
“We all work late!” she bellowed. “This is television!”
The grave tone of her voice struck me. It was as if she’d said: “This is curing cancer!”
As she continued spewing profanities and insults, a strange thing happened. I could still see her shouting, but her voice began to recede, like a radio signal that’s been scrambled in a thunderstorm. She was so enraged that it had become comical. I wasn’t intimidated by her fury. I was trying not to laugh.
At that moment, it became crystal clear that while making TV is fun and worthwhile, it’s not nearly as important as we Hollywood professionals sometimes think. It’s not worth mistreating people and it’s not worth risking full body third-degree burns.
Which brings us back to my stuntman friend, Jason. One morning, he woke up with a strange clarity. “I’m retiring from the entertainment biz,” he told me. He’d given it a shot and it wasn’t for him. He had discerned another calling. So he moved back home to Tennessee and became a cop. And he loves it. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for my agent to call and trying to scrape together enough loose change to do my laundry. And I love it, too.