Secrets of Breaking into the Industry - Part 1

Written by: Dean Silvers
Published: Feb 2, 2015

The following is an excerpt from the book Secrets of Breaking into the Film & TV Business, written by Dean Silvers, who has directed and produced films for David O. Russell, Harvey Weinstein and others. His films have starred actors such as Ben Stiller, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo.

For Part 2: Go here.

I've made films. I'm making films, not only as a filmmaker, but as a dealmaker, marketer, entertainment lawyer, producer, facilitator, distributor, talent evaluator, and more.

I know what it's like to be a beginner. To have questions. And to feel uncertain of the right moves to make on pressure-packed movie sets where minutes can mean thousands or millions of dollars.

That's why this book is different. Working closely with major talent and creative minds—taking abstract ideas and story threads and turning them into movies—has exposed me to perspectives, concepts, and inventions of thought that you can't really fathom unless you've been in those trenches.

People love film. We’ve all got our favorite movie moments. Iconic scenes that linger in the memory long after the details of the plot and character fade: the way Humphrey Bogart says good-bye to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Natalie Portman’s final dance in Black Swan, the title fight in Raging Bull, Steve Carell’s chest waxing in The 40-Year Old Virgin, Jessica Chastain’s look at a dead Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, the final lift in Dirty Dancing, E.T. flying a bike by the moon—powerful, astonishing sequences that thrill us, move us, and inspire us.

And let us not forget that we are also in a golden age of television. Whether it be Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, The Office, and, Game of Thrones, we are experiencing a renaissance in television that we have not seen in years, if ever.

The gravitational pull of such doesn’t only spawn celebrity Twitter followers and fawning fan blogs—remember, the film and television industry is also an engine of enormous economic horsepower. In these days of our country importing much more than we export, the film and television industry is probably our greatest exporting industry, so succeeding in this industry continues to strengthen our economy as well. Even in a slow economy, the film and television industry is a soaring American success story, and it only continues to experience explosive growth.

It’s no wonder everyone wants to be in the film and television industry. There are legions of aspiring filmmakers, but the mechanisms for entry, the rules for how to play the game and succeed, have never been sequentially laid out before—not in other books, nor other lectures, not even in the most respected film schools and academies. In short: No one is telling you how to make a strong film, be seen by the right people… and make a career.

But I am.

What was I thinking?

It’s July 8, in the middle of a hot summer. My wife and kids have long since gone to sleep, but I’m pacing the floors of my New York City apartment. It’s about 3:45...a.m. It’s late—very late. Or rather very early...

I’m about to start the first day of shooting a feature film. I’m the producer. And I’m rehashing the disastrous position I’ve gotten myself into. You see, until now, I’d spent 100 percent of my life nowhere near the film industry. At this point in my career the only thing close to a film that had my name on it was my Blockbuster Rewards card (which was laminated, so I knew at least someone in the “Biz” appreciated my movie taste, even if it is now a defunct video chain store). I’m a former religious studies / comparative literature major (and let me tell you, there aren’t a whole lot of jobs in that field). I’ve got a PhD, a law degree, and a Master’s degree. But I have never been on the set of a feature film. And yet, come sunrise, that’s where I’ll be, as the sole producer of a full-length, narrative feature film.

The writer and director—the person everything hinges on—has never written or directed a feature film before. He’s a copywriter for a Public Relations Organization . In his midthirties, he’s ancient for the industry and antediluvian for someone just starting his feature-film career. He’s made a couple of shorts, but he doesn’t even know the things he doesn’t know about making full-length movies.  

I have a ridiculously small budget of $75,000, and we’re shooting with expensive 35-millimeter film—the kind they use for big Hollywood movies. Everyone is working for free, we’re begging equipment houses to let us borrow what we need for the shoot, and my line producer (who runs the logistics of the entire production) abruptly left the project one day ago.

If I had the slightest connection to anyone in the film business, I would have known this script had been passed on by everyone. For years. It’s a dark comedy about incest. A dead project. Unmakable. I have no mentor, no guide, no one to call if things go south. But I saw some real potential in what the script could be.

And that’s how I started my career in film.

The film was Spanking the Monkey, and, fortunately for me, those early-hour voices of doom were entirely wrong. Spanking went on to be a significant success, winning the Audience Award at Sundance, garnering career-making reviews, gaining theatrical distribution through Fine Line Features, and selling well overseas. The neophyte director was David O. Russell, who would go on to have some impressive hits with films like Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle.

The story of that success is really the launching point for this book: How did I get myself in a position to produce a film? And once I got there, how did I actually make a career in this wonderful, crazy industry?  And how can first time directors, actors, and writers make a career?

I did plenty of heavy lifting on that film (and others)—literally: pulling cable, hoisting camera dollies, and driving equipment trucks. That’s how it started. With "Spanking," I was lucky I didn’t really know the conventional wisdom about breaking into film because if I had, I would have failed—quickly, and probably spectacularly. What we were trying to do was so off-the-map nuts, I had to think in counterintuitive ways just to keep the entire thing from running off the rails. I had to break rules. I had to invent my own way of operating. Clichés are awful in screenplays, but they often capture enduring truths. And on my first film, while I discovered that “ignorance truly is bliss,” I also discovered a great pathway to some invaluable knowledge.

What I’ve pulled together here are the things I’ve learned by struggling, failing, fighting, pulling rabbits out of hats (and other places), and figuring out how to make things happen the way I needed them to. Here you’ll find strategies from the front lines—ideas you’ll never be taught in any film school or lectures, concepts that are time-tested and successful.

Not many people have taken the path I have taken, and a part of my success has been an understanding that while there are no immutable laws in the film and television industry, there are reliable truths that have formed my own personal credo, and which comprise the foundation for the ideas in this book.

I wanted to write this book because I was really angry and mad. Howard Beale in Network mad. Today so many people are being misled and taken advantage of; they are given bad advice or models that are totally outdated, ineffective, costly, exploitative...and sometimes just outright embarrassing.

I’m also distressed that these same people say it’s impossible to succeed in the media industry without a diploma from one of the two or three elite film schools, or any film schools for that matter, or without the right connections. It’s wrong. All of it. Unequivocally. So I decided to write this book to set the record straight, to truly help people pursue their dreams.

This book is for anyone and everyone with a creative spark and the ambition to work in the film and television industry. The path to success winds a different route than it used to. You just have to pay attention to a new set of directions to navigate the way.

In this book I am focusing on making films, but be aware that the skills you need to succeed in the film and television industries are quickly becoming interchangeable. When you succeed with your film or your short using the lessons in this book, you will have great career opportunities in both the film and television industries.
The Traditional Model
The traditional model was to have your film get into a prestigious film festival, or to go to film school, get an education, and be successful in the film industry. Film schools were perhaps once worth the investment. But this is no longer the case. The sales pitch that these schools, academies, festivals, websites, and workshops traditionally used—and still exploit today—focuses on three things:

  1. Film theory
  2. Training on complex, professional film equipment
  3. Industry contacts to increase your chances of getting into the industry

You may imagine film school will help you start a career, but you should also consider that you will be several years older when you actually start making films.

In the time it takes to finish school you could have made a library of shorts or a low-budget feature—each one a potential showpiece that can launch your career. And that’s before you factor in the thousands and thousands of dollars you need to pay for tuition—and the additional tens of thousands you need to spend on making student films seen by no one but your professors.

So you’re sacrificing time, money, and opportunity for what? Equipment is now cheap and easy to use. Anyone can buy a simple camera and editing software, learn to use them from YouTube videos, forums, online classes, and then bang—you can make a film. All of your postproduction needs can fit on a laptop. You don’t need semesters of classes to figure out what you’re doing technically; you need a few days. Learning “theory” is now as far away as a click of your desktop mouse.

And as far as jobs and industry contacts...I can’t tell you how many frustrated filmmakers I meet who have graduated and used their school’s “connections” to land them, at best, a modest job as an assistant editor on a cable TV show, or a job as an electrician in the independent film world. They all have the same complaint. It’s not how their dream was supposed to turn out. They’re looking for a way to make it in the movies—as a writer, director, actor, producer, editor—not someone who simply makes ends meet.

But what’s more important is the gaping hole between what they teach you in film school and what they don’t teach you. They don’t teach you how to create for the marketplace, how to sell a film, and how to foster a career. Making a film isn’t like any other vocation. If you can make the grade in medical school, you graduate, become a resident, and pretty soon you’ll become a doctor. Same goes for law school, nursing school, trade schools—but not for film schools.

Many a prospective film student (and their parents) have thanked me for explaining to them how you do not need to go to film school to have a successful career in the media industry. So if film schools, academies, institutions, etc., just don’t work, what do you do?

Same thing with the Film Festival route. For example,  the 1990s saw many films come out of nowhere and get into the Sundance Film Festival. They were then acquired by a distributor and a career was launched (think Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Kevin Smith). This still happens, but with new-media technology allowing many, many more films to be made, approximately twelve thousand plus films are submitted for fewer than two hundred positions. Even if you like your odds, you may as well be buying a lottery ticket.

The New Model
The Three Building Blocks:

  1. The Internet—Film Theory
  2. New-Media Technology—Equipment
  3. The New Social-Media Environment—Marketing and Distribution

I have created a new model—the Three Building Blocks—which will help you become successful in the entertainment industry. These tenets are based upon my experience, and reflect three major changes in the media environment that you can utilize in order to have a successful career in film and television.

The Internet—Film Theory
We live in a very busy, media-savvy society, where tomorrow’s news becomes yesterday’s story very quickly. Everything happens at Internet speed now—fast news cycles, short attention spans, and shorter cultural memory. The Internet has really changed everything...And I mean everything. The Internet is unlike any medium before it. You often hear this, but take a moment to realize that the Internet is actually comprised of all media that came before it—it has visual, audio, interactive, text, and telephone capabilities...all in one.

How did we do anything before the Internet? What now takes thirty minutes would have taken hours before. The way we write, read, shop, digest entertainment, research, get our news, have relationships—they have all undergone an absolute revolution. You can now learn everything they teach in film school in the comfort of your own home. Want to learn about Alfred Hitchcock? Take a Want to know about the French New Wave?  Google it. Want to study Quentin Tarrantino? Judd Apatow? Look up the only film Charles Laughton was credited as a director? It’s a click away.

Thanks to the Internet, the film “theory” they teach at film school is now available everywhere. Now, truly anyone can get free or relatively inexpensive online film lectures from MIT, UCLA, or any number of hallowed institutions of higher learning. You can give yourself the equivalent of a master of arts in film simply by searching online. There are blogs, groups, entire sites devoted to film theory and film craft. See a movie, then go to and read reviews from respectable film critics; why learn film theory on just old movies when you can learn from prominent critics on the cinema of today? You can do it all yourself and you do not need to pay over $60,000 a year to do it.

New-Media Technology—Equipment
Today, if you’ve got a cell-phone camera you can be a filmmaker. You can hold an entire postproduction house in your lap. The cost of equipment has gone down radically in these last few years, and the sophistication of modern equipment has made it much easier to learn how to use. You used to need a postproduction house, an audio-mixing room, editorial suites, loop groups, colorists,  and artists. Now you don’t. Almost everything we used to think about the industry is wrong. Making moving pictures has finally become democratic. Anyone can make a movie. The beauty of Building Block Two is not only that the new technological equipment is relatively inexpensive to acquire, but that it no longer takes years of apprenticeship to learn how to use. Motivated individuals in this field are often able to achieve competence and expertise quickly. Consequently, there are more people with effects talent than ever before, thus making the labor pool more accessible than ever before to work with you on your future projects.

Of course making a good movie is a totally different story, but this book will give you the tools for doing just that.

The New Social-Media Environment—Marketing and Distribution
Even if making a film is easier, selling it is harder. Marketing and promotion is harder. Because it is so easy to make films, many more are being made, so getting your film seen and getting discovered have now become much harder. Building a career has become more inscrutable, confusing, and complex. We are also experiencing a cultural explosion in our new social-media environment, a change as revolutionary as the Internet was a few years back. But lecturers, bloggers, or film academies don’t focus enough on this revolution overtaking the industry. The decentralization of services and proliferation of technology for marketing and distribution is virtually changing the ground under our feet.

You used to need teams of people to distribute and promote your film and you. Now you don’t. And knowing and mastering the new social-media environment is a key to creating your own success in the media industry. I will show you how to do it—how to create, distribute, and promote something that will be seen by those who can help you succeed in your career.
And nowadays there are many new and expanding outlets eager for new product. The onset of the new digital-distribution revolution has vastly expanded markets. So-called experts point to the music industry as an example of the shrinking of an industry due to digital decentralization (i.e., how easy and inexpensive it is now to distribute and have access to music), but they have it backwards. Sure, the top echelon of the music industry has been decimated, but now more musicians than ever are making music, being heard and seen, and from this initial exposure, making a career through ancillary markets like touring and merchandising. Have you viewed YouTube lately?

Moreover, new venues for film have exploded onto the marketplace, and the industry’s thirst for new talent has never been this significant. Consider this: The US film and television industry is the healthiest in our country today, and in the international marketplace as well. Film is the number-one US surplus industry in terms of ratio of exports to imports. Its workers have on average the highest annual salaries (sports figures are number two, followed by Wall Street). For its part, the film and television distribution industry is also phenomenally good at what it does and is continuously and aggressively seeking new films, talent, and product.

So that little idea you have for a movie isn’t just the currency of a filmmaking dream; it’s the driver of one of the most powerful economic engines in the world. Anyone who is interested in making money in this industry is going to be curious to see what you’ve got.

The traditional models no longer work, but using my Three Building Blocks will help you make what the film and television industry cannot live without—a good, original, and highly marketable product.

The Road Map: How to Apply the Three Building Blocks to Your Career
I’ll show you how to use the Three Building Blocks in this book to create your career in the entertainment industry within a specific process:

  1. Developing an idea
  2. Making your film
  3. Getting it seen by the right people
  4. Using your first film to set up your next film.

Each of these steps will be broken down throughout this book. We look at the entire process, covering creative issues, logistics, legal paperwork and considerations, practical advice, and more.

I go through specific case studies—real films, real war stories, real problems, and real solutions. We will step through the entire process of making a movie, from the blinking cursor at the top of your first blank screenplay page all the way to the final credit roll in your neighborhood multiplex.

At every step along the way we’ll go through an interactive process by:

  • setting the context and stakes through real-life stories;
  • presenting a dilemma and challenging you to consider solutions;
  • explaining how we solved a creative, logistical, or business problem; and
  • applying these situations to your own process of creating, shooting, editing, marketing, promoting, and selling your work.

In every instance you’ll learn from my mistakes, my escapes from disaster, and my triumphs. It’s how to stop talking about making movies and how to start actually doing it—reflected through the actual experiences I’ve had in making movies over the years.  

Running Your Own Race
You don’t need to know someone to get into the film industry. I didn’t know anyone. I started from the ground up and met people and networked. I’m still doing it. A big part of maintaining success and opening up opportunities is building a network of people who can offer support and resources.

“No” doesn’t always mean “no.” Don’t ever take no for an answer. You’ve heard this advice before, but I include it because it took me years to really understand what it meant. Everyone told me I couldn’t be a producer. Or a writer. Or a director. Or a foreign-sales agent. With no exception, everything I’ve done, at every step along the way, I was told I couldn’t do. And you’ll be told the same thing.

But not taking no for an answer doesn’t necessarily mean trying the same thing over and over without variation. If you get five passes on your script, submitting it to fifty more production companies doesn’t show determination; it shows a lack of imagination. A no is an invitation to solve a problem. Those five passes happened for a reason. If the feedback is always the same, it may mean you need to fix your script. The time to pound the pavement and resubmit your work happens after you’ve rewritten it. Steve Martin said it best: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

You don’t have to sell your soul to succeed. The film industry is a rough business. And it’s got more than its share of liars and cheaters. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to lie, you don’t have to cheat, and you can deal with everyone in a straight-up way.

Remember, this is your own journey—your own personal race. In an odd way, you are not in competition with anyone else. While it’s true that there is a market in the film industry with real competition, at some level the market is irrelevant. Because in a very real way it’s no longer about winning the approval of industry gatekeepers and decision makers. The beauty of the digital revolution is that getting into the film industry is as much about exposure and eyeballs as it is about anything else. Every film made can now get some kind of distribution. So success is no longer measured only by getting into a prestigious film festival, winning a limited number of spots at a studio, or getting a high-profile distribution deal. There are many, many mediocre films that can make a splash now and advance the careers of the filmmakers simply because of how they’re distributed and marketed. That success is not in any way limited by other films crowding the market; it’s limited by how creative and resourceful one can be in finding a way to get the work out there.

It can be tough remembering this with the media constantly bombarding you with the success of others who are younger, smarter, funnier, and (add your own trait here) than you. But avoid this trap, as it will only cause you frustration and serve to distract you from your goals.
The number-one concern of people who take my seminar isn’t whether they have the talent to succeed or the connections to succeed—but whether they can make it in an industry that’s known for “issues of integrity.” And the most common reaction I get after a seminar is the relief that comes from knowing that you don’t have to sell your soul to make it. And while I realize that’s anecdotal evidence, it still seems like a salient point for filmmakers to understand, and when building your network, you will see how it’s possible to surround yourself with good people who can help you get to where you want to go.

This book will become your official manual, sidekick, guardian angel, and friend for your film and television career.  Keep this book in your room, dorm room, on set, in your edit, sound, or casting room, or wherever your film is being made.  It will help you immensely, particularly when times get tough, or you feel moments of uncertainty or insecurity.  When you have a problem instead of wasting hours worrying about it, just open this book.

Now you’re ready to begin.  

Good luck, have fun, and always enjoy the journey.

Note from InkTip: For Part 2, go here.

You can check out Dean's book here. See below to contact him.

Dean Silvers' films have made millions of dollars worldwide, starring such actors as Ben Stiller, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, and have played at the Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto Film Festivals. He has directed and produced films for David O. Russell, Harvey Weinstein and others. His book "Secrets of Breaking into the Film and TV Business" (based on his seminar) was recommended by the NY Times and is an Amazon Arts#1 Bestseller. He is currently in production on a T.V. Pilot and a Feature Film.

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