Contributed by Yoni Rusnak (Assistant Editor, BCPC LA)
“It’s all about who you know.” It’s the phrase anyone who’s ever expressed interest in working in show biz has heard. But what if you don't know anyone? What if you dream of making it in Hollywood and don’t have anyone in your extended network who can help you meet the right people to make that dream come true?
Sounds like a situation that is totally out of your control, right? Not exactly. There’s a formula for breaking into the business that everyone can use. I used it to secure a job in one of the most competitive industries on the planet.
At 32, I relocated to Los Angeles from New York (and before that Australia) to pursue my dream of working in Hollywood. In New York, I had worked in reality television as an assistant editor for several years, but had always dreamed of working on scripted content.
Anyone who’s worked in reality can relate to the feeling that there’s an invisible barrier between the two sides of the industry and that only the chosen few are allowed to cross. Since crossing that barrier myself I’ve been asked by a number of past colleagues and scripted hopefuls: “How can I get a job on a scripted show?” The process often takes years, and if you ask those fortunate enough to be working in the industry how they made the switch, the stories are often so varied, it seems as though it all comes down to just one thing: luck.
Luck has to come into play if you think about all of the factors that lead up to that first gig: being in the right place at the right time; knowing the right person; having the right skills for the specific job. There are a mountain of factors that have to align just right in order for you to be chosen over someone with far more experience in the field. That’s a daunting thought for anyone starting out, especially in a market where there are essentially zero job postings.
In this article, I will lay out the formula that, to my best estimates, helped me generate the ‘lucky’ situation from which I was able to secure my first scripted television show.
But, before we start down this journey together, why should any of you listen to what I have to say? The truth is, I’m nobody. I don’t come from an industry family, I was raised and started my career in Australia where the television industry is almost non-existent. I haven’t spent decades in this industry – I didn’t even get my first television job until I was 27.
The very fact that I’m nobody is precisely the reason I think this information can be so valuable to others starting out. This is the article I wish I’d found when starting my search for scripted work and hopefully it can serve as a jumping point to anyone looking to join this crazy business.
Persistence + Preparedness + Politeness = Luck
Above is the equation that to my best estimate created the environment from which I was able to attain my first scripted job. The equation can be broken down into two main groups of factors:
1. Factors within one’s control (P+P+P)
2. Factors outside of one’s control (Luck).
While the two groups seem mutually exclusive, I will attempt to explain how the first group actually changes the outcome of the second and helps ‘create’ one’s own luck.
Factors out of one’s control: Luck
Definition: success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one's own actions.
If you ask ten different assistant editors how they landed their first scripted gig, you’ll get ten different stories, all of which will be wildly varied. I’ve met assistant editors who landed their first gig after three months, while others spent more than two years searching for that first opportunity. It’s important to realize that there’s no set length of time it should take and everyone’s journey towards that first lucky break will be different. That said, ‘luck’ is not an untouchable factor, in fact there’s a very powerful way to manipulate luck that most people don’t take advantage of.
Luck, the way most people think of it, is simply probability. The probability that an outcome will be in your favor. Want more luck? Simple. Take more chances.
Think of it this way: If I said I would give you $1000 if you flipped a coin 10 times and got 10 heads, you’d have to rely on a lot of luck to get the outcome you want. Those aren’t great odds.
But life rarely hands you such stringent rules. In life you can flip the coin as many times as you want. The weight of luck in any given situation is dependent on the parameters under which it occurs. You’ll rarely run out of luck if you just take all of the coin flips. By changing the rules eventually the outcome will land in your favor.
When I first moved to Los Angeles I did what anyone in our industry would do, I searched for every available networking opportunity. I knew about the post production group Blue Collar Post Collective (BCPC) from my time working in New York, and as a starting point began following their Facebook group and attending the monthly meet ups.
At some point I spotted a Facebook post mentioning, ‘The BCPC Mentorship Program’. [Editor's Note: This program is currently discontinued in favor of organic peer-to-meet mentorship and similar opportunities.] They were looking for volunteers as both mentors and mentees. I reached out and expressed my interest in being paired with a mentor that worked in scripted.
To my delight, within a few weeks I was paired with a scripted assistant editor who had also made the jump from reality television. Even though the relationship with my mentor didn’t amount to much more than a few coffees and some great conversation, they did offer me a piece of advice that became the most influential piece of information given to me since starting my professional career. They advised me to; “just start reaching out to people who work in the post departments of shows you like”. That’s it! Such a simple piece of advice, but so Earth-shatteringly significant, that it set me on my current path and helped me take control of my career. In the game of coin flips this became my single best strategy for flipping heads.
So why didn’t I think of this before? Why doesn’t everyone think of it and put him or herself into action. The answer (at least in my case) was that I was too embarrassed. Reaching out to strangers felt forced, it felt fake, why would anyone what to hear from a stranger and more than that, help a stranger? What would I write in the email? How could I ask for help without sounding self-involved and desperate? These are all questions that ran through my head every time I’d think about reaching out to someone.
The hardest part of the whole endeavor was stepping out of my comfort zone and typing the first few emails. To begin the process, I searched IMDb for all the shows I was most interested in. From there, I looked up the Editorial Departments and begin googling the post staff in the hopes of finding their online resume or LinkedIn page. Once I’d located their contact details it was just a matter of reaching out and asking for help.
I began sending one to three emails a day and of the roughly 100 emails I fired off during that period, ten wrote me back, and of those I was able to meet for coffee with five. By following my mentor’s simple advice I’d created five ‘lucky’ opportunities to sit in front of people who did what I wanted to do and whose knowledge could help me achieve my goals.
The most surprising side effect of the whole experience was the compounding effect. Once I’d finally meet for coffee with someone and it had gone really well, without even asking they offered to put me in contact with others they knew in the industry. That’s a significant step in creating an environment for luck. You can go from being a complete stranger, to having a personal connection with someone in the industry that was cultivated entirely through your own efforts.
The important takeaway here is that ‘luck’ is a fixed variable. The luck in finding job opportunities can be tilted in anyone's favor as long as they keep on flipping the proverbial coin. That said, it never hurts to have a strategy, and using the three P’s is one strategy that’s been successful so far in my career.
Factors within One’s Control: Perseverance
Definition: steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Working in scripted is a double-edged sword. While those fortunate enough to have jobs are able to work on content they love, it’s also one of the few professions where people take substantial risks of unemployment in the hopes of pursuing their passions. This creates a job climate in which if someone isn’t willing to put in the hours to network their way in, there’s always someone right behind them who is. The common saying goes; “if you just stick around long enough, you’ll get your chance”. This is particularly true of scripted television. Therefore, perseverance is simply knocking on more doors than the other person and not giving up on ones dreams.
Perseverance can also be described as pushing through the uncomfortable moments. It’s tough to expose one’s vulnerability in an email or phone call. Reaching out to strangers and asking for help, with the looming fear of rejection, takes thick skin. When I initially began reaching out to people, my first 50 emails garnered me zero responses. That’s a lot of rejection.
For each email I took the time to research what shows that person had worked on, what achievements they’d accomplished, and attempted to tailor a genuine request for help from that person specifically. Receiving no replies was disappointing, but with each email it became a little easier. My self-talk natural became; “alright, I probably won’t get a response but here goes nothing”. Perseverance creates resilience.
When I finally did get a response to my 51st email, I was elated. Even though the person only responded to say, “sorry I don’t have any time to meet, but good luck in your efforts and keep on trying,” it was forward progress. Once the barrier had been crossed, people starting accepting my invitation and opportunity followed.
Lastly, persistence is not getting bogged down in self-pity, throwing one’s hands in the air and saying, “I’m just not lucky enough”, or, “nobody cares”. When people give up on their efforts, all they are doing is hurting their own chances of success. Remember, there will always be someone right behind you willing to stick it out that little bit longer and snag that opportunity that could have been yours.
Factors within One’s Control: Preparedness
Definition: a state of readiness
If somebody offered you a scripted job today, would you be well prepared to succeed? Do you know the workflow for prepping dailies? Have you seen the different ways editors like their bins arranged? Have you built binders and seen what it takes to do a turnover correctly? Are you aware of what’s expected in regards to project management, sound design, and visual effects? These are all questions that can and should be answered before interviewing for your first job.
In other disciplines it’s typical for future would-be employees to learn the basic skills before applying for a job. Universities, trade schools, and apprenticeships teach beginners the basics needed to obtain that first crucial job. Scripted television and feature films occupy a unique space in which there aren’t any specific places hopefuls can go to learn the skills that make them attractive to future employers, although this is changing with courses like Master The Workflow. This means that most people start out in the industry with the same level of knowledge and opportunity. For that reason, working professionals are generally sympathetic to requests for help and all that one needs is the courage to ask.
Shadowing other assistant editors is hands down the best way one can learn the skills they needed to be ready for their first job. Going in and watching what assistant editors do, asking questions, and getting hands on (if they’ll let you), can achieve a twofold advantage. The first and most obvious is skill acquisition. The second, less tangible but as important advantage is interacting with the other person. In-person interactions are a far better test of somebody’s capabilities than just conversation over coffee or email. If you have the opportunity to sit in a room with someone and learn from them, hopefully you can leave a good impression and they might be willing to recommend you for a future job.
If shadowing isn’t an option, asking questions can be extremely eye opening as well. Find someone in the line of work you are pursuing and ask for advice, preferably over coffee (so you have the in person advantage), or simply via email. Questions such as, “How did you get started,” “What do you think were the most important factors in your own success,” “What are the most important skills or tasks in your day to day schedule I should be aware of,” “are there certain programs I should familiarize myself with,” can give you a sense of what skills you are missing.
A third avenue, which can be a contentious topic in our industry, is offering your services for free in exchange for learning on the job. I was fortunate to meet an editor who was working on a side project, and needed an assistant editor. They offered to teach me how to assist in scripted if I’d be willing to assist them on the short film. Without hesitation I accepted, and the following week I showed up at their house ready to help and to learn.
I took this as an incredible opportunity because even though I wasn’t being paid for my time (neither was my editor), it allowed me to prove my skills to a working scripted editor. Once we’d spent enough time together, my editor saw I was more than capable and recommended me for a scripted show which became my first credit. In the end it was a small price to pay for that elusive ‘in’ we are all seeking. That said, it’s important to read each situation carefully and not let oneself be taken advantage of. If it’s the right opportunity, and you can prove your worth, ‘free’ work can be a great trade for your time.
If reaching out hasn’t proven fruitful or if you’re looking for a fast track to learning the ins and outs of assistant editing in scripted, there are now a number of online courses. Programs such as the ‘Assistant Editor Boot Camp’ and ‘Master The Workflow’, offer one-stop shops for everything you need to know about workflow basics ( butbe sure to check the curriculum before jumping in). These courses have the added benefit (If your classes are in person) of introducing you to other hopefuls looking to enter the industry and those people may become your future network.
Becoming prepared for a job in the film and television industry requires a level of pro-activeness that isn’t as common in other fields. However, for those willing to put in the time and continuously knock on doors, there will always be opportunities to learn the skills they need to make themselves employable.
Factors within One’s Control: Politeness
Definition: Behavior that is respectful and considerate of other people
The last element to this formula is knowing how to ask for help. Being polite is as important as the very act of reaching out itself. While this might sound like common sense, too often people forget their manners and inadvertently shoot themselves in the foot before the battle has even begun.
Before reaching out to anyone it’s important to take a moment and realize, “Nobody owes you a thing”. Simply put, nobody is obligated to help you, nobody needs to go out of his or her way for you, and nobody is in anyway required to give you a chance. Furthermore, understand that you are asking THEM for help, that means you’re asking that person to devote their free time to helping you get ahead.
For all these reasons and more it behooves anyone reaching out for help to be as polite in their language and as accommodating in their actions as possible. Begin your email by acknowledging your appreciation of their time and consideration. Be willing to meet at a time and place that best suits the other party (unless it seems super suspicious, like at their apartment at midnight). Once a location and time are set, show up on time. If you’re worried traffic will be a problem, plan to show up 30 minutes early.
The benefits of politeness extend much further than the immediate benefit of having someone help you. As soon as you meet face to face with your would be mentor, your reputation is instantly on the line. If you’re overly demanding, show up late or don’t respect their time, you’ve poorly represented yourself and they probably won’t want to work with you. Conversely, making small efforts to show your professionalism can go a long way to building your network before you’ve even gotten your first job.
Other factors to consider are being gracious and humble. The fact that you went to NYU film school, or you’ve interned under James Cameron, or “fill in the blank”, doesn’t entitle you to any assistance or leg up in the industry. No matter how smart you think you are, or how much you feel you deserve, approaching every meeting from a place of gratitude will always make a good impression. A sage piece of advice given to me when starting out in life was “always assume you’re the dumbest person in the room”. Taking this approach will allow you to have an open mind for absorbing new information, while simultaneously making the other person feel important. Empowering others is a far better strategy for acquiring allies on your journey than making them feel unless or inferior.
Ultimately film and television are network driven industries and almost all future jobs will come through recommendations from people you know. Therefore, it’s important to be the kind of person others enjoy being around. If somebody has agreed to meet you, they’re more likely than not interested in learning who you are. It’s also safe to assume that some of those people are at least willing to entertain the idea that if you’re a nice person and deserving of help, they’ll pay it forward (as was most likely done for them).
However, the level of assistance you receive is entirely dependent on how you come across to the other party. Not everyone you meet is going to be the kind of person you jive with or have an instant connection to, but if you’re nice, positive, considerate, and interested in what they have to say, more often than not you’ll come across as genuine.
When push comes to shove, having the requisite skills is assumed knowledge once someone is considering hiring you. With that in mind, employers are far more likely to hire people they can stand to be around for 10 to 18 hours a day.
So that’s it, that’s the secret sauce, the magic formula for success in Hollywood. Hopefully this article’s illuminated how everyone has the ability to make his or her own luck. By staying Persistent, Preparing as much as possible and always remembering to be Polite, you have the tools to sway lady luck in your direction. The only certainty in this business is that anytime you give up, there will be someone else right behind you willing to step forward and fill your position in line. Luck is what you make of it and if you’re in the right place at the right time with the right skills and the right attitude, a little ray of sun shine may fall upon you and you’ll have your own Hollywood tale about how you weathered the storm and came out the other side right where you always wanted to be.
BCPC LA Member Yoni Rusnak has seven years of television post-production experience. He has worked in Sydney, Australia, New York and Los Angeles as an assistant editor in both reality and scripted television. Shows he has worked on include The Voice Australia, Master Chef Australia, Black Ink Crew, Caribbean Life, Major Crimes and Love Is__, a show that premiered on OWN in 2018. He is a volunteer with The Soldiers Project, where he uses video to brings awareness to veterans’ struggles with mental health. He has lived on three continents and four cities, from Sydney to Tel Aviv. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and one-eyed Puerto Rican rescue dog who is also the subject of his half-sleeve tattoo.