Breaking into Hollywood

Is there such a thing as breaking into Hollywood? The answer depends on who you talk to. Some actors recall in autobiographies the one lucky audition after so many rejections. Others remember struggles to buy groceries and detours into less attractive professions to pay the bills.

But what does it mean to break in? Some argue there is no such thing, like screenwriter John August, the writer of Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as writer-director of the upcoming Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Nines. On his blog, johnaugust.com, August wrote, “There’s no systematic effort to keep newcomers out of Hollywood.”

August may be right; take a look at some of this year’s acting graduates: Michele Wong, who will guest star later this year on ER; Rich Dreher, a supporting cast member on ABC’s new series Cashmere Mafia; and Abby MacFarlane, who has a role on the new NBC series Journeyman.

Many writers are just as lucky. Becoming a writer on television may be as easy as sending in a spec script, as shown by alum (MFA ’88, playwriting) Jeffrey Stepakoff’s memoir Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing. For a spec script, writers pick a television show similar to what they would like to work on, and create a script that, ideally, feels like a regular episode. The goal of a spec script is to make it clear you understand the basic dynamics of a show without alienating those who already write for it.

Stepakoff’s spec script landed him an agent, who then wrangled him into several TV shows before he became a writer, and then co-executive producer of Dawson’s Creek. The “billion dollar kiss” of his memoir’s title comes from a divisive suggestion in the writer’s room that characters Joey and Pacey kiss — despite the show’s assertion for its first two seasons that Joey and Dawson were soul mates.

Eventually, the show’s writers decided that the kiss would save the show from falling ratings, in addition to reinvigorating the increasingly disinterested cast. The kiss did both, and kept Dawson’s on the air for four additional seasons.

August noted on his blog that in lesser-known Hollywood fields, like lighting, there is “a clear career path, approximating the apprenticeship of old-tyme trades,” but admitted it may not be as easy as it is “comfortably predictable.” Actors, writers, and directors do not have a path so well-defined, and must scout for opportunities. But he still denies a “breaking in” process, because there is no obstacle meant to keep anyone out. There are just obstacles to make the process more difficult.

Carnegie Mellon grads are succeeding. In addition to the three members of the class ‘07, there are alumni on new series including Saving Grace, Chuck, Back to You, and Mad Men, as well as returning shows like NCIS, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Heroes, and Law and Order: SVU.

However, as with any field, certain jobs come in and out of vogue. At the time Stepakoff entered Hollwood in the late ’80s, writing was booming as many professionals in other fields drifted in, attracted to writing — screenwriters legendarily earned millions for scripts with proposals that were just sentences long. Several years later, actors pulled in the biggest paychecks after yielding the biggest box office grosses, a trend that still continues with actors like Will Smith earning $20 million a movie. Still, it’s anyone’s guess which film occupation will be the next to earn big money. No matter what happens, you can bet there will be new faces in the midst of it, making their careers.