You Have to Sign the Town Before You Sign the Talent
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Over the years in this business, I’ve seen many talented people drift away because success didn’t come within their expected timeframe. They’ve spent years at an agency, booked a few commercials, and they get worn out because they just can’t quite clear that hump. As brutal as it sounds, Hollywood is a Sisyphean town, and it takes not just many little successes, but a few epic failures to really learn that “expected timeframe” just isn’t a luxury any of us have.
As a representative, I get to work at the center of this town. I have the privilege of introducing my clients to people and opportunities that they have not (or don’t have the time to) find on their own. That in itself is rewarding work, especially since I have been on the bottom looking up more than once. Beyond that, it has given me perspective that I feel may be valuable for other aspiring representatives, actors, crew — or really anybody.
Before I could make those introductions, first I had to get to know the town. I had to earn my way into the community. It required building relationships, trust, and understanding not just with the big-time players, but with everybody, because everybody has something to contribute here.
An interest in showing everyone you meet who you really are says something very important about who you are.
What that boils down to:
You have to sign the town before you sign the talent.
You need the town to believe in you, respect you, and know that you can be a force in moving forward common interests. You need to demonstrate that you get things done. More than that, you have to be somebody who people want to spend time with. Sure, it sounds like something parents tell their kindergarteners on the first day of school, but it’s valid anywhere. I’m not saying you need to be liked. There are just too many people, perspectives, and personalities for everyone to always like each other. But it is vital to at least be a compelling presence, and somebody who is reliable and engaged.
The town must want to spend time with you. A project often takes years of interaction among countless people to see it through. Like in Law School or Medical School you have to extend your education. It’s specialized knowledge and in-depth understanding. It’s smart work and hard work combined. And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that the people at the top approach the town with a well-honed strategy.
That’s what I want to share with you today — some fundamental approaches that have helped me sign the town:
Don’t be an asshole.
Woah! That’s a shocker! When you think Hollywood, you might think Ari Gold or legendary mistreatment of entry-level employees, assistants, and unknown talent. While, yes, the town lags decades behind the rest of the country’s industry in employment practices, it is not an inhuman place. It’s competitive, it’s cutthroat, but it’s also an undeniably close community. You can’t build business relationships on just business goals; you have to be real. You have to be kind.
There’s a famous quote that says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
In this town, we don’t know everyone’s battles, but we’ve got an idea because we’re each fighting our own, as well. If nothing else, sharing in the lunacy of this town should create a culture of respect — and respect is manifested in kindness.
I’ve had the luxury of knowing many of my business contacts in this industry since childhood, and I consider them some of my closest friends. Their selflessness at times has been the greatest asset of my career, and I take it very seriously when I have the opportunity to help anybody I consider a friend, because empathy matters. Kindness isn’t a weakness, we’re not living in Westeros, it’s a natural ability that connects us. You can always be taken advantage of in anything you do, but leading with your values instead of your insecurities rubs off on people.
“80% of success is showing up” — Woody Allen
Sounds easy, right?
When I talk about “showing up,” I mean more than putting on clean underpants and driving to the office. Showing up is channeling all of your focus and passion into the present moment.
And now this one, and this one, and so on and so forth.
Showing up is how you walk, talk, listen, stay energized, stay humble, stay accountable. Especially when it’s the last thing you want to be doing in that moment. Getting out of bed in the morning can be a Herculean task, leading with your best self every single day is positively masochistic. Believe me, I know. And you’re never going to do it perfectly, but if you’re being your best self 75% of the time, it becomes a habit. Whatever you need to do personally to get to that state of mental and emotional presence — be it working out, meditation, reading, giving a friend a call once a week — it’s important to make that personal time in private so you can show up in public.
Did you know relationships take work? Yes, you’ve probably seen a sitcom.
Everyone knows that follow-up is important, so why do so many people suck at it? Why put in the time to build a rapport with someone if you are going to let the relationship fizzle out?
Following up is more than a pleasantry or a gentle reminder of something that should get done. It shows the kind of organization and tenacity that you will bring to any project, and to any client’s career. It shows you pay attention to relationships, and that you put in the work to get them right. People remember this stuff!
Remember people’s interests, go out of your way to show a mutual interest, to foster common ground. A client of mine fell in love with Valiant Comics a couple of years ago and I set up a meeting with two of their creative directors so he could express his appreciation and get on the ground floor of their eventual movie universe.
We all forget, we all get lazy. And sometimes you feel like a follow-up will be too late to matter. You’re wrong. Pick up the phone and check in. The most likely response?
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to call you.”
Pay attention to the little things.
“Enjoy the little things in life, because one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” — Kurt Vonnegut
If you’re only living in anticipation of the next big thing, you’ll miss details that can completely change your perspective. Or completely blow your mind. If you miss the small things on the way to the big things, the big things won’t feel nearly as big. Value gets lost in the blur. Ferris Bueller said something about this…
Sure, it’s challenging to slow down and savor something small in a town that moves at warp speed. However, if you shift your mindset — if you’re showing up — you’ll be rewarded by amazing people and actions that fix in your memory.
For me, this means noticing when someone helps out, and then thanking them — no matter if the deed was big or small. It means recognizing a subtle choice one of my clients made in a role that adds nuance to the performance or shows growth as an artist. It means hearing that a former assistant has been promoted and sending a note of congratulations. It means having a conversation with a valet or the guy who delivers our mail.
These are such simple daily tasks, yet they are always teaching me new things about others, about myself, and how the world works.
I was thinking just the other day about some of the little things I’ve focused on that have made a big difference in my career:
- I got to know and work with small agencies. They might not have the bargaining power or precedent of the big dogs, but in giving them time and attention — by knowing what they are doing and how they are doing it — I have developed (lucrative) relationships.
- Before I had clients, I spent my days around photographers. You know why? Think about it … what do photographers do all day? Who are they taking pictures of? The talent. Photographers spend all day with actors and actresses, and no one else is contacting photographers.
- I spoke at all the acting schools I could. This is where the future talent lives. I would always tell them to combine the craft with knowledge of how to navigate the town; that’s how a career takes off.
- Back when I couldn’t meet with clients, when I was first getting started, I would meet with all the casting directors I could. Even though I couldn’t contribute talent, I added value because of my story and my experience. I had strong relationships with them when my time did come around. In fact, when I first met Bella Heathcote, one of my clients, it was when I was out to lunch with Matt Skrobalak — a friend and a casting director.
Paying attention to the little things means more than taking notice. It means you celebrate them, cherish them, and seek them out. Others will value that you’ve noticed. It strengthens not only your business relationships but your human relationships.
And if you don’t think the little things matter, you’ve probably never had a pebble stuck in your shoe.
Master the art of ass-kissing without kissing ass.
You will find plenty of brown nosers in town. They are painful to be around. On one level, they annoy you to death. On another, your heart breaks for their obliviousness.
Side note because I thought this was funny. Webster’s actually has a definition for “brown noser”: from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought.
Definitions are truly amazing things, huh?
Now let’s be serious: A little flattery never hurts. While there is kindness in this town, there are also hungry egos. Feeding them the right way can make all the difference.
So here’s a crash course on ass-kissing without kissing ass:
- Ask for advice. Curiosity is a sign of intelligence — a sign of a growth mindset. It lets someone know that you value his or her point-of-view.
- Argue a valid counterpoint, but end in agreement. It shows that you’re not a yes-man, and it makes the other person feel like they’ve led you to see the light.
- Research — know more about the person than a stranger would know. People appreciate when you have taken a genuine interest in learning about them.
- Make small talk active. Small talk is where 93% of ass-kissing occurs. So instead of asking someone how their day is going, ask “what are you working on?” Instead of saying, “I hope you survived the traffic,” say, “let’s get to work so you can beat the traffic home.” Just move the conversation quickly to something that is actually important to them. They get the focus, you keep your nose clean.
Like all things in life, calibration is key. But when you find the right balance, this strategy can be a true work of art.
Don’t underestimate the value of your unique narrative on your work and to the lives of those around you. Where you’ve been, what you’ve experienced, and what moves you adds something to the dynamic of this town.
Everybody wants to be somebody else. The next Angelina. The next Charlie Kaufman. The next Steven Spielberg.
I guarantee the past, present, and future you is much, much better.
Build your reputation in an authentic way. If someone in town wants to be in the business of YOU, there should be no alternative. Believe in your own narrative, your own personality, and you’ll corner a market that believes in it as well.
There are many remarkably talented managers in this town who can take talent to the next level. My value is that I’m me, and there’s a market that values that.
Just a few parting thoughts for the TL;DR crowd:
If you’re at point A and you want to get to point C, it is B that matters. B is where you jump out of the plane. B is where your hands get dirty. B is falling on your ass and climbing back up again.
Nobody gets what they want by dreaming about it, talking about it, or insisting that Mexico is going to pay for it.
Success is never an accident. Success does not arrive at your door like a cheese grater from Amazon. You have to go out and get it.
Never hope for more than you are willing to work for.
B is the point in the movie where our hero is trying to achieve her goal, in spite of relentless opposition that stands in her way. If she’s not working like crazy towards that goal, it’s hard to really care about what happens. If you can compel this town through your actions, there’s a good chance of turning your story into a blockbuster.
Thanks for reading! Please share, comment and heart the story if you enjoyed it. Join my mailing list here to get the next one sent directly to your inbox.
Want more? Read my previous blog on the GIVE Theory: Success is Measured by What You Do for Others.