The Truth About Nepotism in Hollywood: It's The Whole System
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Today I’m going to be talking about the showbiz axiom “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It’s an expression about as well known in Hollywood as “Martini shot,” “deferred payment,” and “don’t look directly in Ms. DeGeneres’ eyes, she takes it as a territorial challenge and will maul you.” It’s likely you’ve heard this phrase before, whether you’re in what we call “the biz (short for ‘the business’)” or if you have a real job. But I don’t think most people realize how true it is, nor to what extent it’s true. You see …
It’s Not WHAT You Know…
Here’s the dirty secret of the television and film writing industries: you don’t actually have to be that good at it to get a job. There’s a certain skill floor you need to surpass, sure, but being able to master the basics is generally better than being able to consistently pull off staggering works of heartbreaking genius. I’m not saying this as a knock on contemporary film or television, but rather as a knock to myself and my own naïveté.
There was a time when I believed that if I simply wrote a sufficiently brilliant screenplay I would get work, no problem. This is a really pernicious belief among new screenwriters, and it’s one that’s often spread by established writers. If you’re a once-in-a-generation Mozart-style genius of screenwriting, then yes, maybe your script will hit the Black List and you’ll have Disney and Universal having their champions fight each other to the death for the right to have one of those forest fire helicopters dump money over your house.
A weird side effect of this is that a lot of received wisdom on screenwriting isn’t actually true anymore, but there are still lots of self-appointed gurus who will tell you that if your script contains the phrase WE SEE or a specific music cue then prospective buyers put your picture on a big Wild West-style wanted poster that says BROKE THE ARCANE LAWS and hang it up on the Wall of Shame forever to make sure they never accidentally hire you.
Look at Ratatouille – a perfectly fine movie that begins with an exposition dump in a void followed by an in media res opening scene which leads into a freeze-frame “yep, that’s me” moment. It committed three mortal screenwriting “sins” in roughly the time it takes to squeeze off a furtive dump in a Wal-Mart camping section, and it also made about $624,000,000.
The point is, there’s a lot of really intense arguing among young screenwriters about stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter. If you’re ever in the unlikely situation where you’re going to be attacked by screenwriters (perhaps you’re wearing a t-shirt which implies that Jackie Brown isn’t good?), the easiest way to break it up is to redirect their anger at each other by asking them if they underline or bold their sluglines. They’ll be so busy ineffectually bickering you’ll have ample time to saunter to safety. The answer to the bolded-or-underlined sluglines debate, by the way, is that it doesn’t matter. I don’t do either: I just rawdog it to the next scene.
Even if you really agonize over a script, there’s no guarantee it’ll help you. Quality alone isn’t enough. A friend of mine once told me she got staffed after writing a script based on Red Dead Redemption and it placed well in a contest, so I decided to try and replicate that strategy. I decided I would write a script that would be both artistically meritorious and marketable enough that it any execs reading it would hear *cash register sound effect.*
So I wrote a limited-location horror script with minimal characters and effects that was about inherited masculine trauma. I entered it into the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting – which is, by the way, the only screenwriting contest worth entering – and it placed in the Top 50. I thought my ship had finally come in, that I’d be closing deals and getting staffing offers in no time. Instead, what I got was *wind howling over an empty expanse of desert sound effect.* Nothing. Because I didn’t have the right connections to capitalize on the attention my script was getting. Just having a “good” script wasn’t enough.
I did get a manager through it, though.
…It’s WHO You Know.
But guess the hell what? I had met my manager years before at a Christmas party of some producer friends of mine, whom I knew from doing PA work on their films. There was a pre-existing relationship there. That’s the grease that keeps Hollywood’s gears turning. That, the blood of unpaid independent contractors, and LaCroix. Because if you want to make it in the industry, you have to know people. That’s the long and short of it. That’s the business. Like it or not, the writing is secondary – there are just too many people clawing at the door like a pack of zombies, so the only way they know who to let in is if someone already on the inside vouches for them.
When people say “it’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know,” they’re usually discussing nepotism. This is one of the few things that normies actually get right more often than their showbiz counterparts. Yes, there’s nepotism in Hollywood. There just is. The weird thing is how in denial so many in Hollywood are about it.
Call it Sore Winner Syndrome. Call it a desperate fear of reckoning with their own privilege. Call it what you will, but as I’ve said before, Hollywood is a monarchy masquerading as a meritocracy. There’s a really weird tendency from showbiz types to equivocate nepotism. It’s usually phrased as some variation of this: “Sure, nepotism may have gotten them the job, but nobody keeps a job through nepotism!” But, as I went to pains to point out in the previous section, getting the job is the hard part. Hell, just getting the introductory meeting is the hard part. Having your writing be up-to-par is not that difficult. (Writing excellently is incredibly hard – or so I assume, never having done so myself.)
The other weird way people will try to defend nepotism is by saying that, actually, Little Stevie Movies isn’t actually the son of Stephen L. Movies, the inventor of movies, but actually his third cousin once removed, so it’s not literally nepotism. To which I offer this rebuttal: is there a gas leak in your house? The “nepo” in “nepotism” comes from the Latin nepos, meaning nephew, so you might as well say it’s not actually nepotism unless someone is helping the son of their sibling. Rich, well-connected people don’t even have to be in the film industry to leverage their positions to get people they know jobs.
Are you going to look me in the eye and tell me that Donald Glover went through thousands and thousands of applications and it just so happened that, besides his own brother, the child of one of the most powerful people in the history of the planet was the most qualified to be a writer on Atlanta? Come on. Just hire a Hapsburg, why don’t you? I’m sure their “lived experience” of being a product of incest would make them a natural fit for the House of the Dragon writer’s room.
Here’s another thing I’ve never understood about the culture of screenwriting: Why do so many people not benefiting from nepotism defend or mitigate it so vociferously? Do they think if they become a Model Peasant then mayhaps m’lord will a sip of molasses allow? If you want to work in show business, you have a choice to make: do you want to be them, or do you want to beat them?
Every opportunity I’ve had in my career came from some form of nepotism. Every interview for a job, every meeting, every friend-of-a-friend introducing me to someone who could help me – all of it came from getting to know people. And even if someone isn’t directly getting jobs by someone in their familial circle getting them interviews, isn’t coming from a family that’s wealthy enough to support you a form of soft nepotism in and of itself? If daddy’s giving you enough of his salary from working the Lockheed-Raytheon Orphan-Seeking Missile Project to pay your entire rent, that’s still a gigantic leg up! Time is a benefit of the wealthy, and if your family can meet all your needs while you write all day and network all night, that’s a gigantic advantage.
Writing for film and TV is largely a pursuit of the rich, like fox hunting, smoking powdered adrenochrome, and not putting off necessary dental work. It’s a big club, but odds are that you ain’t in it. If you want to write in film and TV, you should know you’ll be fighting an uphill battle if, like me, you’ve ever drank out of a Mason jar due to practicality rather than because that’s what your $14 hummus-flavored boba tea was served to you in.
Is There a Lesson in All This?
My goal with this column – and this series in general – is not to scare you. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from following their dreams, but at the same time I feel like I owe it to you to be as honest as possible in portraying what my particular experiences have taught me. There are plenty of exceptions, and also I’m basically a weapons-grade dumbass, so don’t think I’m trying to say all of this is universally true.
With that being said, remember up there when I talked a bit about how having a really good script isn’t usually enough to get you to the Promised Land? Don’t make the same mistakes I did: unless you’re writing something you plan to shoot yourself, don’t hyperfocus on a single script. Don’t spend your life trying to make one flawless script so perfect it transcends human perception. Having several good scripts is probably better than having a single great script, because you never know what the market will look like for your magnum opus once it’s done. You don’t want to be in a position where you finally pitch the thing you’ve spent a decade writing only to hear “that’s not what we’re looking for right now, but we’d love to hear what else you’ve got” only to respond “nothing, but I might have a great new outline ready two presidents from now!”
Particularly in television, being able to have a wide range is a valuable skill. The more samples you have, the broader the bases you can cover when your representation is sending out your work for staffing. I’m not advocating for you to churn out scripts as fast as you can, but you should be able to know when a script is done or you’ve squeezed all the potential you can out of it. Make your limitations work for you.
The conventional wisdom used to be that you need to focus on a single genre (especially if you write comedy), but I’m not sure how true that still is. People like Craig Mazin (formerly of comedies such as 1997’s Rocketman and The Hangover, currently of crushing misery-avalanches Chernobyl and the upcoming The Last of Us series) and Jordan Peele (formerly of MadTV, currently the King of Hollywood) seem to have pretty firmly put that belief to rest.
I myself am, of course, ostensibly a comedy writer, in that my weird, sad lectures here on Cracked are how I indulge my wicked food-and-electricity addiction, but my horror and sci-fi works have gotten me far more professional attention than my comedy scripts have. I barely write comedy scripts anymore, partially because most of my comedic energies are spent here, and partially after struggling unsuccessfully to break into Hollywood for nearly a decade my imagination has become far darker than it once was.
Finally, networking. It’s a gross word. There’s a whole movie about what an ominous word it is. Virtually everything in Hollywood comes from someone else deciding to help you. So here’s my advice: don’t “network.” Don’t think of this as some business school LinkedIn check-out-my-profile nonsense. Make real connections. Social media, and Twitter in particular, are great tools to meet other writers, both at your level and more successful. You can rise above the sleazy Hollywood transactional friendships: those are always precarious at best, anyway. Make real connections with people you admire.
Unless you think you can get a really sweet gig, then I forgive you in advance for changing your whole personality in exchange for success as long as you promise to sneak me into some WGA mixers.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock