The Top 18 Ways to Become a TV Director
Some filmmakers spend their summer vacations on a Greek island, lounging with their Peloponnesian lover while watching old VHS bootlegs of Cassevetes films. I, on the other hand, spent my summer vacation going to an average of one meeting a day in order to become a TV director. Mind you, I’m not giving up on indie film, but we all know the drill by now: TV is the new indie film. It pays well, it’s more creative, it’s more instantly gratifying and all the cool kids are doing TV now. Hell, the Amazon pilot list alone has more Sundance alumni directors than Sundance Channel!
Thankfully, I had some guidance in this process. My pal Matthew Harrison (a Sundance winner himself and a back-when-it-wasn’t-as-cool TV director for Sex and the City) had attended some panels at the DGA. I went to a great one there, too – led by Miguel Arteta (who’s successfully straddled the indie film and TV world for over a decade). Between Matt’s exhaustive notes, Miguel’s inspirational words and some tips from a few other filmmaker pals like Joe Russo and Joe Carnahan, who’ve both had success with TV, I was set for my summer of meetings!
So here’s my simple distillation of how to turn your burgeoning lifestyle as an indie filmmaker into a lucrative and creatively fulfilling career as a TV director. And even if you’re still looking down at your nose at TV, most of these lessons will come in handy prepping for any Hollywood film meeting.
1. Recut Your Reel.
If you’ve directed one or more reasonably decent indie films, you’ve got plenty of material already for a killer reel. Remember, the execs who will be watching these have limited time and even shorter attention spans. They’re like teenagers with expense accounts. So keep your reel under three minutes, or shorter if you can. Show as many recognizable “name” faces as you can. Show you can use movie toys: cranes, dollies, green screens or drones. Show explosions and guns. Use cool swish-pan sound effects and awesome music. And zombies! Remember: You’re going to be competing with veteran TV directors who cut their reels with footage from actual TV shows they’ve already directed. So your reel has to at least look like you know what TV looks like. When you’re done, stick it on Vimeo.
2. Redo website.
You know how you spent three years begging thousands of people to “like” the Facebook page for your last Canon 7D mumble-slasher epic? Forget it. You need a simple, clean, easy-to-find website about you. It literally should be www.FirstnameLastname.com. If you don’t have your own URL, get it now. And then find an elegant web design for it. Not a blog – a website. So forget WordPress. I used something called CargoCollective – it’s meant for visual artists, but works well for filmmakers and handles Vimeo embeds nicely. I’m sure there are plenty others. Whatever you do, just make sure you can control, design and update your own content. Don’t farm it out if you can help it. And if you really can’t do it yourself, find a cool web designer in Eastern Ukraine who’s already motivated to finish jobs quickly.
Once you have a site, keep the main page elegant: the first thing people should see is your reel. Make sure it works well on mobile devices, too (since chances are someone will be seeing it in the toilet). Something that will make you look like real TV director is to have extended scenes or clips that are grouped by genres that “sound” like familiar TV genres: Drama, Comedy, Multi-Cam, Sci-Fi, Docu. It doesn’t matter that all those clips could have come from your one and only movie. Deconstruct your film (or films) and recut them into these genre-specific reels. These can be a little longer than your main reel, but also consider what would happen if an exec stumbles upon your Comedy reel first on Vimeo or through an email link from a colleague, without seeing your main reel? So make them all graphically and stylistically consistent, and don’t reuse the same material much, if at all. Make sure there’s a graphic with your web URL at the end or beginning of each reel. Finally, your website should have your basics: a bio (a short one), photo and contact info.
3. Update your IMDb and Wikipedia pages.
The first thing any exec will do is check out your IMDbPro page. (Sometimes you can even hear assistants typing it in based solely on your caller ID… before you’ve even said hello!) So make sure it looks impressive. You’ve won awards! You work nonstop! Your StarMeter number is better than theirs!
Anything you can do to goose your page, you should. Did you loan a boom pole to a friend for her film? Then make sure she puts you in as a “production consultant”! Just optioned a script from your cousin? List it in development! Do the photos of you look like you’re standing next to a big camera? They should! Make sure your contact info looks impressive and will actually let someone contact you, even if that means it’s your own cellphone and email. Put your reel up on IMDb, too. As for Wikipedia, make sure you have a page. Trust me — the execs won’t, and they’ll be impressed that you do. Make sure your Wikipedia page or IMDb bio have at least something cool in there that humanizes you: you ran for the state senate in Utah, you survived Ebola in Liberia, or your grandfather invented cream cheese.
4. Make a List.
Whether you have a stone-cold agent at CAA, or you’re cold calling yourself, start making a personal list today. Do it in SimpleText or TextEdit: This is a list you will keep long after your cracked bootleg of Word 11.1 has ceased to function on your Apple Watch. Organize it by network, studio, production company (or “pods” as they call them in the TV biz) and individual shows and showrunners. Write down every assistant’s name and email: an assistant today will be running HBO in 10 years. And she will be flattered that you remembered when she was an assistant. (And then she will call security about the stalker.)
Execs in the TV world move around a lot – so write down any identifying notes that will refresh your sense memory (“obsessed w/ Dunkin Donuts,” “red hair / went to Wellesley,” “awkward silence / don’t stare at nose!”). Most of your research you can do through a combination of IMDbPro (which usually has phone numbers but rarely emails) and Variety (which often says what shows execs are working on). If you know one name at one company and you search them on LinkedIn, it frequently will tell you other names at the same company or people with similar job descriptions at other companies. But all these sources tend to lag, so Google the trades to see who’s been upped, nixed, or ankled lately. And remember that CAA agent you have? When they dump you in a year, they’re not just going to hand you their digital rolodex. So develop your own contacts and relationships personally.
5. Whom to Meet With?
You need to realize that in order to get a job as a TV director, you have to be approved and hired by a holy triumvirate: the showrunner, the network and the studio. Most people will tell you that the showrunner (or on some shows it’s the “producing director”) has the most say, but even they need to get approvals from the suits at the network and the studio (and/or production company). Even if you have a personal relationship with a showrunner, you’re still not a shoo-in. I had one showrunner friend tell me point blank that he’d never stick his neck out for a friend because if the friend screws up the episode, it’s his own ass on the line. So, by all means, get in touch with your old film school or festival buddy who’s now running a show. But know that the first thing they’ll tell you to do is get cozy with the suits and then come back to them.
Speaking of showrunners, if you can find a directing producer on a show or a regular director, it might be worth “shadowing” (essentially standing around eating craft service). But if you already know how to direct, then shadowing really only leads to an actual job if you’ve already laid the groundwork with the suits and the showrunner. Otherwise, you’re putting on 10 pounds for nothing.
And which execs to meet with? At some companies they’ll divide their ranks between development execs and “current series” execs – in which case, you want the “current series” ones. They’re less sexy than their development counterparts, but they’re also more likely to hire you. In other companies, though, they may divvy up their staff by genre. Comedy or Drama execs might handle both development and current. And the bigger companies and networks will divide into both comedy/drama and development/current.
By the way, there’s been a lot of talk about diversity in TV directing lately. One manager told me that you can’t book your first job “unless you’re a woman, minority or friend of J.J. Abrams.” So I talked to an award-winning Latina director friend, and she said it’s still impossible to break in. And skinny white Jewish guys? Forget it. I talked to an indie film director friend of J.J. Abrams. He said try as he might, even J.J. couldn’t get him hired on one of his shows! In other words, everyone’s looking for an excuse to say no. You just need to give them a reason to say yes. (And if that means hinting strongly you’re a post-op trans so they meet their quota, then so be it. What are they going to do, look under the hood?)
6. How to Get the Meetings.
Remember, part of these execs’ jobs is to hire new directors. Not often, and probably not you. But they have to meet directors somehow, and they rarely go to film festivals (they’re prepping for pilot season during Sundance and shooting by SXSW). Also, when a director saunters in, these are simple, low-stress meetings that all execs like to have in their schedule from time to time. Make sure they know you’re asking for a “general” (exec-speak for “general get-to-know-you meeting”) to meet as a director, rather than being there to pitch a show. Essentially it’s a first date, and neither of you are expected to put out.
By and large, TV execs are inclined to hire (or at least consider) indie film directors: We know how to work on a tight schedule, shoot 9 pages a day and do it on a budget. I asked one exec on the Fox lot if they ever met with commercial directors and she just laughed. She said she’d even rather have an indie director than a successful studio one, who only knows how to shoot a page-and-a-half a day and demands a fresh latte with every take.
One secret is to know what time of year is least stressful for them to take meetings. Summer turned out to be great for this – a lot of people are on vacation, but it’s usually the senior execs. So if the person you want to meet with is in the office, then it might mean that the boss who’s usually breathing down their neck is in the Hamptons. By the time fall rolls around, many suits are too busy taking pitch meetings for new shows to meet with directors. By winter, they’re all obsessed with pilots. And by late spring, they’re busy meeting with writers who are all scrambling for staff positions. But as many of the cable networks and production companies go on a year-round schedule, it’s hard to predict who’s going to be ready when.
You just have to be patient and persistent. You’re never going to be a top scheduling priority for them. Your meeting will get cancelled. Sometimes with only an hour’s notice. Don’t get mad. Just contact the assistant (or have your people do it) and calmly ask for their boss’s next “avails”. And give your “avails”, too. But don’t look desperate. Never give the impression that you’re just sitting around in your underwear all day playing Minecraft just waiting for Hollywood to call. Instead, hint that you’re meeting with other, more powerful networks or getting your next feature made. I had some meetings this summer that were rescheduled over 20 times over the course of three months. But by the time you get in the room, no one will remember.
7. Research their Shows.
No matter whom you meet with, make sure you know what shows are on their company’s slate. So if it’s a network, look up their schedule. If it’s a production company, check IMDbPro and Google the trades. While you don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the shows (that’s more for when you’re up for a specific job on a specific show), you do need to be able to fake a passing knowledge of all of them. So watch a few episodes on the company’s website, or Hulu, or your favorite Russian piracy site. Or in most cases, just watching season trailers or “best of” scenes on YouTube will give you a sense of the shows.
8. Research The People.
Spend some time researching the exact person you’re meeting with. Check them out on IMDb, Variety, LinkedIn. See if you have any mutual friends on Facebook (but DON’T friend request them… that’s just creepy). Google them to see where they worked before, when they got promoted to their current position, what school they went to and if they’ve been involved with any scandals you should avoid making reference to. And then do the same with the assistants who helped set up the meetings. (When you walk in: “Hey, don’t I recognize you from ‘SC? Go Trojans!”)
9. Go Early.
Plan to go early to your meeting. In L.A., we all know traffic can be a nightmare, so plan accordingly. But it’s more than just not being late (a definite no-no). When you get to the building, take a quick photo of the building directory and staff directory if there happens to be one. Later that day, zoom in and I guarantee it will give you other ideas of people to meet with, and sometimes their direct extensions: “Hey, I was just over at Sony and your name came up.”
Once in the office lobby, make nice with the receptionist – she (or he) will be an important assistant next week, and an exec by year’s end. When you walk in, chances are you’ll literally be looking down at them. Resist the Seinfeldian temptation to stare down their shirts, or smirk at their stress-induced receding hairlines.
Of course, if you get a meeting with Warner Brothers TV, try to schedule it for “smooth jazz Friday.” The receptionist/security guard is an amazing guy named Don Bookman who’s worked there for 24 years. He’s also a professional musician who’s got his sax tucked under his desk. He’ll serenade you in the waiting room and wish you a hearty good luck as you go to your meeting. Ron is awesome! (And what does it say about Hollywood when the most talented person on the lot is the security guard?)
10. The Pre-Meeting Meeting.
If there’s a couch and a chair in the waiting room, sit in the middle of the couch. Why? So when a team of four or five people comes in, they’ll have to sit around you, and talk over you. This is perfect for eavesdropping. By virtue of the fact that they’re a team (often carrying some kind of presentations, paperwork or scripts), they’re pitching a show. Which means they haven’t hired a pilot director yet. Introduce yourself. Talk to them. They’ll be more nervous than you. By virtue of the fact that you’re meeting with the same company as them, you’ve naturally got enough credibility to meet with them, too. Exchange cards and wish them good luck. Over the course of the summer, I met studio heads, Silicon Valley investors, award-winning screenwriters and showrunner friends of mine in lobbies. In most of those cases, the lobby meeting wound up more productive – or at least more interesting – than the real one.
11. Check for Breaking News.
You want to make good use of your early arrival time. It’s easy to get distracted by the glossy Hollywood magazines on the little tables. Chances are, you haven’t seen a real honest-to-God paper version of the Hollywood trades in a long time. Some of these could be collectors’ items!
Instead, whip out your iPhone and do a search limited to the last 24 hours. If there’s breaking news, you want to know it. Did the company just get nominated for 15 Emmys that morning? Did the show you binged on overnight just get cancelled? Did one of their lead actors just get busted for mescaline possession on a transatlantic flight from South Korea (she swore she thought it was kimchee)?
When you congratulate them on their good news, or commiserate on their bad, you do more than just break the ice. It shows them that you pay attention to, and respect, both TV as a medium, but also the TV exec lifestyle as a career choice. No exec wants to hire a pretentious indie film snob, and you’ve got to dissuade them of that preconception even if you are one.
12. Do You Take The Water?
There is an ongoing debate among my filmmaking colleagues who have faced the age-old dilemma: Take the water or don’t take the water? Every assistant in Hollywood will make you this Faustian offer. Are you so low on the Hollywood totem pole that even the most basis sustenance of life has to be doled out to you in six-ounce plastic bottles of contempt? If you take it, do you give up your soul? Have they won already? And if you don’t take the water, is that a sadistic way to exacerbate the already tense relationship between the exec and the assistant? (“Wait, did my assistant offer you water? Kelly, did you offer him water?!? Kelly, goddammit!!!), or is it a keen trick to expose the inner dynamics of a fraught office staff and find their weaknesses? Sun Tsu, I’m told, never took the water.
Another solution is to take the coffee. For me, I know I do better in a meeting if I’m overly caffeinated. I have more energy, I talk faster and I look more excited to be there! But, if I start drinking the coffee when the meeting begins, the caffeine will only kick in when I leave the parking garage after the meeting.
The trick is to drink your own coffee an hour before the meeting. When you first arrive, the assistant or receptionist will offer you water, but they’ll always have coffee if you ask. Keep it simple and ass-kicking: Black, no sugar. That way you and the assistant don’t have to deal with stir sticks, sugar packets or creamers, and the uncomfortable moment of looking for a little trash can just as the executive wants to shake your hand.
Because there’s no cream, the coffee will be hot – if you’re a wussy like me, probably too hot to drink. But fake a couple sips in the meeting. Then, when you’re rattling off humorous bon mots and indie film horror stories a mile a minute, the exec will think it’s the coffee talking and you’re not just a crack addict or have unmedicated ADHD. TV execs like to know that you’ve got a lot of energy – especially if you’re pitching yourself for comedies. If you look listless and bored, your episodes will be, too.
13. Choose Wisely Where to Sit.
The exec may give you a cue to sit in the least powerful seat in the room. Don’t take the bait. Instead, walk in the room like you own the network and sit with your back to the window (if there is one). In an ideal situation, you want the exec squinting at your backlit visage, not the other way around.
If they lead you to a conference room (especially if you’re meeting with more than one person), go to the short end of the table that faces the door. Make the execs sit on one of the long sides, or better yet, with their backs against the door.
Whatever you do, never sit with your back to an interior glass window, unless the blind is pulled. Otherwise, the assistant is going to be signaling non-stop to their boss that they have an urgent phone call or their next appointment just got there. But if the exec’s back is to the interior window, you can always nod-hello to random people who walk by the hallway. The exec will think you know their rival colleagues in the office – or worse, you’re squash buddies with their boss – and they will respect and fear you more.
14. Wear or Do Something Memorable.
As I’ve learned, most shows aren’t going to hire a new TV director for its first season. They want the seasoned veterans for the first and even second years. And if a show’s been on the air for four or more years, then all the episodes will either be directed by cast and crew members who were promised episodes. Either way, they’re not going to hire fresh meat. So maybe, just maybe, a show in its third year will have one available slot!
So why do these meetings at all? Because in a year or two or five, when you’re buddies with a showrunner, they’ll try to get approval from the network or studio, and the suits will say, “Oh, yeah! That guy with the hat, the goofy shoes and the funny Oscar story? I kinda remember him. Sure, give him a shot!”
You’re playing the long game here, so the execs you meet with have to be able to visualize you if they’re going to remember you. At the profound risk of sounding like a douche for calling it “personal branding,” that is kind of what you need in order for people to remember you. All those IMDb credits melt together with everyone else’s. But a strong photo on IMDb that looks like how you looked in the meeting could make all the difference in the world. Then again, spilling your scalding coffee on their lap and wiping off their crotch with your clammy hand will also make you memorable.
15. Tell Funny Stories About Yourself.
TV is looking for “storytellers.” I’m convinced someone in suit school taught them this. So, tell them some stories! Beginning, middle, end. One or two good personal anecdotes will show them you understand basic story structure and that you’re fun to be around. They like that.
16. Ask Them Personal Questions.
Let’s face it, no one ever asks some of these junior execs how they got into the business. And like everyone else, I’m sure they have an interesting story – working in the mailroom at Gersh, getting yelled at by Scott Rudin or doing stuntwork on a kickboxing movie in the Philippines. Laugh at their stories! Look impressed that they went to CalState Northridge for film school! Nod appreciatively when they tell you they really want to go to Sundance one day! Remember, their parents have very little understanding or respect for what they do, so at least you should.
17. Get something Out of Each Meeting.
You will not walk away from any of these meetings with a job. You know it. They know it. And that’s fine. But that doesn’t mean you should walk out empty-handed either.
So, if you’re at a network meeting, ask them if they have any colleagues you should meet with at their partner studios. If you’re at a studio, ask them about network execs you should meet. Maybe this was a comedy meeting, but you also want to meet with their drama person? Maybe there’s a director they think you should shadow? Get names! It’s not a bad idea to have a pen and scrap paper handy to write these down – either while you’re sitting there, or as soon as you duck down the hall to use their restroom. (Trust me, after all this coffee, you’re going to want to use the restroom before you get back in your car.)
Finally, make sure you have some actionable followup when you leave: You’re going to send them a screener link to your last film. They’re going to send you a pilot script that’s kicking around. You’re going to teach them how to play squash over the weekend. Whatever it is, just make sure that the meeting isn’t the last time this person ever hears from you. They may not know it yet, but you’ll be back.
18. The Parking Garage Meeting After the Meeting.
Like Bob Woodward’s cryptic liaisons with Deep Throat, sometimes your best experiences are in the parking garage after the meeting. When leaving Nickelodeon, I ran into a successful director friend who was on his way to meet the execs I’d just met with. He put in a good word on my behalf, and I secured an even better follow-up meeting a few weeks later. And after an altogether dispiriting meeting at HBO (they rarely hire directors outside of their showrunners’ inner circles), I was surprised to actually get an offer! Mind you, it was the parking valet offering to buy my 2003 Mazda minivan, but an offer is an offer. Now, if I could just get Showtime to make a counter-offer, I will have made it in the TV biz!