The Show Business Whisperer
Over the years many people have asked me for help on how to break into show business. I’ve even been invited to schools to answer student questions. I find it odd that people would ask me because my career path has been so unconventional. I’m not really an actor. I’ve never auditioned for anything except a commercial for a toothbrush where I was supposed to be a decaying tooth with a gruff New York accent…I didn’t get the part. I could suggest finding success in show business by exploiting the relationship with your sadistic, narcissistic best friend, and be willing to put really gross stuff in your mouth, but that would be glib and unhelpful.
So, before I continue, I must preface this blog with an important point: There is no one way to succeed in show business! How else could you explain Kari Anne Peniche. So, here is a summary of the sincere advice I’ve given to people over the years.
The first thing I ask someone who wants advice is simple: What do you want to do? It’s amazing how many people don’t know. They often have vague notions of wanting to be in the business, but that’s about it. Knowing what you want can give you a focused in-point to break into the business. There are many, many jobs under the umbrella of show business: acting, hosting, writing, directing, editing, producing, Network executives, sound recording, camera directing (and operating), production designing, hair, makeup, agents, managers, casting, distribution, publicity, special effects, set-building, publicity, stunt-work, craft service, grips, gaffers, sound, animal wrangling, transport, lawyers, etc… My father once said that TV shows and movies couldn’t possibly need all those names you see on the end credits. I believed him until I got in the business. Making a movie or a TV show is truly collaborative. There are a ton of potential jobs. So, it’s good to know what you want, but knowing what you want isn’t a prison sentence. You can always change courses. I initially wanted to be a comedy writer, but being an on-camera jack ass man-child is what naturally evolved. And it didn’t come quickly. Just because you know what you want doesn’t mean you start out there.
Film school can be great because you get to make something. You also get the added pleasure of watching deliciously bad student productions. There’s nothing like watching a train-wreck student film. My favorites were the ubiquitous depictions of teen angst suicide and wonderfully botched attempts at making experimental art films. I made some God awful stuff in film school. One of my most disastrous student films was inspired by the Hare Krishna religion (no joke.) It starred my pal Bobby (he’s the guy whose pubic hair I ate and whose nipple I suckled for KVS humiliations) playing the King of Junk Food, who destroyed the planet with his bad gas. But you don’t have to go to film school to be successful. I’m a big believer in self-educating. Watching, reading, asking, volunteering and practicing are always good things you can do outside of film school. I volunteered at City TV cuing video tapes for Much Music. It was a good way to see things from the inside. It was also a good way to see all the pretty girls who worked there…for that alone, Moses deserves his genius status. If you want to make it you need to be hungry…and a little luck never hurt. You can’t be a dilettante. You have to be serious. Always be a student of your art, and don’t be too hip for the business part. Even someone like Paris Hilton works very hard to be Paris Hilton. Don’t let her image fool you. Being Paris Hilton is a full time job…and I respect that. But if you want to get paid and learn at the same time, a great place to start is as a production assistant (aka PA). That’s how I started when I graduated film school. I wanted to direct and write, but the real world put me where I probably belonged…at the bottom, getting coffee, picking up equipment, dropping off mail, driving producers, execs and talent, as well as doing both business and personal errands for the people I worked with. You’re first in, last out, and depending on who you work for, it can feel like a thankless job. Initially I was upset about being a PA, but soon realized that it was the best way to learn the business and develop relationships, which would hopefully pay-off later. In fact, I used to deliver mail to an executive who later became one of KVS’s executive producers. I didn’t make a lot of money as a PA, but I learned how production offices and sets are run. And most importantly one day I got to drive Nev Campbell home after an audition. Wow, was she ever cute. I get it, Cusack. I get it.
Much of the advice I give for show business success, for me, is common sense. You want to be a writer, write and read. And don’t just read the work of artists you admire, read their biographies and learn about how they approached the business. Both are important. There are lots of people who will give you advice. But unlike me, most will charge you for the privilege. There are countless how-to show business books out there. And for God sakes, and this is important, if you’re creative, always make something. It doesn’t have to be good. Making bad stuff is part of learning. Years ago Kenny and I shot a video with Bobby – he was our Devine. Back then, long before we ever were on TV, it was just the three of us running around Toronto shooting what was to become a feature length mock documentary titled “The Last Days of Toronto”. There was no pressure. Nothing was at stake. It was just fun. In retrospect, those early attempts at filmmaking gave me some of the best laughs and memories of my creative life. Somehow, no matter what, you have to make something. I was lucky because Kenny had old school video decks and he could shoot and edit. We used home video cameras and borrowed school equipment whenever we could. We asked friends and family for money…whatever it took. It was never a matter of if, it was always a matter of how. If you’re not serious or creative enough to figure out a way to make something independently, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it…a little tough love there.
Selling is important to any business. You have to keep the shelves stacked, so to speak. Once you have something to sell, like a pitch for a show, or a script, you have to know who you’re selling it to…in other words, know the market. Learn what the Networks are buying. How? Read the trades, watch TV and watch movies. This may seem obvious, but most people that ask me for advice get a blank look when I ask them which Network would buy their idea. And know who you’re pitching. You don’t sell “Kenny Vs Spenny” to Disney. You don’t sell a movie-of-the-week called “Kathy Lee Gifford Story” to Spike. If you need an agent to get your work seen, get an agent. If you don’t know how to get an agent, ask someone who has an agent. If you can’t get an agent, keep trying, but never stop working. The more you work, the better you get. This ain’t rocket science, but it also ain’t easy. William Goldman famously wrote that no one knows what will sell. I believe it. Star Wars was rejected around Hollywood for years before it became a religion. Selling, unfortunately, is everything. Without it, how will people see your work?
Most of the advice-seekers who ask me for help are creative types; either they have a screenplay, or a vague idea for a television show, or movie. I always wonder what their motive is; money, fame, or a deep passion to tell a story? The first two are weak reasons to get into the creative side of show business. If you want to make money, become a producer…it will be a little easier. And that’s not put-down. Producers are very important. If it’s only fame that you’re after – and only you can judge that about yourself – my guess is that things probably won’t work out. The Internet and cable have made it easier for people to become famous. If fame is your goal, do something crazy and put it on Youtube…you might get lucky. But if you want a sustainable, long lasting career in show business, fame shouldn’t be your incentive…it should be about the work.
I see show business like any other business; the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. Like other businesses, it’s very competitive. Like other businesses, networking is important. Like other businesses, there’s no guarantee it will work out. There might literally be no business in show business. The main difference with most other businesses is the visibility if successful, and the myth that it somehow comes easy because you’re blessed with some elusive, magical talent. I’m not a big believer in talent. I realize it exists, but thank god the talented/gifted are not the only people who make it. Pavarotti and Shakespeare are talented, but sometimes I’d rather watch wrestling. (As an aside regarding talent; one thing I’ve consistently noticed is that so many of the creative innovators invariably had a parent, relative or sibling that exposed them to what eventually became their talent at a young age. It makes sense. If I was four years old and saw my Dad playing guitar a lot, it would, I think, to a certain extent, make the guitar less intimidating. That combined with a fierce work ethic, in my view, is what creates outstanding creativity. Sorry God.) I suppose you need some talent, but so much of the business is hard work, dedication and perseverance. I know many talented people who will never be successful in a business sense. The two are not mutually exclusive. And who you know can help too. I’ve had the benefit of knowing some great show business minds that have helped me get where I am. I admit that sometimes I’m not sure whether I should be grateful to them, or key their cars.
Passion is very important. Quick story. When I was in film school I took a course in documentary film. One day the Professor shows us Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”. Before he screened the film he told us that the first sequence, where Hitler flies into Nuremberg, wasn’t directed by Riefenstahl. Nazi promoting aside, it’s an amazing sequence. Hitler is arriving in Nuremberg in a plane. The shadow of the plane washes over the throngs of Nazi admirers, giving the impression that Hitler was a God dropping down from Heaven. It’s high art propaganda at its best. Anyway, we watched the long movie and afterwards I realized that I had left something back in the class room. I walked back to the room and found the Professor, alone. He had re-threaded the first reel and was watching the opening sequence again. I’ll never forget it. This man was passionate about what he did. Without real passion for what you do, stay home. Creativity, in my view, should be a compulsion. Even when I worked landscaping, or telemarketing jobs, I was always doing something creative in my spare time. If, or when, my career dies, or dips off, I know that whatever else I do, I will also be playing guitar or writing that novel that I’ve never been able to write. If you want to actually see the passion I’m talking about, watch the documentary “Anvil: The Anvil Story.” I’m not much for heavy metal, but these guys have passion.
Hunter Thompson once famously said that “show business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.” There’s some controversy about what exactly Thompson was referring to, but if it was show business in the U.S., I think it’s a reasonable assessment. Thankfully, in Canada, it isn’t that harsh. One thing for sure, show business on any side of the border is not for the faint of heart. It seems like not a day goes by where someone doesn’t write something nasty about me. My favorite recent comment had someone calling me a “fucktard”. Years ago that kind of attack bothered me. These days I find it funny. Regardless, it helps to have a well-formed ego and thick skin. My advice might be obvious to some. I’m just trying to address questions that I get a lot. I certainly don’t have any magic answers. These are some of the things I’ve learned through the course of my career. But what do I know…I’m just a fucktard.