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Turning a hobby into a career: my adventure in the screen trade

The acclaimed auteur David Lynch once remarked that he got into filmmaking because he wanted to see his paintings move. On a decidedly less poetic note, I got into film because of a misunderstanding.

It was the spring of my junior year. I was studying World Politics at Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in Central New York known for its open curriculum and its loose connection to the celebrated Broadway musical, Hamilton. I had recently accepted an internship offer for the upcoming summer with a court consultation service in New York. Pursuing my passions for politics and advocacy, I was eager to take what I believed would be a significant step forward on a path toward law school.

Then the sky fell.

While coordinating the logistics with my manager-to-be, she alerted me to a misprint in the application. “The start date for the position is April 15th, not June 15th. Can you make that work?" Unfortunately, I couldn't. Seeing as Hamilton is four hours north of Manhattan, the commute was hardly feasible. So, I was out of an internship.

I anxiously connected with friends, professors, and career counselors at Hamilton with hopes of finding something else quickly. But after a few weeks with no solid leads, I decided to try something else. Something I was nearly positive wouldn't work.

My start in film

During my freshman year at Hamilton, I took a film course titled Classics on Film. It was an introductory level class offered by Hamilton's Classics Department and was billed as "a study of films reflecting ancient Greek and Roman themes." I grew up reading playwrights such as Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca, and I'd always loved watching movies, so I figured this would be a fun class to supplement my political science courses.

But I found that I loved this course way more than anticipated.

The films we watched fascinated me beyond measure. While I'd always enjoyed going to movies with friends and occasionally binging a particularly gripping television series, I'd never stopped to analyze them critically. Taking this course inspired me to do so, and in my free time, I dug deeper.

I began reading the scripts of my favorite films and television shows and various books on film and visual theory. After a few weeks of independent study and conversations with my film professor, I felt inspired to put pen to paper and began experimenting with screenwriting.

At first, I had no idea what I was doing. While creative writing had always been a hobby, the specifics of the medium presented new challenges. Besides having to familiarize myself with the formatting, I had to work hard to adapt to the pacing, rhythm, and style of screenwriting, as it is nothing at all like traditional prose. And I loved every painful second of it.

My interest in screenwriting had blossomed into a full-time hobby by the spring of my junior year. By that point, I'd written two feature-length screenplays and a handful of television pilots and found that I was aching to dedicate more time to my writing practice. So, when the court consultation internship fell through and all of my scurried efforts to find something else in politics had hit the wall, I decided, for the first time, to consider the possibility of working in film.

A foot in the door

I called a Hamilton alumnus I'd developed a close relationship with over the years and explained my predicament. He asked if I'd considered anything outside of politics and law, and I mentioned film. Right as I was about to ask if he knew of anyone that I could reach out to discuss this interest, he stopped me dead in my tracks and told me he knew just the person I should talk to.

A few hours later, I was on the phone with another Hamilton alumnus who had been working in the film industry for about a decade. We exchanged pleasantries, traded stories of our time at Hamilton, and then he got right to the point.

"Tell me about the project you're proudest of. Pitch me."

I took a breath, collected my thoughts, and told him about a television pilot I'd recently written, a dark comedy in which townspeople imprison a man for telling his children that Santa Claus doesn't exist. After an anxiety-inducing silence, he chuckled and said it sounded fresh, which he assured me was rare in Hollywood. He gave me the number of a friend of his who worked at a production company in LA and told me to get in contact with him.

I did as suggested, and after a brief conversation with his friend, their company's hiring manager sent me a screenplay to provide coverage on to see if I'd be a good fit. Thankfully, they loved it, and three weeks later, I was on a flight to LA to assume my role as a creative development intern for a production company called Free Association.

My day-to-day in that role was varied. I worked primarily as a "reader," which meant that I was handed anywhere from 2-5 scripts or a novel to read and write coverage on each day. I also participated in creative meetings, critiqued projects in development, reviewed rough cuts of the company's recently filmed television series, and did traditional intern work like making coffee, cleaning the office kitchen, and collecting lunch orders. The office also had a ping-pong table, and I spent many afternoons working my way from horrible to mediocre beneath the embrace of the SoCal sun.

This experience was an invaluable crash course in the entertainment industry, especially because I came in a bit underprepared. All of the other interns were film school students who had years of experience, but I adapted quickly and relied on the writing and analytical skills I'd developed at Hamilton to guide me. Throughout that summer, I fell even deeper in love with the idea of trying to forge a career in this industry.

Getting real work experience in film

I returned to Hamilton for my senior year, and while writing my thesis and finishing out my college experience, I continued cultivating skills that I thought might give me an upper hand in the post-grad job search. Thankfully, it worked. After graduating in May of 2018, I secured a job as a writer's assistant/creative development associate for a New York production company called Richards Films following a particularly unorthodox interview process.

After a brief phone call with the hiring manager, I met with the company's CEO, Dick Richards, for a formal interview. We spent nearly an hour just talking about movies. Then, right before the interview ended, he gave me an assignment. He asked me to write a 75-page screenplay in 48 hours. The only requirements were that it had to be set in New York City, and the final image had to be of a door closing.

Thankfully, spending four years at a liberal arts college that promoted writing-intensive courses had taught me a thing or two about writing on a deadline, so I was able to barrel through the nerves and put together a somewhat intelligible screenplay within that 48-hour window. I submitted it, spent an entire afternoon incessantly refreshing my email, and received an offer that evening.

Over two-plus years in that role, I identified stories for development, assisted our CEO in adapting an original play of his for film, and worked closely alongside a variety of writers in a creative capacity on film and television projects.

Take a chance

My adventures in the screen trade, though somewhat incidental, are primarily attributable to the flexibility that Hamilton's open curriculum provided. Suppose I'd chosen another university with more stringent course requirements, I might have never taken a course like Classics on Film, and I wouldn't have learned how deeply passionate I am about telling cinematic stories.

If my experience speaks to anything, it's the importance of using your time at college to experiment with different interests. Perhaps you're a math major harboring a hidden passion for photography; go ahead and take that intro-level photography course! Or maybe you're a computer science major who loves art history; who's to say you can't find a way to modernize virtual gallery tours? College presents the perfect opportunity to explore different fields, combine passions, and discover what you love.

There's no reason why you can't also turn a hobby into a career. You just need to be bold enough to take a chance on yourself!

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