I have always known I wanted to work in entertainment. Initially, that looked like becoming the next Brittney Spears. Then, I fell in love with theater, and it looked emulating Patti LuPone. And then, during my sophomore year of college, I produced a benefit concert, and I realized that I could fuse my passions and my strengths and work behind the scenes in entertainment. With no previous television experience, I announced to my roommates that I was going to run a television studio. I wanted to work in television.
Pretty bold statement, but hey – go big or go home, right?! Still, switching over to television was a lofty goal. Yes, musical theater and television are both under the umbrella of entertainment, but until then, I really hadn’t crossed paths with anyone actively working in television. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret: television is all about who you know. In a lot of cases, there aren’t formal job listings (not public job listings, at least). You can’t just google “television writing job openings.” Your network is everything.
So, how did a girl from the suburbs of IL with no beneficial nepotism to her name break in?
So glad you asked because in this blog post, I’m sharing things to consider if you want to work in television and how I broke in. One word for you: unconventionally.
There are a bunch of different ways into the television industry:
Attending a college/university with a strong alumni base and majoring in a related field. You’ll notice that I lead with “a college/university with a strong alumni base.” Why? Networking is key. Colleges are definitely one way into the industry. Sometimes, notable alumni will visit/give back/feel compelled to hire other grads. Other times, the college will have various professional programs. Columbia College Chicago offers a semester in LA. Friends who went to USC had access to internship opportunities, etc. Utilize your college’s network and take advantage of any professional opportunities offered.
Friends and family. Listen, if you’re a hard worker, there is no shame in the nepotism game. My feeling is, everyone deserves a shot – and then you have the earn it. If you’re fortunate enough to have a friend/cousin/neighbor/hairdresser/personal trainer/dog walker with any remote connection to an active production, ask for an introduction. Like I said before – there are no job listings (for the most part). Everything is word of mouth. Use that to your advantage.
Grit. You guys – I really didn’t have either of these things. I went to Columbia College Chicago for Media Management, but I wasn’t very invested in the school or the experience. I was still struggling to figure out exactly what my path would look like, and I didn’t take advantage of the semester in LA (I can’t really remember why?). I also didn’t know anyone actively working in the industry. So, this is exactly the path I took to where I am now – being staffed as a writer on an Emmy nominated show.
I regularly checked the internship pages for the local television stations in Chicago. During my junior year, an internship position opened up in the CBS sales department. I did NOT want to work in sales, but I was desperate to get my foot in the door. I applied and was hired. The following semester, I applied for a production internship with Chicago’s morning show, Windy City LIVE. The internship coordinator was thrilled with my experience in sales, saying that a 360 degree view of any industry is always beneficial. I was hired.
I built up my LinkedIn profile. As I started acquiring internships, I started building my LinkedIn page. No, the experience wasn’t EXACTLY the type of work I wanted to do long term, but it was proof that I was working, even tangentially, in the industry.
When I realized I wanted to write for scripted television, I started doing my research about the shows that were currently filming in town. I used the names of those shows (AKA: Shameless), and plugged them into LinkedIn. I started combing through people whose profiles came up as being associated with those shows – namely, the ones who were also local to Chicago. I then sent them this clear, concise email (an email that would change my life), asking for advice.
I hit the jackpot. Many people I messaged offered very little insight (which is understandable – I was a complete stranger). But one woman saw something in me – she appreciated my tenacity and took the time to not only respond, but to hop on a call with me. After getting to know me a bit more, she shared my resume with a local Unit Production Manager (person who oversees production), and I was brought on to sub for a costume production assistant on the short-lived ABC series, Betrayal.
I NETWORKED. On Betrayal, I was given a crew list containing the names/contacts of everyone working on the show. It was there that I met the Production Office Coordinator – a key player in the hiring process. I kept in touch with her. Even when I wasn’t in a position to accept a new job and even when I knew she had nothing to offer me, I kept in touch. I reached out to check in. I reached out to offer her tickets to Windy City LIVE. I did my best to be present without being annoying or making too many asks.
When I found out EMPIRE was going to film in Chicago, I reached out and told her I’d love to be considered. She brought me in for an interview (probably to get me off of her back), and I was hired.
I worked a horrible, exhausting, thankless job on the first season of EMPIRE with the hopes it would pay off. It did. I was promoted to assist the Producing Director/Executive Producer for season two, and again to assist the show runner for season three.
I made friends and I made things happen. I was nice to everyone, and if someone gave me a job to do, I got it done. I slowly developed a reputation for being a reliable, hard-working, friendly employee and co-worker. I tried to take care of people, and they took care of me in return. I’ll say it again: entertainment is all about who you know. I don’t say that to encourage you to be opportunistic. I say that as a reminder that nothing you do happens in a vacuum. One bad relationship can truly mess with your path. Be nice. Be someone people want to work with. Be someone who gets things done.
I made my goals known. Listen – no one can help you if they don’t know what it is you want. You have to Oprah the heck out of that. Speak your intentions into the universe. Season two, my producing director knew I wanted to write, and she put me up to assist our show runner (the head writer on every show). When I was hired to assist the showrunner, two of our EMPIRE writers also knew I was trying to break in, and they shared my sample script with my now-agent.
Keep in touch with everyone you meet. In between seasons one and two of EMPIRE, I was hired for the first time as a personal assistant on a pilot that would film in Chicago. I would be assisting the writer/creator of the pilot. I worked my butt off for her, and we developed a great relationship. That was in 2014. I kept in touch with her – via email and in person, when we could – and you know what? Five years later, she hired me for my first writing position.
One very important thing to note: tread lightly when asking for favors. Read the room. Timing is everything. Relationships first, requests later. Don’t push TOO hard. Humble goes a long way. Appreciation goes a LONG way. Expecting that everyone will move mountains for you will not.
So, let’s summarize. You want to break into TV?
Do your homework – what’s filming near you? who is working on those productions?
Cultivate a network – either through people you know or people you’re courageous enough to approach humbly
Relationships first, requests later – genuinely care for your friends, and they’ll care for you. Together, we rise.
Set clear goals and make them known.
I’d love to hear your follow-up questions. Shoot me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.