When I started my career as an animation writer in 1983, it was a very different time. Studios were smaller, more accessible places, often run by people who themselves had advanced through the ranks as artists and directors.
That same year, at the tender age of 23, I literally got my foot through the door of Hanna-Barbera by… well, literally getting my foot through the door. I waltzed into the studio with a spec script in hand and asked the receptionist (Hanna-Barbera’s only gatekeeper) if I could meet somebody who was in charge. She smiled…and actually introduced me to one of the facility’s top development executives. Who then introduced me to a story editor. Who then let me pitch and taught me how to write my first show.
I like to think that talent gave me longevity in this business, but let’s face it, this kind of break would almost never happen in today’s corporate world. When I was asked to write this article, I really had to sit down and think: If I were starting out and trying to sell a show or land my first job in the animation industry, how would I go about it now?
The good news is, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same. Knowing how to professionally conduct yourself and take advantage of an opportunity (no matter how slim), plus genuine talent and passion for your craft, can still be your ticket in. You just have to understand how to use the skills I just mentioned to your advantage—an art in itself that is as important as whatever schooling you will receive.
Do Your Homework
Most studios have established cultures that are as unique as their names. Like a desperate person at midnight in a singles bar, they are always on the lookout for somebody who is “their type.” That old cliché about the entertainment business still holds true—it really is all about relationships. So, and I cannot stress this enough, learn as much about the studio of your choice and the people who work there as you can, before you start looking for work there. And then network, network, network!
What do I mean by “network?” Establish relationships, and then be able to deliver. If you have trouble dealing with people, you will need to find a way to perfect your skills. Maybe a public-speaking or acting class for the shy, shrink visits for those with issues (de rigueur for creative types), and Suck-Up 101 (usually acquired by taking a politically successful pal out to lunch and begging for pointers) for the stunted in this area. Networking will have that much of an impact on your career.
Also, always have an answer to the question, “What do you bring to the table that others do not?” And, don’t wait for that question to be asked. Your first assignment for creating a successful networking moment will be to strategize and figure out a way to artfully bring up this topic during the course of a conversation. While the art of networking also includes self-promotion, nothing turns people off faster than someone who is inept at it or who is a blatant user.
Throughout my career I was friendly to everyone I met, not just those who I thought could do something for me. You never know who can help you, or when. I’ve seen PAs rise to own their own studios, so never overlook or backstab anyone. Plus, you can never have too many friends, right.
I also developed a willingness to learn. Mentors are everything in this business, and I was lucky to have my share, not only in what they did for me, but even more so for how generous they were with their time and talent. Don’t overlook the old guy in the room. Just because he (or she) isn’t your age doesn’t mean the person is out of touch. In fact, many older employees have “been there, done that” so much, they no longer feel the threat of competition. Additionally, they are often very gracious about introducing you around.
Always act like a confident “already-working” professional when presenting yourself. This is key, because the opportunity to network may crop up anywhere, at any time. I’ve literally seen some people network at funerals—and pull it off! If you meet a potential connection at a social occasion, never press yourself on them for work. Mention what you do, and then let them lead the conversation. You’d be surprised at how much people are attracted to a mystery. If you make an effort to have a truly sincere conversation, it may not lead to immediate employment, but you are still sure to impress and get a second chance later. You will also be surprised by what you can learn and file away for later use.
Follow up on every lead, no matter how remote it seems. I’ve gotten work from a man I met in line at a bank, a phone call to a new studio after reading an article about them in an obscure magazine, and yet another successful lead after spending time with the wife of a head honcho at a party, rather than trying to suck up to her husband.
Pitching at a network or studio? These days, most people are not allowed to take a development meeting without representation (for legal reasons), but there is a way around that, too. Ask if you can submit, through your entertainment attorney, and then run out and hire one.
Going to industry film festivals, conventions, conferences, lectures, and classes are classic ways to network. Watching credits or getting a producer’s name from the trades, and making a phone call, will at least get you a conversation with the person’s assistant. Try to get to know him or her (something few people bother to do), and you’ll have a great “in.”
If you do get an opening to pitch and your idea is well received, let the person in charge know you are willing to take his or her suggestions and make changes. Execs often want a person they can work with and mentor, more so than the concept itself.
Most important of all, when your big break arrives, please look me up and give me a call. See? Twenty-five years later and I’m using this article as an opportunity to shamelessly promote myself, because…well, you just never know….
Evelyn Gabai is an Emmy Award-winning animation writer with 25 years experience and over 100 produced TV episodes and three features to her credit. She has written for Disney, Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbera, PBS, and AnimationMentor.com, a state-of-the-art online education and mentorship program focused 100 percent on character animation.