The other day a friend of mine sighed and admitted that he was "taking a good look at things" lately. He's cruising down the wrong side of thirty-five and wondering if the life of a struggling director was really all that. He's had a good ride -- made good films, proved his talent and had decent business relationships, but where was his big break? Where was the funding for his feature?
He confided that maybe show business wasn't a dream anymore. Maybe he was living out the memory of a dream his younger self had. He wondered if he shouldn't go open a bookstore somewhere and enjoy the peaceful company of friends. Not that instant success wouldn't revive his showbiz dream right quick, but could he continue the grind, the holy struggle to break in?
This friend had recently finished a grueling project that hadn't turned out the way he'd hoped, and admitted that maybe his exasperation was just post-partum depression. But that's the tricky thing about a dream business like writing, directing or acting. The struggle to achieve these careers is always discouraging, so how do you know when you really should be discouraged? When do you let it go, or do you? Is every motivational hurdle a door to greater creativity, or should we all go open bookstores?
To be fair, it's been a weird year or two. Long before the suckerpunch of 9/11, things in town were already bad. Production was low despite the avoidance of a writers' strike and new shows weren't going. Companies that advertised low-paying jobs were shocked to see hundreds of resumes flow over the fax machines, from folks vastly overqualified.
Oh wait, let's not forget the tech collapse that began a year prior to that. In the boom, plenty of creative types were absorbed by interesting dotcoms with unique creative needs. Entertainment skills were required, so off the assistants, writers, producers, designers and techies went, only to be dumped back on the standard entertainment job market just as it dwindled to nothing. One pal estimates some 2500 people became unemployed in the entertainment industry from 2000-2002. I won't bother fact checking that, because from what I can tell it's a moderate quote.
So all these people who normally expect a difficult time securing industry work now find it impossible. Highly qualified crew people call production companies the moment a new project is announced in the trades, ready to persist, when persisting won't help. Even if the unemployed bite the bullet and go after a "real" job, they find that those aren't available to fall back on anymore. Turns out the rest of the country has had a crappy year, too.
Most of the people I know have survived one way or another. Those with jobs know better than to flirt with the idea of looking for something better. The word is, if you have a job, keep it. And there's another word going around: change. The industry is tightening its belt, the news goes, so there may not ever be the same number of cushy development jobs around (cushy = 60-80 hour work weeks and zero job security).
Of course, I'm not really being helpful to the writers out there. Development is hard, waah waah. But writers and industry folk share the life gamble. If we lose our faith that there's a chance, we've lost the best part of the struggle - the dream.
At times like this I like to employ self-serving logic to banish negativity. Look at it this way: if there really aren't any jobs out there in any sector, then why not keep pounding at Hollywood's door? It's no less futile than anything else. And last time I checked, the book mega-retailers were stomping out most of those cozy, independent bookstores.
Tough times can also help you regroup creatively. Think over all the television series and films about city slickers who quit or get fired, leave or lose their lovers and find themselves flipping burgers. That theme crops up constantly for fish-out-of-water stories, perhaps because it's the shadow side for many creative types. We all wonder about civilian life and whether or not what we have here is better. What would happen if we got real jobs and moved to small towns? Instead of actually doing that, though, we just write about it. Small-town life would kill us inside of a week.
Whether or not you're ready to pack it in takes time to know. Don't let the first bout of serious insecurity rattle you. The tenth bout of serious insecurity should perhaps be listened to, but at least wait until the economy improves, for God's sake.
I haven't lost my enthusiasm yet, but if it happens I'll turn to one of my favorite role models, the late Yip Harburg, brilliant lyricist of such musicals as FINIAN'S RAINBOW and the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. He was once a dutiful drone, working in New York finance until the Great Depression hit. Then, he lost his job and it freed him to head west, where he was able to do what he loved most: compose transcendent lyrics for timeless songs.
Yip had nothing left to lose, and thus achieved his dream. Of course, he was blacklisted later on, but that's another story (and quite a worthy story. Ahem). There are a lot of ashes to rise from out there right now. What do you have to lose?
Finally, remember this: I see lots of letters from artists-at-heart who went the "safe route" and now can't indulge in Hollywood hopes, either because they have other responsibilities or feel too old to be novices. If you know this is where you belong, do your best to stay. From what I've seen and heard, you won't be happy anywhere else.