The Reel Deal
by Jonathan Sherman, assistant professor of film
In Gambier this summer I saw plenty of starry-eyed students with walkie-talkies working on Class of 1996 alum Josh Radnor's feature film. Many of these young people will now want to go to Hollywood or New York to pursue the dream. Having moved to Kenyon after fifteen years in the film business, I offer these humble words of advice to those of my students hoping to enter what seems like the glamorous world of the movies.
How are you at sales? You know the old saw about the Hoover salesman who tosses dirt on the floor as soon as the housewife opens the door? Well, that's basically what I did with most of my time, except that I didn't even get the benefit of using props like a vacuum cleaner or having anything actually tangible to sell. Out of fifteen years in the business, I can tell you that I spent exactly fifty-four days actually shooting my movies. That left 5,421 days begging people for money, pitching stories, convincing actors to star in my films, and then more begging for money. It also means you have to get used to hearing the word "no" over and over. The good news is I think I can now sell just about anything to anyone. But perhaps the most wonderful thing about coming to Kenyon is how often I now get to use the word "yes." I'm so thrilled that it's pretty much all you'll ever hear me say....
"Professor Sherman, can I have a week's extension on my paper?" "Yes!"
"Professor, can you meet at three in the morning instead of during office hours?"
"Professor Sherman, can I borrow your car?" "Absolutely. Do you need money for gas?"
I know that I risk the danger of students thinking that I am "soft," but the truth is that I am so thrilled to express my inherent optimism and to be at such a positive place as Kenyon, that I have decided to banish all negative utterances from my vocabulary. At least until I get tenure.
The waiting game. This is probably the hardest thing about the film business-the feeling of powerlessness. The fact is that making a commercial movie is not like writing a novel or a piece of music. You need lots of other people to agree to finance it or star in it before it can be created, and the sole business plan you really have to convince them is your screenplay. That means you or your agent or your producer will have to send out your script and wait for others to read it. This can take weeks or it can take months. Plus, the rules of the game dictate that you can "offer" a role to only one actor at a time. So you have to wait for your "pass" from one actor before you can move on to getting the next "no" from your second choice. And so on. Then, just like that, you find yourself three years older. So in order to not make yourself completely crazy, I would sincerely advise taking up a pursuit that can occupy huge chunks of your time, like gardening or "Ironman" triathlons.
Self-motivation. Do you need deadlines or a supervisor or professor prodding you to get anything done? If so, I'm afraid the movie business isn't for you. The most successful screenwriters I know get up at five in the morning and just write. And they write every day, whether they have a script due or not. And there's no guarantee that what they are writing will ever sell. In fact, it likely will not. And yet they keep writing.
At this point, you're probably wondering why anyone would willingly subject him- or herself to this kind of punishing uncertainty. The only answer I can offer is that you don't so much choose the film business as it chooses you. But does that mean that you have to answer the call? If I had known going in how difficult this life was going to be, wouldn't it have been wise to have chosen to do something other than making movies? Perhaps, but then the movies I have made would not exist, and I know from reading comments on Netflix and the IMDb that these films have given joy to many people. For those of you wondering if it is worth giving it a try, think of all the people whose lives you might touch with the movies you act in, write, or direct.