As someone who has worked in the entertainment industry since 1990, I’ve heard ‘NO’ a lot.
I had a moment when I was four years old, watching my favorite TV show, The Monkees, when my favorite Monkee, Mikey Dolenz (he was the funny one) walked onto my small television screen with a young girl, who was my age, my height, and my coloring. I froze, and then I screamed a blood-curdling scream…
My mother thought something terrible had happened and came running as if the house was on fire. Upon her arrival I demanded, “Who is that girl? And what is she doing with Mikey!” After a few deep breaths to slow her heart rate, my mother informed me that the girl was an actress. My dream was born.
Years later, I left the security of my friends and family, and the place I’d known as home to pursue that dream in Los Angeles. And that’s when the NOs started. I heard NO during auditions, I heard NO from agents, I heard NO from people I knew could help me but wouldn’t. I was frustrated!
And then I had another moment. I was in the movie theater watching Good Will Hunting, mesmerized by the brilliant film, not only because of how good I thought it was, but also because of the story of the two unknown actors who had worked “some” but were tired of hearing NO, so they decided to write their own project and put themselves in it. This was groundbreaking for me. I immediately went into action and decided I was going to create a television sitcom for myself.
I met with an Executive at Fox Studios, who said, “It can’t be done.” I stared at him and waited for more. “Did you hear me?” he asked, “An independent pilot can not be done.”
“I heard you,” I responded, “Now tell me how to do it.”
This turned into a conversation about a “hypothetical” pilot, and what and whom I would need to make it happen.
The first thing I did was to find a likeminded partner who was the Yin to my Yang. I was the Type-A with upscale problems, and she was the complete opposite, a reincarnation of Jenna Elfman in Dharma and Greg. We created a show around ourselves, and then did everything we were told NOT to do. We called the top 5 talent agencies in Hollywood and spoke to the literary agents, asking if they had new writers who had never worked on a staff and would like the opportunity to work on one… for free. We were sent over 100 sample scripts to read. Once we interviewed our favorites and got them down to 6 staff writers, they wrote us a pilot.
My plan, to which they agreed, was 13 scripts. My cast was going to perform the sitcom live in front of a theater audience once a week, changing the episode monthly. Every small venue we went to told us NO we could not perform there, sitcoms were for TV not theater. So I went to the top; The Improv. I shared my passion with the manager, I told him everyone on the project was being given an opportunity to do what everyone else told them they could not do and he said YES. For three months we preformed our episodes every week and the industry buzz was getting started.
Then two difficult and impatient writers caught on to the buzz and said NO, we don’t want to write anymore, just sell the pilot. I hadn’t thought to have a contract “amongst friends” and was furious, to say the least. I felt betrayed that my vision was just gaining momentum and these writers convinced the staff to quit. I had no choice. I had to shoot the pilot.
I was told, “It can’t be done for under a million dollars.” I heard that and I said, “Okay, tell me how to do it for less.” I sat down with a camera operator who had always wanted to be moved up to Director Of Photography and had been trained by a 9-time Emmy award winner. I told him, “You’ll be my DP, if you can give me a budget I can work with.”
With everyone working for free, my DP getting 3 pedestal cameras and a huge mixing truck for $7500, he told me that it could be done for $27,500 (this was before the convenience of the mini-DV cameras of today). I asked him for the number of the man who owned the company, after all, it was hiatus and the equipment wasn’t being rented. The DP told me, he’d already been given the rental package at half off and I would most likely hear NO. I understood and asked for the man’s number again. My partner and I bought coffee for the man and explained with passion what this project meant for all of the independent contractors involved and how it could potentially change the way the system worked. He told us that we reminded him of his daughters and gave it all to us, including his engineer who operated the mixing truck, for free.
Now we had to raise 20 grand in 2 months. Again, everyone told us we couldn’t do it. We asked 1000 people for 20 bucks. Strangers would overhear the passion in our pitch and hand us a 20 or a 50 (we liked those!) and we raised our money. We shot our pilot, and it looked like a million bucks!
This lesson in being told I couldn’t do something and then proving that I could, turned into a pattern in both my entertainment industry career and my career as a female entrepreneur. After that pilot, I wanted to go into development. When everyone told me the market was too competitive and I wouldn’t be able to get a development job, I proved them wrong getting the first job I interviewed for, by sharing the story of my pilot. The Female Company Owner said, “You are the least qualified person I’ve met by far, but you remind me of me, and you’ve got the job.”
After leaving her company, I produced another television show, Prescriptions, that my manager told me could not be done and not to waste his time or mine. I fired him, shot 4 episodes of the show, with name talent, and finally a brief appearance on the MTV network. He wanted me back. I told him NO.
When I decided to become a female entrepreneur, coaching others on how to have a successful career in entertainment by using out-side-of-the-box strategies, I had one rule for every mentor I worked with, every partner I took on, and every member of my team: “Don’t tell me it can’t be done, just tell me how to do it.” They do, and that is why I love what I do and the people with whom I share my journey.
I won’t lie and say it was easy. I worked long hours, suffered from high stress, anxiety, and yes, even panic attacks (the hidden blessing that became my television show Prescriptions based on my struggle to understand what I was living through), I didn’t get married and have kids in my 30s, and my health suffered. At times I truly believed that putting my personal life aside to focus on my career was never going to pay off and I would wind up old and alone, left only with regret.
Of course, I wasn’t seeing the payoff, because with each success, I had already set my sights on my next project. I never took the time to celebrate because my vision kept growing so nothing seemed worthy of celebration. I can look back now and put the pieces of my puzzle together, seeing how each time I was told no, and succeeded, another piece fit into the beautiful picture that was becoming my life. I couldn’t see how each piece would lead to my success then, I just had faith and kept going.
Now, I celebrate successes, big and small. I work at maintaining a good balance between work and having a life. It’s brought me a peace I couldn’t imagine ten, twenty years ago. If you have a dream and believe it can be done, don’t listen to the NOs! Find the people who will help you figure out how it can be done. We all have a place of knowing in ourselves; it’s called gut instinct. Trust the KNOW and ignore the NO.
Guest Writer – Jessica Sitomer
Jessica has worked in the entertainment industry for eighteen years as a writer, an independent producer, a development associate, a director, and an actress. For fourteen of those years she’s been a career coach for Entertainment Industry Professionals. Within that period she served for seven years as the in-house career coach for the International Cinematographers Guild. Jessica has coached over 1000 people one-on-one, created over 40 seminar topics, run over 30 mastermind groups, and developed a successful mentor program. Now she personally works with working entertainment industry professionals who are clear on the work they want, but have hit a plateau, that neither their agent, nor themselves can propel them from. Check out her website at thegreenlightcoach.com