Hollywood mentors: how to get ’em

For the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing Hollywood mentors – how to get ’em, how to keep ’em, and how to be a great one – because mentors are essential to success in this town. I’ve interviewed industry pros on all things mentoring. They had great advice and have agreed to be your virtual mentors for this series.

English: Hollywood Boulevard from the top of t...

Hollywood Boulevard. Photo by David Iliff.

I owe a lot to my mentors. I have showrunner mentors, executive mentors, career mentors, and peer mentors. I even rely on people I’ve mentored who have progressed through the entertainment industry ranks and now give me great advice. Giving to others gives back in many different ways.

“Having mentors and being a mentor feeds into my outlook,” said Joey Chavez, VP of NBC drama development (“Revolution”). “I’ve had so many people take those extra few minutes to teach me something or even just let me know they’re an open ear. It’s affected my outlook toward people who are trying to move their way up, because they’re going to be running this town soon enough.”

Joey is absolutely right. In our Hollywood community, giving back contributes to the success of the town. Hollywood has long been an apprentice industry. In many fields you learn by watching, then doing. While there are still some apprentice programs, including the DGA assistant director and trainee programs, many official apprentice positions have either disappeared or morphed into slightly different positions, like writers assistants and assistant editors. The mentor/mentee relationship has become less formal, and become more removed from the employment track. It’s really important for people seeking mentors to understand what today’s Hollywood mentor is – and isn’t.

…never approach a mentor thinking this person is going to get me a job.

“You should never approach a mentor for employment,” Joey Chavez said. “You should never approach a mentor thinking this person is going to get me a job. No one wants to feel like they have to help you get a job. It muddies the relationship. It can poison the water when you’re asking for advice but what you really want is for them to get you a gig. The goal needs to be informational. And if something practical comes from it later, wonderful, fantastic. But it needs to originate from the mentor, not from the mentee.”

Mentor relationships sometimes do evolve from an informational to a practical role in a mentees’ career. As you may recall, I covered a perfect example in a recent post about music video and commercial director Jeff Stewart and director Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spider-Man,” “500 Days of Summer”).

Before Marc Webb helmed summer blockbusters, he directed more than 100 music videos, everyone from Green Day to Fergie. While still in film school, Jeff Stewart contacted Marc in hopes he could learn more about music video directing.

“Marc Webb took me out to lunch and we talked music videos,” Jeff said. “He invited me to spend a lot of time on his sets and ask him whatever I wanted.”

Jeff took Marc up on his invitation. He watched and learned from the experienced music video director. He also asked lots of questions at appropriate times. After getting to know Jeff better and getting invested in him, Marc went beyond the usual mentor relationship and helped Jeff land his first music video, Squad Five-O’s “Bye American.” What’s more, Marc mentored Jeff through pre-production. Marc asked Jeff questions about his approach and shepherded him through the process.

The important part of this story was Marc invited Jeff. Marc offered his help. Jeff didn’t ask to hang out on the set. He didn’t ask for an opportunity to direct a music video. Jeff was eager and smart. Plus, he took Marc’s advice to heart. Jeff appreciated the mentor relationship, and over time he demonstrated his respect for Marc. Only over time, Marc grew comfortable and confident enough in Jeff and his abilities to help him make the next step in his career.

Most Hollywood hopefuls believe they’re the exception to the rule. So you may be thinking – my mentor is going to see how awesome I am, pull a Marc Webb, and get me a job.

Honestly, I hope so. But please, don’t expect it.

With a mentor – take the long view. A mentor is someone you’re going to need throughout your career. When you’re up against an unfamiliar problem – there will be many – you want to have a more experienced person in your life to ask for advice.

Situations in which you might need a mentor:

  1. You’ve been trying to break into a specific field and nothing seems to be working.
  2. You’re being pursued by a couple of agents or managers and you don’t know which one to sign with.
  3. You’re going in for a specific type of meeting and you don’t know how to prepare.
  4. You’re starting a new job and you want to get off on the right foot.
  5. You’re a finalist in a competition but the competition is requiring you to sign a year-long first-look deal before it will reveal if you have won. Your reps are advising against signing anything.
  6. You just sold or optioned a script and you’re getting conflicting recommendations from your reps.
  7. You’re working on a project and you’re getting conflicting notes from your director, producer, studio, or network.
  8. One of your co-workers has been stepping in and accepting credit for your work.
  9. A producer wants to sign on to your project but you’re not sure if you want him to attach.
  10. Your studio is foisting a particular star on your project and you think he’s all wrong for it.
  11. You just got a promotion and you’re not sure it’s a good thing.
  12. Your last project is in turnaround, your show got cancelled, your pilot didn’t go, you got replaced and you’re thinking of quitting the business.
  13. You’re thinking of changing tracks from feature to TV directing, writing to directing, producing to directing, comedy to drama, acting to music – but your reps advise against it.
  14. You have a project you love but you can’t get traction for it in the industry. Everyone has passed.
  15. The star of your show, production, feature, or short film is driving you up a wall.

JJ Abrams’ problems got problems.

These are just a few dilemmas my friends have faced in the past year. And trust me, there are so many more bizarre dilemmas you can’t imagine right now. As one of my astute friends, writer-director Elia Petridis, told me, “JJ Abrams’ problems got problems. Steven Spielberg has Speilbergian problems.”

You can get a job on your own. People do it all the time. But it’s tough to get through some of these issues alone. When you encounter them, you’ll be glad you have an objective advisor who can guide you through the craziness.

How do you get a mentor?

The number one answer was, “Don’t ask someone to be your mentor.” Across the board, industry professionals warned against this tack.

…being mentored is ‘taking something.’

“You have to be delicate with it,” Joey Chavez said. ” You don’t want to be pushy. The idea of being mentored is ‘taking something.’ It’s ‘taking advice’ so you don’t want to come off as someone who just wants a ‘thing,’ as someone only interested in taking. You also want to be able to give back, too.”

Be an invaluable asset to your prospective mentor.

Carole Kirschner, former TV executive and cofounder/current administrator of the CBS Writers Mentoring Program and WGA Showrunners Training Program, agreed. “Be an invaluable asset to your prospective mentor. Help them. Make their life easier. Make them look good. In return, they may help you, but have no expectations of it.”

Case in point: One young writer asked an upper level TV writer for an informational meeting. An informational meeting is simply a brief meeting – in person or on the phone – where an experienced insider takes time to answer a few questions for someone who is trying to break in or work his or her way up the ranks. It’s like having a mini-mentoring session with no expectations the pro will continue the relationship after the meeting. It’s usually a one-shot deal.

This young, smart writer prepped for her meeting. She researched the TV writer. She selected her questions wisely, knowing she would only have 15 to 20 minutes with her subject. She went to the meeting ready to impress the TV writer with her knowledge of the TV writer’s life and career. However, the TV writer told her IMDB had her personal info all wrong. Whoops! Even so, they had a nice meeting.

After the meeting, the young writer went to IMDB and changed all the erroneous information about the TV writer. Then the young writer sent a nice thank you note and mentioned she had updated the TV writer’s IMDB page. The TV writer was so impressed, she took the younger writer under her wing and eventually asked the novice writer to do editing work on the book version of one of her screenplays, which was soon to be published. The screenplay happened to be for a worldwide blockbuster movie. The novice writer was thrilled to work with this TV writer turned super-hot feature writer as well as learn from her. And it all happened because the young writer found a way to help the established screenwriter – with no strings attached.

Note: This approach will not work on every potential mentor. Discretion is the better part of valor, especially in the mentor-mentee relationship. The mentor will likely not want you sharing all of her personal info or advice on the Internet. For example, I had another executive friend discover a well-meaning person had constructed a wiki page about her with quotes and all. She was mortified! Proceed with caution.

Feature, music video, and commercial director Bailey Kobe suggested broadening your scope when looking for mentors. One of Bailey’s mentors was legendary producer and executive Gareth Wigan (“Star Wars,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Age of Innocence”).

 I looked for like-minded people… but a lot more sophisticated.

“I’ve found mentors not just by pursuing those who held the job I wanted, but by finding the type of person I hoped to be one day,” Bailey said. “I looked for like-minded people, people who were similar to me but a lot more sophisticated.”

Bailey’s career reflects his diverse approach. He has directed a string of #1 music videos in France for pop icon Marc Lavoine and shot commercials for high profile clients like Xbox and Louis Vuitton. He just finished principal photography on his first feature film, “The Caterpillar’s Kimono,” starring Ben Savage (“Boy Meets World,” “Party of Five”) and Julie McNiven (“Mad Men,” “Supernatural”).

“If a mentor happened to direct, great, but I am drawn to the savvy exec, whip-smart agent, tough-nosed producer, thoughtful photographer, eternally hungry artist, take-action entrepreneur,” he said.  “I gravitated toward personality types that were similar to my own, and the mentoring process just seemed to naturally happen.”

I love Bailey’s attitude because he looks at the big picture. He sees that great counselors come from a variety of places. Life lessons can be learned from almost anyone. You don’t have to set your sights on only A-listers in your chosen field. Chose mentors whose lives and choices you admire. Sometimes you’ll find those mentors right under your nose.

“Observe and identify coworkers or superiors who are open to teaching on a small scale and test the waters by first just asking basic questions,” Joey Chavez said. “Most people would be glad to answer any questions asked by someone more junior, allowing the appropriate time and setting.”

If you let others know you’re eager to learn, many times people want to help you. But if you’re someone who is closed down, stubborn, or insecure, it’ll make it hard for the people to offer help. We often say this type of person just can’t get out of his or her own way.

Be a person.

“You have to reach out and connect with people because a lot of this business can be cold,” Joey Chavez said. “It can be very disconnected. It can be impersonal. I strive to be personal and get to know others. That’s why it’s so important when people come in for a meeting I want to know who they are. Don’t just tell me your credits. Be a person.”

“Get to know people. Don’t just get to know what they can do for you,” said Jenny Stempel, director of television programming at Boardwalk Entertainment (“The Glades”). “Get to know their interests, their background, what makes them tick, anything you have in common. You might just make a new friend, and those are the best mentors.”

Promo for the TV show “The Glades.” Photo courtesy of A&E Network.

…do your homework.

If you have the opportunity to meet with a potential mentor, do your homework. Research her career. Check out her Twitter feed. See if she has a blog. Read articles written about or by her. Look for written and video interviews of her. As you prep your questions, make sure you’re asking about the person specifically. A great question can elicit an illuminating answer about the person’s life.

Follow up with a simple thank you note or email. A thank you note will demonstrate your thoughtfulness and appreciation to your potential mentor. Make it personal and reference your conversation. If your potential mentor gave you advice and you intend to follow it, let him know. Your subject likes to know his time was spent wisely and his thoughts were taken to heart.

Also, get to know the people around you. Find out their interests and goals. And a positive outlook goes a long way.

…do your job better than anyone else…

“If you’re a Hollywood assistant, it’s usually a given being an assistant isn’t your ultimate goal,” Jenny Stemple said.  “It’s often a demanding job, both physically and emotionally. However, if you do your job better than anyone else, going the extra mile whenever possible, all while keeping a positive attitude, people will remember you. Make sure those you work with know your career goals. Someone who noticed your enthusiasm and tenacity might help you achieve those goals.”

Love that glass half-full attitude! People in Hollywood want to be around optimistic, positive people because our jobs are draining. The industry can be discouraging. The last thing you need is a Debbie Downer plunging the whole office staff into the doldrums. I’ve heard showrunners say they kept a writer or an assistant on staff just because he or she had a positive attitude. The showrunner knew every morning that person would be happy to be at work. Believe it or not, sometimes that’s a feat.

Jenny also mentioned there are programs to help you find willing mentors.

“Reach out to your university’s alumni organization,” she said. “For example, Northwestern has a very strong presence here in Hollywood. Through their local alumni organization, they have official mentorship programs and workshops.” Jenny’s a Northwestern alum herself.

Alumni associations are an excellent resource. There are also professional associations like the Junior Hollywood Radio & Television Society. Joey Chavez is a mentor in JHRTS.

…if you’re just a taker, people will steer clear of you.

When approaching these types of programs, always remember: If you’re just a taker, people will find out very quickly and steer clear of you. No one wants to get used.

Jen Grisanti, former TV exec and current writing instructor for NBC’s Writers on the Verge program, suggests being prepared and open to finding mentors in these types of programs.

“Design a plan,” Jen said. “Figure out what would help you in the mentoring process. Could someone mentor you for 15 minutes a month and make a difference?”

Again, mentoring is “taking something.” It’s not only taking advice, but also taking someone’s time. If you let others know you value their wisdom and time, they will be more likely to invite you to be their mentee.

Make a plan and work from your list. Photo by Cathdew.

How to get a Hollywood mentor – quick recap

  1. Don’t ask someone to be your mentor unless it’s within a structured program.
  2. Be a valuable asset to your potential mentor with no strings attached.
  3. Look for mentors everywhere – in various fields at various levels.
  4. Observe co-workers and superiors. Ask questions and be open to taking advice.
  5. Do your homework.
  6. Be interested in the potential mentor as a person, not just a means to your end.
  7. Follow up with a personal thank you note or email.
  8. Do your job – whatever it is – with a positive attitude.
  9. Reach out to alumni and professional organizations.
  10. Don’t be just a taker.

A mentor can be a career-long resource. When the town is draining you dry, your mentors’ support will remind you of your great potential and talent. This alone can fill your glass to the brim. Even if you’re not struggling now, be on the lookout for veterans and peers who’ll be great mentors. By cultivating those relationships, you’ll be able to call on their wisdom and support when you really need them.

So how do you cultivate mentor relationships?

Stay tuned! My next post will cover keeping your Hollywood mentor.

Looking for more career advice?

Carole Kirschner has a chapter about her own philosophy on mentoring in her book, “Hollywood Game Plan.” You can also find Carole on her site ­– ParkonTheLot.com

For more from Jen Grisanti, check out her site ­– jengrisanticonsultancy.com