Fast Track: All you need is contacts

What they say about the film industry is true: it's who you know that counts.
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The Independent Culture
Don't give up the night job. If you want to get into the film industry, that is. After all, financial hardship is inescapable in any sector where people are queuing up to work for free. The good news is, however, that cinema attendance is at its highest since 1974, and consumer spending in this area is expected to double between 1997 and 2007. And with new sources of funding, such as the lottery, the jobs on offer are increasing fast - and they're not just for hands-on, creative types.

The general belief - overwhelmingly backed by research - is that the three key ways into film are contacts, contacts and contacts. If you haven't got any, you'll have to get some by going to courses and conferences and by getting work experience in the industry. Any work.

"On the production side, running is the best way in, and you get that by persistence," says Joanie Blaikie, head of production at the BBC department for films and single drama. "Sometimes that means accepting an office runner job before getting a production runner job. The qualifications for being a runner are enthusiasm, a capacity for hard work and, often, the ability to drive a car."

On the editorial side, she suggests, the best entry position is as a reader, reading scripts. And for this, a degree is fundamental. "Readers are usually people with English degrees. We have taken on people straight from university, but usually they have some other experience."

Blaikie advises novices to start looking for work where production volumes are high - for example, a television series. "Films happen only every so often, and don't employ so many people on a regular basis."

You may want to go for secretarial work, she adds. "I have four graduates working here as secretaries."

Some BBC films are made by independent production companies, some in the regions and some in-house. But don't assume that just because a company makes films, it employs staff on a permanent basis. "For each film, we take on freelance staff - from the runners up to the producer," says Blaikie.

Emil Elmer, 27, is one of three full-time production staff at Miramax in London, and his experience mirrors Blaikie's advice. "Try the temp agencies, or send in your CV and get work experience or an internship," he says. Indeed, Elmer - who has a business degree and a year of film studies behind him - first entered the industry via an internship. Some film schools will arrange these for their students, but it is also worth approaching the companies direct.

For the graduate who isn't interested in production, the main areas in which to seek work are finance, contracts, sales, marketing, and PR.

"The industry is full of people who want to get into the creative side, but it is a business, and most people working in it are involved in the business side of things," emphasises Anna Nicoll, 28, who works for DDA, one of the top PR agencies in the industry.

"You have to be willing to do whatever comes your way in the beginning, but once you've made a start it's easier," she advises. She believes her BA in photography was one of the best things she ever did, but a degree is no door-opener in this industry. "They don't want people who think they know anything. They want someone who is young and will work for free."

Nicoll sent out as many CVs as was physically possible and, through a contact, got a junior job in a film sales company. There she stayed for six months, but found it too tough. Speaking fluent Spanish, however, enabled her to move on by getting work helping out at a film course in Madrid.

"Suddenly I met lots of producers and people in the industry on all kinds of levels, and I realised there are many jobs unlike the one I had. I made lots more contacts, which is the single most important thing in this industry. My boss on that course gave my name to the next boss." And he was a film consultant. Four years on, Nicoll was able to move on to DDA.

"DDA has huge offices in London, New York and LA," she continues. "It does PR for films, has a huge presence in Cannes, organises events such as the European Film Awards and is involved in the London Film Festival. I do research into the European film industry and films, and work on other specific things, like the London Film Festival. It's the kind of company where you can shape your own job."

Nicoll's advice is to be flexible, to be able to enjoy different things, and to put any previous work experience on the CV, particularly sales or business experience. "It's amazing what things turn out to be useful, even if you've only worked in a shop or a bar or looked after children. It's an industry where how you relate to other people matters so much."

Angela Jackson works on the legal side. "The people I meet are producers, bankers, accountants and other lawyers, but also directors, actors and their agents," the 37-year-old solicitor explains. Having got her law degree, Jackson managed to get a training contract with a firm of solicitors specialising in media work. Eight years later she started her own practice, holding producers' hands through contract signings.

"The film industry's a free-for-all, where it matters a lot whether you can thrust your way to the Majestic bar in Cannes, and throw yourself at somebody." And yes, even lawyers get to go to Cannes.

Getting Started

Read: the newspaper media pages for job ads and the trade press, such as Screen International and Sight and Sound, to find out when films are going into production, and to learn more about the industry.

Try: a detour via TV, theatre or publishing. You could also think about starting out in educational or corporate films.

Other sources: the industry training organisation, Skillset, publishes a useful handbook on its website, www.skillset.org. And there's the BFI Film and Television Handbook, costing pounds 18.99.

Short courses: Skillset and the British Film Institute (BFI) run courses. A list is available from the BFI (0171-255 1444).

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