Adi Shankar is the producer of several films, including The Grey, Broken City, and the upcoming Lone Survivor.
The truth is, I’m humbled that I’m at a place in my life where someone would ask me to write something like this. I’m by no means an authority and I’m barely an adult, but here are some of the things I wish someone had told me when I was starting out adult life in Hollywood.
Understand and Believe that Art is Important
Art gives our lives context. It helps us understand the culture that makes us who we are. And, if you are lucky, one day you may be able to shape the culture that influenced you. If you claim to be an artist, but you’re motivated by money… You’re a douche.
The Internet is F**king Awesome
Most people reading this probably don’t remember the world before the Internet – I’m 28 and I know I barely do. It can be a powerful tool if you’re using it for something other than composing cat memes. It’s an emerging storytelling platform and young filmmakers have an unprecedented opportunity to not only create cool shit, but to shape the narrative and language of the Internet, in the same way that Alfred Hitchcock did for the psychological thriller, or Steven Spielberg and George Lucas did for the blockbuster. Previous generations could only dream of the entrepreneurial opportunity we have, both in terms of building a business and “getting your name out there”.
Upset that the studio bastardized your favorite character? Make a fan film. Have a crazy idea that no network or studio will make? Do a Kickstarter campaign to finance a web series. Made an awesome short film? Throw it on YouTube and it may go viral. The best part: you can do this as a student, you can do it as a parent, you can do it from some jails – the Internet is utterly democratic. For the first time in history, we aren’t beholden to hackneyed middlemen looking for a cut – or worse, creative control.
If You Want to be a Storyteller You Need to Have a Point of View
And that point of view had better be unique. Surrounding yourself with people just like you is a sure fire way of becoming a prototypical, dull, cog of a human being, who belongs in a 9-to-5 cubicle, drinks diet soda, and whose deepest emotion on a daily basis is determined by the outcome of an entirely inconsequential sports game. Diversity of experience is the only way to hone in on what your own unique point of view – also known as your “voice” – actually is, and expanding your social circle is a great place to start.
The Future Lies in Collectives, So Assemble Yours Now!
Hollywood is undergoing a massive decentralization right now, caused by the ongoing collapse of the studio system and the rampant greed of the 90’s. That’s a good thing! It means that collectives of people who can consistently and autonomously deliver a product will have an advantage. By collectives, I mean teams of creative people who constantly work together. Top filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Chris Nolan, and even niche acts like the Jackass guys, already operate like this. So waste no time! Surround yourself with smart people and develop your collective now, even if you’re still learning. These are your band of brothers. They will help you sift through all the crap Hollywood throws at you, and more importantly give you the kind of creative autonomy that today’s non-celebrity filmmakers can only dream of.
Do What You Love. Period.
Friends, parents, educational institutions, and marketing companies all seem to really enjoy telling people what they should want out of life. Fuck them. Figure out what you want and do that. Don’t sacrifice your integrity early on for a paycheck. It’s your life, and you are beholden to no one. Living your life according to what’s cool at the moment is the ultimate form of servitude.
Hint: If treading water doesn’t feel like drowning, you’re not doing what you love.
Don’t Be Discouraged by People Who Don’t Believe
A fatal flaw in the human condition is that even if there is a great likelihood that something is true, we don’t want to believe it. A potentially fatal flaw for many creative people is to be brought down by the doubts of others. People without vision will likely never believe that things can change. But once it happens, no matter how great the tectonic shift, they are quick to accept this new reality as the one true reality. Anyone who has ever set out to do something even slightly outside the norm has been mocked, questioned, and ridiculed. Realize that people’s doubts aren’t a reflection on you, your abilities, or your ultimate outcome. They are just upset at their own lack of imagination and inability to step out of their comfort zone, and you become a walking reminder of those insecurities. Ignore the haters.
Don’t Spend Your Twenties in Nightclubs
“Pulling ass,” knowing the door guy, and high-fiving club promoters isn’t cool, and doesn’t translate into real-world social currency. Trust me “bro,” the kind of “ass” you’re going to “pull” after you’ve tasted real success will make your current exploits feel like amateur hour. However, the truth is, by that time you’re going to see the stupidity of it all and crave real people and a real connection – just make sure that time actually comes. Don’t look for validation in the wrong places.
Until You Make it to “Prime Time,” Treat Everything Like Practice.
That way no matter what the challenge or obstacle is, it’s part of your journey, and the experience will leave you better prepared for the big leagues. And even once you’ve “made it,” you’re probably better off still not taking things too seriously.
It’s Later Than You Think
Remember how long an hour felt when you were 10 years old? Yes, time is going faster. Every day that passes is a smaller percentage of your total life, and it creates the sensation that time is going faster and faster. The next five years of your life are going to go by exponentially faster than the last five, eventually snowballing until you look up and realize you’re 50. Don’t wait to get started.
Tips to Elongate Life: 1. Have new experiences. Remember how long the first day of a new job or school lasted? 2. Keep a journal. It gives you perspective so you can know thy self. 3. Hang out in a heroin den (jk).
Niche Markets are the Future
In the 1990’s, domestic box office returns for Hollywood films accounted for 90% of those films’ total revenue. Today, America as a territory only accounts for about 20% of a film’s financing plan. Furthermore, Hollywood is no longer the intrinsically American institution it once was; think of it as the major leagues for filmmaking. The world comes together to make a global product, but due to massive social divergence across the globe, appealing to the masses with a broad general product isn’t viable, and it’s creatively stifling. In a world with myriad consolidated media options, niche audiences provide a level of consistency and loyalty that simply no longer exists in the mass market. Paul Thomas Anderson, Judd Apatow, Joss Whedon, Spike Jonze, Kevin Smith, Woody Allen were all niche players who grew their audience over time. Build a niche audience and people will take notice.
Every great filmmaker I know has an anti-authoritarian streak in them. Kevin Smith had the audacity to direct his first feature, a stream-of-consciousness, mumble-core (a decade before that was a word) stoner film, at the age of 24, for the cost of a new Ford Focus. Roy Lee had the audacity to collect script data and create the first tracking board; effectively changing the way information in Hollywood is consolidated. Jason Blum had the audacity to believe he could deliver the studios tent-pole-quality features on direct-to-video budgets with A-list filmmakers; now he’s one of the most profitable producers in Hollywood. School teaches you to blindly follow authority and to analyze the world as it is today, and that may be the right path for most people… But for all others, it’s simply unacceptable.
Life is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
The American educational system does us a disservice by setting us up for emotional failure. Here’s the ugly truth that I’ve come to discover: ultimately, no one ever really feels successful (especially if you’re highly ambitious), or like a mature adult, or that they’ve found the point of life. There is no winning and losing, because the game never ends – the timer just keeps ticking up. It’s the journey that matters, and everyone’s journey is unique in its own way.
Don’t Underestimate Anyone
This applies to all areas of life, but like everything else, the outcomes and stakes are exaggerated in Hollywood. In the short time I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen assistants become award-wining writers. I’ve seen guys with bit parts in Sundance movies headline studio tent-poles. I’ve seen producers go from huge studio deals, to working out of their houses, and back to being among the most powerful in the business. The movie industry is driven by output and it doesn’t operate by the ageist hierarchy of the normal world. Your intern today could be your boss tomorrow. So, no matter how cool your agent tells you that you are, no matter how many clubs let you in the VIP section, no matter how many magazines let you write egregiously sweeping articles – Don’t be a dick.