The Film Industry: Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

What is the bridge between film school and a career in professional filmmaking?

It is grasping the concept of O.P.M.: OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY.

Money and film are inexorably connected. Getting stuck between the creative and the financial is what is, rather graphically referred to as, “sliding down the razor blade of life.”

As a film student you make films with your own money, your parent’s money, borrowed money, grants, scholarships and donations. In the professional world, if you are lucky enough, you will make movies and plays with money that comes from companies, funds, investors or institutions. Their expectations will be much higher and the margin for error much narrower.

Early in my career I worked on a project in Florida. It was the story of a writer, who was allowed to quarterback the Baltimore Colts in a real game. It starred Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton and most of that year’s Detroit Lions football team. We filmed at Saint Andrews School in Boca Raton, Florida. Mister Alda was not a professional athlete and the ball players were not actors.

One of the consequences of that reality was that we needed to get shots of football in as few takes as possible. When it came to the players acting we sometimes had to do as many as thirty or forty takes to get both the correct words and acceptable performance. It put enormous pressure on the camera department, particularly the camera operator and the first assistant cameraman.

On the third day we were doing a scene between two of the ball players. We got it right on the thirteenth take. We were just about to move on when the camera operator said: “Sorry. I think the shot buzzed.” That was camera-speak for the shot went out of focus for an instant.
“We need to go again.”

We did and that evening the camera operator was fired.

In that instance, there was no margin for error. He was expected to get the shot, period, end-of-story. In my own career, I, too, nearly fell victim to that slender reed of expectation. I left a word off the call sheet. A call sheet is a document routinely generated by the production department to let cast and crew know the elements and times expected for the following day’s work. One word, but sufficiently significant that its omission could have interrupted filming. The first assistant director told me that such an omission in the future would result in my termination.

It never happened again.

Film school is where people come to learn, to make mistakes, to experiment. Being late to class, while annoying and disrespectful to faculty and fellow students, is to some degree, tolerated. In the business world, it will not. As the saying goes: “Warned once, replaced second.” There is also a saying that “if you are on time, you are a half hour late.”

In the professional world, you are required to be on time, be prepared, know what is expected of you, conduct yourself with civility and, if it is a union show, to abide by all the regulations.

Remember, you are not the only one who wants a career in film. The line behind you is long with people only too happy to step into your position should you falter. And remember the expression, “time is money.” It is alive and well in the film business.

The camera operator who missed the shot, my sloppy paperwork and your tardiness are all examples of “time is money.” If a company puts up money for your film, they expect it to be shot on time and on budget. They expect the shots to be in focus and the performances to be correctly captured.

At USC, we are relentless in our efforts to impart the concept of O.P.M. Thankfully, we are mostly successful. It is why so many University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts film students are able to hit the ground running.

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