I have a friend who we’ll call Mark. (I’m protecting his identify here.) Mark rose through the ranks and was making about $150K/year in the late 90s. He busted his ass, made some good friends, and hit $400K/year in the early 2000s.

Then the dot com bubble burst.

To be clear, the dot com bubble didn’t directly affect Hollywood. Yeah, some investors lost fortunes, especially the ones who like to play with trendy investments (like film and tech), but the bubble didn’t decimate Hollywood like it ruined the tech industry.

Nevertheless, the dot com bubble affected the wider economics of the American business cycle. It made people pause. It made investors consider the strength of their assets, or if they were just investing on speculation.

Then the Writers Guild of America threatened to strike. They didn’t actually strike, but the threat caused the studios and networks to stockpile a shit load of content to protect themselves. Eventually the WGA made a deal, but it’s not like the networks and studios were going to throw all that material away.

These two events put Mark out work for a year and a half.

In 2001, Mark’s income tax return said $450K. In 2002, it said $0. He didn’t make a fucking penny. There just wasn’t any work.

Fortunately, Mark isn’t a dumbass. He banked most of his income during his lucrative years to weather the shitty years. Mark isn’t someone’s employee. He’s an entrepreneur just like you.

Free download: 7 Key Tips to Survive on an Irregular Hollywood Income

Working in Hollywood = Entrepreneurship

When you work in Hollywood, you’re an entrepreneur. I have to make this point often to crew and creatives. Investors usually see themselves as entrepreneurs already.

When you work in Hollywood, you’re an entrepreneur. Share on X

You may not think you’re an entrepreneur. People may not call you one. Unlike a typical entrepreneur, you may get a biweekly paycheck and a W2. But you’re an entrepreneur.

You’re an entrepreneur because you have to find your own work. When a project ends, your job is to get yourself employed. Your job is to network, stay connected with your show friends, and find your next gig.

Like any business owner, your job is to find clients (by networking and making friends), servicing those clients (doing the job they hire you for, whether you’re a grip, a writer, an actor, a carpenter, a makeup artist, etc.), and most importantly – getting paid.

And just like every entrepreneur, you won’t get to taste that magical drug: A consistent paycheck.

Your Income is Schizophrenic

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Simply put, if you work in Hollywood, your income will be crazy. If you can’t handle crazy, you shouldn’t work in Hollywood.

Why is your income schizophrenic? Because one minute it’s talking to you (spend more money, buy that Tesla, spend the weekend at the Chateau Marmont, even though we live around the corner), and in the next it’s silent.

Income can appear suddenly. You’ll be sitting on your couch Friday night watching Mindhunter and you’ll get a call from a friend. She has an opportunity, but it starts Monday at 7 AM. If you want to work, you better be there.

Income can disappear just as suddenly. You’ll be working on a project that will suddenly end. The show is canceled, the film company ran out of money, someone went on strike, or some studio or network pulled the plug. I’ve seen guys show up, work one day, then get told to go home because the project was suddenly scrapped. There are a lot of reasons your income might suddenly drop to $0.

Your income will come and go throughout your Hollywood career. Sometimes you might make $5000/week on one job and $2500/week on the next, even though you’re doing the exact same fucking work. There is absolutely no rhyme or reason as to how much you get paid.

Why is it so up-and-down?

For one, studios and networks seem to greenlight production at an inconsistent pace. As an outsider, it seems like they buy content in bursts. They spend their time at parties in the Hamptons, sitting on panels, and fucking with writers’ work, then come back and say, “Oh shit, we don’t have enough content. Let’s buy it all this week!”

(It’s less cyclical now because the OTTs buy content all the time, but you’re still at the whim of the buyers.)

Need a Job? Take a Vacation

Getting paid in Hollywood

I like to say that the best way to find work in Hollywood is to book a vacation or move away. As soon as you make hard-to-reverse plans, you’ll get a phone call like this:

“We need you! No one else can do this but you! You have to start Monday!”

In 2002, I booked a vacation to Mount Shasta for the Fourth of July after finishing up with Jackass. I was literally about to leave when I got a call from a buddy. He needed a line producer in Prague (yeah, the Czech Republic). They couldn’t find anyone with experience managing a 600 member crew with 15 cameras on every known format at the time. And hey, it was work. So I canceled my trip and got a plane to Eastern Europe.

Years later, I decided to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts with my wife (at the time) who was starting graduate school at Harvard. I got a call in October – a month after she started school – for a job in Los Angeles. I had to move across the country to get a job in LA! So I flew back to the west coast and couch surfed until that gig was up.

Obviously there’s nothing about making plans or moving away that summons opportunity. But the point is that you never know when it will come. When a job shows up, you must take it, even if it’s not convenient to your life. You’ll have to make a choice, and often that means missing out on important parts of your life. The alternative is not getting paid.

Living with Inconsistency

Getting paid in Hollywood

The difference between surviving on schizophrenic income and thriving on schizophrenic income comes down to your expectations and discipline. You can’t spend everything you earn when things are good or you’ll be homeless when things inevitably drop off.

You know the story about the ant and the grasshopper? Be the grasshopper. Bank your resources when you have them to ride out the times when you have nothing.

Your first step is to decide how much money it cost you to survive. Don’t budget to live the life of a pauper, but don’t expect to eat steak and caviar every night either. Total up your expenses (rent, medical insurance, food, bills, travel (weddings & funerals), etc.) and add 20% for emergencies and the occasional takeout dinner.

Your next step is to bank everything that comes in above that number. If you need $60K to live a comfortable life and make $80K this year, there better be $20K in your bank. You’ll need it when you make $30K next year.

Your final step is to take a big picture view of your career. Network like it’s your job (in fact, it is your job), make lots of friends, pursue good projects aggressively, and bust your ass at work. Yes, you’ll sacrifice vacations in the beginning, but you’ll eventually build a reputation that makes you desirable and people will adjust their schedules to suit yours.

Download this free list of key tips for surviving on an inconsistent Hollywood income.

Get Used to It

I wish I had a secret formula to help you smooth out your income, but the simple truth is you’ll just have to get used to it. If you’re addicted to a weekly paycheck, this industry is not for you. But if you have discipline and foresight, and you’re willing to sacrifice vacations and personal time in the beginning, Hollywood will reward your patience.