An old friend of mine once said, “Tim, I knew you would do well. I could tell. You work in features. The smart people work in features. The not-so-smart people work in television. The really downright stupid work in commercials.”
That’s a succinct way of describing the hierarchy of the entertainment industry. No, I don’t think people who make commercials are stupid. But they probably didn’t want to make commercials when they were young. They probably wanted to make features. They ended up making commercials because they were enticed by the easy access and higher wages. (Since there are fewer studios making fewer pictures than ever before, it’s harder than ever to get into features.)
The eight verticals of Hollywood have existed for a long time. They date back to the late 1960s with the exception of reality TV, which was born amid the writers’ strikes of the ‘80s and ‘90s.The eight verticals of Hollywood have existed for a long time. They date back to the ‘60s and haven’t changed much. Click To Tweet
You can divide Hollywood into eight mini-industries:
- Feature Films
- Dramatic TV
- Independent Movies
- Reality TV
- Movies of the Week
- Award Shows
These eight categories haven’t changed much over time. Each vertical operates in a slightly different way. Their pay scales and time scales are different. You network differently in each. Even the way they format their scripts, shooting schedules and budgets is different in each vertical.
Is it possible to learn more than one? Sure. If you’re a grip or lamp operator on feature film, you could easily work on movies of the week. There’s plenty of crossover-skills. Writing and directing, however, are vastly different. It’s almost impossible for someone to do both well.
It’s basically impossible to move between verticals. Each one develops different muscles for its creatives and crews.
Feature films shoot a page or two/day for 40-100 days. Dramatic TV shows shoot about 8 pages/day for 8-10 days at a time. TV actors need to memorize an episode’s worth of lines to get through it quickly. Film actors just need to know a few pages at a time.
Commercials could be anything. They might shoot for one day or 5. They might spend $15,000 or over a million dollars (especially car commercials.) Award shows are a unique segment because they involve a lot of prep for just a few hours of shoot (in shoot however there are no retakes in live and few in live-to-tape).
Setups, cameras, equipment, and post production are all vastly different in each category.
Your network is the biggest reason people can’t switch verticals. If you work in sitcoms, you just won’t rub elbows with people who work in feature films. You simply won’t build a network of feature film people. And since your network is how you get work in Hollywood, you won’t get feature film work.
Actors are the exception here. Things changed quite a bit in the ‘90s for actors, partly because of Oprah and Meryl Streep. Actors have some flexibility because their roles are very similar across each vertical. But writers, directors, producers, and crew usually stay wherever they start.
Meryl Streep did a TV movie that was considered – at the time – beneath her. But instead of turning on her, actors began to follow suite.
I worked for Harpo Films around the same time and I remember Oprah saying, “I don’t need to profit making TV movies, but I DO want you to change what TV movies get made.”
Before Oprah’s change, TV movies were formulaic and lame. They were often inspired by recent events. Some were those cringey women-in-peril stories. Roles weren’t dynamic or interesting. Each of the three networks released almost one per week and most of them were awful.
Oprah changed things by getting top feature actors, like Halle Berry, Jack Lemmon, Hank Azaria, and Elizabeth Shue. We developed from books rather than salacious news stories. We paid feature rates for 20-25 days of shooting. And we always made decisions based on story and not just profit motive.
This was the time when studios were transitioning away from 30 movies/year to about 12-14 tentpole movies/year. Fewer movies meant those films had to appeal to as many people as possible. So people grew hungry for niche, dynamic film content and dramatic TV was happy to pick up the slack.
Writers strikes in the late 80s and late 90s/early 2000s had a significant impact on the verticals of Hollywood.
When the writers went on strike in the 80s, the networks invested in documentary-style reality TV shows like COPS to fill the holes in their broadcast lineup. These kinds of shows are cheap and easy to make. The makers of COPS made buckets of money in the wake of the 1988 strike.
The late 90s strike was even more significant. Technically there was never a strike. The Writers Guild threatened to strike for more than a year. The guild warned it’s members that a strike was coming. It told them to save money and not to buy houses or cars.
This kind of rhetoric spooked in network and studios, causing them to invest huge amounts of cash on cheap content. Today we call this content reality TV.
In the short term, this worked for everyone. There was a shit load of work up until the supposed strike date. Every actor, writer, electrician, grip, and truck was booked for more than a year. Hell, we had trouble finding cable to construct a set because everyone was out of it.
Fortunately, the strike never happened because the writers and the studios came to an agreement before the contract ended. But it meant there was little work for more than a year after that point because the networks had stockpiled content – nothing new needed to be made for 18 months.
And, of course, the studios and networks realized the profitability of reality TV. Shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire? drew bigger audiences than a lot of narrative-driven shows at the time. This created an entirely new vertical in Hollywood that we still deal with today.
(This isn’t a criticism of unions. I’m just pointing out the unintended effect of their actions in this case.)
The OTT Platforms
Over the top platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and Crackle changed the demand of programming, which has affected Hollywood’s structure as well. These days, everyone wants a deal with these platforms over a network or studio.
The OTT platforms have a tendency to give you a budget and leave you the fuck alone. It’s amazing. Once they accept your pitch and deposit your cash, they don’t want to hear from you again until you deliver the content. (That’s an oversimplification, but it illustrates the point.) This is highly attractive for creatives who prefer to work without a studio or network’s meddling.
But even though these kinds of platforms have disrupted the entertainment industry, they haven’t had much effect on Hollywood verticals. People who work in dramatic TV still work in the same dramatic TV vertical, they just sell it to someone else. The work hasn’t really changed. There is just more money and more creative freedom at the OTT Platforms.
Not to mention, these platforms spend an absurd amount of money on content. Netflix spent $12 billion on content in 2018. For perspective, an average studio spends about $1.5 – 2 billion per year for about 12 movies.
My rule of thumb is this: If you want to work on good content, follow the money. The people who spend the most tend to create the best material; the stuff you want to list on you credits.
Pick Your Vertical and Stick to It
If you want to work in film, start in film. Don’t take a job in some other vertical and expect to make it to your preferred vertical. If you start in reality TV, you’ll stay in reality TV. Unless, of course, you do something so fucking brilliant that you make a name for yourself.
Of course, that isn’t to say you shouldn’t work. If you need to get paid (maybe you like to eat, I don’t know), take the paying job, but don’t put it on your credits. Get your paycheck, learn something useful, and work like hell to network with people in your preferred vertical.
When you hunt for a job in your preferred vertical, leave off your unrelated credits. That will just taint the perception of you and your work. Only include credits that relate to what you want to do.
(Certainly do not fake credits. That will just blow up in your face. People who hire won’t call your references, but they will call people they know who might know you.)
Is it possible to move between Hollywood’s eight verticals? Yes, but it’s very unlikely. On unlikely, I wouldn’t bet any money on it.
If you want to be successful in Hollywood – if you want to work on show that interest you – pick a vertical, make friends, and work your ass off.