What Can a Teenager Do?

Alexandria writes in:

I’m a 17 year old aspiring filmmaker/screenwriter. I’m consistently making my own shorts, writing scripts, entering into festivals, etc. However, I really need to learn a little more about the business side of film, and working on shoots where I’m not the director, and that have a larger budget than a broke teen would have. I want to stop being sheltered.

I’m considering being a PA, but I’m having trouble in applying. I’m willing to work for no money, but due to my lack of experience, is it even a consideration local production companies or TV places would hire a willing volunteer?

Moreover, I’m having a hard time convincing my parents I need to do this. They feel it would be better of my time to work on my stuff, instead of busting my ass for someone who doesn’t care about me. I understand the latter part, but it’s not about that: it’s gaining experience to work with people. This goes above their heads. What’s a way I can explain this to them?

Thank you for your help. (And for the awesome blog!)

If you want to someday be a director, making your own shorts is definitely useful experience. So, first of all, don’t stop making shorts.

Beyond that, there’s basically two paths to becoming a professional director. One is working your way up from the bottom, starting out as an intern, moving through PA, then climbing the ladder in one department or another.

The other option is to pay for the movie yourself. Movies cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. A large number of directors get their start because they come from wealthy families. Are your parents rich? Are they willing to fund your first feature?

If not, you’re going to have to be an intern. The great news is, you’re 17, and you have plenty of time. And lacking experience is no problem; people expect interns to have no experience. Technically, you’re there to learn, not to work; although, in practice, you will work, too.

The unfortunate thing is that you’re under 18. I don’t know what the laws are regarding interns and minors, but I’m sure they’re rather restrictive.

That being said, the local PBS station will almost certainly be willing to take you on, especially if you can arrange something with your guidance counselor to get school credit.

If you plan on going to college, they’re much more likely to have internship programs set up. If you don’t already live in Los Angeles or New York, I would focus on going to schools in those areas. Especially state schools, if you’re from those states. UCLA is much cheaper than USC, if you’re a Californian.

The disadvantage of college is, you can’t be a PA and a student at the same time. PAing is a 60-hour-a-week job. College takes… significantly less time.1 But still, the two schedules are incompatible. In fact, production is incompatible with pretty much anything else.

There are only so many hours in a week, and you can’t do everything you want to do. These are the kinds of choices you have to make as an adult. It’s not fun.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Especially if you’re a film student; I went to, like, three hours of class a week.
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3 Responses

  1. Look into public access television opportunities in your community. Training is inexpensive and open to everyone. Teens and inexperienced people are welcome. You can get tons of real life experience, and can potentially be producing and/or directing your own shows within months. And you can combine it easily with part time or full time college or paid work.

  2. I’ll vouch for checking with your local PBS – I was lucky enough to work as a “student worker” at my local PBS in high school, and by the time I was done I was an amateur camera op, sound mixer, and font operator. It gave me a chance to “learn” a variety of different below the line roles in a supportive environment, as PBS stations are normally set up in an educational mindset.
    While PBS may not perfectly replicate the environment of a big time Hollywood movie set, it will give you the experience of what it means to work for a crew, to have a boss, and still see your work on the (small) screen. Fast forward 10 years, and a lot of the things I learned from that first crew still stick with me as an AD today.

  3. I went to a 4-year film school and I have been waiting to tell an actual high school student who wants to work in film… don’t go to film school.

    But don’t try to go out to the working world yet either. I’m 23, and people are just starting to take me seriously as an adult. There’s really no reason to be in the working world until you’re old enough to grab a drink with people after work.

    So what would I do in your shoes, knowing what I know now? Apply to college. Figure out what it would cost. Then make a deal with your parents to pay you half of whatever they’d spend on college to go towards making your own shorts, instead of going to college.

    Then I’d move to a town with a film school. And I’d volunteer to crew on all of their film shoots. I’d buy all their textbooks. I’d sneak into (or at least audit) their lectures.

    The best and most promising people I worked with in Film School were transfer students, many of them not even actually in the film program until late in their college career if ever. They were all self-starters. The bottom line is if you are a self-starter (and it sounds like you are), you can get the best parts of a film school education without paying any tuition.

    Like TAPA said, keep making those shorts. I have $20,000 student loan debt. I could be making a lot of short films with the money I will spend over the next 10 years paying that off.

    That’s just food for thought. Don’t rush into the real world because they won’t take you seriously. But don’t pay for film school either.

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