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  • James Stranahan

Advice for Students Who Want to Work in the Movie Industry

I still remember one of the first times I went to the movies. I was around 5 years old, and my parents took me to see a matinee showing of Jurassic Park. We did it up right, too: Cokes, popcorn, a Snickers bar, and a whole row to ourselves. I was agog as the opening credits ran across the screen, the music began, and 20-foot tall characters started interacting with each other right in front of my eyes. Once I had gotten over my initial wave of delight, I hunkered down in my seat to watch Sam Neill’s Grant and the two kids save the world from the biggest, most fierce and realistic dinosaurs I’ve ever seen. Those two hours flew by, and when I left, I couldn’t get the film out of my mind. I went to sleep that night with the movie still playing in my mind.


I am 35 years old now, so it’s been a while since my first trip to the movies. These days, I spend a lot of time on film sets, where I work with actors and the production crew while talking with investors, directors, and the media. I juggle a lot of balls! The funny thing is, though, that no matter how busy I get - and some of my days are flat-out insane - I still remember what that little boy felt like as he sat in his seat, his legs dangling over the edge. I can still feel that happiness and sheer joy at the wonder of watching such an exciting story come alive and being swept into it.


As a movie producer for Tip-Top, I often get asked by high school and college students what I recommend they do in order to get ready for a film career. All the usual answers come up and are true: be in your school’s theater club. Work for all aspects of a play, including as an actor, costume designer, and sound technician. Read widely in as many genres as you can. Those are all great suggestions, and I did many of them myself as I went through high school and college and on to Hollywood.


Sometimes I just stop, however, and I look at these students for a moment before saying, “Never forget how you felt when you saw your first movie.” They pause to think about what I’ve just said, and then they smile. They are still young enough to get it.


I work with a lot of passionate people, to be sure. I am blessed to be surrounded by peers who do love what they do. But, let’s face it, we’re adults. We have grown up and left behind the thrills we experienced as children. We’re cynical. We know all about special effects and that Superman can’t really fly. We know that when we watch the Millennium Falcon battle Tie Fighters around the Death Star, it’s really just a blue screen with small models of the ships being operated by technicians.


We are so consumed by budgets, deadlines, and the quest for perfection that we forget to just let ourselves marvel at the power of the human imagination. I think that’s a real shame and to our detriment sometimes.

So, when a teenager or a college sophomore asks me for advice on how to work in the movie industry, I do give them all the standard answers because those honestly help. Also, I tell them that learning Shakespeare will help them immensely with story telling even though the guy died hundreds of years ago, and I give them advice on how to get over stage fright.


In the end, though, I leave them with one last piece of advice: never get so good at what you do that you forget what you felt like the first time you saw a movie. If you can hold onto that, you’ll do just fine.



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