Delayed Gratification: A lesson in show biz. If I was able to teach a seminar in show business to my 22-year-old self it would all come down to two words: Patience and Persistence.
Well that and be lucky, don’t be scared to ask for help, and be willing to work for free. A lot.
The year is 2012. For the sake of context, I feel like I need to paint a picture of where I was in my career and mindset when things started to change for me. I spent the better part of a decade trying to be an actor in LA, just like everyone else who graduated from college and thought they weren’t bad looking and could potentially deliver dialogue in a convincing manner.
I was a regularly auditioning commercially and was lucky enough to make some money acting with a few big commercials, but no one wanted me to act in any real meaningful way. My biggest show biz achievement (being the voice of Apple) had recently come to an end, and had me back at my day job managing an eco-friendly car rental company.
Not exactly where I had planned on being after being in LA for almost ten years and repped for most of it.
After a hard day of MMA training, my friend and training partner Jarrett Sleeper pitched me on a sketch idea. He was an actor just like me, but had some decent credits under his belt. We made each other laugh and struck up a friendship.
The sketch had a simple premise and was shootable, given my limited production knowledge and equipment. Disguised to look like any other weight lifting video on the internet, our protagonist would psych himself up before performing a clean, and jerk with a weight that is conveniently just out of frame. As he pulls the weight up we reveal that he’s using a woman rather than a barbell as his weight. After completing the jerk portion of the lift, he would drop her on the ground and celebrate just like any other weight lifting bro having hit a PR.
Hilarious. Set-up, set-up, punch. Classic comedy formula. Add in a pun in the title and some social commentary about the idea that society treats women like objects, and we have a neatly packaged sketch suitable for Funny or Die.
We met up at a Crossfit gym in Van Nuys in a complex that was previously a porn studio. We filmed six versions of the video that would eventually become “How to Pick Up a Girl at the Gym” and picked our favorite. This silly video shot on a borrowed Canon t3i and a Rode VideoMic was uploaded to YouTube on a Sunday night and in less than 24 hours, would hit the front page of Reddit, be viewed over a million times, and later go to be licensed for clips shows around the world in six countries.
We did it for free with no expectations.
This stroke of luck was the spark that helped jumpstart our careers as writers/producers/directors/talent, but it didn’t take into account all of the previous years of performing live sketch and improv, theater, workshops, years of acting classes, countless auditions, and shooting/editing tons of mediocre sketches. And all for free.
It also provided a proof-of-concept to those who wanted to understand how viral video worked, as well as the scrappiness of new media production. YouTube was starting to really be a thing and viral video was a nascent industry that advertising agencies and branding experts were looking to tackle. We started to take meetings, made a ton of mistakes, but we started to take on actual jobs.
One of our first jobs as a production entity was producing music videos for the FBE show MyMusic, a show that Jarrett was already an actor on. The budgets were laughable, the timeline was impossible, but in return we were given a ton of creative control and access to the potential audience of millions. We made zero money and didn’t pay ourselves, but got to build a relationship that we still have to this day, build a reel, and add another gold star to our resume. For us, the juice was worth the squeeze.
Those videos led to our YouTube channel to being invited to be a part of YouTube Space LA, which led to further work with the Fine Brothers, which led to client work with Panasonic, which led to other writing/producing jobs with DEFY (RIP DEFY media) and BlackboxTV. Work begets work, as the old saying goes, and this was certainly my experience.
Between live shows, shadowing opportunities, skill development, and ALWAYS developing on spec, I found myself always trying to take advantage of the unpaid opportunities that crossed my desk. To this day I still work about 30% of the time for free. I would do more if I could afford it.
Whether its my Producers Guild mentor, writers I’ve met through the Austin Film Festival, or producers from ITVfest, I try to approach them all from a place of service. How can I help you? More specifically, how can I help you get to where you need to go?
I never know where my skills and connections could solve a problem someone who I admire is trying to figure out.
There are obvious limits to working for free. I’m currently Executive Producer at Mindjam Media where we produce scripted, unscripted, and branded content for a number of major media companies, so I have to be a little more selective with my time than I used to be. Use your best judgement in all cases and make sure your potential upside outweighs the opportunity cost of using your time for anything else.
For me, I have a relatively high tolerance for this since my wife and I don’t have kids to support (yet) and we’ve made some lifestyle choices that enable this approach. Namely, we drive old cars (Wife: ‘99 Toyota Me: ‘03 Honda), we’re low maintenance (Our wedding rings are made of medical grade silicon from Qalo) and we don’t feel like we need to keep up with the Joneses.
As of this writing my development board has seven projects in some form of active development with another 13 that are simmering and could go at any time. This includes scripts on the Blcklst, a patreon supported podcast about MMA, a feature script about the uber of war, a host of audiobooks to be produced, and a history-based challenge course game show just to name a few.
All of these projects were developed for free, over time, at no one’s request and only now are they starting to generate money. Who knows if any of them will EVER see the light of day, but I can tell you without a doubt my next wave of projects will be that much better.
My experience is strictly that. It worked for me based on the best info I had at the time under the market conditions that existed in that brief window of time. I hope you can learn from it, build upon it, and surpass me.
Seriously. I hope you leap frog levels past my working class showbiz existence.
A rising tide raises all ships, right?
My only ask is that when you’re showrunning your own show or heading up development at a network I hope you remember your old pal Zeke and his sage advice from way back when and consider me the next time you have an open spot in your writers room or need a showrunner who’s also an “easy hang.”
But in the meantime, here are my AI's that I wish someone had given to me when I was starting out:
1)Be kind. Always. You’re always auditioning for your next opportunity. You just don’t know it.
2) Take that PA gig you think you’re too good for. College doesn’t mean shit to most people in the biz.
3) Ask (good) questions (when it’s appropriate and there is a break in the action).
4) Learn something new every time you’re on set. There isn’t a project that goes by that I don’t learn something new.
5) Become skilled at both shooting/editing. I still get asked to do these things and I wish I was better at both. This will also help you with 10.
6) Be prolific when it comes to making things. You haven’t had your last good idea.
7) In case 5 wasn’t clear enough: Always. Be. Generating. Original IP. Always.
8) Audit your friends circle. Don’t hang with assholes. Avoid Tall Poppy Syndrome at all cost.
9) Reach out to people you respect and offer to help them for free.
10) Keep your expenses low and save your money so you can do 8.
11) Cash is oxygen. Don’t run out of oxygen. No matter what.
TLDR: Get comfortable not being paid to create. Do it because you have to. Be of service to people who can help you get to the next level. Be kind. And maybe with a little bit of luck you’ll get a shot at getting where you want to go.
Zeke Rodrigues Thomas is an Executive Producer at Mindjam Media, a filmmaker, and on-camera talent with over a decade of experience in the entertainment industry. You may recognize him from ad campaigns for Fortune 500 companies, sketches on Conan, and viral videos that top over 100 MM views across Youtube and Facebook.
Zeke's currently an Executive Producer at Mindjam Media and was previously the EP at EGO 360 and VR.
Having recently produced "Don't Go Alone", a Halloween anthology series for Nickelodeon Digital, as well as several unscripted shows including "Minecraft City Champs", he and the Mindjam Media team continue to develop shows for Viacom Digital Studios including the recently announced "Annie Vs. Hayley: LeBake Off!!!"
Zeke's original comedy pilot script Karate City was selected as a semi finalist at the Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Plus his combat sports podcast, "Fight Stuff", has been taking over the comedy charts."
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