Hollywood is notoriously difficult to break into—and it’s even more difficult to claw your way to the top. When I started working in the business, I saw that success wasn’t just about talent and hard work (though there is plenty of that). The more I studied, the more I realized that the people at the very top of the game approached it with a different strategy than everyone else.
Here are five strategies top Hollywood power players used to build a name for themselves that will work no matter what industry you’re in.
1. Take (the Right) Risks
Make small bets with big risks.
Landgraf found early success as a network executive at NBC (think: Friends, ER, The West Wing), but it’s during his tenure at FX that he’s established his legacy.
“If you make one show that works, you might have gotten lucky, but we now have half a dozen shows that are working,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “And we’ve done it by making small bets with big risks.”
Landgraf offered creatives something rare—full creative control—in exchange for working with miniscule budgets. The result? Small bets that became big hits like Louie, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Archer. Which in turn led to shows like Justified, Sons of Anarchy, and The Americans.
You have opportunities to make small bets with big risks every day. One example? Take on an experimental project on your days off to solve a company problem. Sure, if it doesn’t work, you’ve dedicated a few hours to your job rather than Netflix, but it didn’t cost you anything—and if it does work, it could change your professional trajectory.
2. Don’t Be All Business
Every day we have to have a couple laughs… And no assholes allowed.
Many things distinguish Berman as not-your-typical Hollywood power player: She was the first and only woman to hold the highest positions at a film studio (Paramount) and television network (Fox). Many credit her with Fox Broadcasting ascending from fourth to first place with shows like American Idol, 24, and Arrested Development.
But it’s Berman’s leadership style that most separates her from other top industry executives. “It was common to see her walking down the hall with no shoes on with a megaphone calling out to everyone, ‘Come on, what’s going on out here? We should be celebrating this!’” says Jennifer Salke, now NBC’s president. “She was just great about rallying the troops and getting people motivated and excited to work for her.”
As a leader, your attitude is contagious: You have the capacity to inspire the people around you with your enthusiasm or optimism. So, if your company culture has been a little lackluster, decide to lead by example—celebrating your employees’ successes and bringing positivity and teamwork back to the workplace.
3. Leaders Aren’t Born, They’re Made
Leadership is learned.
When Rhimes began writing Grey’s Anatomy, she was asked to work with a veteran show runner. Rhimes saw herself as “shy” and found working with others stressful. But after penning four hit series, (including Private Practice, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder), fending off the network’s notes (she stopped taking them), and weathering numerous cast kerfuffles, Rhimes found her groove as a leader.
Rhimes explains it as a trait she learned: “…how to be a boss and a leader versus somebody who was like, ‘Holy crap, I get to write a show every week.’”
Part of being powerful is believing in yourself and your abilities. Even if you’re naturally shy and you don’t envision yourself guiding your company through a five-minute conversation (let alone bringing in millions of television viewers through four different television shows), remember that even truly impressive people feel nervous. Even if you don’t feel like a leader, leadership is a skill, and skills can be learned and improved.
4. Do the Right Thing
Mind your reputation.
Lucchesi was the son of a bread truck driver and the first in his family to go to college. After hearing Hollywood mogul David Geffen speak at a class at UCLA, Lucchesi asked how he could get into the entertainment industry.
Geffen told him, “Go to William Morris Agency, start in the mailroom, and work your way up.” And that’s precisely what Lucchesi did.
“The most important thing Stan Kamen—Lucchesi’s mentor—passed on was to mind your reputation,” Lucchesi says in The Mail Room: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up. “I remember him arguing with someone on the phone and saying, ‘I’ll put my reputation up against yours any day.’ I’ve used it a couple times myself. If you actually have a good reputation, it’s a real winner.”
You are in control of your reputation in your career (and life). Technical skills matter, of course, but so does being known as loyal, thoughtful, reliable, and honest. When you say you’re going to send that email, or arrive on time, make sure you do.
Moreover, don’t participate (or just look the other way) when something you know is wrong is going on in your office. Even if you weren’t formally involved, working for a company that ends up embroiled in scandal isn’t something you want on your resume.
5. Never Stay Still
I’m not good at being static. I have to be climbing a mountain.
The rise of Creative Artists Agency is legendary (they rented chairs; they worked on card tables; partners’ wives took turns being the receptionist), as is the rise of Michael Ovitz, its de facto head. Ovitz became the undisputed most powerful man in Hollywood in the ’90s, using the agency’s star power to build leverage in other businesses. He orchestrated Matsushita’s purchase of MCA and Sony’s acquisition of Columbia. He got into business with Coca-Cola, having CAA work as its advertising agency, according to an interview with The New York Times.
In other words, he wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. “Ovitz worked hard. He was prepared. He was aggressive. Diligent. Organized. Detailed. He saw a big picture and was a bigger thinker than I had ever thought an agent would be,” said David “Doc” O’Connor, managing partner at CAA.
How can you think big in your own career? Once a week, book out an hour of your time and shut off the phone, email, and Twitter. Instead, imagine the big picture: Where is your company going? Where is your industry going? What steps can you start taking now to position yourself for success in the future? What mountains might you like to climb?
It’s not easy to become a major player in Hollywood, but it is possible. And whatever industry you’re hoping to make a name for yourself in, you can use the advice above to move up the ladder.