“Must have unrestricted work authorization to work in the United States.”
These are the 11 non-negotiable words tucked away at the bottom of a job posting that form the single biggest hurdle for a non-U.S. citizen to land that first job in Hollywood. Every month I field two or three emails from aspiring internationals from all walks of life hoping to find a way over this barrier.
Most of them are referred to me by mutual friends who know me as “the international student who got a Hollywood job and a work visa,” and often I am asked, with much angst, “How do you negotiate the non-negotiable?”
The Hollywood System
To understand why it is arguably more difficult for a non-resident to break into Hollywood than into a more common occupation (Computer Programmer, Engineer or Banker), you need to understand the following things about Hollywood:
Hollywood doesn’t need you. Beyond specific global experience, foreign finance or language-oriented roles, Hollywood is not actively recruiting for internationals. It is an industry that even Americans find hard to break into. So you must accept that you are a non-American starting out in a very American industry, who needs to prove that they can excel in said industry over and above an average American so that a company can justify paying the extra fees and legal paperwork to make you an employee.
There is no visa for freelancing. While many aspiring producers, writers, directors and actors start off with the age-old practice of freelancing until they get a big break, internationals typically don’t have that luxury, as company-sponsored employment is required obtain the most basic work visas.
Desk experience required. You can’t be somebody without first paying your dues as a Hollywood Assistant. Most creative or programming executive jobs require experience “on a desk,” which is to say you need to have been a Hollywood Assistant before you get to any other title or position. Executives and top producers, writers, and directors typically take on a Hollywood assistant for a short term, with the view of rewarding them with an internal promotion or sending on a strong recommendation to be promoted elsewhere. But, there’s a Catch-22…
Hollywood Assistants don’t qualify for work visas. Hollywood assistants are categorized as “secretaries.” Secretarial jobs in California are reserved for U.S. residents and do not qualify for work visa sponsorship applications. In order to apply for a work visa, you must legally hold a non-secretarial title and be paid the average wage for that position.
So, assuming you start off as an international student, it all becomes a race against time. The goal is to get employed by a company while you still have time to legally work without a work visa, either while you are still on a Student Visa (F-1) or on a Practical Training Visa (CPT or OPT) that’s granted to recent degree graduates.
Working while on an F-1, CPT or OPT visa allows you to acquire enough legitimate and relevant experience so that by the time you must transition to an full-fledged work visa (e.g. H-1B), you can make a case to be promoted and sponsored on the basis of the new, non-secretarial job.
I heard a lot of “landing your first job” stories in grad school, and a lot of them were some variation of “I quit my high-paying consulting job and moved to Los Angeles, and the first night I was there I went to a bar and just happened to meet an old friend who knew of an opening for the desk of a top executive in a top studio. The next day I interviewed and got the job.”
The thing about these “miracle” stories is that you can learn and apply very little from them. Getting a job in Hollywood is a game of chance that runs on top of a strong, uncompromising foundation of hard work, meticulous planning and relentless networking. Everyone’s path is different but the ultimate goal for a resident alien is to aggressively up the game of chance so you are employed as early as possible on the timeline.
For me, I decided the best route was to get a Masters degree, which gave me more time in the United States to find a job, and develop connections. I chose to attend the University of Southern California, in part because its Peter Stark Producing Program allowed me to start working full-time one whole year before graduation. After that, I worked for the same company on the 1-year OPT visa granted to me after I received my degree. That gave my company 2 years to decide whether or not I was worth promoting and sponsoring.
After 6 years, 2 Degrees and 2 Practical Training Visas in the United States, I finally held my passport with the words H-1B stamped in it. There on the streets of London, where I had travelled to interview for the visa, I felt for a moment the sense of stability that I had fought so hard for. And then as life would have it, 6 months later, I was (willingly and happily) transferred by my company to Sydney, Australia.
This is my story – but everyone’s path is different. Here are some things to consider before you become an international seeking work in Hollywood.
Six Questions Every Aspiring Alien Needs to Answer
1. How much do you want this? There isn’t much time to flirt casually with the idea. The Entertainment industry is one that demands commitment, and if you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be working in it because the low pay, the hours, the work and the stress won’t be worth it otherwise.
2. What about yourself gives you the best chance of getting the job you want? How strong is the case for your employability? What are the top qualities you have that differentiate you from other candidates? If you cannot convince yourself that you are worth the trouble, you won’t be able to convince your employers.
3. Do you have to start in America? Depending on your career goals and your country of residency, there are many more paths for someone already successful in a foreign country to enter the U.S. market when they are more developed in their career – just look at all the successful British, Canadian and Australian directors and actors out there. The same goes for executives in multinational entertainment conglomerates that end up getting internal transfers to the United States, qualifying for the L-1 visa.
4. Do you have enough time? Is your planned path actually practical and possible? If you don’t, how can you extend your stay, should you not get a job in time? Are there more degrees you can get to extend your time?
5. Who will be in this fight with you? Are you the only person who will fight for yourself? Is your family supportive of your aspirations? If you already have a job and are diving into the visa process, will your company stick with you through it all?
6. What is your back-up plan? Do you have a skill or qualification that could get you into a specific role in an entertainment company or related industry? Can you get another job with an H-1B visa (or eventually a green card) that will give you more time to pursue your dream job?
I will always be the first to admit that it’s not easy, it really isn’t. Like the best careers in the world, entertainment is one that requires you to give it your heart. If you truly love what you do, then all the piles of paperwork, lines at the embassy, calls with the lawyer and periods of uncertainty in your role or your status – all of that will be nothing compared to the joy and satisfaction of going to work every morning believing in what you do, loving the people you work with and most importantly, feeling like you belong.
So fight for what you love, and know that as hard as it may be, there is always – always – a way.
Featured image courtesy of Great Beyond on Flickr.