The allure of Hollywood begins to reach us at a young age. Most people will probably experience at least one, perhaps brief, stage in their life where pursuing work in the film industry sounds like a wonderful idea. Bright lights, pretty people, and big paychecks – of course it sounds appealing.
Most people will also grow past the age of ten and decide to move on to a more feasible career. Then, there are the rest of us. The dreamers. The ones who don’t mind the idea of begging our parents for money well into our twenties. The ones who know we may be the “coffee kid” for years and still never get that big-time break as a producer, writer, or actor. We are led to believe that there is something romantic about following our hearts, but is the sacrifice of our morals and pride worth it in the end?
For many of us who had the Hollywood “bug” after graduating high school, going on to study film in college appeared to be a good idea. There was a false security in the thought of “having a degree in film” despite the fact that Hollywood is about who you know, not where you went to college. We spent thousands of dollars to take classes where our professors pounded the idea into us that “networking” will be the key to starting a career in film. Thus, we were told to attend film festivals. What could possibly be a better way to meet people in the industry than to throw yourself into week-long seminars and screenings where you are surrounded by people who might just be the savior for your career?
My first experience attending a legitimate film festival was just this fall in the fantastic city of Austin, Texas. The Austin Film Festival is geared towards professionals and amateurs alike. It is also renowned for creating an atmosphere of accessibility. Unlike festivals such as Sundance, Austin encourages those with experience to mingle with amateurs, students, and fans.
As this is my senior year of college, I felt pressured to gain as much out of this experience as possible. I teamed up with seven other film students and left at five in the morning from our humble town of Norman, Oklahoma, in order to reach Austin by the opening of the festival at noon. We were thrilled to have signed up for the conference part of the festival, which is designed especially for those interested in the art of screenwriting.
We arrived at a beautiful hotel on the infamous 6th Street in Austin where the conference was taking place. The minute we entered the building we stepped into an entirely different world. We could smell the artistic creativity emanating from everyone in the room. There were beautiful women who looked like foreign models, men with stuffed briefcases, and people having intense discussions over coffee. We all felt one step closer to the magical world of Hollywood and filmmaking. The week was looking hopeful. I couldn’t wait to begin meeting these talented directors, producers, and writers.
Our first day was filled with panels about screenwriting and the industry itself. We were exhausted from the morning’s six-hour drive and the constant stimulation of the festival atmosphere. As much as we wanted to retire to the comfort of our hotel beds, we pushed forward, thanks to our little friend named coffee. That night would play host to an exciting “welcome party” for those attending the conference. This was one of the more important times to be on our game and set a good impression with people for the rest of the festival.
The party was at a gigantic, lively bar on 6th Street. Not everyone in our group was 21, so I paired off with my good friend Lee to attend. We were the only girls in our group of age to enter a bar. However, alcohol was the last thing on our minds. This was our first real chance to approach industry professionals in a casual atmosphere. People kill for these kinds of opportunities, so we had to be on our game.
In general, I consider myself a fairly reserved person around those I don’t know well. Going up and approaching strangers was a bit of a stretch was for me, but I knew this is how people get work in the industry. I sucked it up, grabbed a single beer to nurse for the night and searched the room for a kind face.
It didn’t take long. Lee and I had just barely stepped away from the bar when we heard a “Hello ladies!” coming from a group of three men. Two were dressed in casual suits and one in jeans. They looked to be in their early thirties.
Okay, time to be sharp, I thought to myself. Be professional, interesting, and confident. These men look like they could be the real deal.
Lee and I introduced ourselves and feebly attempted to begin talking film. We were quickly cut off by, “Do you need a drink? Oh no. You’ve got one. Well I’d offer you a drink but I guess I don’t have to buy because it’s an open bar!” They seemed a little too comfortable.
One of them was short and a bit chubby. He asked my name a second time and then continued to use it over and over as the discussion continued.
“Jennifer, so you’re a student? I have a movie coming out, did you know that? Jennifer, how old are you?”
I made the mistake of revealing to him that I was only 21. He seemed intrigued. Suddenly he whirled me away to point to a poster on the wall advertising the premiere of a baseball movie later that week at the festival.
He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me until my nose was an inch away from the credits listed on the poster. He pointed to a name at the bottom.
“Jennifer, do you see that right there? That’s my name. Yep. Me and those other two you just met – we produced this.”
I tried to show interest in his work. He seemed nice, if a little touchy-feely. I wondered if this was how everyone in the industry was. He had obviously done legitimate work in film so I decided it might be worth picking his brain a little longer. He thoroughly enjoyed talking about himself.
He seemed to wear himself out after about 15 minutes of continuous rambling, or perhaps the alcohol was slowing him down. He reached a sudden pause before exclaiming, “You know what? We’re at a festival. Let’s mingle. That’s what this night is about, right? Let me take you in the other room and help you network.”
This seemed like a generous offer. The other room that he referred to was jam packed with people, so I wasn’t worried about him taking me into a dark alley. I wasn’t thrilled to leave Lee’s side, but I really needed to learn how to work a room. I was quite thankful for this man’s offer.
He motioned for me to follow him. We entered the buzzing room and I looked around. Here goes. I took a deep breath. My game face was on, at least until I felt his arm around me.
“Hey, let’s go take a picture! There’s a party pics station.” He dragged me toward a girl with a camera.
Before I knew it we were standing in front a young hipster who was flashing lights as us and awkwardly saying, “Come on, you two! Show passion. Make love to the camera!” Apparently she was referring to me and the balding, chubby man next to me.
Suddenly not one, but both of his arms were wrapped around me. His sweaty cheek was pushing against mine. I awkwardly tried to play if off as if the scenario was a joke. I was counting the seconds until the camera would run out of film.
“Passion! More of it! Let me see passion!” She sure seemed to love her job.
“Oh, I’ve got passion. Wanna make out?” the slimy man whispered in my ear. His chapped lips rubbed against my ear.
“What?” I pushed back away from him. This had gone from awkward to extremely uncomfortable.
He reached out towards me, placing his arm on my shoulder. “Jennifer, I’m just kidding.”
“I’m going to find my group.” I began to take off through the crowded bar. The room felt like it was swallowing me whole.
“Jennifer, wait! Come on! I thought you wanted to meet people tonight!” He followed me.
I tried to shove him off again.
“Just come back this way with me. This is your first festival, isn’t it? Don’t be shy! This is Hollywood! We’re all friends here!” He was staring at my chest, despite the fact that I was wearing a modest sweater.
Thankfully, I spotted Lee just a few steps away. Without another look at the sweaty producer, I ran to Lee and grabbed her arm. There was safety in numbers. In the meantime, a tall brunette weary a strapless dress had quickly distracted the disgusting man. I was off the hook but left feeling completely humiliated.
So this is Hollywood. Anger raced through my mind. This “producer” had never, for one second, cared that I was interested in film. He didn’t care that I have studied film for four years and that I was there with professional intentions. He had seen my long, blonde hair and thought of me as nothing more than a conquest from the minute our conversation began.
I was completely disillusioned. I knew that Hollywood was infamous for its sexism; I just didn’t expect it to happen to me at a film festival in Austin, Texas. From that moment on I saw everything from a new perspective. I watched the male students in our group network with Hollywood execs while the girls stood like minnows in a room full of sharks. I felt 21 years of desire to work in the film industry crashing down around me.
Reflecting on my experience at the festival, I still feel anger. After talking with other girls in the group of students who attended, I found out I was not the only one who experienced harassment or sexism from men. Part of me is angry with myself. Had I been that naive about the “real world?” Part of me is angry with women who aren’t afraid to take whatever measures necessary to gain success. But the biggest part of me is angry with the men who are ruining the magic of film with their selfish, perverted desires. Obviously, any industry is going to have its element of people with bad intentions, but I find myself now completely unsure whether I am fit to enter an industry where “sleeping your way to success” is so incredibly rampant.