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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Wealth On The Outskirts
seminar workshop success

Plenty find it’s easier to line their pockets on the periphery

It's never a pleasant memory for me to rewind my brain and summon up memories of my close to eight years in Los Angeles, an experiment that didn't go remotely like I planned.  At this point in my life, I can't necessarily say that's a bad thing, because if things had gone a little more in my favor there it may have been a little more inspiration for me to have stayed to continue living a life I am now glad to have left behind.

As everyone knows, Los Angeles is the capital of the American entertainment industry. I almost wrote the world's entertainment industry. It might be too presumptuous for me to say Los Angeles is the world capital.  India has quite a substantial entertainment industry headquartered in Bombay, Korea has its own in Seoul, the UK in London.  But on one level it is hard to argue that it's not. The TV shows and movies produced by the companies based in Los Angeles are what get eagerly seen by people all over the world.  You could not say the same thing about Indian, Chinese, Korean, British, or, indeed, any other nation's entertainment production infrastructure.

Hence, the rewards of succeeding big in Hollywood can be more lucrative than winning powerball lottery jackpots. Successful screenwriters receive more money per written word than any other type of writer. Successful actors and directors earn more annually than very well paid corporate America CEO's.

Everyone knows this.  This is why there are vast cottage industries sprouting up around the entertainment industry to "support" people aspiring to break into it.

I am not talking about acting coaches and screenwriting courses here. If you select the right coach or enroll in the right course, you're certain to refine and hone skills. I am talking more about competitions which promise industry connections as prizes, seminars which dangle famous personalities as guests, to sell you another quick ticket into the promised land. Oftentimes, the companies offering the competitions are the same ones sponsoring the seminars/workshops.

In Hollywood, at least when I lived there, you were deluged with them. You arrive in town an unknown with no connections and are desperate to get on the inside any way you can. These seminars/workshops are there to fill that "need."

The marketing for them all is about the same.  I remember seeing one poster by the Church of Scientology. Actress Erika Chistensen, who was then sort of well known due to the movie Traffic that had been released a year prior, was giving a talk on how to make it as a film actor in Hollywood. It was implied that by going to this talk, you would be fasttracking your way into the remunerative world of Hollywood acting.

I suspect the real purpose of this talk was for the Church to rope in fresh new recruits for their high price tag courses. The Church does boast some credibility in the Hollywood success department. They maintain their own Celebrity Centers, extensively market themselves alongside famous celebrity Scientologists, and can lure in new prospects by drawing a tenuous connection between the Church's teachings and the celebrity's current level of fame. Did the Church's notoriety boost Tom Cruise's starpower or did Cruise's Hollywood ascent give the Church more notoriety?  The Church prefers to sell new prospects on the former.

A recent arrival to Los Angeles myself, I was more amenable to the bold promises such brochures promised. I finally fell for the seduction at a 2-day screenwriting seminar attended by hundreds held at the Beverly Hills Hotel sometime in 1998, put on, I think, by Ink Tip magazine.  I could be wrong about the sponsor, and it wouldn't alter the story.  Big names promised to be there: Randall Wallace, fresh off writing the Mel Gibson smash Braveheart; Kevin Williamson, scribe behind the then raging Scream spoof horror movie franchise and also helming the teen soap drama Dawson's Creek; Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, the male-female writing team behind The Brady Bunch Sequel and their then directorial debut Can't Hardly Wait; and one of the writers behind the successful 1997 Michael Douglas movieThe Game, John Brancato.  Plus a few other producers and behind-the-scenes players whose names I cannot recall.

The price to attend wasn't cheap. Around $350, in 1998 dollars. This included a mediocre luncheon buffet where everything had cream on or in it, presentations by the big names, and five three-minute pitch sessions with reps from area production companies. The latter part was considered the networking portion of the seminar and was laughable, I am sure, for both the newbies who had no idea how to pitch and the execs who had to painfully sit through it.     Few of the speakers, if any, put much time in their presentations, treating the gig as an easy way to pocket whatever generous amount they got paid for just showing up.  I clearly remember Kevin Williamson stepping up to the podium and admitting that he prepared nothing for his presentation.

If there was any networking going on, it was us struggling upstarts trying to network with the other wannabes.  The hallowed presenters didn't stick around long after their improvised talks - except John Brancato. He stuck around for the extremely average luncheon. One of the desperate strugglers tried to secure Brancato's contact details, and Brancato was adamant that he'd give them out but he could/would not help jumpstart anyone's careers.

For years afterwards, I was on this magazine's mailing list. They solicited me for further conferences and various screenwriting competitions. I should hope the success stories they crow about on their mail outs have improved by many orders of magnitude in the many years since I attended. Back then, the featured name which kept coming up time and time again was Jon Bokenkamp for Preston Tylk. Bokenkamp and this movie were just as unknown years ago as they are now, and I am positive that no one seeing Bokenkamp's name and credit on a seminar pamphlet would rush to the phone to sign up.   Out of curiosity, I just looked up the movie on IMDB. Preston Tylk was the alternate name of a feature, Bad Seed, released in 2000, whose main claim to renown today is that it features one of the TV stars currently on The Walking Dead.

The precise type of seminar or workshop making the rounds depends on location and, to a lesser extent, on the times. Hollywood probably always had and always will have screenwriting, film acting, and directing seminars promising participants meet and greets with industry hookups and a quicker ride up the ladder. Similar packages could be hawked in Chicago and New York.  I imagine there are quick-ticket music industry hookup events in Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville.

They're not all rackets. I certainly did not attend enough to draw that conclusion.  And I suppose if you're the positive attitude type, you're liable to learn one thing, however small, at any event.  You never know where and how you'll meet the contact(s) who could play a role in igniting your career. The events themselves could be busts, and you could still walk away with a benefit.

But for the purposes of evaluation here, I won't give these side benefits so much credit that we can ignore if the seminar delivered on its promises. Most participants find it hard to ignore the cost. Aspiring screenwriters aren't a group normally associated with six figure incomes. They can't attend every single seminar. When they pay for the odd one, more than most they need to see a real return on their investment ASAP. On this measure, most of these events were a complete waste of cash for most of the attendees.

Since about 2010, a popular seminar/workshop/meetup cottage industry revolves around startups.  Apps like Instagram got a tremendous amount of press for selling for hundreds of millions of dollars without any revenue or profits.  Other relatively simple tools like SnapChat get valued in the billions.  We now accept that a YouTuber from Sweden can make cheap videos in England and out-earn most American network television sitcom stars.  So, the thinking goes, anyone anywhere should be able to create their own apps and lean mean virtual machines to turn themselves into gazillionaires.

Event organizations spring up to organize the meetup gatherings and entrepreneur exhibitions. Co-working spaces spring up to accommodate the amorphous startup before it gets its own office. There are pitch contests.  Startup bootcamps.

The industry orbiting the startup culture is more pervasive than whatever sprang up alongside the screenwriting/acting/directing/filmmaking industries   Entertainment peripherals to part the eager from their money thin out when you get to Middle America. One beauty of the entertainment rackets is that the marketers don't have to come to wherever you are. Those wishing to break in will clamor to a gateway city to be wooed.

Today's startup culture boom embraces the notion that future gajillion dollar enterprises can be launched from everywhere. I subscribe to a startup newsletter which posts all the up-and-coming startup news for startups throughout Southeast Asia, and if you don't vet anything here, it looks like enterprises securing generous Series A funding are as common as the bubble tea stands you now see at every Skytrain stop in Bangkok.

Any town which could qualify as more than a village can have its own startup periphery. Large Asian capital cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, and Singapore have them. But so do smaller cities. I picked Akron, Ohio as a city to search at random, and yes, sure enough, Akron now has office co-working spaces. Co-working spaces are not shy about promoting startup events and why shouldn't they? Participants pay an admission fee, possibly get drawn into the community, and may decide to use said co-working space for themselves.

But watching another startup at a co-working space  give a clumsy and boring speech on how they were able to secure $750k in funding from a Singaporean-based venture capital firm won't likely help you get ahead with your own idea, any more than attending yet one more screenwriting seminar in Hollywood will get your next script read by just the right movers and shakers.

The startup culture periphery is able to suck its mileage out of the conventional press with its never-ending tales of newer and younger millionaires who cashed out for tremendous sums. The word "startup" has become a trendy buzzword. A few decades back you'd say you were starting a new enterprise.  Now, it's "I'm launching a startup." 

The definition of startup is as vague as some of these startup founder's business plans. A definition I find acceptable is one Paul Graham of Y Combinator coined. He said a startup is designed from the very beginning to grow quickly, at least by  5-7% per week. The definition of growth has some leeway here.  The growth could be in number of users, revenue, profits, whatever, but the business had better be growing in one measurable area by significant amounts.

This rules out most new businesses as startups.  The startup community would prefer you continue to refer to your new coffee bar as a startup because then you, along with every other "startup" founder, can keep the periphery businesses flush with cash.

Levi Strauss moved out west to California from Missouri to open up a branch of his family's dry goods business. The denim jeans which made him a fortune came about because one of his customers, a tailor, devised a way to make sturdier pants with metal rivets, and he sought Strauss as a business partner. These men became richer than most of the Gold Rushers they were servicing.

In a similar vein, Ink Tip and their relatives and startup peripheral businesses (lawyers, employment recruitment firms, incubators, startup courses and coaches, etc) stand to do well while most of the participants availing themselves of such services - many of them unnecessary at an early stage in the participant's career - go belly up.

I am not alleging that these peripheral industries are scams. Even the 1998 screenwriting seminar I attended at the Beverly Hills Hotel was officially legit.  It was just that we, as attendees, hoped that attendance would lead to something more. You could not fault us. The marketing literature suggested as much.

You have to remember that the purpose of these periphery events is, first, to earn a profit for the event organizers. And second, possibly a distant second, aid you in realizing your dreams. Some can be quite good and worth your investment; most are not.

Becoming a permanent fixture at events on the periphery is not your long haul ticket to wealth - unless you are the one throwing the event.

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