Behind the Lines with DR: What Makes You Special?

I get this call about once a year. It could be from a family member or a friend or a former colleague. But it usually involves a friend of a friend with a son or daughter who is interested in a career in the movies. They ask if I’d be adverse to meeting this young person for coffee or spending a little time on the phone with them? I generally have no problem complying, limiting the favor to a telephone chat. It often goes something like this:

photo credit flickriver.com

photo credit flickriver.com

“What can I do for you?” I will ask after our initial hellos, where you from and how’s the weather?

“I just love movies and hope to one day work in them.”

“In what capacity?” I ask.

“Well, I’m a performer.”

“An actor?”

“I guess so. Yes. I’d like to be an actor.”

Okay, time out. For purpose of this sample dialogue, I’m going with the actor factor. But believe me when I say this conversation doesn’t apply to just wannabe thespians. This is about everybody with a dream. Alright then. Back to the blog. Time in.

“Have you worked at all?” I ask. “As an actor, I mean.”

“Not yet. That’s why I’m calling you.”

“Well,” I’d say. “Tell me something about yourself.”

“Like what?”

“Like what makes you special? What makes you stand out?”

“Okay. Well. Just last year, I was Miss Stanislaus County. And before that, I was the lead in all my high school plays. Oh. And if I go to college, I’m planning on studying acting.”

“And where are you going to college?”

“I haven’t decided yet. Plus I wanted to give Hollywood a try first.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is a cliché. You already know this girl. Eyes cluttered with stars and fantasy. But you gotta start somewhere, right? Huge careers have been built on less.

Yet I need to ask her again:

“Like I asked you before. What makes you special? What makes you stand out from the crowd?”

“Did I say I was Miss Stanislaus County?”

“You did.”

“Oh.”

“Let me help you out,” I usually say about this point in the conversation. “Were you prom queen, homecoming queen? Anything like that?”

“I was. Yes. Two years running.”

“Right. And you were lead in all the shows. You took dance and voice lessons since you were a little girl.”

“Yes. I took dance. Jazz, ballet, hip-hop -”

“Outstanding. Good stuff,” I’d continue. “And ever since you can remember, people have been telling you that you’re a star. Should be in movies, TV. Stuff like that?”

“Uh uh. My local newspaper always mentioned that kinda stuff in their reviews.”

“And that’s outstanding. Really it is. But follow me.”

Here’s where I would produce some pretty basic numbers. Such as 35,000. That’s roughly the number of high schools in the U.S. That means every year there are 35,000 prom-slash-homecoming queens, many of who are also theatrically inclined and garnered rave local notices from editors whose day job in selling flood insurance. Add to that the over 3,000 Miss Name-That-Counties that are annually crowned, so many of whom are already plotting their escape from Smallville before rhinestone tiaras are gently plugged into their hair-sprayed dos.

Now imagine a mere one-quarter of one percent of those special young women arriving on the Sidewalks of Showbiz. And that’s every year! One thousand spanking new dreamers making landfall with suitcases packed full of hopes, rave reviews, and a host of Most Likely to Succeed in Hollywood votes tabulated by the fine folks on the yearbook committee.

And these annual arrivals doesn’t even include the countless others who arrive in Lalaland with their sights set on stardom. Community theater actors, BFA’s with college degrees in theater, and everyone else who tried but didn’t get selected for a spot on The Glee Project.

“It’s an overcrowded, competitive business,” I’d say to her. “So when I ask what makes you special? What makes you stand out? I absolutely mean it in the best way.”

“I need to stand out.”

“You need to be exceptional,” I’d say. “When you figure out what that is… or where to look for it… you’re starting from the right place.”

Was I being too harsh? Maybe. I’m nothing close to perfect. So neither is my advice. But I do have a point here. One that applies to everybody who’s battling to make his or her way in business more competitive than cold war super powers.

I’m now a screenwriting veteran. My credits are decent enough but I’ve won no awards and good or bad, my movies are paganly commercial. In other words, as I’m dispensing said advice to showbiz hopefuls over the phone or in this blog, I’m really just kicking my own lazy self in ass.

I have a singular writing credo. Be it blog, or novel, or script. Is it compelling? What’s going to make my reader want to turn the page?

Well, that’s no different than asking myself this: What makes me special? What makes me stand out?

Even now, as I tap out this post, I’m questioning the relevance of it. Is it interesting? Worth clicking on? Is it blogworthy? All I can be sure of is that some of you will let me know in the comments section.

Tomorrow morning – when I return to the pages of my next novel or screenplay – I’ll begin by briefly rereading some of what I’ve already written. And then ask myself if the words are worthy of the mass attention required for success in this fiercely competitive world.

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3 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: What Makes You Special?

  1. Thomas Gatus

    In defense of not knowing “you have to be SPECIAL.” Recognizing one is special, in any way, dawns slowly on children who are generally taught to conform to society and fit into the educational system. No one remarks on your “specialness” other than grandparents, perhaps. I think most people have to discover it for themselves, first. And to discover it, you have to test yourself against something you’ve never faced before. If you have a glitter of talent – a good teacher will press you to do better. You need other people who’ve accomplished something with their lives to be your mirror. In this case, hopefully, the girl on the other end of the telephone will go to an acting school and test her resolve to be an actress. It wouldn’t be so awful if she found she was a better screenwriter than actress, would it?

  2. Patrick Mahon

    Great advice, Doug. Harsh but fair.

    I often think of the TV show DRAGON’S DEN when hopefuls are pitching their projects to wealthy entrepreneurs for investment, and they consistently ask: “What’s the USP? What’s the angle? What the Unique Selling Point?”

    I suppose it’s a question of creating your own brand. Finding your unique voice and presenting that. Easier said than done. Discovering it is half the battle, perhaps.

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