As part of my new blog series, I will be interviewing Military Veterans in creative careers (namely Hollywood, Video Games, and Books). To get us rolling I have included my interview with Kevin Christ. Kevin was an officer in the U.S. Navy and now works at Lionsgate. I am thrilled to introduce you to Kevin, so read on!
Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us, Kevin. First off, what did you do in the military? Do you feel that anything you learned in the military can be applied to your current career or helped you get to where you are now?
Kevin Christ: I was a surface warfare officer in the Navy. During my first two years, I was a Division Officer in charge of the maintenance division onboard a frigate, leading about 30 sailors. I had little technical knowledge of their job as I was just tossed into this division from day-1 and expected to learn complex systems on the job. There was of course a chief in my division with over 20 years of experience working in that field, so we worked together to ensure both the administrative and technical needs of the division were running smoothly. I also had several other collateral jobs. A ship runs 24/7, so I rotated through 5 hour navigation and combat center watches when out to sea or 5 hour security watches on the ship’s quarterdeck (entry / exit point to the pier) when in port. With a small crew on a frigate there were many instances of having to work a full day, then stand a 5 hour watch in the middle of the night, and then start another full day of work again early the next morning. I was also assigned to be the Aviation Officer responsible for ensuring all of the helicopter hangars, flight deck equipment, and safety equipment were maintained to standards as well as keeping the flight crew and emergency response crew’s training up to date. I was also the Search And Rescue officer in charge of training the Search and Rescue swimmers and monitoring maintenance of all of their gear as well. And finally, I was also a Damage Control Officer in charge of an emergency response team that combatted fire, flooding, and other emergencies in the ship.
The next two years in the Navy, on my second ship, I was a Department Head in charge of training and operations. I was in charge of running the training programs for every department on the ship as well as working directly with the operations officer and our parent Destroyer Squadron to coordinate the ship’s schedule.
Needless to say, I spent my first two years in the Navy getting extremely little sleep. On the positive side, I developed a deeply engrained ability to manage dozens of tasks and hundreds of personnel at a time. There were many tough days when every problem that could possibly happen would seem to just mercilessly hit the fan at once, and from that I also developed the ability to realize the quickest and most effective way to get out of a tough spot was to stay collected, focus on priority problems, and chip away at each issue until everything was under control. I also learned that knowing your people’s talents and the types of tasks you can trust them with is essential to keeping many programs running simultaneously. Knowing how to properly delegate tasks is essential to anyone running a large organization with constant challenges.
Working as an assistant in Hollywood, I’m surprised how often the experience I’ve acquired in the Navy help me on a daily basis. Even the long hours in Hollywood are nothing compared to regularly going 2 days straight on a ship off just a few hours of sleep. Having my boss call out for something from his office while two or three phone lines ringing right in the middle of trying to reschedule a meeting that’s supposed to be starting is less hectic than standing a navigation watch during a combat exercise where you’re getting a dozen different reports from lookouts, radar technicians, combat central, and engineering and having to make quick decisions while steaming at 30 knots near other ships in close vicinity where your actions could have extremely dangerous consequences. During my most stressful days in entertainment, I think back to my worst days in the Navy, and it helps put things in perspective, and I realize that at least now all I have to do to earn a full night’s sleep in my own bed is to just get through the next few hours rather than a 4 week training exercise or 6 month deployment.
JS: How about the transition out of the military, did that go smoothly and did you know you wanted to work in the entertainment industry? Also, please tell us more about what you do now.
KC: My transition out of the military went smoothly, but as a result of some bad experiences in the beginning. My first ship had an absolutely terrible command climate and, unfortunately, I had decided within my first 2 years that I was going to get out. Whereas most of the crew was using up every bit of leave they had on the books to get away from the ship, I decided to take as little as possible and store up as much leave as I could to get out of the Navy earlier on terminal leave. Luckily, my second ship was a far better experience with a good chain of command, but by that point I was already committed to never having to deal with the first experience again. I left the Navy with 90 days of terminal leave and had plenty of time to drive across the country from Jacksonville to Los Angeles and job hunt while I crashed on my friend’s couch. I spent about 2 months sending out dozens of resumes a day, and got very little response back. Luckily, I had a friend at Lionsgate that passed my resume on to one of the Presidents and ended up getting hired there as an assistant. By great chance, my terminal leave ended along with my Navy pay the Friday before I started work, so I only spent a weekend unemployed.
Most of my job consists of keeping my boss organized… answering his phone and filtering calls, coordinating his meetings as well as department meetings, and just taking care of any other random issues that come up. I coordinate events for film festivals and markets such as the Cannes Film Fest, Toronto Film Fest, The American Film Market, the Berlin Film Festival, and Sundance. I also read incoming scripts and provide coverage (synopsis) for my boss along with my thoughts and recommendations on the scripts.
JS: What are some major lessons you have learned along the way that you would like to share with veterans aspiring to work in the entertainment industry?
KC: Networking is the most valuable resource for anyone trying to break in to entertainment. I recommend going to every mixer, party, and other general networking events you can. But it’s a fine line between making friends and contacts and coming off as clingy or needy… a lot of people in the industry have trouble with this. You want to make genuine friends in the industry, not make people feel like they’re being put on the spot for favors. Some contacts may be busy and not have time or even the ability to help you out at the moment. Just like initial networking, it’s a fine line between following up and constantly pestering people which could eventually turn them away completely.
JS: I see that you started off as a production assistant. Do you advise others to go this route, or what would be the first steps for someone leaving the military and trying to get a foot in the door?
KC: As for beginning a job hunt, it’s easier to get into temp work through staffing firms like Eleventh Hour that provide studios and agencies with temporary assistants. For someone who has little or no entertainment experience, it’s easier to get into a full-time assistant position after working at a temp agency and gaining some desk experience. For someone who does have experience or is willing to try for better positions anyway, many full-time positions appear on EntertainmentCareers.Net as well as companies’ LinkedIn pages. Or, if you’re going the physical production route, there are often opportunities to work on low-budget films for free or low pay to get your feet wet… people are often looking for cheap or free help on Craigslist or ProductionHub.com.
If starting at a talent agency, the mail rooms are usually the easiest place to get a start. At studios, receptionist jobs and floating assistant jobs (internal temporary assistant positions) are easier to get than a regular assistant position… and I actually recommend starting out as a floating assistant more than anything. I really wish I had known about the floating assistant positions when I was searching for jobs as these provide networking opportunities in every department in a studio. You can also hear about internal jobs as they open up and apply internally which gives you much more of a chance to be considered for a position.
If you’re an aspiring actor, there are acting classes that can brush up your skills and help you out with current recommendations for casting calls. Background work can be easier to start with but obviously pays very little.
JS: We connected because of the Veterans in Film and Television group. What can you tell us of the group and your experience there? On a related note, have you seen the military network help you in any other way in your entertainment industry career?
KC: The Veterans in Film and Television group has been a great resource. I highly recommend veterans who are trying to transition into entertainment attend every VFT event they can… especially those trying to link up with low budget shoots to gain experience. I almost always meet someone new or learn something new at every event I attend. The people in the group also form a large knowledge base, and almost any question about entertainment can be answered by someone from the group through its Facebook group forum.
JS: What other resources would you recommend people use to leverage their careers? (Specific classes, programs, networking groups, etc.)
KC: There are hundreds of job fields in entertainment and many resources available for each. I could go on and on about acting classes, lighting classes, etc., but I’ll leave it at recommending that anyone breaking in just go to VFT and other networking events and find someone who’s got the current knowledge of the industry to make recommendations. Some classes advertised in the industry are run by people who don’t know what they’re doing or are just straight up scams, and finding someone who can help you pick between the good and bad resources is invaluable.
JS: Thank you, Kevin. Do you have any last bits of advice before we sign up? Maybe something I forgot to ask about that veterans aspiring to enter the entertainment industry should be aware of?
KC: The entertainment industry is extremely tough to break into. And on top of that, both Los Angeles and New York, the two most prominent cities for entertainment, are also two of the most expensive cities in the country. You need to be prepared to spend a long time learning the industry and searching for jobs. You need to be prepared for months or even years of failure as well as disappointment when you don’t hear back from job postings, casting calls, or gigs. Hopefully you have plenty of savings, a part time job to pay the rent and bills, and most of all a backup plan. You also need to have a clear sense of whether or not you’re cut out for whatever you’re trying to get into. Seek out people who will be brutally critical of your work. If friends and family who are afraid to give you anything but praise are all you have at your disposal, you will never learn what you can improve on.
I’ve run into a few vets that have the notion that the civilian world is going to automatically understand the nature of their service and that finding a job with all of their military experience will be easy. Unfortunately the majority of the civilian world doesn’t know a sailor from a marine or understand there is a lot more education and leadership involved in our work than simply steering a ship or firing a gun. While they respect people who served in the military, they aren’t necessarily going to understand what they’ve done or what they’re capable of, and they’re not going to see their service as a significant reason to employ them. We are no more desirable to Hollywood than an experienced actor would be to the military. This will also take a lot of effort to translate their military career into the simplest terms possible for civilian employers to understand. A human resources manager at a studio or agency isn’t going to understand a lot of military jargon or acronyms. In order to have the best chance at getting hired, vets should translate their resumes to be understandable with zero knowledge of the military. Veterans should expect a difficult time finding a job in entertainment until they build the same initial experiences as civilians competing for the same jobs. Rather than expecting a shortcut to the front of the line, they should use their ingenuity and tireless work ethic to prove why they can do the jobs best.
There you have it folks! If you would like to see more interviews, stay tuned. In the meantime, many author interviews, including some with veterans, are included in my book Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books.