For those inside the television industry, Jim McKairnes is a name that carries a special caché. As a CBS executive for 13 years, rising from Current Programming to Senior Vice President of Program Planning and Scheduling, Jim's encyclopedic knowledge of all things television has given him a reputation as the go to guy for questions about the industry. Not surprisingly then, McKairnes has since transitioned to the world of academia, serving as a Lecturer at the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University for the past three years.
There one of his most popular teaching tools proved to be letters he read to his students from his Hollywood contacts detailing their efforts to break into the industry. This past September, McKairnes collected 102 of those letters - plus his own story - into his book "103 Ways to Get Into TV (By 102 Who Did, Plus Me): A Practical Post-College Survival Guide for Coming to Los Angeles and Succeeding in the Television Business." I recently had the chance to sit down with always sharp McKairnes, who walked me through its various lessons for those aspiring to become part of the television industry.
Brian Ford Sullivan: Is the moral of the book that opportunities in this business will open up in ways you don't expect? That there's a cart before the horse so to speak?
Jim McKairnes: It is that "car before the horse" kind of approach, or fate or whatever you want to call it, that is the thread throughout the book. Because inevitably when I started reading to the class stories of people who succeeded - all at different levels in town, from the assistants to producers to presidents of companies, all stripes at all levels - inevitably their story about how they got into their jobs is just that. Which is, they find themselves in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. And that is sort of what imbues a lot of the teaching about how to negotiate the town, which is it's never what you think it is. And especially if you live in Chicago or just outside of L.A. - where there's still an element of "how do I apply for a job?" - there's the awareness from these stories that you're going to get a job through ways you never imagined. That's how I got my job in entertainment journalism in my 20s. That's how I ended up at CBS, surely by accident, which is what led to everything that came after CBS: accidents.
BFS: Were they any surprises to you in assembling this?
JM: Yes and no. I know the value of internships because I used to be an intern, it's what led to my first job in journalism, that lead of course to the rest of everything... Everybody, I would say 80 of the 100 stories, about 80%, talked about the value of the internship. And it was nice to have that reaffirmed from everybody... At the very end in the back I do a chart of the top 10 pieces of advice, the top 10 ways to get in, summarized from these 103 people. Number one is internships.
BFS: Do those stories change over time? I'm sure [someone like] Norman Lear's "breaking in" story is much different than somebody who got in recently.
JM: It's interesting that you mention Norman Lear because I recently read that his story, when it comes out because he's working on his memoirs... his story and I'm going to get it wrong but I'll summarize it right enough to say his was predicated and initiated and jump started by coming to town from wherever he lived outside of California in the late 1940s, drove past a theatre, stopped and talked to somebody [outside] and that person ended up giving him the start that lead to him becoming "Norman Lear." Again, an accident... I did however concentrate for the purposes of this book on people who the most part have gotten into the business in the past 15 years because it's a much newer business in the past 15 years.
BFS: You purposefully don't use names in the book, why is that?
JM: I didn't want somebody to look up the index and say, oh Brian Ford Sullivan, I'm going to read his story. I wanted them to read "editor," "writer," "producer," "agent," "director," "film editor," "new media executive," "lawyer," "business affairs executive," "president of the company," "assistant," "new film school grad." But I will say somebody's in there, the guy who wrote "(500) Days of Summer," the screenwriter who co-wrote it. Because I saw that whenever it was in 2009 and I went on to Facebook... and I said, just to put it out there, "Just saw '(500) Days of Summer,' loved it"... and a post came back, "You know who wrote it don't you?" "I have no idea who wrote it," I said. The post came back, "He sat outside your office for six months." He was the assistant to the executive right next door to [me], who was the president of CBS entertainment, Nina Tassler. But I Facebooked him, "You don't remember me, etc., etc." And this is going to sound like I'm patting myself on the back and I'm not I promise, I'll let you know when I am. [Laughs.]
But this sort of reinforces the random nature of success in a way, where how things work, how things succeed, how people remember stuff here. He said, "Not only do I remember you, you were the first person who agreed to a meet-and-greet when I first came to town. We had a mutual friend. And you said I'll sit down and actually talk to this guy and tell him about L.A. And you were the only executive to say goodbye to me when I left CBS." He said so I totally remember you... but that's sort of the lesson but also is another thread that runs through here and what I talk about in school, in class is people remember everything. And usually that works to your favor. If you just introduce yourself and have them match a name with a face and at some point remind them of your name and your face, at some point in the future they'll tell you about a job that's opened, or hear about something or turn you on to somebody.
BFS: So in collecting these letters, does it make you feel more optimistic about the Hollywood machine?
JM: Yeah I do because while it may be easier, in terms of this social world we live in, I think it still comes down to, what I sensed from each of these people was - I hate the word, I feel it's overused - a passion for what they do and a real interest in Hollywood and television or in some cases film. To a large degree, they all sort of reinforced sort of an interesting work ethic that was nice to have reminded of, which is: it sucks for a couple years and then it gets better. And if you can tolerate the suckiness, you'll end up with a pretty good job and it'll get pretty cool.
You can purchase "103 Ways to Get Into TV (By 102 Who Did, Plus Me): A Practical Post-College Survival Guide for Coming to Los Angeles and Succeeding in the Television Business" at Amazon.com both in print and on Kindle.