The Down and Dirty Story of How I (Melody Jackson) Got Started in Show Biz
One day many years before Smart Girls existed, I was at a client’s office — I was a computer hardware salesgirl. My meeting this day was with Robert, a young guy in accounting. We were schmoozing a bit, and he mentioned he was taking an acting class in Hollywood. It sounded like so much fun that I asked for the 411 on the class, and the next day, I went there and signed up for my very first acting class. That’s when my whole trip in the film and TV business started… and it wasn’t all pretty.
I’d now like to share my story with you and the most valuable three words of advice any mentor has ever given me. Let’s get on with it.
The Hole In The Wall Acting School
After hearing about this said acting class from Robert, I was super excited to go to my first night. It was the real Hollywood.
As I got close to the address I had written down, I had to double-check to make sure it was correct, because my directions were taking me down a dirty side street in Hollywood. But yep, it was correct. That old building right in front of me had the name of the Acting School right on it.
I took a deep breath and parked.
Forget New York Film Academy, Writer’s Store, John Truby, Juilliard, Strasberg, Stella Adler, Howard Fine and all those other acting and writing classes with high-profile instructors. I was headed to a hole-in-the-wall acting school…. on a shady-looking side street in Hollywood… but this is where things were going on. And I was excited.
To get to the main classroom, I had to climb up steep, dark stairs. Not exactly the red carpet beginning I had imagined when Robert told me about the class. But here it was.
That night I met Ivan, the man who ran the school. He looked like a Hollywood director straight out of a B-movie — and in fact, he actually was a B-movie director and also owned this school. Gold chains on a large, graying hairy chest with a shirt unbuttoned down to where his over-sized pot belly began. And the cursing he did in front of the class everyday could have embarrassed a sailor…. and certainly made a lot of us actors blush… until he helped us understand that as an actor you have to let go of inhibitions and embarrassment, so hearing all the cursing and yelling was a round-about mini-training in and of itself.
He Knows His Stuff About the Business of Hollywood
Yes, Ivan may have been a “B” movie director and cursed like a sailor on a slippery deck, but he knew his stuff. He had created a year-long curriculum about the business of film and television that no one else in Hollywood was teaching (it’s still not taught).
He taught us all kinds of secret shortcuts about the business… a whole curriculum from how to get agents and what to say to them to make them want you…. he gave us the downlow on how to join the Screen Actors Guild on the sly, how to get the Breakdowns through the backdoor (only agents are supposed to see them), secrets about headshots, resumes, demo tapes, and more stuff I can’t even tell you here.
He told us everything we needed to know about the business side of acting and hired other talented acting teachers to teach the craft. His mission was to teach his actors enough to get them working in real gigs… and fast. He was like a proud pop every time one of us booked a gig. He would, of course, remind us that we had booked the job because of what he taught us, and we would just smile because… for the most part, he was right.
I Get Kicked Out of Acting Class
I took Ivan’s business curriculum for a solid year voraciously absorbing as much information from him as I could. I took tons of notes, filling spiral after spiral writing down everything he said.
One year later, I had become very comfortable there. I knew everyone and loved my acting classes. My status was essentially like being a high school senior there — I was a big shot (in my eyes only). But the time had come for me to leave the nest. Despite my protests, he gruffly told me to “get your a** out there.” He assured me that it was time to apply what I had learned, and that I would be fine. So I said goodbye — like Steve Martin in “The Jerk” — and went on my way.
Little did I know that the information I had spent a year learning at that hole-in-the-wall school from that little-known “B” movie director would be the foundation for starting Smart Girls Productions years later. The day after I got kicked out of class, I hit the streets of Hollywood and began to apply what I had learned.
I continued my studies on the craft with a great teacher whom I had met there, Sebastian Brook. He and I went on to have a deep friendship that lasted for 27 years until he passed away at 87 years of age in 2014.
After leaving Ivan’s, I also took classes elsewhere on every aspect of acting and screenwriting I knew of. I joined SAG and booked acting jobs. I took classes and workshops on the craft of screenwriting and studied all of the most popular books. I took producing workshops and listened to pro screenwriters and producers speak as often as possible.
Meanwhile, I was writing sketches and taping them, meeting agents and managers — all the while still working full-time at a 9-to-5. During that time, I wrote a computer program to track everyone I was meeting so I could market my creative talents to them. Having a background in marketing, I knew it was necessary to get myself out there. I knew just how to do it and I did it.
I Become Very Depressed
Somewhere along the way, however, things began to change.
I was working at a pretty cool job for a 9 to 5 — selling film distribution software and learning all the dirty truth about how income from films really gets counted and dispersed — but it began feeling more and more like a grind.
Although the people at the company I worked for were great and I was learning interesting secrets about film distribution, I became more and more depressed. I wanted something more.
Finally, I could hardly go in to work because I felt like I was dying inside — for no explainable reason. I often hear big shot motivational gurus tell their story about the hardest time in their lives, they have something specific to point to. They lost a job and went broke or lost a house and their spouse dumped them and so on.
But it wasn’t like that for me.
There was nothing I could point to on the outside that was the problem… I just felt like I was dying on the inside.
I was unfulfilled.
But more critically, I was scared I would never have the courage to do anything different. I was making good money, it was interesting work, and I was working with good people. Who in their right mind would leave? I had no good reason to leave…. on the surface.
But 8 months after I had decided to leave (and then decided not to), I finally gave my notice. It was hard to leave that job. But it had become harder to stay.
I had reached my tipping point.
I Leave the 9 To 5 Behind
In early 1992, desperate to change the direction my life was going, I left my secure job with that great little company with no real plan. I had saved enough money to get me by for three months without earning a dime. In that three months, I knew I would find something that would be just right for me.
To make a few extra bucks while finding a new direction, I decided to offer some secretarial type services to other actors and writers who needed help.
To kick it off, I put an ad in the bygone acting magazine Dramalogue — later purchased by the Backstage magazine. At 8:00 a.m. the first day my ad ran for a $15 resume, I got a call for an appointment from Smart Girls client #1 Joe Dietl. I took that as a positive sign and moved forward full-sail on making some walking around money from my computer and typing skills.
Then I ran an ad that I would type scripts. The day that ad came out, the good news was … I got a call to type my first script. The problem was… I had no idea how to type a script.
I immediately called a super smart and funny friend whom I had met in a comedy acting class and asked him, “How the heck do I type a script?” He saved me by telling me where to get a book that would tell me exactly what to do. That friend was Bo Zenga of Boz Productions, who was early on in his career, too. He went on to produce films like Scary Movie and Soul Plane and sold countless pitches. That desperate call I made to him that day would be the first of many desperate calls I would make to him over the years as he became my #1 go-to guru and mentor, the man with the answers. To this day I still call and ask for advice when I’m really in a pickle.
After I started offering more services and got a little positive reinforcement, I knew I was on to something. I soon had enough business that these services became The Plan I had known I would find. I called my new venture Smart Girls Productions — a name my Mom picked out from a list of names I had brainstormed one day.
I eventually expanded my computer program to track and catalog everyone in Hollywood who could potentially help me or my clients as an actor or screenwriter. I categorized them, rated them, and notated them in various ways. To this day, this system is still at the heart of what I offer at Smart Girls — the system now has a lot more bells and whistles — but it grew out of exactly what I needed as an actor and screenwriter.
I soon started writing articles and documenting everything I had learned along the way. I also continued learning about networking, interviewing, what executives were looking for, what made scenes great, what made actors charismatic, what agents really wanted… and everything else that was important for actors and screenwriters pursuing Hollywood careers.
Over the years, I took countless classes with top-rung teachers for both acting and screenwriting. I studied and took classes with Linda Seger, Robert McKee, and John Truby, took courses at USC and UCLA, at the Howard Fine Acting Studio, Brian Reise Studio, and many, many, many more. Needless to say… I learned all about Hollywood, met thousands of people and had a great time doing it.
Priceless Information, Round #2 – The Hollywood Networking Breakfast
About a year after I started Smart Girls Productions, I started working as the Host/Emcee of Sandra Lord’s monthly Hollywood Networking Breakfast at Paramount Studios. I emceed this event monthly for 9 fabulous years. At this event, every month I met and connected with Hollywood’s big name talent agents, literary agents, producers, directors, writers, filmmakers and actors and listened to them pour their hearts out, spilling their guts on how the business of Hollywood really works. And I met and networked with thousands of other people in the business who were there to hear them.
At that time, no recordings were allowed, so the executives and talent felt free to say anything and everything they wanted without fear of repercussion. The information they shared was priceless….
Not only did they spill their guts on what they were looking for and what appealed to them, it also confirmed that what the “old B-Movie director” taught at that hole-in-the-wall acting school was dead-on right.
By that time, I was a member of SAG and AFTRA. I worked with a variety of agents and managers–both for acting and for screenwriting.
To express my passion, various friends and I produced a number of shoe-string-budget short films, including a featurette titled “High Hopes.”
I spent countless hours at the local public access studios where they broadcast your shows on the local TV station. From that I gained experience working in front of the camera and felt the thrill of witnessing my writing come to life.
While these projects were small, I loved the creative process, where you start from nothing and bring a story to life, both as a performer and as a writer.
I Check Ph.D. Off My Bucket List and Get Ranked as a Script Analyst
Over the course of the next 20+ years I established my reputation as a script consultant and when I was named a Top 5 Script Analyst on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting magazine (now an online mag).
In 2003 I completed my Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, culminating with my dissertation on “The Mythic Impact of Film.” The work I did in graduate school gave me a depth of understanding story which is very exciting, and I think it’s one of the reasons I consistently did well in the blind surveys.
What I Am Most Proud Of
In all of this, WHAT I AM MOST PROUD OF is helping over 2500 writers improve their screenplays and get them in front of Hollywood executives and helping over 5000 actors get agents and managers and then go on to book countless commercials, guest star and co-star roles on TV, supporting and leads in feature films and even produce their own projects.
My screenwriting clients have gotten thousands of scripts into companies like 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Disney, Paramount, CAA, and countless medium-sized and smaller production companies. They’ve also landed positions as TV staff writers, sold their screenplays, won contests, gotten literary representation, signed options, and have been hired for writing assignments.
Along the way, my articles appeared in most of the top magazines in the industry (both print and online). I’ve delivered webinars, teleconferences, and appeared as a guest speaker at many different events for actors and screenwriters. I think you get the idea.
Since getting started in Hollywood at that hole-in-the-wall acting class with that dear, old B-movie director teacher (R.I.P.), I’ve been fortunate to have helped thousands of actors and screenwriters move forward on the path to their dream career. And it’s been a ton of fun.
Looking forward, I’m still on board with the Smart Girls mission “to facilitate marketing for actors and screenwriters to make their dreams more tangible.” I also have other exciting ventures in action, including Hollywood Business School training courses.
A Final Word
I’m originally from Indiana, and even though I’ve been in L.A. a long time, I still like to have a personal connection with my clients like you when we work together. That’s another reason I wanted to tell you how I came to offer these services for screenwriters and actors.
But there’s one other important point related to you that I really want to bring home.
You may be in the situation where you feel like you want something more in life. Maybe you’ve fallen into a rut or too much of a routine like I had before I started Smart Girls. If that’s you and you’re drawn to be an actor or screenwriter, I say, “Go for it.”
You don’t need to immediately throw in the towel on everything else to get started. You can start taking small actions today. Then let your heart guide you as to what’s next.
When I finally quit my 9 to 5, I knew 100% that it was time to do so. It wasn’t easy, but I was so clear that, in many ways, I felt like I had no choice but to quit. It was something my soul needed.
Lest it sound too airy-fairy when I say “my soul needed it,” I would like to re-iterate that I am a person grounded in business and computer science…. and sometimes, there’s a dream or a desire that can’t be explained in business or science terms. And then, that’s where my background in mythology…. which is all about the human experience… guides me to a different kind of understanding.
And that brings me to my final words for you…a quote from one of the great influences at my graduate institute, Joseph Campbell, who put it so elegantly and simply:
Follow your bliss.
Let me know if I can be of service in your career.
Melody Jackson, Ph.D.
Thoughts from Melody
“People who pursue a career in Hollywood are big dreamers. It’s an enormous dream with fewer and fewer spots as you move up the ladder. My drive is to empower actors and screenwriters to truly know deep inside that they have to drive their careers. It’s not just luck.
“You have to take massive action to make big things happen. I want to educate actors and writers on what to do, how to do it, and where to think from with regards to their career.
“Currently we facilitate some aspects of what you need to do. Hollywood is a big challenge. But if you want it badly enough and are willing to do what it takes, I’ll help you any way I can.”
Short Summary of What We Do
Assist screenwriters in getting their scripts ready for the market and getting them read by development executives at production companies, literary agencies, and management companies. I’ve been helping writers move to the next step forward in their careers for a long time.
Assist actors in finding representation with appropriate agents and managers, building their brand, and instructing them on how to network, take meetings, and pitch themselves without sounding like they’re bragging.