A mere five hours ago, I returned home from the Sundance Film Festival. Sadly, not fresh-faced from a first class seat on a flight, but after an 11-hour drive with a 103 temperature from getting four hours of sleep a night and eating Subway sandwiches and five cups of coffee per day. Not very glamorous!
Growing up in a small southern town, I loved two things: fashion and movies. I wasn't interested in making either of them, but I did have specific things within them that I loved. I liked styling my friends in a mix and match of mall clothing and vintage finds, and I loved watching movies and picking out songs that I thought would better emphasize my favorite scenes. This was something I later learned was an actual job -- music supervision. So, like many of the dreamers of my generation, I packed up my 17-year-old self, a few bags and moved to New York City to attend NYU for a double major in music and film. I had no idea what I was in for.
College was really hard on me. The fast reality that both film and music were incredibly hard industries to get into was weighing me down. So were the mounting student loans -- a resounding $148,000 by the time I graduated, pre-interest. I know, you're probably thinking, "What kind of idiot expects to go to NYU and then just waltz into a money-making Hollywood career?" Well, this idiot, I guess. I grew up, like many others my age, being told that if I worked hard and really wanted something, I would get it. My dad often joked that you don't follow your dreams; you chase them down and beat them into submission. And I completely believed in that!
But by the time I graduated, I was in a near state of panic. Was this it? I'd drag my bags back to Georgia with my tail between my legs and plaster a "Well, I tried, folks" look on my face? I hadn't a clue.
Luckily for me, fate intervened. In college, I worked as a nanny to a special needs kid in my neighborhood. The mom was an editor at CosmoGIRL! and helped me get an internship that I'd hoped would turn into a job. It didn't, but I soon landed a gig as a researcher for Jane magazine. While it wasn't my dream job (and I felt guilty for months for possibly taking the place of someone whose dream it actually was), I found that having the chance to research and sometimes even write about movies and entertainment was nearly as good as actually being a part of the industry.
That was, until Jane folded. I remember clearly my exit conversation with the lady from HR, who told me pretty straightforwardly to find a different career path. "It's a dying field, honey," she told me. "You're young and you can still start over. Sometimes dreams don't work out, but you'll find something else. Dreams change and so do people." Something else, I thought. This was my something else!
The next six months were a tough wake-up call. I took a job as a PA (production assistant) on a small, indie film. Honestly, I think I was just hoping the flick would get into Sundance and I could finally go. It seemed like a dream. I also figured I might meet some people, or at least see if there was another position in film that I might be interested in. There wasn't. The reality was that what I wanted to do was nearly impossible to get into, especially without knowing anyone. I could toil as a PA for a few years and take my chances, but I just... didn't want to. I know this sounds nuts, because I was all of about 23, but I was exhausted. I took a job at Urban Outfitters around the time that many of my friends were getting their first job promotions. To say that I felt lost is probably an understatement.
The following years were really tough. I eventually went back to magazines and websites. I had a brush with my dream writing job at Entertainment Weekly until they laid off half of the staff. I didn't get out of bed for a week. I eventually gave up and moved back home, but after my dad passed away shortly after, I was too depressed to stay there and ended up back in the city. At 28 years of age, I have worked at over 11 magazines and websites and I have never left a job. Not once. I've never been salaried, had health insurance or opened a savings account.
When I left EW (or, I should say, when it left me), I had lunch with a remaining staff member whom I really admired. He suggested two things: that I should really consider running with the whole styling thing (something I've continued to toil with) and that if I really wanted to go to Sundance so bad, I should just go. It's not as if they have a gate up in Park City and only allow in B-list celebrities and up. We also agreed that sometimes dreams don't change and neither do you -- but you have to figure something out anyway. Feeling bad for myself had gotten me nowhere, and I'm sure I'd grown to the point of annoying the crap out of most of my friends.
That year, I applied for a press pass to Sundance. No outlet was "sending me," but I figured I could get a few editor friends to let me write freelance pieces and hoped that would be enough. I'd have to pay for my own flight and hotel (and I won't scare you with what number that adds up to) but I'd be able to see as many films as I wanted -- for free! -- months before they came out. After a few weeks, I found out I got in and I've been going every year since.
Sundance, in all its 10-degree weather glory, is my favorite week of the year. I see around 30 films over the course of five to eight days, brush shoulders with some of my favorite filmmakers and actors, and generally just live in a state of total elation. Sure, my movie sugar-high usually leaves me a little despondent in the weeks that follow because I often feel the sting of "I'm right here but I'm still not one of them," but I also feel proud that this is a tangible thing I am able to take charge of. I couldn't make the other stuff work, but I can do enough to make this work every year. It's not my life the way I pictured it, but whose is, really? Very few of us. And if we were taught that that was OK, normal even, maybe it wouldn't feel like such a sucker punch when it happens.
Lo Lankford is a Georgia native, NYU film grad and current L.A. dweller. When she isn't rescuing dogs from high kill shelters, thrifting items for her online shop or editing her crafting website, CraftFoxes, she's doing actual freelance work.
This article originally appeared on Levo League. Visit us daily to find advice and support in your career, watch video interviews with industry leaders, and to learn about LocalLEVO events in your city.
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