It’s been 113 years since the first movie theater opened its doors and invited patrons to sit in the darkness and share the experience of watching silent black-and-white films. Since then, the evolution of technology has transformed the entertainment industry into a whole new animal. Smartphones, streaming services and social media have reshaped the way films are created and consumed, and have redefined the parameters of who can make meaningful contributions to the industry.
Yet, amid all the change, one thing has remained true: The capacity of the storytellers behind and in front of the lens to shape and influence the zeitgeist is unparalleled. So much so that fame has become synonymous with working in the industry — and achieving success in it can often translate to a life in the spotlight.
To find out more about the next generation facing that pressure, I spoke with a 23-year-old producer, a 20-year-old actor and a 23-year-old director about finding their footing in the industry at a young age.
Naomi Wright, Producer
Naomi is 23 and grew up in Harlem, NY.
In high school, I started making short films, which hopefully no one ever gets their hands on. My interest in producing stemmed from a genuine passion to communicate the world I saw around me to a broader audience. In order to break into the entertainment industry, I had to silence my self-doubt and ask people for the things that I wanted. By putting myself out there and believing in my purpose, I was able to land internships and jobs, eventually landing the opportunity to produce my first short documentary.
Since I’m always so preoccupied with what’s next, I often forget to reflect on my accomplishments. But I do remember feeling distinctly proud on the release date of a short documentary I helped produce, Point Blank Period, which chronicles the Miami-based rap duo, City Girls, as one of them prepares for prison. It felt important to be recognized by my peers for telling a story that a lot of brands or companies wouldn’t have seen value in. It also felt like a win for the company because everyone had been eager to crack more female-driven content for the brand.
I was always told that this industry is full of malicious or self-interested people, but at every place I’ve worked, I’ve been lucky to know incredible, supportive people who are really passionate about what they do. When my first boss asked me in my interview what I wanted to do, he was very clear that he was not looking for a title (like Development Executive or President of Programming). He was sincerely interested in what I wanted to contribute to the world. It struck me then that if you live a purpose-driven life, you’ll never have to worry about recognition — the titles, accolades, acknowledgement are all secondary. Right now it’s about the work, and hopefully, it always will be.
One difficult aspect of working in entertainment is that it really is a lifestyle. Unlike other industries where you might be able to unplug at 5 or 6 p.m., this is more than a full-time job. Industry events, after-parties, dinners, travel, shows, etc. might all seem really glamorous, but they are a large part of the work, which may prevent you, at times, from having a life of your own. I’ve had to sacrifice time with family and friends who support everything I do (even when they don’t understand it). If anything, that has only added to my focus and determination, because I feel a responsibility to take care of the people who have always taken care of me.
In terms of changes I’d like to see happen in this industry…I’d love to see more genuine mentorship among women — not a casual “call me if you need anything,” but real investment in each other’s growth and development. For this to happen, we’ve got to stop thinking that there are limited seats at the table. There is no fixed amount of success. There’s space for all of us, and if we recognize that, we can consistently make room for others.
Shrai Popat, Writer/Director
Shrai is 23 and grew up in Harrow, U.K.
My path into the entertainment industry began when I started freelancing as an assistant producer while attending university in London. From there, one job lead to the next. I got work as a branded content producer with a small company called Zoya Films. I was also producing short films, writing for my university paper, and doing some other freelance work. After three rounds of pitching, I got a call with the news that I had landed my biggest job to date: I was commissioned by Nike UK to write and direct an ad (which you can see here!). It was the first time I was able to call the shots and take charge of a creative project. At the end of the year, I was offered a place at Columbia University to attend their graduate Journalism program, which has always been a dream of mine.
In order to go to school in New York, I had to build my resume with film credits while getting my university degree. I was always working unsociable hours, from the retail jobs I took to make money, to the unpaid freelance film jobs I took to gain experience in the industry. It was a really lovely feeling to have the support and trust from Nike while writing and directing my short documentary for them. I loved the ability to network and meet a diverse group of people who are willing to help each other.
Despite the reputation our generation has, I have found that young people are actually incredibly diligent and hungry for work. We often get criticized for being lazy or overly concerned with superficial aspects of the industry, but I think most of us are fully aware that knowing the right people can only get you so far, and that the job market is more saturated than ever, so we have gotten creative with how we produce work. So many young people are creating fresh, exciting and novel work in film, print and online. I sometimes feel older generations can be unaware of how easy a lot of their work was in comparison. Back then, media was limited and you had a smaller pool of people working in the industry (a very homogenous group). These days, young people are working around the clock with new technologies to produce prolific and profound content.
In terms of diversity, this industry still has a lot of work to do. For me, diversity is in part about representation, but also about granting people narratives. During my career, I want to ensure I’m not taking a role over someone whose voice might better add to the conversation.
As a journalist and director, I really want to help elevate the voices of women and queer people of color whenever possible, so detracting from that is always a concern. Riz Ahmed talks a lot about being an actor in an industry that often wants to grant an actor of color a part in a film simply to fulfill a stereotype or play a historic figure. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it becomes difficult when that’s all your artistry is being used for. Having writers, actors, directors and creators who can produce “ordinary” work is the next frontier in my opinion. To me, true equality in the creative industries means not always having to have an exceptional or extraordinary story for it to be worth sharing.
Kerris Dorsey, Actor
Kerris is 20 and grew up in Whittier, CA.
I was a curious, fearless little kid. At age five, I started acting in commercials, and then booked a role in a movie called Walk the Line. Having that film on my resume helped me to get another movie role, and from there, it snowballed. I have been steadily working as an actor ever since.
Being a “child actor” naturally means you sacrifice some parts of being a kid. I didn’t have a normal junior high/high school experience, but growing up on film sets shaped how I interact with people. It gave me my work ethic. I feel lucky to have known what I wanted to do from a young age, and to have been able to do it professionally since then.
In the most recent season of Ray Donovan, the show I currently act in, my character had to go on a huge emotional journey. I was basically crying in every scene. I had to let go of my vanity, my nerves, my self-criticism, and just be present. I think that it changed the way I act for the better.
There’s a perception of this industry being cutthroat. When your success is based on someone else’s rejection and vice versa, it can feel that way. However, in the 15 years I’ve been doing this, I have seen wonderful examples of people supporting each other and lifting each other up. I find that most of us realize that someone else’s success doesn’t take away from our own. Within the young adult acting community, most people are friends and celebrate each other’s accomplishments. It doesn’t have to be a race or a competition.
The industry still has a long way to go, though: I want to see more diversity behind and in front of the camera. I want more people of color to have the opportunity to tell their own stories and the stories of others. I want more female-driven stories and more LGBTQ filmmakers and actors. I want people to recognize the whole shift isn’t just “diversity for the sake of diversity”; it’s for our sake as consumers of art. Movies and TV are boring if they’re just featuring the same stories and people over and over.
One terrifying thing about the entertainment industry is that there is an immense pressure to be visible in order to have a career, which can be counter-intuitive when your job as an actor is to be invisible. The small doses of celebrity and fame that I’ve experienced so far have definitely made me wary, but it has also shown me that visibility can allow you to be a part of projects that mean a lot to you. I hope that if I use fame wisely, it will allow me the freedom and power to choose.
Photographed and styled by Starling Irving.