On… Hollywood books

When I got my very first job in advertising in London in my early 20s, I was clueless. And I knew it.

First, I panicked.

Then I read every industry book and magazine I could find. I wrote down advertising phrases I didn’t understand in meetings, and looked them up straightaway afterwards. I read this and this and this and this and this. I researched the last twenty years of major advertising awards to figure out which campaigns won, why they won, and who created them. It helped, in a million tiny ways, totally separate from any creative ability I had, to learn more about the world that I was trying to join. It made me feel more in control of that impossible-to-control thing I was starting to call a career. I started to understand the industry, and – not to sound even more nerdy – respected it. (Of course, by the middle of my 20s, thought ‘why the hell am I trying to sell people shit they don’t need? I’d prefer to just entertain them’. But before that came research.)

Becoming an author was far more point-and-shoot: I was still working in advertising, decided to write a book when I hurt my back and was stuck at home with no wifi, wrote three chapters, sent it to ten book agents I found on Google, got some replies, finished the book, and got a book deal with Harper Collins, all in just over a year. Obviously there was a lot of angst in that year too, but it didn’t take much research. I had a story and a voice and a bit of luck, and that’s all you really need. (After writing two books I read this, and it’s brilliant, but it’s not going to teach you how to write a book, it’s just interesting.)

Then at some point last year, as I was doing a screenplay rewrite for a producer and wondering how many rewrites happen and how many screenplays go unproduced and just what ARE the odds of a movie being made anyway, I realized I didn’t know much about the entertainment business. I mean, I know how it works theoretically, obviously. I love movies. I love television. I was as obsessed with watching (and re-watching and re-watching) old movies as any other shy, creative teenager. I’ve always read scripts for fun (particularly, and predictably, Nora Ephron, Richard Curtis and William Goldman). I read a zillion old movie star biographies when I was younger, because hello, Ingrid Bergman.

But I didn’t know much about the history, the people, the culture, the machine. The business of the business. I didn’t know it worked. I didn’t know how other people got into the industry, how they survived, how they succeeded. It was just an amorphous mass in my imagination: Hollywood. And I really hated feeling clueless again.

So I started to read. My OCD took over. I’ve tracked down dozens of in-and-out-of-print books about producers, directors, writers, agenting, movie deals – biographies, autobiographies, how-to books – anything to do with the entertainment business. And I LOVE them. Some of the authors of these books – particularly some of the producers – I now think of with such affection and respect, they’re practically mentors. They just don’t know it. (I’m sure they’d be thrilled.) These books are inspiring and impressive – and almost always extremely entertaining. So in case you’re interested in this subject, too, let me save you some time: here are the 29 books that you might like to read. The three that have stuck with me are compulsively readable, well-written and absolutely fascinating: Top Of The Rock by Warren Littlefield, The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole LaPorte, and The Mailroom by David Rensin.

(I read quite a few how-to books about writing for movies and TV years ago too, of course, books like this and this and this - as with writing novels, they’re interesting but they won’t teach you how to actually write. You can read about writing forever but at some point you have to just fucking write. Then get sharp, incisive feedback from someone very smart, then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And rewrite some more.)

I’m probably still pretty clueless, but that’s okay. I’m getting there.















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I know I’ve barely touched the surface, so if you think I’ve missed a great book, email gemma@gemmaburgess.com

Once I finished that last book, by the way, I craved fiction. So I read Persuasion, and am now reading Pride and Prejudice. I know, I know. Hearing about someone reading Jane Austen is so fucking annoying. Austen has totally jumped the shark in the past decade. But then when you get back to the books, she’s just that good – funny and intense and romantic and wise – that you don’t care. Read Pride and Prejudice again. It’s worth it.






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4 thoughts on “On… Hollywood books

  1. Keris Stainton

    Ag, ‘Hello, He Lied’ has been on my wishlist for evah. I really need to get it now. I really liked Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek, and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff, despite never having watched DC. I liked ‘Sit, Ubu, Sit’ a lot. Don’t suppose you’ve managed to find Brooklyn Bridge to watch, have you?

    1. GemmaBurgess Post author

      OH THANK YOU!! I am ordering that right now, it sounds brilliant. No, I never found BB, I tried very hard to track it down back when I was writing the first BG, but no joy.

  2. Christina

    I love this! I am also a copywriter (who secretly dreams of someday writing a novel and a screenplay). I also broke into the business without going to portfolio school, so I self-educated with some of those same books you read (I love Hey Whipple). I’ll have to check out the others, so thanks for the list… and the inspiration!


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