The Jobs Crisis: USC Screenwriting Grad Works at Best Buy to Pay His Bills

Unable to find entry-level work in their chosen fields, recent grads like Ben Cohen mix internships with low-paid gigs at service chains

Last Updated: October 26, 2011 @ 10:37 AM

Part of TheWrap's series on how the economic crisis is affecting the Industry.

As the recession renders a tough job market even more challenging, aspiring creatives in Hollywood are finding the industry particularly unwelcoming.

That means trouble for someone like recent USC graduate Ben Cohen, who has the kind of pedigree most young writers would dream of.

Cohen, who hails from the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, studied in the exclusive USC screenwriting program. That gave him not just the luster of a reputable film school but also a bevy of connections.

It also helped land him internships while he was in school, one with Laura Ziskin Productions, and another with creative agency DDO.

Selling a script right out of college has always been a tall task, but even finding a job in the industry to make connections and sustain a living has proven almost impossible.

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“The catch 22 at this point is every job posting says, ‘minimum two years desk experience preferred,'” Cohen said. “They can say that because so many people are looking for jobs now, and they can easily pull from the group of people that does have that experience.”

While that may be rational in the minds of agencies and production companies, that does little to help Cohen. He said that he has applied to more than 100 different places and only been called back for a handful of interviews.

None of those worked out.

“Because all those jobs require that experience, how are people with zero experience supposed to get to that level?” he asked.

That means that Cohen, who needs work to finance his life while he shops his scripts, has taken up not one job, but two part-time gigs and an internship.

Come Monday and Tuesday, Cohen interns for an online-only show called “The Morning After,” where he conducts research for the show’s pop-culture-focused discussion.

On top of that, he works in sales at Best Buy and as a proctor for the Princeton Review.

But Cohen is not disheartened. He has a production company interested in one of his scripts, which as he noted, is better than most people can say.

However, holding three different jobs takes up a lot of time in his schedule, time that could be devoted to writing.

That is one reason Cohen joined a formal artists’ collective that a friend from USC started.

Given the uphill climb almost every young creative faces getting work in Hollywood without representation or a well-known credit to your name, fellow USC grad Addison McCaleb decided to form Stage Five Productions, a company that pools the talent of his classmates who specialize in different aspects of filmmaking.

“It’s a formalization of what everyone thinks is going to happen after film school,” Cohen said.

Though formal in some sense, Cohen described it as a “loose connection.” The idea is that anyone involved will bring in a project he or she is working on, and give a position on the project to other members of the collective.

That way, if one person is fortunate enough to sell a show or score a job, trusted friends and colleagues can benefit.

This has rewarded Cohen with a spec job writing for a web series.

But this system also mirrors the very structure excluding writers like Cohen from breaking into the industry.

“All these assistant positions, they're posted on job boards,” Cohen said. “Writers’ assistant positions are not. Those open up somewhere and all of the people working on the show recommend their friends. You have to be a friend of someone working there to get the job.”

For now, that leaves Cohen on the outside looking in.

“The biggest thing about connections at USC they don’t tell you is it’s not connections that will get you hired right away,” Cohen said.

For now, while a production company mulls over his script, he’s had to manufacture some goals outside of his chosen vocation.

“I’m looking to move up to get a tutoring job … It’s hardly what I want to do with the rest of my life, but plenty of people doing it are not as well equipped.”