Ask the Expert: How Do I Break in Outside of LA?

Question: “How do I break into screenwriting?”

It’s the most often-asked question I get at classes and conferences around the country and from my clients. And honestly, I hate this question. There is no ONE answer. Everyone has a different “breaking in” story and everyone gets in a different way. And of course some don’t get in at all. It’s hard to break in – but here are some keys to finding your way.

My no bullshit answer to the question is – you should’ve gone to school for it! Going to film school doesn’t give you any guarantees, especially in this economy, but it does increase the chance you’ll MEET someone that can help you, connect with alumni in the industry, and it will give you a better perspective on what you’re good at and give you some formal training.  And let’s be honest – it’s easier to break in at 22 than 52.

If you didn’t go to college for film or writing, there are classes you can take (especially in LA) including the Peter Stark Program, UCLA Extension classes, AFI, Writers Store, etc., where you will meet people and learn things that will help you break in.

If you read the trades or screenwriting magazines (which you better be if you want to break into this business), the most often told break-in story is that a writer knew ONE person who happened to be an assistant, agent, manager, producer, or executive and they sent that one person their script, and it made it up the flagpole and BAM – success! It all starts with knowing ONE person. This is why networking is important. It’s all about having that viable referral!

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 100 times – you don’t need a gimmick! You don’t need to take out full page ads in Variety or billboards on La Cienega. All you need is talent, determination, and contacts. You have to know someone, but you don’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to reach everyone. And often, doing so will end more possible relationships than create them. It’s all about being normal and being someone with whom companies want to work. There seems to be an ever-thinning line between persistence and insanity.

With the insane growth of the internet and sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, more and more talent is being found online. You can make a video, post it on Vimeo or YouTube or get it on FunnyorDie, and become an overnight sensation, garnering a following, an agent, and a career if you know what you’re doing and can duplicate the magic time and again. Ashton Kutcher recently sold his second TV series based on a random guy’s twitter feed. The floodgates are open and there are assistants and interns whose whole job is searching online for the next big thing. Hello, Justin Bieber!

However, execs HATE being pitched on Facebook by a stranger. I’ve been vocal about not adding random writers I don’t know to my personal friend list. This isn’t because I don’t like writers – I love them! This is because I don’t need someone going through my 700 friends and blanketing them with friend requests, pitches or queries because they’ll know I was the connection.  Instead, create a group for yourself on Facebook and let others decide if they want to be a fan, or send out newsletters to people you know about what you’re working on and ask them to forward it to anyone who might be interested.

Writing a blog is a great way to get your voice out there, but you need to really have a point of view and something to say. You have to be original and special and engaging. It’s okay if your blog is about what you eat for breakfast everyday if you write it in a way that makes people riveted to every bite. Everyone knows the story of Diablo Cody and her stripper blog and she’s not the only one who went from blogger to major player. Hell, I’m still waiting for my column to make me famous!

Despite the mobile breeding ground of talent the internet has become, there is one more controversial trend you will find among writers who have broken in.  I get into many a battle over this one but here goes… Ready? …Move to LA!

I will preface this point by saying that I’ve met some wonderfully productive and determined film people in Albuquerque, Dallas, Vancouver, Chicago, etc. Many of them work harder and make more actual movies than those in LA! And I’ve optioned scripts from writers who live outside of LA who have gone on to nice careers. So is it possible to break in without moving in? Absolutely!

However, you can’t walk into a Starbucks in Iowa and sit next to 10 other screenwriters all trying to perfect their craft. You can’t be a waiter in Missouri and serve Hollywood elite or an agent or manager that will give you their card. You can’t soak up the lingo, the attitude, the business, the experience, and most importantly the contacts unless you are in the middle of it all. Sure, once a year you can attend a screenwriting conference in your town and meet 20 people. But in LA, you could meet 20 people a day if you wanted to.

If you are in your 20s and you want to be writer, move to LA and get an assistant job in a manager, agent or development exec’s office. It’s the best way to break in and will give you a great perspective on your own work, and make it much easier to land a manager or agent when you’re ready.  It’s unpopular, but there’s a reason executives live in LA and NY – they can’t be executives and live in Oklahoma! So why should it be any different for writers? There is an attitude in LA that those who are TRULY serious, will live here for a while. Not forever – no one wants to live here forever – but for a while. Bottom line – it’s harder to break in when you’re not here to do it in person.

But before you start writing your hate mail, there are ways to break in from outside of LA…

Those screenwriting conferences and pitchfests I mentioned CAN be quite useful. I continue to think that if you work the event correctly and have a commercial and well-written project, this can be a viable way to break in.  Most conferences offer classes given by professionals and those pros have contacts. Some conferences bring in big name writers or producers to speak who will often allow for some personal interactions after their lecture. Use that time but don’t abuse it. Don’t come off as crazy or too aggressive and don’t ask to send them your script – just try to make a personal connection where they ask YOU for your card.  You never know where a mentor could come from.

Next, there are screenwriting contests out there that get press, and whose finalists and winners do make a splash. But beware you’re not wasting your time and money. Choose prestigious national contests, contests with prizes that can actually help advance your career, ones where there is more than ONE judge and the judges have a clue, and ones where it is clear who is running them and where they do not force you to sign over rights to your script (or future scripts) if you win. And look especially at contests where the prize is a meeting with an agent or exec or getting your script read by the town.

Nicholls is the biggest and most prestigious. It’s the only contest where saying you are a quarterfinalist actually means something. The ABC/Disney, Nickelodeon and Sundance Fellowships are also quite impressive and can launch your career!

Austin Film Festival, The Page Awards, Final Draft’s Big Break Contest, Amazon Studios, TrackingB, the Writers Store’s Industry Insider Contest, Scriptapalooza, etc., are all well-known and are among the more prestigious out there. But they’re only impressive if you are a semi-finalist, finalist or winner. Statewide contests, regional contests, or anything where the prize is a steak dinner, is a waste of time.

Another new popular way to break in is thru online query sites. These have replaced the snail mail query, which has really gone the way of the Dodo. Sites like Virtualpitchfest, and Inktip all offer a (slightly more expensive) way to get your query letter or pitch out to professionals, but some guarantee you’ll get a quick response.

Screenwriting contests and query websites have the upside of being completely anonymous. No one knows how old you are or where you’re from. They only know if you can write and tell a good story. If you are a finalist in the Nicholls or win some other prestigious contest, you’re going to get meetings no matter how old you are. So while it is harder, you can definitely still break in at an older age. You may just need to go about it a different way and pay even more attention to the marketplace and pop culture than your younger competition so no one can say you’re out of touch.

And finally, there are script consultants out there who have Hollywood Outreach programs for scripts that are ready to be seen. My own No BullScript has the No Bull Hollywood Connection where the query letter and logline of those scripts that get a “recommend” are sent to over 45 companies who have agreed to read them! Though keep in mind, it’s not a script consultant’s job to give you your big break – our job is to make sure you’re ready for it!

So, these are just some of the ways to break in. And as they say, if you can’t get in through the front door…break a window. This is Hollywood – there are no rules on how to break in or else everyone would do it.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: How Do I Break in Outside of LA?

  1. Kami

    By the time I was 22, I had more life experience than some people will have in their entire live’s. Obviously, not every 22 year old has been a competitor at the Junior Olympic Nationals, experienced quadriplegia a year later and overcome it, but I did.

  2. Danny

    @Roy – Ha, yeah unfortunately, I had written this before the Mags went under and stopped getting made, so you found the one sentence I forgot to fix haha.

    @Marc – I totally agree – I think most 20-25 year olds actually have great stories to tell and they do connect more with the prime sought-after demographic. Remember, for all those older adults who have dealt with divorce or death or bankruptcy – there’s a kid there that also experienced it and their POV will be different from the parents. And their story may be just as interesting.

    And @John, I feel a little frustrated with you. And it’s only because I understand how you are feeling, but you are at the exact right age where you should be taking my advice. Maybe you didn’t know enough at 21-22 (I sure as hell didn’t – I knew NOTHING!) – But that’s why getting an assistant job or interning is SO important! That IS how you get those skills – on the job! That IS how you learn. You cannot learn all the skills necessary by reading Save the Cat. And yes, you work really hard for too many hours and you probably don’t have much of a life for a couple years – but the pay off is so much greater (in many cases) because you make the contacts necessary to be successful.

    And many of the people I started with 10 years ago are now VPs, SVPs, or running their own companies. And yes, some left the biz and hated it…not everyone makes it. But for executives – we all DID go through it. It trains you for whatever field you may want to go into, plus it teaches you how to be a better writer. You are at an age still (not much younger than me), where you can still do that and take advantage of that, so the attitude that it’s too much work and you won’t have time to write, I think is the wrong attitude. Because it will so greatly enhance your writing when you do have time. But that’s just me….

  3. Daniel Delago

    @John

    It is a frustrating business but don’t let that create another barrier for you. There are enough hurdles to overcome without creating your own. I suggest checking out Nat Mundel of Voyage Media’s advice on how the industry works and how to market yourself in a professional manner. The bottom line is if you’re this frustration, you will not come across in the best professional light with agents, producers, and other industry insiders. Don’t fight the industry, learn how to deal with it through other professionals like Daniel Manus that have been in the trenches.

  4. John

    @Paul and Marc

    Right now I’m in my late twenties. I guess I am frustrated with how the industry works but I do believe in myself (as corny as that sounds) that my writing will eventually get recognized. I guess I did misunderstand Dannys argument. When I was in my early twenties (around 21-22), I just didn’t have the skill set then and not many interesting stories to tell. But I think part of it was that no one taught me the skills either. It wasn’t until a year ago where I really decided to learn how to write a screenplay. But my goals in my early twenties were completely different too. I originally wanted to be an animator (long story short, that didn’t happen) so I guess I’m still figuring out what to do with my life.

  5. Marc

    I’ve heard it before about young people lacking the life experience to write compelling stories. I’m not so sure I buy it considering the fact that the real money is in the 18-35 demo skewed downwards. I tend to think that someone fresh out of school would have an insider’s view on what it’s like rather than the typical pap seemingly written by elderly idealists on how they wish high school was (Dawson’s Creek or Party of Five anyone?).

    Besides which, movies about mid-life crises are boring and never perform well. Maybe divorce seems like a war story worth sharing but every picture about a loser whose wife walked out on him, struggling to get his second wind with the perfect girl just bores me to tears. Those pictures turn manhood to mush.

  6. Paul

    John,

    I appreciate your sentiments. I’m in your corner in principle. But I think you miss the point of Daniel’s advice. As I’m hearing it, Daniel is saying that this is how it’s done, not that he agrees with it. Rather than fighting it, highlight your best features and hope your talent gets discovered. I’m out of the “22” demographic and feel disheartened that my climb is that much steeper than someone with half my experience. But I roll with it. I don’t have a choice. Again, I share much of your frustrations. We just have to put faith in the adage that great writing cannot be ignored.

  7. John

    @Danny

    Wow, name the one and probably only 20 something right now who’s doing well out of the millions of others trying to get in. And those people who you claim that ten years later will be running the industry, how many of them really survive and make it through the ranks? I’m sure at one point, reality sets it and they need to actually get a better paying job to live.

    And even with connections, getting an assistant job is still really hard. When you work 10-16 hour days, how would make the time to work on your own stuff? I’ve read blogs where some people honestly couldn’t handle that and had to figure out a new strategy. So don’t tell me “we all did it” because that isn’t the case.

  8. Danny

    To John and Mark, I understand your way of thinking, but I’m afraid it’s just not how Hollywood sees it most of the time. At 22, that is EXACTLY the age you should be networking and making ALL the contacts you can – not at 50. The people you go to film school with or are assistants with or are in the mailroom with – those are the people who will rule the industry 10 years later and those are the people who will be there to help you and be vital to your success. I GUARANTEE it. And yes, getting an assistant job IS hard – REALLY hard. That’s why having those contacts is so important. And yea, they make you work 10-16 hour days – we all did it! It’s called paying your dues. And it is the best way to break in – from the inside. Any writer who tells me that instead of getting a job, they had their parents fund their rent so they could stay home and write all day – I call them lazy.

    And while YOU may not want to read a script by a 23 year old, let me tell you – agents and production companies would MUCH rather read a new voice (hello, Lena Dunham) who knows how to reach the young demographic and write commercial films than someone who is jaded and cynical because of divorce and failure and marriage and death. Yes, writers do get better with time and focus and experience – but NOT necessarily with age. If you suck at 22 and don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re still going to suck at 52 even if you have more life experience. So, just my two thoughts….thanks for reading!

  9. Mark Kuhn

    A writer at age 22 doesn’t have the life experience to write anything that will have any impact on the reader/audience. I’d rather read something from the age 52 writer who has been through love, divorce, marriage, death, raising kids, etc. All that experience will come out on the page if the writer can channel his talents.

  10. Daniel Delago

    Another way to break into Hollywood is television. Everybody wants to get that original script optioned but why not consider television to hone your craft? Here’s a great quote from Joss Whedon I’d like to share with young writers.

    “I think everyone who makes movies should be forced to do television. Because you have to finish. You have to get it done, and there are a lot of decisions made just for the sake of making decisions. You do something because it’s efficient and because it gets the story told and it connects to the audience.” – Joss Whedon

  11. John

    I don’t completely agree with certain points. Yes, going to film school is helpful but are you really ready at 22 to meet contacts and network? You’re still learning and you most likely, your work isn’t good enough to show people anyway. When I was 22, I was very naive to think my work was good enough. Making contacts wouldn’t have helped me anyway.

    Also, you can’t just expect to get an assistant job when moving to L.A. You say it like it’s so simple but it’s not. Getting an assistant job is really hard, plus they probably don’t pay you that much to live on. I’ve also heard horror stories about how you have to work extremely long hours to the point where you don’t have time to work on your own stuff.

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