PRIMETIME: Do All Screenwriters Have to Live in L.A.?

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Well, this week’s lesson was: If you wanna get people chatting and debating on your blog, put a big $@#% in the title!

Okay, that may not be entirely true, but I loved the deluge of comments and emails I got from last week’s post—the good, the bad, and even the ugly.  So I wanted to begin this week by responding to some of my favorites:

Master of horror... and time management.

•  SR – Stephen King and J.K. Rowling may not have spent 12 hours a day schmoozing, but as Jackie Gordon pointed out, the point of the example isn’t that they were great schmoozers—it’s that they worked jobs and raised families while still doing everything necessary to become successful.  As an aspiring TV writer, “all the things necessary to become successful” include writing and schmoozing.  If you want to succeed, you must do both… full-time… regardless of life’s other responsibilities.

•  DAVID KARAPETYAN – You give me too much credit.  I wish I was successful enough that I could “make a living telling other people how to make a living!”  Sadly, that’s just not true.  I make my living writing and producing TV shows… I simply teach, and write this blog, because it’s a blast and I love it.  But “telling other people how to make a living” doesn’t pay enough to justify my giving false info or advice… and if I did that, what kind of teacher would I be?

All my advice is learned from over twelve years of working in professional television… as a writer, producer, executive, journalist, and assistant.  That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but if you disagree– which is fine– I suggest you back up your argument with your own real-world professional experience and knowledge.  And you should do better than telling people to “go work in another industry until yours settles down into a more manageable supply/demand ratio?”  That’s your helpful guidance?  You’re basically saying, “You wanna achieve your goals?  I recommend not trying until there’s less competition.”  If you can explain to me how that’s sound advice, I’d love to hear it (as well as a forecast of when the TV industry may “settle down into a more manageable supply/demand ratio”)… because in my experience, anyone who’s ever succeeded—in TV or any other profession—has only made it because they were willing to “work like slaves”… which you expressly articulated you were opposed to.

•  D-CODER – “Pick your suckage”… love it!

•  SAM – You are exactly right.  (“Once I figured out the process I needed to get done with a first draft, it became a lot easier to crank one out and start on the real writing – REWRITING.”)  This is a lesson I find myself continually re-learning… it’s nice to hear to hear I’m not alone.

Anyway—thanks again to everyone who emailed or commented… you can agree, disagree, bash me, love me… just keep ‘em coming!

Now, for today’s question, which comes from Blair, who writes:

I just read [last week's] article. So, are you saying that EVERY screenwriter must live in L.A.? That seems a tad hard to believe… it’s not like EVERY film is set in L.A., so how does the L.A. screenwriter write about life in the Motor City?  How do we wind up with films not set in L.A. from writers only based in L.A.?

Well, first of all, Blair, I’m not saying every screenwriter must live in Los Angeles.

I’m saying every TELEVISION writer must live in Los Angeles.

Whether or not every feature writer must live in L.A. is a separate issue, which I’ll tackle in a moment.

But if you want to be a TV writer of mainstream commercial programming (whether a comedy like The Office, a drama like CSI: Miami, or a talk/variety show like The Tonight Show)…

YES—you must live in Los Angeles.

Why?…  Because this is where 90 percent of all TV is written and produced.  (To be fair, tiny bit is produced in New York, like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, but most is in L.A.)  (And to be really fair, there are a handful of productions scattered about the country.  Tyler Perry‘s based out of Atlanta.  Scripps, which owns Food Network and HGTV, lives in Tennessee.)

Farm midwest sunset

You may be the world's greatest script-writer, but if this is where you live... you ain't gonna make it in television.

People often resist this notion, the absolute necessity of living in L.A.  I hear all kinds of excuses: “I have a good job here in Toledo, so I can’t leave right now.” “I’m going to polish my specs, then head to L.A.” “I’ll move once I have an actual job.” “I’m going to continue writing, sending my scripts to agents and producers, and hopefully I’ll land something.”

But the truth is… until you bite the bullet and move to California, you will not break into television.

There’s no plannng for “the right time.”  There’s no “waiting till you have a job.”  There’s no “perfecting your scripts” so you can get hired as soon as possible on The Mentalist.

(In fact, most Hollywood agencies, networks, studios, and producton companies won’t even interview you till you’re living in Los Angeles. So if you’re waiting for a job offer to make the leap… don’t hold your breath.)

Part of this is because navigating a career in TV, unlike in film, has much more rigid rules and processes.  TV shows, for example, are written by hierarchical staffs of writers. And sure, writers land jobs based on having excellent writing samples… but they mostly land jobs because they have strong relationships with other writers, showrunners, producers, agents, and executives.

In fact, most writers begin as writers assistants, then get promoted to “Staff Writer,” the bottom-rung on a TV staff. If you’re NOT a writers assistant, or working in some capacity where you can make contacts and learn the ropes (as a runner, a logger, a P.A., a coordinator, etc.), it’s nearly impossible to get hired as an actual TV writer… no matter how brilliant your scripts are.

It’s also important to live in L.A. because your first job in television will NOT be as a writer.

I promise you—no matter how talented you are, you will not move here and land a writing job in your first year. Or your second. Probably not even your third. You will begin as some kind of assistant. And as I mentioned above, in order to land an assistant job, bosses want to know you already live here. This is for several reasons…

  • When you get that first assistant job, employers often want you to start immediately—sometimes in 24 hours. If you can’t start immediately, they’ll hire someone else… and there are literally millions of capable people on the streets of L.A. clamoring for assistant jobs.
  • When agents, execs, or producers hire you, they usually want to know you have some level of Hollywood knowledge and acumen. When they ask you to get Christina Davis on the phone, they don’t want to explain to you who she is… they expect you to already know—and to have a rapport with her assistant. (FYI– she’s the head of Drama at CBS.)
  • Employers also expect you to have knowledge of L.A. and how it works. So when they ask you to run to the store to grab paper, pencils, and a latte… and to be back within thirty minutes… you know where the nearest Staples and Starbucks are. Or when they ask where to take an important client for dinner, you can rattle off a list of the week’s hottest restaurants.

Obviously, you don’t have all this knowledge when you get your very first job, but this is many people begin in mailrooms or work as P.A.’s. At the very least, they live in L.A., where they have opportunities to be exposed to and soak up this information.

Of course, this isn’t to say you can’t prepare yourself for L.A. until you actually move. You should, first and foremost, be writing every day. Spec scripts, pilots, sketches, jokes… whatever genre you’re interested in. Study every show on TV. Break down their structures… analyze characters… map their rhythms and patterns.

Also—get a job, wherever you are, that can begin teaching you something about entertainment. Almost every mid-size city in America has a local TV affiliate. Find a job as an assistant; work your way up. Apply at a local production company; most towns have companies specializing in commercials, industrials, even high-quality wedding videos! This may not be like working on Rubicon or The Middle, but you’ll learn how to run a camera… use Final Cut… put together a production budget. Seek out local talent agencies; many communities have agencies that represent—if not actors—models for commercials or photo shoots. Again, this may not be the same as working on Ari Emanuel’s desk at WME, but you’ll gain an understanding of how agencies function.

And then… as soon as you can… MOVE TO LOS ANGELES.

Now, Blair—for the second part of your question:

Do feature screenwriters need to live in Los Angeles?

While there’s a bit more flexibility and nuance in this answer, I’m gonna say… YES.

Movies may not (usually) be written by a staff of writers… but film is still an industry based on relationships, and it’s nearly impossible to make those contacts if you’re not in L.A. You hear stories about people who produce movies in the backwoods of Wisconsin, then submit them to Sundance or Toronto… but these people are not the majority of working Hollywood producers. They’re anomalies. And while festivals can be a legit way for writers to break into Hollywood, they’re far from the most certain way.

The most certain way… and even that’s not very certain… is to live in Los Angeles.

Granted, there are a few writers who don’t live here (Robert Rodriguez lives in Texas), but these are either so successful they can call their own shots… or—quite honestly—they struggle, often having other “day jobs” to pay the bills.

As for how we “wind up with films not set in L.A.,” well, come on… a writer doesn’t have to live in a city to write about it. I’m from Iowa. The writer who sits next to me at work grew up in South Africa. The writer behind him is from Boston. So we all bring knowledge of those places to our writing. Does that mean we can only write about our hometowns or Los Angeles?  Of course not. Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, or J.R.R. Tolkien never lived in Middle Earth.  Brian Helgeland (Robin Hood) never lived in 12th century England.  So how did they know how to make those stories, and their locales, believable?

Writers write what they know… but when we encounter gaps in our knowledge and experience, we have tools to help us. Like imagination. And research. I promise you, Brian Helgeland has never visited 1199 England, but he can read about what it was like. And he draws upon his own life experiences—things that enrage him, sadden him, inspire him—to give the characters and their behavior emotional accuracy.

When we say “Write what you know,” it doesn’t mean writers can only write things they’ve actually lived (although I do believe everything is some form of autobiography); it means you write what you know emotionally. Write about things you’ve experienced, things that have affected you personally. You can translate them to other times, places, situations… but write from a place of profound emotional truth. Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell have never lived in an alien interment camp, but District 9 is still a deeply personal movie.

I hope that helps, Blair!  Thanks for reading… and writing… and feel free to send more questions or comments.

For the rest of you, please post questions below in the comment section… or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

9 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Do All Screenwriters Have to Live in L.A.?

  1. Pingback: Chad Gervich Will Make You Rich, Famous, and Successful in Scripted Television | Joke and Biagio

  2. david karapetyan

    Thanks for the response but I was making two points in my comment that you completely glossed over. Your advice after all your years in the showbiz industry is to tell people to work hard? Who exactly was planning on sitting on their ass all day and becoming a great tv writer? As for the back up for my argument in my original comment I refer you to introductory economics, more specifically the section on supply and demand. I predict the supply/demand ratio for the writing workforce will settle into a more manageable number when blowhards like you stop glossing over simple matters like supply and demand from basic economic theory.

  3. Nicholas Iandolo

    Chad,

    As the author of the book ‘Cut The Crap and WRITE THAT DAMN SCREENPLAY!’ I have to totally disagree with you about feature screenwriters being required to live in LA in order to make contacts and break into the industry.

    I was recently exchanging emails with one of Script Magazine’s guest columnists, Michael Kuciak (a former agent at AEI and now an independent with his own firm Samurai MK). The gist of the exchange was about his column that discussed how the industry has changed over the last ten years. Some of the tenets of his discussion included how electronic communications has become that standard for submitting and collaborating on scripts, and that other states are building up their own film industry presence by offering amazing tax incentives that are responsible for many films being shot outside of California. Massachusetts is one of them: over 40 productions between 2007 and 2009. Furthermore, a brand new studio just opened up here, Quixote Studios–which is a satellite of an LA based studio by the same name! And more are being built here in The Bay State.

    My thoughts on the discussion focused on how Hollywood has to change because the Internet and less expensive professional-quality filmmaking equipment and software are making it easier to make good movies anywhere!

    I know that you are a firm believer in Hollywood, and that’s good, but it’s not going to be the only game in town for the much longer. Many states are supporting the film industry and building studios, production companies, and network affiliates or networks themselves. CNN is based out of Atlanta. NECN out of Boston and has great shows such as TV Diner that reach millions of people. Mark Whalhberg and Ben Affleck come back time and again to shoot films here in Massachusetts: The Perfect Storm, The Departed, The Town, and Good Will Hunting.

    But thanks to the Internet the playing field is becoming more level. YouTube, Fancast, Hulu, Crackle and a host of other sites are starting to offer original content that filmmakers and writers can produce and distribute from anywhere in the world. You may snicker at this as just a bunch of amateurs pretending to be Hollywood wannabes but I have just one word for that: Napster.

    Sean Parker changed the music industry by allowing everyone to trade and share music from all over the world. Napster may have crashed and burned but then Apple took up the mantle with iTunes and made billions of dollars offering “pay for content” music, movies, and television episodes that though may be mostly produced in and around LA, it won’t be long before everyone gets in the act–if it’s not already happening.

    Soon movies will be distributed in a variety of formats concurrently: theaters, via iTunes/Apple TV (Netflix), streaming video (for 4G wireless devices), etc. There isn’t enough Hollywood content to fill that void. Writers and filmmakers are already creating content and getting it out there, and getting paid for it, from all over the world.

    And there are a lot of people who are disregarding Hollywood altogether. I know a number of independent filmmakers here in New England that have no desire to break into the Hollywood/LA scene and yet they are creating genre films of professional quality, writing, financing (with investors and business plans), shooting, and producing all on their own or in collaboration with other local film industry professionals. Anthony Ambrosino’s ‘Sleather’ is one example. An entirely produced comedy in Rhode Island that is winning at festivals all over the country and is generating tons of buzz—just a season away from full distribution. He’s now working on another bigger project with no Hollywood affiliations whatsoever.

    Even with my own work such as my book, thanks to the digital world I’ve been making sales on both coasts and two continents. The eBook edition is now outselling the print! And my own screenwriting projects are gaining traction while I live just outside of Boston. I have no intention of moving to LA, nor do I need to. I’m already working with an LA filmmaker via the Internet on a project.

    And if you think that contests and pitchfests are huge waste of time, then you better read my blog about my experience at 2009 6th Annual Great American PitchFest:

    http://tinyurl.com/2uwg7n7

    The contacts I made and the film industry experience I got from that event changed my life and put me in control of my own destiny in this business.

    What was once true for you twelve years ago when you first started out in this business may not be true for neophytes today. And I’ll wager will totally be passé in the years to come.

    When you look at how Cineuropa, Bollywood, and Hong Kong Cinema are all having their hugely successful versions of Hollywood, and how there are more media/entertainment/distribution channels springing up everywhere globally, Hollywood/LA is not the only player in the game anymore. The old entertainment industry institutions are starting to crumble. As is always the case when progress comes.

    The question is: will Hollywood be able to adapt and be more open?

    Good luck to you and all writers from all over the world!

    Cheers,
    Nick Iandolo

    Author of ‘Cut The Crap and WRITE THAT DAMN SCREENPLAY!’ available on Amazon.com.

  4. Judy

    So writer must live in LA to be successful? Perhaps this is reason so much of today’s produced screenwriting is pure rubbish. Seriously. How often do you seen a really good piece of writing? Maybe two or three films a year? Maybe a snippet of an hour long TV program? How many times have we seen basically the same scenes over and over. You know, the “oops he saw me naked” scene in a romcom? The hero doing something because “it’s the right thing to do” despite behaving badly in the rest of his life?

    It may be the current reality but surely Hollywood is shooting itself in the foot by being so insular.

  5. CCW

    I’m sure it gives a showrunner/network exec comfort to know what a person is really like, and it’s also true that there’s nepotism/networking in all fields, but most other professional industries manage to function well by primarily relying on resumes, writing samples, and job interviews rather than hiring the guy who brings coffee or your coworker’s cousin.

    I don’t mean this as a slam on you as the messenger, I know you’re just describing the situation as it really is in order to be helpful! I’m just venting a bit.

    I’m a lawyer in DC with kids and a wife with a good job here, and although I’d love to write for TV and have written several spec scripts, and I’d pack us all up tomorrow and leave for L.A. if I actually had a staff writing job or even a freelance job, I can’t justify putting us all in the poorhouse on the chance that I might get a TV writing job someday. As you point out, this unwillingness to truly sacrifice means I won’t make it, and I get what you’re saying. But it strikes me as awfully silly that I never get a chance at something I could do a really good job at, better than a lot of the lame scripts I watch productions of every night on TV, just because I haven’t yet moved to L.A. or brought some writers office supplies for five years.

    Thanks for the column; it’s good to read about really goes on in the field!

  6. Blair

    Thanks for the response Chad. I happen to agree and MUST agree with M. Berg that it’s illogical that the only films worth being made originate from L.A.-based screenwriters. That said, a large portion of films suck, so that may be criteria. Who knows. I’ve been working on a script for more than two years (and I live in Chicago). I’d hate to think I should just trash it because I don’t happen to live in the 323 area code. I’m confident enough in what I’ve accomplished that it deserves a chance, and since you don’t need a track record just to “live” in L.A., it still seems, again, illogical to assume I have less of a chance to be considered just because I don’t live in L.A. I have a few contacts and with e-mail, social media, etc., it seems odd/ridiculous that because I may be a 15 minute drive away from CAA that I have a better chance of scoring a deal than someone who can simply contact said agent/director/producer by e-mail. I’ve been in the journalism field far too long to know that. Feel free to disagree.

  7. Charlie

    “What is the purpose of the many, many contests for writers if not for studios to explore every crevace of this earth to find the best possible talent?”

    Sadly, the true purpose behind most of the screenwriting contests is to generate revenue for the company that puts on the contest. Studios and production companies occasionally look to contest winners as a source of material, but never in lieu of the material that’s sent to them from agents who can attach talent to the scripts their pushing. The companies that put on these contests have based their business model on the hope and optimism of thousands of aspiring writers around the country.

    I know that sounds cynical, but at the end of the day, everyone’s trying to make a buck.

  8. Sam

    But if it was REQUIRED for feature screenwriters to be in LA, then why would all the people who don’t try to become a screenwriter?

    Because they don’t understand how much lower their chances are outside LA. Their argument is “it’s hard to break in whether you live in LA or not” but really it’s “it’s hard to break in living in LA but harder not.” Sometimes outsiders do get in, but many times the people considered outsiders really have some insider connections. In fact, there’s a heavy bias from residents towards people even outside the county. And that’s why people need to move to LA – if you don’t have a friend working at an entertainment company who’s willing to read your script and assumedly pass it along to their boss if they thought it was good enough, then what chance do you have against all the people who do?

    What is the purpose of the many, many contests for writers if not for studios to explore every crevace of this earth to find the best possible talent?

    Unfortunately, that’s not why the contests are out there. The best possible talent is already working and living in LA. It’s delusional for an amateur (myself included) to think that our writing is on par with professionals who have been writing for ten years. Give them some credit – it’s their day job, just like a pro athlete. We’d think it ridiculous if sports teams picked up players off the streets – that’s ridiculous, they get drafted from college based on performance at that level. Being an assistant is the college of Hollywood.

    A lot of people think a script should only be written to be someday produced. I don’t think that’s fair to the art of screenwriting. Just because someone doesn’t move to LA doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the process of putting the movie in their head on the page. In fact, don’t move to LA unless you truly DO love that process. And if you really love it, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Otherwise, those pictures will more likely stay in your head.

    A few years ago I came out here for the first time listening to Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn’s podcast about how they moved from the midwest with their wives selling their successful restaurant to try to become TV writers. At the time, they had just been staffed. This year they’re creators of SCI FI’s HAVEN. They weren’t 18-30 and single, but they did move to LA.

  9. writtenbybergM. Berg

    I’ve read numerous times it helps writers to begin a career by living in LA. I have not doubt it would be a valuable decision for networking with Industry people. But if it was REQUIRED for feature screenwriters to be in LA, then why would all the people who don’t try to become a screenwriter?

    What is the purpose of the many, many contests for writers if not for studios to explore every crevace of this earth to find the best possible talent?

    I want to be a screenwriter. I’ve been working for years to develop my writing craft and learn as much about the Industry via articles, Internet, and networking online. But in my life stage, I certainely can’t pack up my family and move to California.

    Moving to LA may be fine for the 18 – 30 single crowd, but for those with engrained lives in other parts of the country or world, there still has to be an avenue of hope that one day we can achieve a career in writing for film.

    Yes the screenwriting field is near impossible to break into (so I’ve read and been told), and thousands of wannabe-WORKING-writers never hit the mark. But if it truly is impossible to start a career in screenwriting outside of LA, than many of us should be sent to the looney bin for wasting countless years of our life on a fruitless endeavor.

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