Today’s question comes from M. Berg, who posted in response to my December 4th post about living in L.A./not living in L.A., submitting to contests and websites, etc…
For people who have established lives in other parts of the country or world — who can’t uproot their families — what options do we have: A too bad, so sad, should’ve done this 15 years before having kids? I believe everything you and others say about needing to meet and network with people face to face to help establish a career in the industry. But is it so improbable to get the career ball rolling outside of LA before living (or commuting) there later?
Well, M. Berg… after my weeks of hollering about living in L.A., submitting to contests and websites, etc… this is a great and fair question.
What can you do, outside of L.A., to start a career in TV or film?…
1) GET A JOB. Today, most cities have companies and professional outfits with ties to the entertainment industry… so begin working for one. If you live in a city that has a prominent entertainment company—like Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta or Oprah/Harpo in Chicago (by the way, that Oprah/Harpo link connects directly to Harpo’s job website, so if you live in Chicago and aren’t sure how to find a job with Oprah, there ya go)—shoot for those places; if you don’t, there are still other options…
- Take a job at your local television affiliate; watch how local TV programs are written and produced. Make it clear to your superiors you’d eventually like to write and produce, and put yourself in positions where you can eventually join the production teams. (Jeff Zucker began as a field producer for NBC News… going on to produce The Today Show and, eventually, run NBC Universal.) (FYI– almost all the major networks and studios, including cable networks like MTV, have corporate and/or job-hunting websites, which include jobs around the country. A quick Google search should give you all you need. And as an added bonus, that MTV link connects directly to their job-hunting website.)
- Apply for a job at a local production company. Again, most major cities—and even smaller ones—have production companies that shoot high-quality commercials, industrials, museum films, educational videos, and other types of for-hire projects. You’ll not only begin to learn the ins and outs of production—how to read a budget, a schedule, a call sheet, etc.—but you’ll be in a position to learn practical skills like lighting, editing, and shooting. You’ll also, hopefully, have access to equipment you can use to make your own films… or perhaps, more importantly, you can begin forming relationships with the writers or companies who write the commercials, industrials, etc.
- Try for a job at a regional theater, where you can read and study all the submitted scripts. You’ll not only learn the processes used for evaluating and selecting scripts, but you’ll get a sense of the breadth and quality of work out there. Plus, you’ll make personal contacts in the theater world… which means, if you write a good play, you’ll have accessible channels to getting it produced!
- Land a position as an assistant with a local agency. While they’re not CAA or WME, most cities have agencies representing local talent—actors, models, etc.—and many of these companies have ties or relationships with larger agencies in bigger cities; at the very least, you’ll begin to get a sense of how these businesses function.
Basically, wherever you are… if you aspire to work in film, TV, or entertainment… there’s almost no reason you can’t make that leap NOW. You may not begin as a screenwriter, but you can at least get your feet in the door to begin working, learning, meeting professionals.
2) WORK AT A FILM FESTIVAL. There are hundreds of annual festivals all over the country, and these festivals need people to run them! Some need year-round, full-time employees… others need part-time workers and volunteers. Working at a festival, you’ll not only have access to all the submissions—allowing you to see what else is out there—you’ll get to attend the festival for free, seeing all the work, meeting the filmmakers, etc. Most importantly, work your way up to an administrative position, a position of power. You’ll form a wonderful of network not only of filmmakers, but of filmmaking resource providers all over the country.
Here are some quick links to websites where you can track down nearby film festivals…
And if there are no film festivals in your immediate area… START YOUR OWN! Nothing will make you more powerful or relevant to your local/regional/state filmmaking community than being the founder of an important film festival!
3) ATTEND FILM FESTIVALS. Aside from working at a film festival, begin GOING to festivals… every festival you can get to! Even if you’re not submitting work—GO WATCH! You’ll see amazing work, terrible work, mediocre work. You’ll get inspired, you’ll pick up new writing and filmmaking tricks, you’ll be entertained. But most importantly, you’ll meet other filmmakers—filmmakers who need screenplays. Some will want shorts, some will want features, some will be open to pitches and collaborations. You’ll also meet distributors, buyers, agents, execs, producers… all critical people to have in your Rolodex as you build your network and launch your career.
4) MAKE SOMETHING. Rather than trying to sell a screenplay to Hollywood when your hundreds of miles away, with no professional connections or experience, and your script is just a faceless pile of pages in a roomful of submissions… make something that can capture eyeballs and generate an audience in your own backyard!
Tyler Perry spent years writing and performing plays—and his iconic character, Madea—on stage, growing his fan base, becoming a stronger writer, director, and performer… before he was finally able finance his first film.
So start a sketch group, like Human Giant or The Whitest Kids You Know, that gathers a loyal following, then submit yourself to comedy festivals. Write a hit play and become the next Jon Robin Baitz. Perform stand-up at every club you can get to. Produce a short film… or a feature… or a documentary. Publish a best-selling novel. Become the next Candace Bushnell by writing a column or blog with a reputable publication… or start your own.
Basically, if you don’t live in L.A., where you can acquire the professional experience and contacts needed to actually launch and manage a career, you need to prove to Hollywood you have real marketable, commercial value. And the best way to do that is to make something that can attract an audience wherever you are. Candace Bushnell, Jon Robin Baitz, Tyler Perry… these people didn’t launch their careers by submitting to websites or contests; they wrote things that could be made and distributed wherever they were. Their Hollywood careers—which are, obviously, huge—were natural byproducts of their other successes.
5) GO TO SCHOOL. Columbia, AFI, USC, UCLA, and NYU are no longer the only top-quality film programs in the country. Ohio University, Columbia College Chicago, Emerson College, and many other first-rate, accredited schools and universities offer wonderful undergrad and graduate programs in filmmaking, screenwriting, etc. (HERE is a Wikipedia list of U.S. film schools.) So get your ass in a classroom and learn! You’ll not only learn practical filmmaking techniques, but in screenwriting classes, your work will be subjected to brutal criticism that will help you stretch and grow as a writer. Plus, you’ll have opportunities to MAKE things! Most film programs require students to produce shorts, videos, etc.—and you’ll be writing and producing these, alongside directors, writers, actors, DP’s, and techies who will soon go on to professional careers.
6) WRITE MORE. This seems like a no-brainer, but tinkering with your screenplay a few times a week isn’t going to cut it. You need to be writing EVERY DAY… for as much time as possible. After all, you’re competing against professionals who spend 12-15 hours a day, every day, writing and working on their career. So no matter how talented you are, your writing muscles need to be in tip-top shape… so when you finally do make it to Hollywood—whether it’s because of your work producing a local TV show, or running a film festival, or making an attention-grabbing short, or through your grad school contacts—you’re at the top of your game… and have scripts to show for it.
Now, are any of these sure-fire ways of launching a career? OF COURSE NOT.
Are any of them conventional? NOPE.
Are they at least as viable as moving to L.A., working in the industry, and making professional contacts? NOT EVEN CLOSE.
They are, however, ways to learn about the industry, form a network, gain some professional experience and credibility, and become a stronger writer/filmmaker while you’re NOT in L.A.
Now, M. Berg… as for your other questions…
What do you tell those who are trying to use the websites and contests to get noticed? They’re stupid for trying and wasting their time? What do you tell all those national contests and websites the non-LA-living writers are using? That they’re all a bunch of liars and swindlers? Is Final Draft’s contest misleading to all who enter?
I have no problem with people entering contests…
as long as they do it with their eyes open—and for the right reasons.
The right reasons include doing it for fun, recreation, the joy of competition, to see how your work stacks up against others. After all, if you win a contest, hey—you WON something! Someone LIKED your creation! You made something GOOD! That feels WONDERFUL… and is totally worthy of celebration! Brag to your mom, throw a party, put it on your resume. (And if you’re lucky, there’s a cash prize.)
But if you enter a contest thinking it’s how careers are started, you’re entering blindly, naively, setting yourself up for disappointment.
Because it’s not how careers are started. Again, I’m sure you can point to one or two random anomalies… but that’s why I used the lottery analogy. Getting a career out of a contest, even winning a contest, is like playing the lottery to generate income—those are your odds. Now, if you want to do that… fine; just know there’s a difference between what you’re doing—and trying to strategize a career.
(If you want a career as a surgeon, would you study to get into med school, then use your med school resources and contacts to get a job? Or would you practice surgeries on your computer in the basement, or on animals, until you’re convinced you’re ready… then try to get a hospital to hire you? I realize doctors and screenwriting have different career paths and processes, but the point is: there are paths and processes. And if you’re serious about a CAREER—you follow them.)
(I would also say that if you are serious about a career… and you do happen to win a contest, especially one that offers its winners meetings with agents, producers, etc… you then need to move to Los Angeles, immediately and permanently, to nurture and cultivate the tiny bit of traction and seeds of relationships you’ve managed to sow. If you don’t, you squander your prize: the chance to have form real relationships.)
If this doesn’t seem fair or right to you, ask yourself this:
If contests were truly a productive way for studios, agencies, or producers to find new talent and new scripts… why wouldn’t studios, agencies, and producers simply host contests themselves? Why wouldn’t they say, “We’re hosting a screenwriting contest, and the winning script—whether it’s from a professional veteran or an unknown upstart—gets produced?”
Or if contests are a productive way to find new talent, why don’t other professions use them to hire people?
Why don’t law firms hold contests to find the most savvy litigators? Why don’t real estate agencies have contests to find the best unknown amateur salesmen… then give them actual jobs selling property? Why don’t accounting firms host math contests… then simply hire the best mathematicians?
They don’t do this, because those professions require more than just talent. They require an understanding of their business world… professional contacts… real-world experience. Just like being a screenwriter.
So… do contests mislead and swindle people? Some do.
Does Final Draft’s Big Break™ contest? I don’t think so. (Granted, Script magazine and Final Draft, Inc. write my check, but I have nothing to do with this contest, and since they know my feeling on contests in general, I have no reason to be dishonest.) On the front page of the contest, it says, “Our objective is to discover talented screenwriters and help them find success in today’s filmmaking market.” It doesn’t say it will guarantee you success. It says it will “help” you. But if you’re not even willing to do the things required to help yourself find success in the industry, Final Draft’s assistance—or the assistance of whatever contest you’ve entered (and won)—won’t go very far.