PRIMETIME: Rebuttals & Smackdowns… Cool Websites… and a Question for YOU

Happy New Year, folks!  As a fun way to kick off the new year, I want to pass on some helpful, interesting, and unusual film/TV/writing links.  But first, responses to some of your posts… as well as a question I’m hoping you can help answer!

Also, special thanks to Art Fuller and Nick Campbell, who both reviewed my book, Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer’s Guide to the TV Business, on their blogs.  Art blogs on his SmashCut Productions website… and Nick, an aspiring TV writer/future showrunner, wrote a wonderful review on Nick Campbell Has Spilled.  Thanks to both of you!

And special thanks to Jessica Butler’s Hollywood University for recommending my list of links and resources. I keep a fairly extensive website of helpful TV-writing links at ChadGervich.com.  It’s not exhaustive, and I update when I can, but I have links for job-hunting resources, writers blogs, networks and studios, agencies, etc.  Check it out… and if you know of websites that would be good additions, please let me know!

Anyway, moving on to posts and comments…

First up, CCW’s response to my statement that legal and medicine professions don’t use contests to hire people… so why would TV or screenwriting?  CCW writes…

Medicine and law do have contests, the MCATs and the LSATs. That’s not all you need to do, and these tests have plenty of imperfections, but they still make more sense to me than hiring the guy who brings in coffee or knows your brother. (No matter how nice and competent the secretary at a law firm is, she’s not going to get hired as a lawyer.)

Comparing MCATs and LSATs to screenwriting contests is ludicrous.  MCATs and LSATs are aptitude tests, not contests Black white imbalancesponsored by magazines or websites.  They’re designed differently, evaluated differently, used differently.  Plus, MCATs and LSATs are required exams used to admit students to grad school (just like many students applying to film schools must take the GRE), while contests usually position themselves as direct pathways to a professional career.

So not only are MCATs and screenwriting contests incomparable as evaluation processes, they’re not even equal analogies.  Screenwriting contests aren’t offering to get people into grad school; they’re offering to make them a professional.  And nowhere will you find a professional law firm offering to turn an amateur into a professional lawyer simply by winning a contest, and hospitals don’t let untrained doctors become surgeons just by submitting to a website.

(However, CCW—if you do know of any law firms that would hire an amateur based on their submission to a website, please let me know.  I’ve never been to law school, but having seen a lot of legal shows and movies, I’m pretty sure I could make a damn good lawyer.  Of course, since I already have a family and career, I can’t go to law school or follow the “traditional” paths… but if I can win an online contest, I’d love to try my hand at lawyering.  Is that possible?)

CCW goes on to say

Law firms and accounting firms don’t throw your resume in the garbage because you don’t happen to be living in their city at the time you apply, as long as you’re willing to move there for the job. This you-need-to-live-in-LA-and-schlep-in-admin-jobs-for-years is pretty exclusive to Hollywood, and it’s not “professional”, it’s myopic.

I think we’re confusing a couple different things here: 1) How scripts are read (and writers are hired) and 2) How people are hired for other positions.

First of all—no writer gets a job because they “bring you coffee” or “know your brother.”  Writers get hired because they’re talented, competent writers.  But…

A)  As in every business, people with connections to and relationships with those doing the hiring have an edge.  And…

B)  In order to prove you’re a talented, competent writer, your script must get read.  And when it comes to reading scripts, not all scripts are created equal.

To be clear, producers and execs do not reject screenplays or writers simply because they’re not from L.A.  In fact, as I’ve continually said on this blog, most producers, agents, and execs are desperate to find the next hot script or writer… no matter where it comes from.  So it’s not that these people only care about L.A. screenwriters or don’t believe non-Angelenos are untalented.  Talented writers can live anywhere, and producers and executives know this.  BUT…

Agents, producers, managers, and execs receive literally thousands of scripts and submissions a year.  More scripts, in fact, than they—or their assistants—could ever possibly read.  So they Ladder woman climbing stack of papersprioritize, using their time as efficiently as possible.

Here’s how scripts tend to be prioritized:

  1. Scripts from professional colleagues. These colleagues tend to be agents or managers, Hollywood’s salesmen, who have repeatedly proven to have an eye for quality material.  This is the stack where readers (producers, execs, etc.) believe they have the best chance of finding something great… because it’s the stack containing scripts from people who already have a track record for sending viable material.
  2. Scripts recommended by other professional contacts. These contacts may include other trusty execs or producers… writers or directors they’ve worked with before… new contacts, such young agents or managers reaching out to them… even assistants whose recommendations they’ve come to trust and respect.
  3. Personal friends and family. Next, people read scripts that come to them via personal relationships.  I’ve had scripts recommended to me by old college roommates, cousins, friends of friends, old teachers and professors, alumni from my high school and college.
  4. Other sources.  These include contest winners, cold submissions, websites, etc.

As you can see, most paths open to out-of-towners fall into the fourth category.  Not because other places can’t produce quality material, but because they’re less known, less reliable than other sources—like contacts and professionals whom people have come to trust over years of working together.  (And don’t tell me this isn’t how other businesses work.  It’s how every business works; as reader JamesH points out, people return to trusted sources—friends, colleagues, vendors—no matter what profession they work in.)

Scripts from colleagues and agents also get higher priority because these are the relationships you work hard at building and maintaining… and if you ignore or dawdle too long on reading these, people stop sending them to you.  They instead send their recommendations or talented clients to other companies or execs, where they get faster, better responses.

So it’s not that producers/execs don’t want to read out-of-town scripts… it’s just that they’re low on the “priority list.”  So low, in fact, that they almost never get to them.

This is where your script is. So if you want it to get read, you better give an exec SOME reason to move it to the top of the stack.

When I worked as a development exec at the Littlefield Company, which first had a deal at NBC Studios and later at Paramount, my office was filled with stacks upon stacks of scripts, organized according to priority.

When I received a cold submission… or a script from a contest winner… I wouldn’t usually chuck it in the trash, but I’d put it in the lowest priority stack.  I’d always hope to read these, but as higher-priority submissions pour in each day, the low-priority scripts languish and languish.  Finally, every six months or year, I’d do a big office cleaning, dumping all the unread low-priority scripts in the trash.  Not because they weren’t good… but because you realize you’re never going to get to them—and they’re clogging up your office.

You don’t have to like this, but this is how almost every exec, producer, and agent works… (and if you tell me you don’t have paperwork, projects, assignments, or ideas in your office that you never get to—and eventually throw out—you’re lying).

So… the reason you should be in L.A. is NOT (I repeat: NOT) because agents, producers, and execs are necessarily and actively discriminating against outsiders (although there is a belief—which, frankly, is based in a certain truth—that if you’re serious about pursuing a career a specific field, you’ll go to where the action is)…

The reason you should be in L.A., as I’ve stated before, is because you need to be in a position where you can network and form relationships with the people who get your script moved to the top of buyers and readers’ priority list.  Winning most contests will not get your script moved to the stack of anyone’s list; a recommendation from that person’s co-worker… or an agent friend… or an assistant director they know… or a trust assistant… WILL.

You are MORE THAN WELCOME to stay in Flagstaff or Madison or Knoxville or wherever you are… and you may be the world’s most talented writer… but talent does not move you to the top of anyone’s list.  And if you’re not close enough to the top of that list, you’ll probably end up in the trash.  There are always exceptions… and hopefully you’ll be the rare exception… but odds are: your script will wind up as kindling.  Not because of discrimination, but because no producer/agent/exec has enough time or energy to get to every script they receive.  So…

How do you get yourself into positions where you can form relationships with professionals?…

You not only need to be in L.A., but—and I know I sound like a broken record—you need to be working in the industry.  This should not be a bombshell.  If you wanted to form relationships with people working in car manufacturing, wouldn’t you get a job in the auto industry?

Delivering coffee won't get you hired as a writer. It WILL, however, allow you to form a relationship with people doing the hiring.

This, however, is where out-of-towners are often discriminated against.  And it may be “myopic,” as CCW suggests, but it’s also practical.

Most of these jobs are entry-level positions—assistants, P.A.’s, runners, loggers, etc.—and most of them become available quickly… and need to be filled quickly.  When an agent or producer needs a new assistant, they often need them to start immediately… much sooner than an out-of-towner can be interviewed, selected, hired, and moved to L.A.  Plus, there are usually so many local applicants, there’s no need to look further; there may be a great candidate in Colorado Springs, but the time and energy it takes to do a nationwide search isn’t practical.

(Not to mention, many networks and studios will only hire assistants who have “agency experience” working at an agency—which you can only get in LA or NYC.  We’ll talk more about this, however, in a different post.)

And while these jobs may not seem directly related to screenwriting, you’re not—to quote CCW—”schlepping.”  These jobs are intensely educational, offering experience and knowledge (as well as contacts and relationships) you can’t get in film school.  You’ll learn development and production processes, how to write and read coverage, how to survive a writers room, where and when to network, how films are budgeted, why scripts go into turnaround, how to navigate a punch-up session.  And if you think being a screenwriter is just about sitting in a room writing, telling stories, THAT is “myopic.”

Next, Greg Hatchuck writes, also in response to my statement that most contests aren’t paths to a career…

Someone should also let all the athletes know about how useless contests are. They need to know that the best way to break in is to move to the town hosting the next olympics, get a job for the olympic committee and make those connections, man.

Well, Greg, you prove my point even more.  Because moving is exactly what talented athletes do.  If you’re a high school football star with a real shot at going pro, and you have your pick of colleges, where do you go to school?  Not Podunk University or Local Unknown College.  You go to USC… or Michigan… or Notre Dame.  Why?  Because these are schools frequented by scouts, agents, and coaches… and where coaches and athletic departments have tight CONNECTIONS to the professional world.  This doesn’t mean you won’t get discovered at Podunk University, but you certainly have a better chance if your coach has Drew Rosenhaus on speed-dial.

And lastly, to briefly address AprilR, who writes

You can’t compare science and law with a creative field. They are different.

Actually, they’re not different. They’re both PROFESSIONS that take specific skill sets and practical knowledge.  In fact—with all due respect—it’s this attitude, the notion that screenwriting is somehow “different” from other professions, that keeps aspirants from breaking in.

Muppets

He makes a mean osso bucco... but can he run a restaurant?

People want to believe they can make it based solely on creativity… but this is a BUSINESS.  Just like law.  Or starting up a store.  Or manufacturing.

You wouldn’t start a restaurant thinking you only needed to know how to cook great food.  Cooking is a highly creative endeavor… at least as creative as writing… yet to start a restaurant, you need knowledge of bookkeeping, promotions, management, technology, interior design, etc.  Or rather, you don’t NEED to know these things, but trying to start a restaurant career without knowing these things is a pretty sure road to failure.

Which leads me to the question I have for all of you…

Why do some many people hate thinking of screenwriting as a profession like any other?

If you wanted to start a career as a dentist… or an architect… or a mechanic… you would go to dental school… get an internship at an architectural firm… or take classes in engine repair.

If you wanted to become a doctor and someone said you needed to go to med school… but there was no med school in your hometown… you wouldn’t kick and scream that the industry is “myopic” in its hiring practices.

And sure—screenwriting may be a “creative” field, but so what?  Designing new airplanes requires creativity… yet no one expects Boeing to accept airplane designs from random amateurs over a website.

So why is it different with writing?

I’m not asking to be a jerk… I truly want to know.  I’m constantly amazed that so many people think this—unlike any other industry on Earth—should be a pure meritocracy.

I know I frustrate many of you when I trumpet these ideas over and over… but I’m not saying any of these things to be negative—I’m genuinely trying to give practical advice to help you achieve your goals.  Yet people resist this.  WHY?!  Why do people believe they should succeed at this simply because they want it badly enough… and work hard in the confines of their own home offices… without understanding or respecting how the industry functions?  You may not like how the business world works, but if it’s the specific business you hope to thrive in, wouldn’t you spend your energy trying to understand and crack it… rather than dismissing it?

Please let me know what you think… your answers will not only be illuminating, they’ll help me figure out how to communicate better about these issues in the future.  For now, however…

Let’s get to my list of websites!

These are all unique websites for people interested in film, TV, writing storytelling.  Some are special events… others are services… others are just plain entertaining.  But they’re all a bit unusual and under the radar.

Enjoy!

NO MEANER PLACE – Founded by Neely Swanson, David Kelley’s former development executive, No Meaner Place features great scripts and teleplays that—for one reason or another—never made it to air.  Most are from professional writers, followed by an interview.

JINNI – Like Stereomood or Pandora, this site offers movie and TV recommendations based on your mood, plot preferences, favorite actors, etc.

ELECTRIC LITERATURE – An electronic literary anthology, Electric Literature “publishes” quarterly to Kindles, computer, iPhones, or almost any other digital device.

CINEMA SIXTEEN – Cinema Sixteen is a NYC “film society” that hosts screenings of obscure silent films… but then invites contemporary musicians to compose new scores—that they then perform live during the screening!  It’s a blend of styles… pairing avant-garde and experimental films with opera, rock, and many other genres of music.

KICKSTARTER – A site that allows artists of all stripes—writers, filmmakers, photographers, sculptors—to find funding and solicit donations from art supporters of all stripes.

OPENFILM – An online distribution platform that allows filmmakers to finance and distribute—and movie buffs to find—the latest indie shorts and features.  Depending on what level of membership you prefer (the basic is free), you can also join webcam chats and interviews with filmmakers or OpenFilm’s board members, including James Caan, Robert Duvall, Scott Caan and Mark Rydell.

TRIBECA VIRTUAL FILM FESTIVAL – If you can’t make it yourself to Robert DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Festival, this is the next best thing… an online portal allowing you to stream the festival’s independent shorts and features!

ZOOBURST – Great for writers with kids… or writers who are kids… Zooburst allows you to write, illustrate, and “produce” online 3D pop-up books!

FUTURE CINEMA – Future Cinema is an event company—based, unfortunately for those of us who are stateside, in London—that produces live recreations of movies.  I’ve never been to one of their events… although I would LOVE to go, but they seem to be hire-able for events, and the video on their website looks like one-part rock concert, one-part costume party, one part rave… and all film geek paradise!

DONE DEAL PRO – This entertainment “news” site tracks current sales and deals.  Although you can read the headlines for free, you have to pay to read the article… or just Google it for free.

TOUCHING STORIES – This is an iPhone app that delivers interactive, “choose-your-own-adventure” mini-movies write to your mobile device.  You can change the angle… and the direction of the story… just by touching the screen!

37 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Rebuttals & Smackdowns… Cool Websites… and a Question for YOU

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  2. finger splints

    Have you given any thought at all with converting your main webpage into Chinese? I know a couple of of translaters right here which would certainly help you do it for no cost if you wanna make contact with me personally.

  3. Greg Hatchuck

    Hi Chad, Thanks for your reply to my comment. I agree there is some truth in what you said about the athletes moving – I haven’t thought of that. But further down (or up) you write something that I feel I need to challenge you on again. In the “priority piles” section you say that the material recommended by professional colleagues goes into pile #1 and the contest winners end up in the stuff-I-will-never-have-time-to-read bottom pile #4. Now, the contests are not judged by just anybody but by trusted professionals, no? You for example judged the Writer’s Digest contest. Aren’t you by doing this endorsing the winners of that contest and automatically elevating them to pile #1? Just trying to understand this amazing Hollywood machine… Greg. Ps. Love the column.

  4. CCW

    Thanks for passing on the cold, hard truths (I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically). Unfortunately, following your alternative recommended approach (a doable plan for those with no kids) would entail my quitting a job that supports my family to shuffle around in nominally compensated assistant jobs for years, which would make me a pretty irresponsible and sh*tty parent. Speaking for myself, that is in a nutshell why I have such a hard time accepting that I’m basically screwed in becoming a writer for TV or film, even though I understand what you’re saying is true.

    So, if you could just pass my specs on to someone who can get me hired on a staff, I promise to fly to L.A. for any and all interviews and I’ll beg your forgiveness for my off-base comments about the screen/telewriting industry; and if they actually hire me, I’ll write loving tribute poems to you every day for the rest of your life, give you $1000, and send you Omaha Steaks every holiday season. This is my sad little Plan B.

  5. Melissa M

    My primary answer to your question Chad, in regard to law & medicine, is that you don’t need a license to be a writer, and a bad script never killed a reader or landed one in jail. That’s why contests can help launch a career. I’m not saying a newbie contest winner doesn’t have a lot to learn, but there is raw talent out there, & picking up a pen is a far cry from picking up a scalpel.

  6. JamesH

    Actually,getting hired by a law firm is the wrong analogy. If you still want to be there in five years you need to bring in your own clients. You don’t get clients by mailing out copies of work you’ve done. You do it by getting your butt out of the office and joining organization with people who might send you work or refer work to you. And just joining does you no good. You have to spend time actually working with people on committees, putting on charity events, leading the local United Way drive, organizing the local PGA golf tournament for the volunteer organizatio that puts it on. The most successful lawyers often work almost as hard at bringing in clients as they do performing the work for them, sometimes harder. Of course, once you become known, some work will flow to you, but not until you have laid the groundwork out of the office. The most successful lawyers will still be out in the world drumming up busiess even after they’ve been practicing for 40 years. . In other words, with a few exceptions, how successful you become in law depends on who you know, not what you know. I live in Phoenix and write for fun, but I still have that dream of mailing my script to somebody who will offer me a million dollars for it. Even if that happened, though, I figure if I wanted to keep getting the best work and become as successful as I could be, I’d have to move to L.A.

  7. Manina Lassen

    We are in a time of rapid changes, so chances are that the good old Hollywood machinery will also be turned upside down one of these days and discover talent beyond the horizon of their desks… if only because at last the Execs get as tired as many of us watching the same ol’ stories be told over and over again, and endless mediocre remakes of older excellent films. I strongly believe Hollywood needs fresh blood, and THAT keeps me going. Not the frustrating perspective of a lowly office helper career. Don’t need that one. I’ve had more exciting careers in my lifetime. Now I’m going to tell my stories. And if I don’t believe in them, who will?
    Seriously: Might be there is some need for desillusionment here, but without a vision nobody can thrive. And becoming a coffee slave is just not the right POV.

  8. ruth

    Chad, this is a great piece. Perhaps hard to hear but as a Canadian who moved to LA to work in the business I can atest to its truth.

    Sarah has a really good point that few courses or books talk about the business side of screenwriting. Chad’s post is a good place to start to learn about how scripts are sourced and read but it’s also very helpful to understand what life is like for a working feature writer.

    If you’ve written a great spec that’s gotten attention and perhaps even an option or sale (the crowd cheers)you will be in a good position to get an agent or a manager. They will then put you on a circuit of meetings where you’ll do “meet and greets” and hopefully pitch your next project (you have one right?)to all the producers and execs in town. Then you wait. Perhaps for a long time.

    Maybe someone will be interested but if the meetings have gone well it’s more likely you’ll get on the list of writers for re-writes in your genre. When a project needs another writer you might get a call and be asked to pitch your take on the next pass. If the producer or studio likes it you could get hired to do the rewrite.

    Meanwhile you’ll be writing another spec (you will won’t you?) and assuming you’ve still got your manager or agent this piece will go out to those same producers. If you’ve retained any of the buzz you had you may also have another series of meetings. And it goes on like this for years with hopefully a sale or a rewrite or two in there. (Admittedly I’m generalizing here and it doesn’t always work exactly like this but but you get the idea.)

    Having success with this process takes a good deal of patience and a solid understanding of the business (and of course, talent). I think a lot of writers who live outside of LA think they’ll move here after they’ve made their first sale. But first sale to working screenwriter is a huge leap that takes considerable time to evolve. If you wait until your first sale to move you’ll be on an enormous learning curve with very little hand holding along the way. This will significantly reduce the likelihood of your longterm success.

    What Chad is suggesting will increase your odds. Learn the business, and make the connections you need while you write. Then when you win that contest or make that first sale you’ll be in a far better position to succeed. You’ll know the landscape and the people, you’ll understand the development process, you’ll have a good sense of what it takes to be a working screenwriter. And if that’s not enough to get you to move to LA, well, where else is it a balmy 73 degrees in the middle of January?

  9. bozo de niro

    Problem is someone has to read and process a script to render a “Pass”, “Consider” or “Recommend”. Imagine if the process was automated. Seriously, do you know what would happen? It would virtually turn screenwriting into a therapeutic diagnostic psychiatric tool, and all but kill its derivative as entertainment. Sounds like a plan, huh.

  10. orlando

    Chad,
    I will not take issue with the ‘optimal’ path one must take to become a professional screenwriter. Or the skillsets required to practice that career successfully.

    But I will disagree with your analogizing a professional career with measurable requirements (laywer, physcian) to a professional career with subjective ones.

    There is only one path to becoming a lawyer or doctor. You MUST graduate college, you MUST pass a specialized entrance exam (lsat, mcat), you MUST graduate with an advanced degree (law school, medical school) and you MUST obtain legal licensing to practice your profession (bar exam, usmle, state licensing, etc.).

    Professional screenwriters, by contrast, have no mandated requirements to practice their profession, only subjective ones, and there is no single path to obtain one, only a statistically probable one to optimize your chances.

    This doesn’t mean there aren’t analogies among these and all other professions, but come on, the law/physician professions are not your best reference.

    So, I will answer the question why so many people regard screenwriting (and other artistic professions) so differently than the vast majority of other professions. It’s because you can win an online contest, win a reality show and never have to pass a single exam (ever!), and you can become a professional writer, or an actor, or an artist, however improbable it may be.

    How many other ‘professions’ can say that?

  11. rgr

    * You can hire a screenwriter from a contest/website and the worst thing that happens is you get a bad script that you don’t use. You can’t compare that to being a doctor where lives are at stake, or a lawyer where justice is at stake, or a mechanic where physical safety is at stake, etc. Your analogy is what’s broken.

    * Many writers are talented, but not living in LA. The web can get them visibility without having to “be where the action is”. It’s a brave new world.

    * Writing is, fundamentally, storytelling. It’s been done since the dawn of language. It doesn’t require specialized training. Learning the “ins and outs” of writing screenplays for TV or Hollywood is largely a structural issue — not a creative one. Therefore, using internet contests to find new writing talent makes a lot of sense if you are looking for something different than what you can find every day on your LA doorstep, and are willing to suffer through structural problems (that can usually be solved).

  12. Jim S.

    You’re asking for the OBVIOUS, well here it is. If you go to College to become a Dentist, you graduate and Boom!…you’re a Dentist. You can get a job a block from your house or move anywhere you want. You put the time in and now reap the benefits. If you’re a Screenwriter, you have spent countless hours comming up with brilliant stories that will never get read by anyone. Are you truly a Screenwriter if you’re not getting paid? No, you’re a Carpenter or a Secretary or whatever, but what you really are is a Joke! Look over at your pile of dusty Scripts as you watch Yogi Bear.

  13. Billie

    In reading this article and some of the comments, it sounds as though to get a script read, a person has to either know someone in the industry or move to the Los Angeles area and TRY to find a job in the industry. Otherwise, the chances of getting someone to read it is almost NIL. If that’s the case, then I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars on how-to books, sceenwriting courses, professional critiques, Final Draft, not to mention countless hours of writing and rewriting my scripts.

    Chad, you have a book I’d love to purchase but can you tell me why anyone who has no connections and have no plans to move to Los Angeles should buy it? Why should we invest in any books or anything else connected to learning this craft if our scripts have zilch chances of being read?

  14. Franki

    People have a difficult time thinking of screenwriting as any other career because, unless they have family money or are already living in L.A., writing is the thing they do during their spare time while they do other things to pay the bills. It’s hard for most people, especially people who don’t come from families connected to the industry who will understand why they’re leaving a well-paying job for financial insecurity and a world full of maybe, to pick up and start at the bottom. Most people will support you when they hear you have to move across the country because you got a new job. They’re a lot less likely to support moving across the country for the vague possibility of a job, maybe, sometime in the future, if you play your cards right. Especially if that job is something that’s never earned you money before and is in a notoriously difficult-to-break-into industry.

  15. Sarah Mathews

    I think that people *do* think of screenwriting as a career–at least the majority of them do. But many screenwriters have a hard time understanding that they have to move to LA and work in the industry before they can get their scripts read by the right people. And here’s my guess as to why:

    Many screenwriters (or tv scriptwriters) also write in other forms, such as short stories or novels, or at least their writer friends do. And, like other people have posted, if you write a novel, no one says that you have to move to NYC to get it published. There’s a good chance you’ll have to visit NYC if a publishing house chooses to publish your novel for a variety of business/professional/networking reasons, but you certainly don’t have to live there. Nor does anyone say that you have to work in the publishing industry or work for a literary agent in order to get your novel read. Yes, publishing is a completely different industry that works in a very different way than the screenwriting/movie-making industry, but very few people understand that.

    Why? I think part of the reason is that when people take writing classes, whether it be for writing scripts, novels, or short stories, no one ever talks about the business side of writing. I live in New York City, and when I took a tv writing class, the emphasis of the class, like all the writing classes I’ve taken, is on the craft of writing, how to create compelling characters, plots, and dialogue. On the last day of class, the instructor told us we had to live in LA to get a job as a tv writer, in a very “oh, by the way” moment. I think that many screenwriting classes, in order to get people to sign up and pay, do not give them any idea of the business aspects of the screenwriting industry, ignoring that aspect and therefore give the notion that anyone, anywhere can be a successful screenwriter as long as they write a compelling, wonderfully written script. It’s only until people start visiting/reading sites specific to screenwriting, such as this one, that they learn the truth about what it really takes to be a part of the industry.

  16. Wendy Fox

    Chad’s advice can sound harsh as can the advice of the other contributors out here but he (and they) is the drill sergeant trying to prepare us for battlefield Hollywood. I have Business Management degree with a Marketing minor but I have always been a writer. I read everything that comes out on these posts hoping to glean anything even remotely helpful because I am going to follow part of his advice. I am going to make the jump to L.A. It’s not going to happen tomorrow – money is sort of a necessity to do this – but it WILL happen. If I have to knock myself out to win contests, work 2 jobs and recycle aluminum cans to do it, I will. But I will go with my eyes open.

    I know I am a drop in the ocean but I am looking for ways to make my drop stand out. Although I am not old, I am probably older than most studios would like for interns or assistants but that doesn’t mean I won’t try for those positions. On the other hand, I have restaurant management experience too. Not a bad place to come in contact with those in the business, especially if you make an impression that keeps them coming back. You might even get that 10 second opening to impress an exec and make him want to listen longer.

    But I am not stupid. I will live over a warehouse if I have to promising the owner that I will call the police if I hear noises late at night just to get cheaper rent.

    I figure this business is like learning to shoot: you keep at it; keep practicing and eventually, you WILL hit the target. But always have a back up plan.

  17. Steph

    I left a growing career in D.C. to move to L.A. seven months ago. I’ve been shocked – shocked, I say! – at how NOTHING you’ve done up until arriving in L.A. matters.

    I’ve written reports that were sent to the White House. Even with five years of experience, I can’t even get an assistant/coordinator position here.

    UGH.

  18. Simon Carlton

    You have to live in LA? Maybe to get established, but there are many writers who do not live in LA and manage to get the scripts produced.

    The fact is that breaking in to the industry is nigh on impossible without the right connections – and you guys living in states think you have it tough? How tough do you think it is for a British screenwriter? Most stuff I send doesn’t even get past the bin (trash can) in the mail room let alone get on the desk of an assistant to summarize for his/her boss. I’d sleep with someone in the industry but I aren’t that good looking or good in bed for the matter – but I can write damn funny stuff and it P!$$3$ me off that without moving to another country and selling me hind teeth I won’t get a break. Sorry for the rant chaps, great article.

  19. Andrew Foley

    Why do people hate thinking of screenwriting as a profession like any other. I have some ideas, but I wouldn’t bet on any single one of them being the whole story.

    I think some may imagine there’s an argument that the creative aspect of screenwriting-or practically any arts-oriented profession-differentiates such a profession from being a lawyer or a plumber. Initially, people will probably be creating their own original material from the ground up, while, ambulance-chasing stereotypes aside, few lawyers are trying to actively create cases to work on, and I can’t speak from experience, but I imagine most plumbing work involves fixing existing plumbing and in any event likely doesn’t call upon plumbers to forge pipes.

    I also wonder if the not exactly typical but nevertheless much-hyped seven figure deals for newcomer screenwriters skew a lot of peoples’ view of what being a successful screenwriter is. It’d be easy to see it as a kind of lottery in which one can (seemingly) affect one’s chances of winning by “being better than the other guy.” For some, even one sale with a WGA minimum payment would make for a serious readjustment of their financial situation. And there are those exceptions that give everyone hope they’ll be an exception too, just like the guy down the block winning a million makes it seem like It Could Happen To You. Well yeah, it could, but you could also get hit by lightning and that’s probably more likely. But again, by design the focus is rarely on the hundreds, thousands, or millions of losers–it’s always the one winner that gets the attention. So there’s that.

    I think a lot of why people dislike accepting the “business” approach to screenwriting is that, unlike law, there isn’t an obvious predetermined path to walk to achieve a career. I want to be a lawyer, I go to law school, I intern, I get my first job, I work my way up, I get a career. While there are things one can do to maximize one’s chances for success in screenwriting, the way to a career doesn’t seem as clear-cut. One could move to LA, try to intern (and quite possibly fail), try to get a job at an agency or prodco (and quite possibly fail), work on getting connections (and quite possibly fail, esp. if one falls into the stereotypical writer mold and isn’t good at making friends). There’s no one exam one can take and ace that will get one to the next level, and that lack of an obvious focus will let the dreamer imagine there are ways to get doors open that don’t exist.

    I don’t think the desire for a meritocracy is unique to screenwriters. I know any number of people who at least believe they’ve been passed over for jobs they’re better suited for than the person who got it. But there are some mixed messages coming out of Hollywood on that front. You yourself have said execs are looking for the next big thing, regardless of where it comes from. If someone believes they’re good enough to be a screenwriter (and they’d almost have to, if they’re trying to break in to the screenwriting field), then it would be extremely frustrating to think that the only thing holding you back is the three piles of stuff that’s not as good as yours that’s going to get read before your masterpiece. That also allows frustrated would-be screenwriters the luxury of never having to take a hard look at their work and see if it’s really as good as they believe it is. It’s a lot easier to condemn myopic producers for failing to recognize your genius than to accept that maybe you aren’t the genius you believe you are.

    The question I really want to ask some of your commenters is what they think they’ll achieve by challenging your assertions re: the most effective way to get a screenwriting career. Maybe it’s the Canadian in me, but saying you’re wrong or the industry’s wrong because their working methods don’t conform to what I believe they should doesn’t strike me as a worthwhile activity, even if you and Hollywood were wrong and I was right. Do they believe they’re going to change your mind? That Hollywood is going to see the error of its ways because they make a well-articulated argument that essentially boils down to “Nuh-uh! Nuh-uh! Lalalala I can’t hear you!”?

    If I really wanted you to be wrong, wouldn’t my energy be better spent proving you wrong, rather than simply asserting that I, as an unknown schmuck in Edmonton, Alberta who’s written a surefire box office gold 260-page screenplay about how my girlfriend was a fool for dumping me, know more about this stuff than the guy who has Hollywood credentials doesn’t know what he’s talking about?

    I just don’t get people sometimes.

  20. Brad

    Chad,

    I think you’re spot on with the statement that the average aspiring screenwriter is extremely reluctant to accept the fact that the field is not entirely merit based and, in fact, is highly dependent upon things like location, contacts, etc.

    My personal opinion is that this fact stems from the way in which the field is covered by the media (though I am not implying that it should be done any other way). For example, everyone knows about med school, law school, business school, etc. We also know, from the way these fields are spoken about in our culture (and depicted on television for that matter), that there is a pathway to follow and that people get hired/promotions based on who they know.

    This is not, however, perceived to be the case for writing, or any other “creative” field.

    Every band that breaks out with a hit on the radio is an “overnight success” to the average person…the same with an actor in his/her breakout role.

    The best example I can think of off the top of my head is that of Ben Affleck & Matt Damon winning their Oscar for writing “Good Will Hunting”. Here are two guys who “came out of nowhere” to make a hit movie, win an Academy Award and begin their careers. No one knew about their extensive time spent playing supporting roles, toiling in Hollywood and making the connections they would eventually need to get “Good Will Hunting” green-lit.

    I guess my point is that I don’t think that aspiring screenwriters are purposefully stubborn about your advice and the points you are trying to make but, more accurately, feel that they are constantly seeing examples that seem, on the surface, to suggest a different (and much preferable) “truth” than the one you describe in your column.

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  22. Blair

    Screenwriting is NOT a career like any others. Why? Because there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid as a screenwriter even if you’re a very good one, whereas the other examples you’ve mentioned you WILL so long as you complete the necessary steps (schooling, for one). Seems pretty obvious.

  23. Jessica Burde

    Chad –

    Well, as far as a law career, and according to a lawyer that I know – advancing in law requires connections, getting an entry level position doesn’t, though they help. And one can gain connections from the entry level position. So I will totally agree that *success* in any career depends greatly on WHO you know – but in scriptwriting, *getting started* is based on who you know as well.

    As far as the rest – I’m not interested in being an ‘exception’ either. Unfortunately I may not have a choice, moving to LA is not an option for me (quite literally – legal BS related to my custody agreement). However, there are other ways of making connections. I’m making a connection with you right now. A very weak one, but if I comment and interact regularly, and you get to know me and maybe find my thoughts interesting . . .

    And that is of the two benefits I see to entering contests (tying this back to your original point :D).

    There are two things contests offer that are of interest to me: feedback, which helps me become a better writer, and face to face meetings with producers and industry professionals. Not all contests offer these things – which is why I am picky about those I enter.

    Meeting a producer once does not a connection make. But it’s a place to start. And way better then sending endless query letters that get shuffled to the bottom of the pile!

  24. Chad Gervich

    Jessica–

    You’re exactly right… there are obviously big differences between careers in medicine/law and screenwriting. I don’t compare them so much to say they’re identical, but to illuminate that every business and career DOES have “rules,” or established paths, and if you want to have an actual CAREER, it’s in your best interest to follow those.

    That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to those rules, but it’s pretty tough to be an exception. You can’t PLAN to be an exception.

    And most people who try to be an exception fail… which isn’t necessarily a comment on those people, it’s just to say– that’s why exceptions are exceptions. I encourage ANYONE to try to be an exception… but trying to be an exception is a far cry from trying to have a CAREER.

    Frankly, I’m not interested in being an exception… I’m more interested in having a CAREER, making money, paying my rent, putting food on my family’s table. And I wouldn’t know how to teach anyone to be an exception. If you could learn to be an exception, exceptions wouldn’t be exceptions!

    Having said all that… there ARE traditional paths to a screenwriting career. There may be more varied paths than those to say, a career as a lawyer, but there ARE paths.

    Also, come on– a law career almost completely relies on connections! Sure, firms fish around law schools and hire new, unknown law students… but almost every lawyer I know got her or his first job because they had interned at the company the summer before. Or someone they met at their internship recommended them to a colleague. Partners and higher-ups swap firms because they know other lawyers. Lawyers hobnob with judges and D.A.’s, helping them make deals for future clients. This isn’t to saw knowledge of the law isn’t important– it’s hugely important, just like screenwriters must master the craft of writing– but I think success, in almost EVERY career, is almost always dependent not on WHAT you know… but on WHO you know. (My mom always used to say that when I was growing up… so I can’t decide if I love or hate admitting that here!)

    Chad

  25. Linda Fausnet

    I hate the “you have to live in L.A.” argument. I hate it because it’s a harsh truth that I have no way of getting around. After 16 years, the most I’ve ever managed to get is two small screenplay options( with prod companies in L.A.). I’m at the point now where I write and rewrite and Polish a script to get it to the best it can be – do the query letter thing with little success – then take my polished script and write it as a novel. So far, I’m finding lit agents don’t seem to care where you live. I’m a mother of two who has trouble paying my bills. Visiting L.A.isn’t even possible right now. I don’t have to like it but I do accept it.

  26. Jessica Burde

    You have some good points, and a few places I think you are going way out there in your comparisons. Screenwriting is definitely a profession, but there are lots of different kinds of professions. Law or medicine are careers where there is a well defined path you *must* follow in order to get hired in a long term/permanent position. There are no other options, by custom and law you cannot get work anyother way. Screenwriting, on the other hand, has more then one path someone can follow, and is not about getting hired once and you have a job, but about getting hired over and over and over again.

    Your comparison of screenwriting to starting a business, on the other hand, is right on. There is no *one* path to starting a business, but there are (if you are luckly) a half dozen paths to starting a *successful* business and several hundred paths to failing. There is no ‘follow the directions and pass the tests’ step by step like there is in traditional career paths, and it is possible, in starting a business or scriptwriting, for a amateur or someone with no experience or connections to become a success – it’s about as likely as a snowstorm in July, but it’s possible. Where it is flat out impossible, as you rightly point out, in law or medicine or other fields.

    Going into law or medicine, who you know doesn’t matter all that much. A bit, if you know the head of Cornell you’re more likely to get hired there. But you can get work even if you don’t know anyone. TO make a business successful, you need to get out there and get known, make connections with customers, suppliers, the BBB, advertisers. Same as what you were saying about a screenwriter getting known in the industry.

    And of course, you can find job in law or medicine pretty much anywhere. What are the three most important things in opening a business?
    Location, location, location!

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