The Screenwriter’s Conundrum: But Do I REALLY Have to Live in Los Angeles?

Lee Jessup is a seasoned career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on guiding and supporting screenwriters as they parlay their screenwriting prowess into a focused and dynamic screenwriting career. Follow Lee on Twitter @leezjessup

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The question Does a screenwriter have to live in Los Angeles? is one that continues to be asked by scribes who have not yet made the move out to Tinsel Town. Just the other night during my online screenwriters support group session one of the writers asked: What’s the honest-to-God likelihood of becoming a professional screenwriter without moving to L.A.?

The answer to the above question is: While it is possible to become a professional screenwriter (specifically in features) without moving to Los Angeles – and I have a handful of remote clients who have done just that – it is less likely to break in when you’re not living in Los Angeles. Being remote to Los Angeles is not a death blow, but it is a hindrance. You are going to have to work that much harder, be that much more consistent and have that much more to prove if you’re going to try to make it work.

To clarify: You can break remotely into film; less so if you want to go directly into television, most specifically if you want to become a staff writer. TV is an all-hands-on-deck proposition, and while it has happened, it’s very VERY rare to hear about a person staffing on a show if they haven’t already been living in Los Angeles. Unless, of course, they are East Coasters who are able to staff in one of the few rooms based in NYC. But as far as staffing remotely in an L.A.-based room goes, it’s a gamble to bring an unseasoned, never-before-staffed person into the room in the first place; the gamble is doubly as significant when you’re not only betting on the writer assimilating to life in the room, but also assimilating to life in Los Angeles. So if TV staffing is what you have in mind, get to Los Angeles, and fast. For writers seeking to sell pilots to the industry and bypass staffing, while that on its own is a lofty proposition, it is possible, though one should expect to have to be in Los Angeles often and for long periods on their own dime in the weeks and months leading up to the sale.

These are the basics. But it doesn’t end there.

Lee Jessup live in Los Angeles

The importance of choosing to live in Los Angeles runs much deeper. It speaks to your commitment to making screenwriting your business. Over the many years I’ve been coaching, I’ve worked with – literally – hundreds of writers seeking to break into the film or television space. And if there is one truism that’s emerged during this time, it’s this: My L.A. writers are much more likely to stick with it. This is what they’ve chosen. There is no Plan-B. For good or bad, it’s screenwriting or bust for them.

To more fully understand this, consider this simple fact: I meet with my L.A, writers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while my Tuesdays and Thursdays are usually dedicated to phone and Skype sessions with remote writers. On paper, I have nearly as many remote clients as I do writers here in Los Angeles. But my Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are ALWAYS fully booked, so much so that my in-person meetings have been bleeding into my Tuesday and Thursday mornings. My sessions with my remote clients, however, are strikingly hit or miss. Some days are fully booked with back-to-back meetings from morning ’til night, while on other Tuesdays or Thursdays I’ll only have 3-4 sessions scheduled.

While I’ve worked with writers remote to Los Angeles who’ve shown substantial dedication and perseverance that’s paid off for them (you know who you are!!!!), that has not been the rule, but rather very much the exception. I can count on one hand (literally) my remote clients who have been absolutely dedicated to and consistent with their pursuit of screenwriting, both creatively and strategically, year after year, and their work had indeed bore fruit. Allow me to gush for a moment when I tell you that I couldn’t be more proud of them, especially because I know how tough it is to make screenwriting a consistent priority, especially when you are not completely immersed in it. But the reality is that for the majority of my remote writers, and despite all of their good intentions, screenwriting ends up presenting itself as more of a hobby, a “nice-to-have” rather than a “have-to-have,” and as a result, they’re not able to completely immerse themselves in this pursuit on an ongoing, consistent basis.

So if I were a gambling woman, and you put in front of me two writers possessing a similar skill set but one in Los Angeles and one not, and asked me which one would still be at it in five years, I would bet on the writer living in Los Angeles. And this truism is one that agents, managers and industry executives are very much aware of, one that often influences their decisions about who to work with, especially when it comes to new writers looking to make their very first splash in the space. 

More than anything, living in Los Angeles as you try to get your career off the ground is a sign of your dedication. It’s an indication of how serious you are about breaking into the space. The industry is here, so being here allows you to meet it on even ground, rather than seek to have it make concessions and accommodate your geography. When I interviewed him for my upcoming book, longtime manager John Karas told me, “It’s really important to be around to network, to take a meeting at a moment’s notice, to hang out with your peer group – peer group meaning more executives from the studios, your team, etc. – you can’t do that if you live some place else, you won’t succeed. Or let’s put it this way, you will have the odds go way against you. Is it because L.A. has nice weather? No, it’s because the industry is here.”

Recently, I introduced a ridiculously talented feature writer to a manager friend. The manager read the writer’s script, and much like me LOVED the work. Which, for the record, was entirely deserved. The writer has a voice out of this world. But as soon as I reminded the manager that the writer is not based in Los Angeles, the manager got nervous, and asked to see more work. He even went online and did a quick search. When I asked the manager why all this unusual diligence (after all, he represents two other L.A.-based writers I work with, and never put them through this sort of vetting process) he told me quite simply, “The writer doesn’t live in Los Angeles, so I have to make sure that he’s really serious if I’m going to take a chance on him. I have to make sure he is all in.” I’m happy to report that with a respectable and substantive body of work, the writer was easily able to prove that writing was no hobby for him. But this incident served as an important reminder that industry folks are skeptical of non-L.A.-based writers for a specific reason.

In the simplest of terms, the decision not to move to Los Angeles may cause some agents and managers, at least initially, to question your commitment.

As Jon Karas mentioned, there are practical benefits to living in Los Angeles as well, the first and most obvious of which is your ability to connect with other writers, and eventually folks working in the industry. For those moving to Los Angeles in their twenties, taking an industry office, or even PA job can be beneficial, as it will connect you with other people in your “class,” who will – with any luck – grow and evolve with you, and hopefully one day land in positions where they are able to lend a helping hand. Additionally, by living in Los Angeles, you make yourself available for impromptu meetings and unofficial coffees, consistently growing your network of contacts. Writers who do not live in Los Angeles but are able to keep at it year after year should, and often do, make the trip to Los Angeles every few months to take meetings and stay in front of their contacts. When a new script goes out and a slew of generals are set up, the writer is required to be in Los Angeles for an intensive week or even two, taking back-to-back meetings every day, as well as getting some face time with their team. Those can be both exhausting and – due to last minute cancellations – frustrating. Living in Los Angeles makes you available for rescheduled meetings, not to mention the endless events, panels and mixers that happen here on a regular basis, ones that you wouldn’t travel to Los Angeles for especially, but that can prove to be informative and constructive to your overall screenwriting trajectory.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that if you’re just starting out, if you have yet to have written a word, you should pack up your bags IMMEDIATELY and make the move to Los Angeles. I am not quite as radical as others on this. Some writers have families and commitments, and can’t just uproot their whole lives, which – as a mother of two I have to admit – is totally fair. But to those who can, my advice is to set a plan into action, one that includes a little time staying put and developing your voice and body of work without the pressure of assimilating to a whole new world. If you can save money and lay down the foundation for a big move while developing your writing chops, you will be well served. Just make sure that plan is executed, and that the move doesn’t get postponed again and again until it evaporates, your whole life gets side tracked, and you wake up five or ten or twenty years later wondering what happened.

At the end of the day, it’s the immersive Los Angeles experience that makes the difference for writers trying to make a go of a screenwriting career. The intangibles. The stuff you can’t plan for. The people you will meet. The friends you will find who, just like you, are trying to make a go of this. Moving to Los Angeles allows you to grow your network, develop your community, immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting as well as makes you available for impromptu meetings and opportunities, while putting your commitment and dedication on display.

Or as Manager Josh Adler of Circle of Confusion told me when I interviewed him for my upcoming book Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches, “My advice would be to get here. I know it’s not an option for everybody, people have families, people have jobs, whatever—but, and it may not be fair to say, for the most part, if you’re trying to break a new writer into the business, they need to be here. It makes it easier, and it shows that this isn’t a hobby to you. That you’re passionate about this, and this is your goal, and you’re sacrificing and risking everything to try and make it, and you’re not just a weekend warrior writer. It’s not playing second fiddle to some other passion that you have. So most of the time, I would say, if you can, be here. It’s the easiest way to start.”

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5 thoughts on “The Screenwriter’s Conundrum: But Do I REALLY Have to Live in Los Angeles?

  1. Jon1138

    While I can appreciate the sentiment, I spent 5 years living in Los Angeles and investing in my career, I wrote and directed a feature, joined the DGA, and won many awards at festivals, even based my company in LA. I couldn’t stand the city or its residents, however. Life in LA isn’t worth living. Between horrible politics of the industry as a whole and the state, crushing taxation, exorbitant cost of living, and the worst traffic imaginable, what’s to like about it?! I also never benefitted from being in LA frankly. You can easily live elsewhere and just come to LA when necessary for projects. I am moving again, to Las Vegas, and that’s close enough to LA, driving distance, to take meetings even the next day without issue but far enough away to be in a vastly superior state with no income taxes, affordable cost of living, nicer weather (unless you dig the overrated 70-ish thing every day; I don’t, I like swimming weather and that’s rarely LA), and better people. You couldn’t pay me enough to live in LA again ever, and this is no hobby to me, it’s my business and my dream. It’s just not a good city to call home. Even if you told me it was ten times harder to make it living elsewhere I’ll take my chances! I am either that cocky or hate LA that much, or both. But I don’t believe for a second that a feature writer needs to live in LA. It’s about the script. I’m not opposed to owning a small studio condo in Burbank to make extended stays easier for me, but living there?! Yeah you don’t get anything for $1M in LA, maybe a shack somewhere.

  2. jeffguenther

    Most parts of the business we have no control over, so we should rejoice to find even one thing that we CAN control, and that’s location. But I was born here in LA and I don’t plan to move to Cheyenne. On the other hand, with the odds of selling a feature often deemed equivalent to being struck by lightning, I should point out that you’re more likely to be thunderstruck in Wyoming than Southern California by a factor of 20, so maybe.

  3. donag

    Film magician – I totally agree. What the article implies is one must also begin young and take the ‘networking’ path to producer status. Also, one MUST be easy to work with or one becomes unemployable in ‘any’ job even if one is an A-list writer. That may be true, but certainly short sighted.

    I’ve been a movie reviewer for some time. It is my experience that what passes for ‘quality’ scripts today is not quality. It’s franchise after franchise, little character focus because of the global market and special effects that make no sense to the story or to the action. It’s not 15 minutes before I’m bored and ready to take a hike back home. Super Stars? They are rapidly becoming a thing of the past because who is there now is past middle age and turning to TV for work. If the viewer is not a millennial, forget it for finding product for others outside that group. That doesn’t that hold true for the Brits who use talented writers and actors of any age. They manage to come up with extremely well made TV series and features. Why? The British government subsidizes the entertainment industry so personnel involved have time and opportunity to learn, experiment and practice their craft. It shows, big time.

  4. jwtca

    While it isn’t necessary to live in LA to become a screenwriter, it certainly helps. While I’ve met A-List actors (real movie stars) in a social setting, it’s often the B-list actors, assistant directors, casting directors and the like that can advance a career, and these faceless people live and work in LA (or NYC). I don’t live in Los Angeles proper, but I live close enough that if someone called me at 11AM and asked if I could make a 3 PM meeting in North Hollywood, the answer would be “yes.” You can grow your creative network here. Production might be in Louisiana, but the heart of the business is still in California.

    It’s the same as choosing a college, if that’s an option. Choose one in Southern California (or New York) if you want to work in film or television. In a large class, in 30 years someone will be a director, someone will be a producer, and someone will be a Vice President of Programming, and these will be the people that hand out top level jobs.

  5. Filmmagician

    I think that quote about the LA writer being better is grossly over generalized. IMHO. There are many reasons why someone can’t / won’t move to LA and I don’t think those reasons have a direct correlation to their writing talents. Screenwriters repeatedly say it doesn’t matter where you live, your writing will speak for itself – I’m quoting Sorkin there, among others. For TV, yes I understand you totally have to be in LA for that, but for feature writing, saying you’re not living in LA makes your writing automatically less desirable, or has some stigma attached to it is just ridiculous and close minded. Be in LA when you need to be. Your laptop and screenplays won’t know the difference when you’re writing.