The Business of Screenwriting: Living and writing in L.A.

January 17th, 2013 by

Let me say up front, there are enormous advantages for a screenwriter to live in or near Los Angeles. Here are a few key ones:

* You are where the action is. There’s no better way to keep track of the ebb and flow, ins and outs of the movie business than by living in L.A. as the film industry is a ubiquitous presence.

* You are where the players are. Agents, managers, producers, studio execs, talent, L.A. is the center of the film business. Your presence in Los Angeles puts you in proximity to these people which enables you to do networking that much more effectively.

* You are where the deals are. Whether it’s general meetings, pitch meetings, open writing assignment meetings, script meetings, it all happens in L.A., much easier to be a presence if you get a call and have the capability of hopping in your car to drive across town to take a meeting.

Beyond that, L.A. offers writers opportunities to learn more about the craft, everything from presentations through the WGA or Writers Guild Foundation, and an endless stream of public screenings followed by Q&A’s with filmmakers, to meeting up with other writers or attending industry screenings of movies.

And there are the intangibles. When you’re in L.A., it’s virtually impossible not to become infused with the culture of the film business. That can inspire you, motivate you and fuel your drive.

On the other hand, depending on how things are shaking out with your career, the sheer omnipresence of the film industry can be intimidating, even overwhelming.

When things are going great with your career, there’s perhaps no better place to be. L.A. feels like your town, you’re an active part of the business, you belong here. But when the inevitable drought occurs, three… four… six months without a gig… you can’t escape. Huge movie billboards, film shoots on street corners, movie stars at Gelson’s, floodlights piercing the night sky as you walk your dog. Its presence is everywhere!

Also you have to understand that it seems like everyone in L.A. is working on a screenplay. Stop by any coffee bistro and there they are, a half-dozen slump-shouldered, pasty-faced writers tapping away on Final Draft.

Being surrounded by scribes can remind you of a basic fact: You should be writing. And that can be a good thing to get your ass in a chair to actually, you know, write. But there are times when all of those goddammed writers you see, and the thousands you don’t yet you know are out there pounding out pages, convey in a visceral way the harsh reality of life for a working screenwriter: the fierce competition we all face.

There’s also this: Assuming you’re not a native Californian or a long-time transplant to L.A., you developed your writing voice elsewhere. Iowa, New Jersey, England, Norway, wherever. The sum of your life experiences and the very place in which you live now has helped to make you the writer you are, giving you your distinctive take on the world.

If you move to Los Angeles, it will change you. Hopefully for the better. But you will feel the same 70 degree sunny days that every other writer in L.A. does. You will have the same conversations with your managers and agents other writers do. You will show up at the same screenings and restaurants. You will chase the same gigs. You will read the same scripts. And over time, the sum of what you go through in L.A. will alter you as a writer. As I say, maybe it will make you a better writer. On the other hand, it’s possible the unique voice you developed by living elsewhere will get subsumed into the generic attitude and tone of every USC, UCLA, Loyoyla Marymount or Chapman film school grad hawking their wares in studios from Burbank to Culver City.

There’s so much more to discuss with regard to this topic, things you would likely never consider like how the choice of your child’s private school can present work opportunities as you rub shoulders with execs and directors, producers and actors. Of course you’re paying $25-30K per year for the privilege.

Let me end with the question that is always on the mind of aspiring writers who live well outside Los Angeles: Do I have to move there to break into the business?

The answer is no. You can write a spec script anywhere. If it’s great, that will be your passport into the business. In fact, I have recently interviewed two 2012 Nicholl Fellow winners, one from Louisiana [Allan Durand], one from South Africa [Sean Robert Daniels]. They and many other writers I know live and work outside Los Angeles.

But if you do sell a spec, and even in anticipation of that chance, at least you should be envisioning the possibility of relocating. Because on the whole, the positives of living and writing in L.A. outweigh the negatives.

I’d love to hear from L.A.-based writers. What is your experience living and working in Los Angeles? What are some other aspects I didn’t hit on that are unique to the experience?

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

11 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: Living and writing in L.A.

  1. I started writing in NYC which you would think was the 2nd best place to start from (TV shows are filmed there, NYU is there, a few film cos are there), but that was just an illusion (esp. at the time, mid 1996 to 2000)…contacts and opportunities VERY limited. New York had maybe 5 more opportunities than Kansas (to break to feature film writing). When I got to LA in 2000 (and stayed in LA since), the opps just exploded — through friends and friends of friends, neighbors, I got meetings, made relationships, acquaintances in the biz — hell, a buddy I gave a script to gave to his friend who happened to be a big TV and movie stars’s GF and 2 weeks later, they had a script reading of it with the star listening in the room!!!!! People I started doing stand up with in 2002 now write movies, EP TV Shows… When I first came out, I noticed a movie poster and the writers were two guys I went to school with (the were a few years older) — met them and one even read my script and mentored me on it…. I put my script down to focus on my ad biz, but if I finished it, there are 50 well connected people who I could give it….so yeah, no comparison,

  2. With respect — especially for the fact that I’m writing this from the POV of someone who began screenwriting in earnest a few years after 2000 — I have to disagree with you, David. Not in terms of your testimony, or even with the fact that in most ways there’s no comparison to LA when it comes to increasing the probability of success, but with the image you depict of NYC as an illusory 2nd best place to start from. I’ve been in New York for 10+ years now and while it’s definitely less robust as we’re all led to believe it is (and, factually, still less robust than it once was): there are several factors why I’d still stop short of discouraging anyone from moving here to give it a shot.

    First, there’s still plenty of stuff being made here. There always will be. It’s New York. There’s an industry presence, it’s just not as pervasive. But you can find work, or find talented and like-minded people who want to collaborate on work, with a only little bit of searching. More importantly, there’s a significant indie presence here which appears to be growing over the past few years (a very good thing).

    In addition, there are the schools. NYU, Columbia, NYFA, SVA. While LA of course has its own schools and programs, the young professionals studying and coming from the aforementioned institutions — a lot of them know what they are doing and can be great collaborators.

    Relatedly, there are many great actors in New York. Probably the easiest way to succeed nowadays, with the cost of production so low and barriers falling by the day, is to add up all these elements — even if you are “just a writer” — and get to work making films and honing your craft.

    Once you start adding all these factors together, places like New York, Austin, they are not bad places to get started — the difficulty of getting started at all notwithstanding.

    I just felt compelled to chime in there. I have been guilty of feeling cynical about the opportunities out there in the past, and just don’t want anyone who might not be able to make it to LA so easily or so quickly to get discouraged about starting off in New York or another city instead.

    Of course, as Scott points out, at the end of the day it comes down to you and the work. After that, if success comes, then I think it becomes a different story.

  3. sara_clarke says:

    “When you’re in L.A., it’s virtually impossible not to become infused with the culture of the film business. That can inspire you, motivate you and fuel your drive.”

    This is so true, in ways I didn’t anticipate. I just moved to LA from New York City. We’ve got our own wing of the industry out there, and aside from film NYC is a city that buzzes with creative energy. So I didn’t think the “infused with the culture of the film business” part would be a big deal.

    Then I discovered that there’s a special copy shop on Wilshire that specializes in scripts. Since I don’t have a printer at home, I’ve been going there to get scripts printed. Every time I go, not only do I feel like a “real” screenwriter, I get a free pep talk. (Last time it was about their weird little reinforced brads they use – “If it’s a hot script, it gets torn up being passed around and these really make a difference.”)

    Back in New York I felt like an assistant who played at writing screenplays at night. Here in LA, I feel like a screenwriter.

  4. sara_clarke says:

    Oh, and to weigh in on the New York thing — it’s a thousand times better than it was in the 90’s, but it’s still not LA. Especially for writers. I think if you want to be a cinematographer or a locations manager or something, New York is as easy a place to work as LA is, because there’s a glut of projects shooting there. But writing has nothing to do with where the shooting crew is located — even most of the NY based TV series have writers’ rooms in LA. In a way this can be liberating for writers, because you can write anywhere you bring your laptop. But it can also be really isolating, since the connections you need are mostly in Los Angeles.

  5. Erica R Maier says:

    I would like to hear more stories as well. I have only recently been open to moving to L.A. (my aspirations have always been to move to the East Coast) …

  6. brianb18 says:

    Very interesting article and comments. What do you guys think about ageism in/or outside of Hollywood? I hear (read) that it’s real, but then all the big name screenwriters I see look to be well into their 30’s and 40’s.

    I’m 43 with my only son about to fly the nest soon and I don’t want to be that old man swinging on the porch swing some day, wishing he would have chased after a crazy dream.

    My personal opinion is that if you write great stories, the rest will fall into place. And with new streaming and mobile media, it’s not just about features anymore. TV, especially cable, is hot and I can see short films being next.

    As for breaking in from outside, are contests a legit avenue? I’ve also thought about selling screenplays on Amazon Kindle for some extra exposure. Risky?

    1. Scott says:

      Brian, you should read this week’s interview I did with Allan Durand. He is probably in his 60s, a career lawyer in Louisiana, and his script “Willie Francis Must Die Again” not only won the Nicholl, he also landed a writing assignment with a Hollywood production company.

      It always comes down to the script. Write a great one, you can be a zillion years old living in Antarctica and Hollywood will want you.

  7. lynellewhite says:

    I’m 37 and moved to LA in October because I got a position as a staff writer on a TV show. I moved from the midwest so the difference has been night and day. My job is great but for me, living in LA is a major adjustment: the traffic, the fact that the parking lot at Target is constantly crowded, the hipsters who don’t say hello or make eye contact when you pass them on the sidewalk…I could go on but won’t.

    One thing really rang true for me in Scott’s article above. My creative voice was developed elsewhere. I fear everyday of being assimilated into the LA collective. I don’t want to lose what makes me different or unique. If you’re constantly in 70 degree weather and forget what the cold feels like then how can your writing capture it properly? For me, the best option is to split my time between where the work is (LA) and where my creative stimulation comes from (midwest). I know this is not a viable option for alot of people and most think I’m crazy for attempting to live half the year in one place and half the year in another but I am so fearful of becoming a generic.

  8. brianb18 says:

    Thanks, Scott. I will check that out. Sounds inspiring, especially since I have experience in the legal IT field and may get back into it.

    Lynell,

    You’re living my dream. I live in the Seattle area; born and raised. The weather is great here from May-Oct, and it doesn’t always rain (don’t tell nobody), but the rest of the year sucks!

    I desperately want to live in a sunnier, warmer location the rest of the year and split my time. Hard to do with the day job/career I currently have.

  9. […] “It always comes down to the script. Write a great one, you can be a zillion years old living in Antarctica and Hollywood will want you.” Scott Myers Go Into the Story […]

  10. […] But if you do sell a spec, and even in anticipation of that chance, at least you should be envisioning the possibility of relocating. Because on the whole, the positives of living and writing in L.A. outweigh the negatives.” Scott Myers The Business of Screenwriting: Living and writing in L.A. […]

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