So you wanna be a screenwriter but you don’t like beautiful weather, beautiful people, or beautiful traffic, eh?
Everyone has told you, get to California! You can’t make a living as a screenwriter in Omaha! You’re not gonna be the Shane Black of Saskatchewan!!
But you have a house you can’t sell and kids who won’t get much on the open market (I kid!). Or maybe you hate the sun or just prefer Shake Shack to In-and-Out Burger.
Okay, hard truth time — if you’re not ready to move to California, you shouldn’t be writing screenplays.
Unless, you’re like me. For the last decade I’ve written features for a living from the super hot Industry town of Ellicott City, MD (hey, stop laughing! John Waters filmed a movie here once 25 years ago).
I have an agent. I’m in the Writer’s Guild. I still can’t afford a robot butler but on any given night I can find one of my movies on Showtime or Nickelodeon or Amazon Prime. And I’m doing what I love for a living (and I actually prefer Shake Shack).
There are a lot of us out there. Scattered. Typing away in the shadows (cause it’s not as sunny on the East Coast as the West Coast).
Look, even if you’re in Los Angeles, making it as a screenwriter is impossible. And moving to the ‘310’ makes you much more likely to get a Story by credit on the next Adam Sandler Netflix feature.
But even if you don’t pack up the U-Haul and head west…there’s a chance…a slim chance…a chance to live where you want and make enough money in screenwriting that you can renew the old Cinemax subscription. So, read on, brave but geographically challenged screenwriters…
THE ODDS ARE FOREVER NOT IN YOUR FAVOR
Screenwriting is an uphill climb, and not just any hill, more like an insane San Francisco one. Like any job ‘people are willing to work for free’ (other examples — rock star drummers and Renfest Mimes), there are legions of people competing for a mere handful of screenwriting jobs. Let’s say ‘breaking in’ is about as unlikely as winning the World Series of Poker (there’s about 6 thousand poker players, and even if you’re Matt Damon in Rounders, you’re gonna need a lot of luck!). Doing it from the East Coast is a bit like needing to win a nationwide online poker game just to get the chance to play in the big game.
It’s easier if you’re already in the room. But it’s not easy, regardless.
CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
You can’t control a lot of things — J.J. Abrams might greenlight a movie identical to yours the day you type Fade Out. Or the blockbuster Talking Turtle movie franchise might suddenly be a box-office bust sinking any hopes for your own talking Aardvark movie. Or the industry might not be buying anything the week/month/year you send out your query letters. Or you might finally get some big studio to read your masterpiece and draw the reader who hates everything.
Getting people to read your stuff is a lottery ticket at best. Quality is subjective. No control there.
But you can control VOLUME! The lottery is hard to win. You need more tickets! I get why most screenwriting gurus tell you to keep writing a script until it’s perfect. But I’m here to tell you, I didn’t start having success until I started cranking out more product. You need to churn out more and know when to give up on the dead ends.
I write anywhere between 4-8 projects a year, not counting pitches and/or rewrites of old stuff.
More lottery tickets!
New scripts keep you on the radar. Agents, producers, actors, studios tend to forget you. If you were in California you might remind them by showing up at parties and ordering Starbucks and taking lots and lots of general meetings. But we ‘outsiders’ need to keep waving our hands and saying ‘look at me! Pay attention to me!’ You’ve got to outwork those Hollywood hackers! You’ve got to produce!
More volume also speeds up the learning process. You’ll encounter more problems, fight more battles, and face more and more rejections and mini-successes.
So why are you reading this? You should be cranking out pages!
I’ve heard reputable industry insiders say things like — “Nobody reads Query Letters,” “No reputable agent goes to pitch festivals,” “Screenplay contests are a waste of time,” and “Those websites are scams.”
My first produced job came from sending a query letter to a contact I found on an online website’s free contacts and developing a script on a free option for two years! That’s like three things industry insiders would say never work or don’t do.
And before you max out your credit card, I’m not even saying those insiders are wrong. Most of these things are just traps to prey on screenwriter opportunity. So choose wisely. Focus on the free or cheap or ones you hear LOTS of other screenwriters recommending. Only do what you can afford and seems fun/promising. These things do work… sometimes.
SCREENWRITING AXIOM #87
For every possible avenue of ‘how to break in,’ I can find a professional that will say NEVER do it and another to say ‘that’s how they did it!’
I think William Goldman might have said something like this.
So be very very cautious, but do whatever you have time for or can afford. If it seems like a lot of money — skip it! You’re not missing anything. But if it seems reasonable and you can afford it, do some research and try it.
TELEVISION IS A PROBLEM
Television jobs tend to be 9-to-5 affairs. They’re day jobs. They won’t let you Skype in. If your dream is to work in a TV writer’s room, you may need to start looking into rentals in Redondo Beach. TV is exploding right now and may one day take over the entire industry. So things are changing. There are shows that are written by single writers and writers who have pitched new shows and ‘broken in’ with their pitches. Maybe you could try a web series? Maybe the next frontier of TV will come from homegrown shows made outside of the town. Who knows?! Remember Screenwriting Axiom 87.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
If you produce something that can make someone money, they don’t really care where you’re from. Most agents/managers say they don’t care. Certainly producers don’t. As mentioned, working in TV will be an issue. Most of my correspondence happens via email. A lot of the producers/agents don’t even remember I’m not in LA. Every now and then I get an email asking “Can you come in the office tomorrow?”
You can/should make trips. I tend to travel to LA after I send out a script and take a bunch of generals (general meetings). Most Angelenos take generals all the time. It’s kind of the job. I tend to have to lump them into one wild and crazy week.
TRY OTHER STUFF TOO
Screenplays may be the domain of West Coasties. But comic books, short films, theatrical plays, Web series, and novels don’t have as much geographic claim. It’s fun to make something and have it seen by an audience. You’ll learn more from something that’s in its final form and enjoyed or hated by audiences. Also, who knows, maybe your unique screenwriter breaking-in story will be about how you created a YouTube musical that went viral and BAM! You got seven figures to write “Fast and the Furious in Space.”
Also, maybe from screenwriter fatigue, Hollywood tends to dig people who are working in these alternate forms. Industry peeps appreciate the hustle it takes to get things done. I’ve heard of TV writer’s rooms composed of poets and playwrights and folks that really weren’t traditional screenwriters.
WHO YOU KNOW
I’ve been told everyone knows someone in Hollywood. Everyone has a long lost second cousin who was a PA on “Harold and Kumar 2” or something.
I didn’t know a single person. Not one. Nada. But I do now. It’s not unlike most businesses, once you find people you work well with and they like what you do, those are your people. Eventually, if you’re persistent you’ll find one too. But it doesn’t stop there. You really have to invest in deepening those connections. You have to stay on their radar without coming off annoying. Nurturing these connections is the key. They’ll introduce you to agents or hire you out of the blue for a rewrite gig. They’ll call you when they meet someone looking for Horror TV shows or share their brilliant idea with you in hopes of collaborating.
IT’S GONNA TAKE MUCH LONGER THAN YOU THINK
It took me about 5 years of screenwriting before I got my first payday. It took another 5 before I felt like I could quit my day job. 5 years later and I’m still a long long way from where I want to be.
Most overnight successes have a lot of screenplays buried in their basement. They’ve endured countless heartbreaks and close calls. They’ve suffered long stretches where no one would return their calls and they considered giving it up or maybe they did give up a few times.
I was a risk-averse type. I didn’t want to live out of my car or have to rob banks for a living to support my writing habit. If you want a Hollywood career — plan like it’s going to take 10 years of persistent work. Come up with a plan to survive while leaving room for lots and lots of writing. I cringe when people give themselves short deadlines. Don’t quit your job and give yourself one year or bust. It’s gonna take 5 or 10 years. Plan for the marathon not the sprint.
YOU NEED TO BE TENACIOUS
Successful screenwriters just don’t go away. They’re like Jason or Freddy or the Terminator. You put them down and they come back. Over and over and over again.
The people who will make it, simply will never stop and eventually after hundreds or thousands of ‘no’s’ they’ll get the one ‘yes’ they need. I once heard a hall of fame football player say the difference between good and great is that the great ones might get beat on 10 straight plays but think “I’m gonna win the next one!”
FOCUS ON PROCESS, NOT RESULTS
Get joy from the work. It will shield you from the heartbreaks and ward off stressful deadlines or disappointments. If you suffer of stress buy kratom powder and get the problem solved. Love the act of writing, study it, embrace it, and worry less about if the last script sold or if you won a contest. Try not to focus too much on unfair/unjust results. Process is one of the few controllable things. Embrace it!
ARE THERE ADVANTAGES TO BEING SOMEWHERE ELSE?
There’s a lot of second guessing in this business and sometimes it can kill creativity. I think being on the outside can help give you an original POV and creativity. It can also help you weather the inevitable soul-crushing events that you will have to endure. It’s fun to be a big fish in a small pond. You don’t feel the common schadenfreude that you might feel when your Uber driver has an agent and you don’t or when everyone on your softball team (except you) gets named to this year’s Blacklist.
IT CAN BE LONELY
People will either think you’re a millionaire or a deadbeat. People will ask what you ‘do for real.’ When you’re frustrated by tough jobs or writer’s block or bad notes, there will be no one to cry to. If you were in Hollywood, any given Starbucks would have more screenwriters than your entire state.
Seek out your people. Make human connections. I like writer groups. I teach college screenwriting. I try to attend festivals and conventions and make short films. I love co-writing for this reason.
Human connection is everything. The actual work of screenwriting is very time-consuming and very isolating. So bathe! Switch out the sweat pants! Get out of the house and suck in some of that much needed vitamin D!
To Sum Up:
Long-term Plan x (Love the process + Up the volume + Try lots of stuff) = Connections
Connections + Tenacity + Talent = Enough $$ to stay in Peoria and have Cinemax
Make your own impossible path. Prove one of these industry insiders wrong. Just be ready for the long haul — or not — prove me wrong too!
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