Sunday, August 3, 2008

But I don't wanna be an assistant

Here's a very interesting question from Kathy: I moved to LA/Redondo Beach a few months ago for my husband's job. I'm a stay at home mom, so I don't have a lot of time to network to get an agent to sell a screenplay that I have written. Any ideas?

First, I think there a couple other things to consider besides your main question. You should probably have more than one screenplay before you seek representation. I'd recommend three. You are generally going to hear "what else ya got?" before people sign you, staff you, etc. People want to get a sense of your voice and your abilities, and they may not be able to do it with just one script. And don't necessarily think you need a broad portfolio of TV, feature, comedy, horror, drama, etc. It's kind of better, from what I've seen, to find what you do best and just keep doing that. Is your speciality The Female Superbad? Buddy comedies? Family movies with adult protagonists? Dark sci-fi stuff? Police procedurals? In a way it's frustrating that agents, execs, etc. will put you in a box and describe you with a buzzphrase, it will most definitely happen. If you can write a kickass drama and comedy, fine. Great writing is great writing, and it will get you noticed. Just don't force yourself to write something you're not passionate about.

Second, know that many beginning writers do not sell their first screenplays. It does happen, but what you should really focus on is getting an agent and getting yourself on people's radars. The script should prove you can write well. If it never sells or gets made (also two very different things), it can still be an effective sample to get you representation and rewrite assignments (which I will probably post on in the future since it's a huge part of the feature world that a lot of new writers don't seem to know about).

But now to your actual question: how do you meet people and get your writing career off the ground when you have no intentions of being a PA, assistant, etc.?

I once joked about my dream of writing by the pool while some attractive man paid for my cushy lifestyle. Of course, yours involves kids, which I'm sure makes you a bit busier. I honestly don't know how I'd be making all these connections without my job. But here are some thoughts: first, the internet. There are plenty of blogs, websites, tracking boards, etc. A friend recently started the LA TV writers (and friends) networking group, which will be having monthly meetings (there may be another one out there for feature writers).

I also recommend entering your scripts into contests; there are a ton for features, some of which are more highly regarded than others. The Nicholl is renowned as a big one. ABC/Disney also has a feature fellowship, and the Austin Film Festival has a screenplay competition. Google up some more - there are a ton. The idea with contests is to get noticed and get an agent; if your agent is well-connected enough, you shouldn't need to have a lot of your own industry contacts (though it never hurts, and writers who started as assistants probably already have a ton).

You can also send query letters to find agents and managers. I would say don't bother sending them to the Big Five, or even really the next five...but every so often you hear about that query letter that was so hilarious that a huge agent ended up signing the writer. It hardly EVER happens, though. You're better off trying smaller agencies and management companies; they will read them and occasionally request scripts that sound promising. Check the list of WGA signatory agencies for places to try. Beware of any "agency" not on the list, or an agency that charges you a reading or printing fee; it's a scam. Keep your letter brief, ideally just a few sentences. Don't go on about your degree or yourself; just give a a logline and try to make it sound as interesting as possible. I get query letters all the time, and if a letter was good enough, I'd send the writer a release and ask to read the script. Guess what? They never are. (They also usually come from Indiana or somewhere, and I know that if the writer was serious about their career, s/he'd move to LA.) People also have tendency ramble on and on about their lives, and often can't sum up their script in a few sentences. If you're passionate enough to write the damn thing and you can't even tell me what it's about, that's a problem. SELL IT to me. Because that's what an agent is going to have to do. Speaking of, here's some advice I heard my boss tell a manager the other day: "If it's not high concept, the writing has to be FANTASTIC." It makes perfect sense. You can sell a cool concept, even if the writing is absolute shit. They'll just hire someone else to rewrite it. But great characters and dialogue with a shitty concept? No one will buy it.

In Kathy's situation I'm also wondering if a little creativity in networking wouldn't hurt. Can you find out where female execs or wives of male execs get their manicures? Take Pilates? Enroll their kids in preschool? Do any of your friends know any of these people? It sounds a little crazy, but it might just work - and getting to know these people on a personal level might make them more likely to help you out.

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Unknown said...

Someone can be serious about their writing career and not live in LA. Not everyone has the cushion and resources to move across the country. But at first they can work on their writing at home and try to get noticed from contests, etc. Jane Espenson says one way of making it in: Get your script to LA, then move your body there. Sure, you'll have to move there eventually, but not everyone can right away. In fact, being out of LA might bring a fresh perspective to your writing. You can write anywhere. Just a thought.

J. Alan Shelton said...

I have to admit the Indiana crack hit a nerve with me. I work damn hard on my writing, and I think it's unfair to say that someone isn't serious about their craft simply due to their current geographical location.

Anyone with sense will obviously be making plans to move to L.A. - you don't get staffed in Indiana after all - but it's also silly not to explore every possible opportunity to get your work read either.

Amanda said...

Certainly, you can write anywhere. You can write great things anywhere. But I'm not talking about writing - I'm talking about forging a career, obtaining representation, making a name for yourself in Hollywood. I think it's really hard to do it elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying about relocating to build a career in TV writing. I also noticed you said doing it elsewhere was really hard . . . but you didn't say it was impossible.

When you're married to a guy in Maryland who has zero interest in moving to LA, but who might (possibly) consider living in San Diego somewhere down the road, and you love him and want to stay married, you will do your writing in Maryland. I'm with Lisa on this. This is where I will be writing--until I move, if and when that happens.

We may all be talking a bit at cross-purposes here, since a lot of it depends on what kind of career you're looking for. I have no aspirations to join a TV writing staff. I'm not saying it wouldn't be fun--it just isn't in the cards for me. I'd rather write freelance, for feature films or TV. (And I know, I know. They're totally different animals--I'm just sayin' . . .)

And there is (believe it or not) a thriving film community in the Baltimore-DC area. Women in Video and Film have a pretty active DC chapter. They had a great conference last fall, with people from "the industry" taking pitches and doing script evaluations. Bottom line: I think you can find ways to get your work noticed, no matter where you are--if you're persistent.

Unknown said...

Agreed. I wonder if I should even both entering things like the ABC Fellowship, even though they help relocate you. Maybe they just toss anything with an Indiana post mark out the window? This worries me...=)

Dan Williams said...

Your last two posts have been so information packed that they would make an awesome sample of your writing ability should you want to submit researched articles to magazines like, say, FORBES.

Steve Forbes is an excellent writer and his bi-weekly column can be studied for its sentence-by-sentence impact based upon "assertive information" -- meaning, he is asserting a point-of-view, a solution to one of the country's problems, based upon a great set of facts.

A novel written this way is Tom Clancy's first, "The Hunt for Red October," if you feel you might like to write one.

Anyway, if you keep building up posts as good as this one, then your portfolio is almost sure to open up some doors, somewhere, sometime.

noslouch said...

hey amanda,

first time reader, first time writer.

any thoughts on the web? what's to say for those of us loyal East Coast kids trying to circumvent the ladder and come at the system laterally (i.e. with home-grown material made for the web)?

Little Miss Nomad said...

Lisa, ABC doesn't throw fellowship apps from Indiana out the window. They do, however, seem to favor people who have been WAs or who have already been accepted into other programs like the Cosby or the WB Workshop, which means they already live in LA. That could be because those are the best scripts, or it could be because they show commitment already. I honestly don't know. But I wouldn't not submit your spec because of where you live. Certainly, not living in LA can be a boon because you can employ it as part of your "distinctive voice" in the diversity essay.

Stephen said...

I agree with Amanda.

If you want to write features you can live anywhere, because the point of writing a feature is to sell it, and you can sell from anywhere. But if you want to write for television (this is an "aspiring tv writer" blog after all) I believe you do need to be in LA because TV writers don't write scripts to sell them, they write scripts to get hired on staffs, and those staffs are usually in LA.

Aspiring TV writers, generally, are trying to use their great scripts to get a job, not make a sale, and the jobs are in LA. As someone who moved to LA 6 months ago, I'm learning that first hand.

dave said...

Amanda, would you mind describing the process by which a good concept/shitty script might be sold?

You wrote, "I get query letters all the time, and if a letter was good enough, I'd send the writer a release and ask to read the script. Guess what? They never are." Are you suggesting that you'd still pass such a script on to your boss? I find it pretty incredible that writer could get paid for writing a brilliant sentence or two and little else.

Ma Please said...


I usually enjoy your posts. Your L.A. remark in this one however, is so far off the mark - it made me cringe. Being in the vicinty of Hollywood can offer obvious advantages, no doubt. But screenwriters exist everywhere - SERIOUS screenwriters. A great script will find its buyer, no matter where you live. You may not see it that way, but the rest of the world does. In fact, most of the people I know who've "moved to L.A to make it", have come back with this to say: "every one wants to be a writer over there, it's impossible to stand out". I know L.A. is your mecca, but try to remove yourself for just a moment. Agents, managers, production companies, and studios are in most major cities throughout the G8 countries. Great film careers have been forged in these places.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if this will get on, because a previous comment from Massimo Volpe seems to have not made it on, and not to hammer on this point too much. But this is just to say that I recognize this blog is about becoming a TV staff writer in the conventional manner (and I didn't mean to muddy the waters by throwing in the comment about freelancing or feature films, although I've heard some people say you should move to LA to write movie scripts, too. Location and contacts are undeniably important--like having a New York agent if you write novels, my forte). I love reading the blog, because it's entertaining, it gives me a window into a world I don't get to see otherwise and a better sense of how the TV writing business works from someone "in the trenches" and just starting out at that.

That said, my only point was, even though I would not advise someone seeking a career as a TV writer to "Move to Baltimore (or anywhere else other than LA) and hope for the best" (which would be akin to telling someone to play the lottery and live off your winnings), the mere fact that you aren't or can't be in LA right now should not completely discourage a person from writing for TV.

Opportunities in television exist outside of LA. Massimo Volpe, in his comment that didn't make it on here, pointed out that production companies exist all over. I know there's a studio in New York City (Kauffman Astoria--they did a little show called "Sex and the City") and even in--yes--Baltimore, a little show called "The Wire" was created, produced, directed and written by Baltimore and DC area residents. (Also, a show you might have heard of called "Homicide"? Filmed in Baltimore, created by Baltimore resident David Simon, many of the writers probably lived around there, too.)

Will anyone produce a show in Indiana? (Not to pick on the state, merely using it as an example.) I don't know. But that doesn't mean it won't happen or happen somewhere near enough to Indiana so Lisa could make the contacts and do whatever she must to get involved with that production.

I'm simply saying that opportunities are out there, if you look for them. You have to be persistent and look for them and be willing to take advantage of them when you see them.

Final example, then I'll shut up. "Corner Gas" is a Canadian sit-com filmed not in Toronto, not in Vancouver, but in Saskatchewan. I know it's Canadian, but if a TV show that's attracted acclaim in the US (see ) and other countries can be made in a Canadian "flyover state," it could happen in Indiana. Or elsewhere.

That is all.

Ma Please said...


Your L.A. remark is so far off the mark - it made me cringe. I know L.A. is your mecca, but try to remove yourself for just a moment. Agents, managers, production companies, and studios are in most major cities throughout the G8 countries. Great film careers have been forged in these places. Heck, Lars Von Trier even REFUSED an offer from Spielberg to make a film in the U.S.