When you don't live in Los Angeles or New York City, it can be difficult to find ways to stand out as a writer. Living outside the belly of the beast will force you to be creative in how you get your work out there. But one method can be wildly effective, no matter what part of the world you live in: screenwriting contests. And I got to speak with one writer, from Denver, Colorado, who's living proof.
David Mulholland is a writer/producer who's worked on reality shows like ALASKA'S WILD GOURMET and XTREME WATERPARKS, and he's been interested in movies and screenwriting since childhood. Growing up in Denver, he didn't know what else he'd be doing if not working in the business. So he made the move to Los Angeles.
“I’ve always loved movies and always wanted to work in the movies,” he explained. “After screwing around in the mountains of Colorado for a few years after college, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. While struggling to get a foothold as a screenwriter, I worked as an assistant, PA, and in the art department on commercial sets.”
After six years of working in Los Angeles without making much screenwriting headway, David returned to Denver with his wife to raise their family. He found work at a successful reality TV production company, and he made peace with his prior stay in California.
“While working in reality TV, I never stopped writing, but I did come to a bit of a reckoning,” he said. “After it didn’t work out for me in my 20s and we moved back to Denver, I beat myself up for many years. Eventually, I came to peace with it. I decided to accept the reality that it might never happen for me, but there was no need to stop doing what I loved. So I kept writing, but now more for myself than the market. Once I let go of the 'I’ve got to have a career' mindset, I wrote without the pressure I’d been giving myself for years.”
Writing without that pressure turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. He wrote a feature script called MISUNDERESTIMATED, a “tongue-in-cheek political drama” about George W. Bush during his oil man years in Midland, Texas. It follows him as he finds Jesus, gives up drinking, turns 40, sells his oil company, enters politics, and struggles to earn the respect of his father. He entered the script in the TrackingB screenwriting contest.
And he became one of the contest's three finalists.
“I can’t say enough good things about this contest,” he said. “Not all contests are created equal. Adam, who runs TrackingB, is passionate about screenwriting and the business. If you make it as a finalist, he will do everything he can to get you to the next step.”
In David's case, that next step was representation. Once a finalist, Adam worked tirelessly to get MISUNDERESTIMATED out to managers and agents. A few of them expressed interest, and David eventually signed with Adam Simpson-Marshall and Sam Grey at Management 360.
“Signing with Adam and Sam has been great,” he said. “They are both incredibly supportive. After signing, they set up a round of meetings and I had a chance to meet them face to face.”
David said that living in Denver was definitely a topic of discussion with interested reps, but that it wasn't an insurmountable obstacle.
“When talking with managers, we definitely discussed how it would work with my living in Denver,” he said. “Fortunately, since I write features, living outside of Los Angeles or New York City is not as critical. Los Angeles is an easy flight from Denver and many times meetings can be replaced with calls or Skype.”
And for those meetings that needed to be done in Los Angeles, David was able to make it work by traveling there and staying on a friend's couch. He had five meetings in his first trip, and one of them turned into a writing assignment! The project isn't in the trades yet, so details need to stay under wraps, but David was able to talk about the process of landing it.
“One of the meetings my managers set up was with the Director of Development at a successful independent production company,” he explained. “I was already a fan of their work and before the meeting, I did a little homework and watched their other movies and read the scripts of projects I knew they were developing.”
“When we met, I hit it off with the Director of Development. He mentioned they had a script adaptation of a book and they were looking for someone to rewrite. They liked the basic idea of the script, but it wasn’t quite there. He wanted to see if I had any ideas about it. I asked for the original book instead of the script, as I felt I could judge it better that way.”
Once he got back to Denver, he read the book, the story of a man's life, but didn't see a movie there. As he read, though, he found one chapter that could work as a movie on its own. “I wrote up a 3-page pitch about a movie focused on just that event,” he said. “The principles of the company loved this idea and we started talking. We went back and forth a few more times, talking over the phone to discuss. After meeting in person, they offered to let me write it.”
Having lived in both the beaches of Los Angeles and the mountains of Denver, David knows the pros and cons of living in both places. He says living in L.A. is good because it has an “amazing film community,” tons of network opportunities, and the business is everywhere. But, he says, even that can have its drawbacks.
“You cannot escape the business” living in L.A., he said. “If you are struggling, this can have a real psychological impact. It feels like everyone is making it but you. Or it feels like no one is making it and no one ever will. Either way, the business is pervasive, and that’s not always a good thing.”
Living in Denver has its own positives and negatives for screenwriting, too. Not being surrounded by the business can be a huge benefit, he says, because without the pressure of being in the middle of everything, it's easier to focus on the pages in front of you. It's also less expensive than southern California, and having his support network around him is a big plus. “Life is easier in general when you have friends and family nearby,” he said.
With the results he's had, David is obviously a supporter of screenwriting contests; he considers TrackingB, Tracking Board, the Austin Film Festival and the Nicholl Fellowship the cream of the contest crop. But his pragmatism is something writers can also learn from. While chasing a lifelong dream outside of L.A., playing the odds is always a smart move.
“My one piece of advice is to make sure you have a career you don’t hate,” he said. “The reality is that making it as a professional screenwriter is not much different than making it in Major League Baseball, so make sure you have a backup plan you can live with. My other piece of advice is to make sure you know why you are writing. Write because you love it.”