PREFACE: I know it’s madness in the world right now. It can be scary, and feel completely impossible to be the least bit creative. But remember two things: 1) We’re all in this together, and 2) Some of the greatest art in history was created during some of the darkest times. You’re going to make it. We’re going to make it. With that said…
It’s that time again, AP’s. So, pour some coffee, pull up a chair, and let’s talk screenwriting. Last month I said you can send me any questions you have, and holy inciting incident, did you! I’ll do my best to get to them all, but be patient. Ah, patience, one of the most critical attributes a screenwriter can possess.
There were some recurring themes amongst your queries. Seems a lot of you are confused by all the debris hitting you from the gurus, books and websites. I would be, too. We live in this wondrous time of so much information available at the click of a button, but what doesn’t exist is any sort of filter to keep out the misinformation and bad advice. But that’s precisely why we’re sitting together now.
Do I Really Need to Live in L.A.?
By far, the most asked question was, “Do I have to live in L.A. or NY to make it as a screenwriter?” The answer is YES. And NO.
If you want to write television, be it on staff of a series or creating your own, you absolutely have to be on the coast, and the left coast is preferable. There is an existing TV world in New York, but it’s about 1/20 what it is in L.A. I’m not talking about product being produced/shot in these places. I’m talking about where the writers’ rooms and the studios (the folks paying the bills) are located.
In TV, writers are the Kings and Queens, and when you’re producing a series, you are essentially making the equivalent of a feature film every two weeks. Week in, week out, and thus, you’ve got to be present to be part of the process. Yes, there are series shot in New Mexico and Oregon and Georgia, but that’s usually not where the writers and creators are. And not where Post is. And please don’t say, “What about Tyler Perry?” There are exceptions to every rule. Nothing is 100%. But if you want to break in to writing for television, L.A. is your BEST bet. New York is next best, but a far cry from L.A. After that, you’re gonna need all the luck in the world coupled with supreme talent.
I live in Saint Louis, but I’d been living in L.A. for over ten years and working as a TV writer/producer for five before I made the move. And even when I did - even with (arguably) the most powerful agency at the time repping me - I was still told I was committing career suicide.
Side note: That was the first of three times I’ve been told that. As of this writing, my career is still breathing.
Without establishing myself in L.A. those first years I would have never had a career. That’s the YES answer.
If you want to write features exclusively, the answer is no, you do not have to be in L.A. or NY. But it sure helps. The American film industry has two headquarters - L.A. and NY. Being where it happens puts you ahead of the writers in Charlotte or Omaha or Barcelona. That said, the writer from outside L.A./NY can absolutely carve out a screenwriting career by simply doing one thing - writing badass, amazing scripts.
If a studio/producer is deciding between two screenplays to purchase, and one is a pretty good script written by an L.A. native who lives ten minutes from Paramount, and the other is a freaking amazing script written by someone who’s never traveled 50 miles beyond Omaha, they are choosing the Omaha script ten out of ten times. Anyone who tells you different is lying, or wrong.
But unlike television, feature writers are not Kings and Queens. We’re more like the court jesters. Not only do we not need to be there, they rarely want us there. How much disrespect do feature writers get? Listen up, young Jedis, as I share with you a tale… despite the fact that NO film can exist without us, despite the fact that what we do is the very foundation of every film, screenwriters are so discounted and dismissed by the movie industry that a few years back we actually had to threaten to strike just to force the studios to invite us to the premieres of the movies made from our screenplays! True story. It is now in the MBA - screenwriters must be invited to the premieres of the films made from their scripts. How pathetic is that? And it should give you an insight into how often screenwriters are a welcomed part of the actual filmmaking process.
The glass half full part of that is, yes, feature scribes, you can live outside L.A./NY, but you better be out-writing those ink slingers living on the coasts. And hey, enjoy the premiere! Steal some shrimp.
What Should I Write?
Another multiple query I received bothered me. Or perhaps saddened me is more accurate. I received four versions of “What’s the best thing for me to write - features or pilots or shorts?” Why did this sadden me? Because it shows the influence of the charlatans who have convinced you there’s a secret, a puzzle to be solved, a shortcut that will lead to your career as a screenwriter.
Asking this question is 100% the WRONG mindset. It means you are not interested in being a writer, you are simply interested in getting in the club, making money, being successful.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting success - we all want it - but when you’re looking at what to write from the point of view of what will get you in the club quicker, you’re doomed. You’ve just put yourself way behind all the writers who are coming from a place of passion and desire TO WRITE as opposed TO SELL.
If you love movies, and find yourself always thinking in movie terms, always imagining movie scenes, then write movies. If your passion is series television, if you feel your ideas are built for streaming or broadcast TV, and too big for a 2-hour film, then write television. If you don’t know what format best suits your idea, pick one and start writing. You will know by the time you finish your first draft if you picked correctly.
Short films… here’s my opinion on that: the only reason to write short films is with the intention of shooting them. Short film scripts are not accepted as writing samples, and there’s no reason to write one UNLESS you want to shoot it. Here’s the thing, though… Quibi has just launched, and there’s a couple of other short-format entities coming soon. Execs have realized they can cash in on the inherent ADD we’ve all fallen victim to in this day of TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. So, if your goal is to create a show for Quibi, then good on ya, write that 12-page pilot. But know you’re gonna need another 10-20 episodes.
Writing Samples and Agents
This question connects to another I was asked - “How many writing samples do I need to land an agent?” Ugh. Another mindset that is only going to hurt you. The answer is - as many as it takes. I’m not being flippant, I’m being real. Anyone who tells you there’s a certain number is wrong or lying. And here’s the thing no one charging you money for screenwriting advice wants you to know: You don’t need an agent.
Let me repeat that… You do not need an agent. You just spit out your coffee, I know. Sorry about your keyboard. But I’m here to give you truth, I’m selling nothing. Needing an agent is the single biggest lie of the many lies about how to break into this business.
I know or have met over 500 working screenwriters. I know the histories of probably another 500. You know how many of them got their first job because of an agent?
Three. Out of 1000. Are you comfortable betting those odds? For every story you hear about how someone landing an agent which led to their first job, which led to a career, there are hundreds which directly counter that. I’ll cover this more specifically in a later column - but just know, all those thoughts you have about how getting an agent is the only thing keeping you from a career… are wrong. Be the best writer you can be and the agents will come to you. I promise. Like I said, we’ll discuss in depth later.
Okay, time for the lightning round…
Q: “I have so many ideas, where can I sell them or find a writer to work with on them?”
A: I have no answer, because idea people are a penny a dozen in Hollywood. EVERYONE has ideas. Every executive, every producer, every gaffer, every retired LAPD motorcycle cop who now works security at Culver Studios, every barista. And especially writers. It’s the screenwriters - those who can turn an idea into an actual script - that are valued, not the idea people.
Q: “I’ve been told my scripts aren’t marketable enough, that I need to write more commercially, should I do this?”
A: No. No. No. Am I clear here? The answer is no. I absolutely guarantee you that anyone who says you should alter your own unique voice to write “to the market” doesn’t have a clue about Hollywood. That’s probably why they’re charging money to “teach” instead of actually doing. Your voice is what makes your script stand out from the 500 others that are all written in the exact same “marketable” way. Trust yourself.
Q: “My script is ____ meets ____, will it garner any interest?”
A: Whether your script is RED DAWN meets 50 FIRST DATES, HARRY POTTER meets THE HELP, or LAW & ORDER meets REN & STIMPY, it doesn’t matter. What will get it noticed, garner interest, and get you in is if it is WELL WRITTEN.
Q: “If you’re writing a period piece, how do you bring it alive for today’s reader?”
A: This is a fantastic question, and I’ll need a full column to answer it. Stay tuned.
That’s it for this month. Stay safe, stay home, and remember, I’m here to give you truth and expose the fakes. It may not be what you want to hear, it may sting, but know I’m hating all the faking, and shaking while I’m breaking your brittle heart…
(cue Echo & The Bunnymen)
Here’s Paul's email: scriptguyot AT gmail DOT com. Remember, no pitches, no loglines, and do not ask him to read your script! Just ask questions you'd like him to answer in his AMA column.