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PRIMETIME: Do All Screenwriters Have to Live in L.A.?

I'm not saying every screenwriter must live in Los Angeles. I'm saying every TELEVISION writer must live in Los Angeles. Until you bite the bullet and move, you WILL NOT BREAK INTO TV.

Well, this week's lesson was: If you wanna get people chatting and debating on your blog, put a big $@#% in the title!

Okay, that may not be entirely true, but I loved the deluge of comments and emails I got from last week's post—the good, the bad, and even the ugly. So I wanted to begin this week by responding to some of my favorites:

Master of horror... and time management.

Master of horror... and time management.

• SR – Stephen King and J.K. Rowling may not have spent 12 hours a day schmoozing, but as Jackie Gordon pointed out, the point of the example isn't that they were great schmoozers—it’s that they worked jobs and raised families while still doing everything necessary to become successful. As an aspiring TV writer, "all the things necessary to become successful" include writing and schmoozing. If you want to succeed, you must do both… full-time… regardless of life's other responsibilities.

• DAVID KARAPETYAN – You give me too much credit. I wish I was successful enough that I could "make a living telling other people how to make a living!" Sadly, that's just not true. I make my living writing and producing TV shows… I simply teach, and write this blog, because it's a blast and I love it. But "telling other people how to make a living" doesn't pay enough to justify my giving false info or advice... and if I did that, what kind of teacher would I be?

All my advice is learned from over twelve years of working in professional television… as a writer, producer, executive, journalist, and assistant. That doesn't mean you have to agree with it, but if you disagree-- which is fine-- I suggest you back up your argument with your own real-world professional experience and knowledge. And you should do better than telling people to "go work in another industry until yours settles down into a more manageable supply/demand ratio?" That's your helpful guidance? You're basically saying, "You wanna achieve your goals? I recommend not trying until there's less competition." If you can explain to me how that's sound advice, I'd love to hear it (as well as a forecast of when the TV industry may "settle down into a more manageable supply/demand ratio")… because in my experience, anyone who's ever succeeded—in TV or any other profession—has only made it because they were willing to "work like slaves"… which you expressly articulated you were opposed to.

• D-CODER – "Pick your suckage"… love it!

• SAM – You are exactly right. ("Once I figured out the process I needed to get done with a first draft, it became a lot easier to crank one out and start on the real writing – REWRITING.") This is a lesson I find myself continually re-learning… it's nice to hear to hear I'm not alone.

Anyway—thanks again to everyone who emailed or commented… you can agree, disagree, bash me, love me… just keep 'em coming!

Now, for today's question, which comes from Blair, who writes:

I just read [last week's] article. So, are you saying that EVERY screenwriter must live in L.A.? That seems a tad hard to believe... it's not like EVERY film is set in L.A., so how does the L.A. screenwriter write about life in the Motor City? How do we wind up with films not set in L.A. from writers only based in L.A.?

Well, first of all, Blair, I'm not saying every screenwriter must live in Los Angeles.

I'm saying every TELEVISION writer must live in Los Angeles.

Whether or not every feature writer must live in L.A. is a separate issue, which I'll tackle in a moment.

But if you want to be a TV writer of mainstream commercial programming (whether a comedy like The Office, a drama like CSI: Miami, or a talk/variety show like The Tonight Show)…

YES—you must live in Los Angeles.

Why?... Because this is where 90 percent of all TV is written and produced. (To be fair, tiny bit is produced in New York, like The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, but most is in L.A.) (And to be really fair, there are a handful of productions scattered about the country. Tyler Perry's based out of Atlanta. Scripps, which owns Food Network and HGTV, lives in Tennessee.)

Farm midwest sunset

You may be the world's greatest script-writer, but if this is where you live... you ain't gonna make it in television.

People often resist this notion, the absolute necessity of living in L.A. I hear all kinds of excuses: "I have a good job here in Toledo, so I can't leave right now." "I'm going to polish my specs, then head to L.A." "I'll move once I have an actual job." "I'm going to continue writing, sending my scripts to agents and producers, and hopefully I'll land something."

But the truth is… until you bite the bullet and move to California, you willnotbreakintotelevision.

There's no plannng for "the right time." There's no "waiting till you have a job." There's no "perfecting your scripts" so you can get hired as soon as possible on The Mentalist.

(In fact, most Hollywood agencies, networks, studios, and producton companies won't even interview you till you're living in Los Angeles. So if you're waiting for a job offer to make the leap… don't hold your breath.)

Part of this is because navigating a career in TV, unlike in film, has much more rigid rules and processes. TV shows, for example, are written by hierarchical staffs of writers. And sure, writers land jobs based on having excellent writing samples… but they mostly land jobs because they have strong relationships with other writers, showrunners, producers, agents, and executives.

In fact, most writers begin as writers assistants, then get promoted to "Staff Writer," the bottom-rung on a TV staff. If you're NOT a writers assistant, or working in some capacity where you can make contacts and learn the ropes (as a runner, a logger, a P.A., a coordinator, etc.), it's nearly impossible to get hired as an actual TV writer… no matter how brilliant your scripts are.

It's also important to live in L.A. because your first job in television will NOT be as a writer.

I promise you—no matter how talented you are, you will not move here and land a writing job in your first year. Or your second. Probably not even your third. You will begin as some kind of assistant. And as I mentioned above, in order to land an assistant job, bosses want to know you already live here. This is for several reasons…

  • When you get that first assistant job, employers often want you to start immediately—sometimes in 24 hours. If you can't start immediately, they'll hire someone else… and there are literally millions of capable people on the streets of L.A. clamoring for assistant jobs.
  • When agents, execs, or producers hire you, they usually want to know you have some level of Hollywood knowledge and acumen. When they ask you to get Christina Davis on the phone, they don't want to explain to you who she is… they expect you to already know—and to have a rapport with her assistant. (FYI-- she's the head of Drama at CBS.)
  • Employers also expect you to have knowledge of L.A. and how it works. So when they ask you to run to the store to grab paper, pencils, and a latte… and to be back within thirty minutes… you know where the nearest Staples and Starbucks are. Or when they ask where to take an important client for dinner, you can rattle off a list of the week's hottest restaurants.

Obviously, you don't have all this knowledge when you get your very first job, but this is many people begin in mailrooms or work as P.A.'s. At the very least, they live in L.A., where they have opportunities to be exposed to and soak up this information.

Of course, this isn't to say you can't prepare yourself for L.A. until you actually move. You should, first and foremost, be writing every day. Spec scripts, pilots, sketches, jokes… whatever genre you're interested in. Study every show on TV. Break down their structures… analyze characters… map their rhythms and patterns.

Also—get a job, wherever you are, that can begin teaching you something about entertainment. Almost every mid-size city in America has a local TV affiliate. Find a job as an assistant; work your way up. Apply at a local production company; most towns have companies specializing in commercials, industrials, even high-quality wedding videos! This may not be like working on Rubicon or The Middle, but you'll learn how to run a camera… use Final Cut… put together a production budget. Seek out local talent agencies; many communities have agencies that represent—if not actors—models for commercials or photo shoots. Again, this may not be the same as working on Ari Emanuel's desk at WME, but you'll gain an understanding of how agencies function.

And then… as soon as you can… MOVE TO LOS ANGELES.

Now, Blair—for the second part of your question:

Do feature screenwriters need to live in Los Angeles?

While there's a bit more flexibility and nuance in this answer, I'm gonna say… YES.

Movies may not (usually) be written by a staff of writers… but film is still an industry based on relationships, and it's nearly impossible to make those contacts if you're not in L.A. You hear stories about people who produce movies in the backwoods of Wisconsin, then submit them to Sundance or Toronto… but these people are not the majority of working Hollywood producers. They're anomalies. And while festivals can be a legit way for writers to break into Hollywood, they're far from the most certain way.

The most certain way… and even that's not very certain… is to live in Los Angeles.

Granted, there are a few writers who don't live here (Robert Rodriguez lives in Texas), but these are either so successful they can call their own shots… or—quite honestly—they struggle, often having other "day jobs" to pay the bills.

As for how we "wind up with films not set in L.A.," well, come on… a writer doesn't have to live in a city to write about it. I'm from Iowa. The writer who sits next to me at work grew up in South Africa. The writer behind him is from Boston. So we all bring knowledge of those places to our writing. Does that mean we can only write about our hometowns or Los Angeles? Of course not. Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, or J.R.R. Tolkien never lived in Middle Earth. Brian Helgeland (Robin Hood) never lived in 12th century England. So how did they know how to make those stories, and their locales, believable?

Writers write what they know… but when we encounter gaps in our knowledge and experience, we have tools to help us. Like imagination. And research. I promise you, Brian Helgeland has never visited 1199 England, but he can read about what it was like. And he draws upon his own life experiences—things that enrage him, sadden him, inspire him—to give the characters and their behavior emotional accuracy.

When we say "Write what you know," it doesn't mean writers can only write things they've actually lived (although I do believe everything is some form of autobiography); it means you write what you know emotionally. Write about things you've experienced, things that have affected you personally. You can translate them to other times, places, situations… but write from a place of profound emotional truth. Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell have never lived in an alien interment camp, but District 9 is still a deeply personal movie.

I hope that helps, Blair! Thanks for reading… and writing… and feel free to send more questions or comments.

For the rest of you, please post questions below in the comment section… or email me at