First of all, thanks to everyone who emailed or commented over the last week about last week's "Living in LA/Submitting to Websites" post-- keep them coming! I'll respond to many of the questions and comments over the next few days and weeks.
But today I wanted to respond to a question from Kerby, who writes…
I'm a "teen screenwriter. Is there a place for us in Hollywood?"
Well, Kerby—here's the yin and the yang of it:
This is a professional business, just like manufacturing or publishing or tourism or grocery wholesaling… which means buyers and hirers look for the most talented, experienced, professional people available. And those people tend to be adults. Not because teens aren't innately talented, but because most teens haven't matured to the point—personally, professionally, or artistically—where they're ready to actually sell material or navigate the business paths and relationships necessary to have a career.
But this doesn't mean there aren't ways to PREPARE yourself for a professional career.
You can begin now making contacts, learning the ropes, getting your foot in the door, and—most importantly—becoming the BEST WRITER YOU CAN POSSIBLY BE. Right now you're like a young athlete who wants to go to the Olympics; it's incredibly hard to qualify, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be working out in the "off season," preparing for the day you can actually compete.
So… what can you do over the next few years to prepare yourself for a career as a professional Hollywood screenwriter?...
1) GET A JOB OR INTERNSHIP. Part-time jobs and internships are great ways to learn the real world of filmmaking and entertainment; whether you're in high school or college, you can probably score an internship for class credit. Contact your local TV affiliate; see if they have any opportunities. Try your local movie theater; while you'll probably spend a lot of time serving popcorn and punching tickets, talk to the theater manager and let him know you want to learn about the business of film distribution. Many cities have production companies specializing in commercials or other local productions. (If you're in a big city, you can probably find a production company that does larger commercials.) Many cities also have talent agencies; while they may not represent movie stars, they often represent stage talent and/or models for commercials and photo shoots. I understand none of these jobs may capture the glamorous heart of Hollywood, but they'll all teach you invaluable lessons about the industry, how it works, how business is conducted.
2) CHECK FOR LOCAL PRODUCTIONS. Contact your state film commission about productions filming in your area (every state has one-- but HERE is a great list). Many will be local independent projects, but producers are usually desperate and receptive to young people willing to work for free—or cheap. You may also be able to find a bigger Hollywood movie shooting in your area. (Regardless, your state film commission should have lots of resources and opportunities for you.) You can also check with local colleges and universities, which sometimes have student film and video projects in need of an extra set of hands. (Craigslist is also a great resource; indie projects often fish for PA's or interns on Craigslist.)
3) ATTEND FILM FESTIVALS. Almost every major city and state has film festivals nowadays. Some are geography-based, like Mississippi's Annual Tupelo Film Festival… others center on a certain culture or ethnicity, like the Red Fork Native American Film Festival… others feature a specific genre, like Fantastic Fest. ATTEND THEM ALL (in your area). Not only will you begin to see what kind of work is being done, but you'll meet tons of amazing people, beginning the foundation of your professional network. You can then use these contacts to help you get opportunities on their next projects, or jobs down the road. Also, film festivals often need volunteers (ushers, assistants, receptionists, etc.) to help run the festivals, and this is another great way to meet local filmmakers and administrators. (They also usually let volunteers into the festival's screenings and events for free—a great bonus!) Plus, some festivals have kids' divisions, or their own festivals, like Alabama's Sidewalk Moving Picture Festivals’s Teen Filmmaking Challenge and California's Santa Monica Teen Film Festival.
4) TAKE A CLASS. Many cities have live classes that can introduce you to the basics of film or TV writing. And if there are none near you, take a class online! There are many outstanding online classes. I often teach for Gotham Writers Workshop and Mediabistro.com, which both offer live AND online classes. Here in L.A., there are even workshops geared specifically for kids, such as the Scriptwriters Network’s High School Fellowship and The Writers Guild Foundation’s High School Screenwriting Workshops. New York offers the School of Cinema & Performing Arts' summer camp for teenagers.
4) JOIN A FILM CLUB OR WRITERS GROUP. Film clubs often watch and discuss movies together. Some focus on specific genres or cultures (like a sci-fi film club), while others prefer new releases… or classics… or Oscar winners… or foreign films. But by participating, you'll A) widen your knowledge of movies, B) start to think critically about film and art, C) make some fascinating new friends, and D) learn how to articulate your opinions and perspectives.
Writers groups are a bit different; they consist of writers—aspiring, professional, or both—who get together to share their work and solicit feedback. They can often be a wonderful sounding board for your material, and you'll learn the invaluable art of giving and receiving constructive criticism.
And by the way, if you don't know of any film clubs or writers groups in your immediate area… and a quick Google or Craigslist search doesn't reveal any… START YOUR OWN!
5) READ THE TRADES. These are the news sources that every Hollywood insider uses to stay abreast of what's happening within the industry. This isn't Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood... these are the places that cover the daily deals, sales, hirings, and negotiations that comprise the actual business. Subscribe... or frequent their websites (much of their content is till free). You'll start to get a sense of how the business works, the language it uses, and who the major players are...
5) DON'T BE A FILM MAJOR. I'm guessing you'll go to college in a few years, so when you get there… don't major in film. There's nothing wrong with film majors, and many programs are quite good. In fact, I was a film/theater major, and while I don't necessarily regret it, I often wish I'd majored in something else. Why?... Because film and theater majors teach you about movies and plays, but movies and plays are ultimately about LIFE. So no matter how technically brilliant you are as a filmmaker, if you haven't had a vibrant LIFE… you have nothing to make movies about. Personally, if I could go back, I'd major in something like 19th century literature… or a foreign culture… or something that would expose me to all kinds of people, art, perspectives, and experiences that I'd never again have the chance to encounter. (This doesn't mean you can't take film classes; just don't leave college with most of your knowledge being about film.)
6) MAKE THINGS. There's no better way to learn the practical side of production than by actually doing it. So… produce your own movie! It can be a short, a feature, a webisode, a music video… whatever you want. But learn how to shoot it, edit it, light it, work the sound equipment. Make one for $50… and then make one for $5000—and learn how to raise the money. Also, get involved with local live theater. Write and produce a play or sketch show. Do stand-up comedy. Learn how from the techies… and the theater managers… and the office administrators. Observe what the audience responds to and what they don't.
7) KEEP WRITING. This is the most important thing. More important than having a girlfriend, hanging out with your buddies, going to football games, watching movies, riding your bike, taking trips. WRITE. Every day. Feature screenplays, shorts, sketches, jokes, TV spec scripts. Even non-screen-related things: plays, essays, short stories, poems, newspaper articles, novels. Writing is like a muscle, and—to use the athlete analogy again—you need to work out every day. Also, like an athlete, you need to exercise all parts of your body/imagination… and writing in different genres and forms is like using different machines or weights at the gym. Writing a poem may not seem like it relates to screenwriting, but it helps you connect with the rhythm of language, create images with words, etc. Researching newspaper articles forces you to meet interesting people/characters, listen to how people talk, play with quotes and dialogue.
Lastly, here's a quick list of resources to help as you get started. Good luck, Kerby, and I'll see you out here soon!...
BOOKS & MAGAZINES
- Filmmaking for Teens: Pulling Off Your Shorts, by Troy Lanier & Clay Nicholls
- Screenwriting for Teens: The 100 Principles of Screenwriting Every Budding Writer Must Know, by Christina Hamlett
- Digital Filmmaking for Teens, by Gerald E. Jones
- Hollywood 101: The Film Industry, by Frederick Levy
- Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer's Guide to the TV Business, by Chad Gervich - (Okay, granted, I'm biased, but still… this is the best book out there to teach you how the industry works, how shows are written, and how to break in.)
- Television, Film, and Digital Media Programs: 556 Outstanding Programs at Top Colleges and Universities Across the Nation (College Admissions Guides) - from The Princeton Review and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.
- Script magazine
- Written By magazine (this is the official magazine of the Writers Guild, so it’s a great way to hear the voices and learn from professional working screenwriters)
- Writers Guild Foundation
- Academy of Television Arts & Sciences - the TV academy (the organization behind the Emmys) has several programs to nurture and honor student TV makers
- Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences - similarly, the film academy also has programs to find and award student filmmakers
- University Film & Video Association
- Association of Writers & Writing Programs
WEBSITES & VIDEOS
- The Young Filmmakers Club - This is a series of instructional videos teaching young people the basics of filmmaking. I'll be honest: I've never seen them... or talked to anyone who's used them. I simply found them online and thought they looked interesting to this conversation, so I figured I'd post them up here.
...And a quick Google search will probably turn up scores of other helpful, interesting sites!