PRIMETIME: Living in L.A., Submitting to Websites-- Rebuttals and Guest Thoughts

There's often a difference between what aspirants, even talented aspirants, WANT to be true… and what IS true. And when I smell bullshit, I call bullshit. And I am calling MAJOR BULLSHIT.
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I wanted to take today to respond to some emails and comments from over the past few weeks.

First up… Scott Manville.

Scott Manville's (tvfilmrights.com) responded to last week's post about submitting scripts through websites and similar services. I had said submitting to websites was a waste of time, but Scott-- who runs tvfilmrights.com, came back with an insightful rebuttal on why this may not be true. So thanks, Scott, for the great comment and explanation… very helpful.

I have no problem with tvfilmrights.com's right to exist or attempt to come up with new ways of finding Hollywood content. What I have a problem with is services that tell writers these ways are just as good as coming to L.A., getting a job in the industry, pumping out material, having that material ripped to shreds and starting again, networking, building relationships, etc.

They're not.

Websites, services, and contests may be an alternative to traditional paths, but only in the same way that playing the lottery each morning is an alternative to getting a job. Is the lottery a "legitimate" way to make money? Sure. Is it practical, reliable, or realistic?... No.

You can submit to websites and contests if you want... but you probably won't get where you're going.

You can submit to websites and contests if you want... but you probably won't get where you're going.

You may have execs, agents, and producers coming to you looking for content, and that's fine. Having been an exec, I can say that most execs, agents, and producers are desperate and eager to find new content sources, so they'll eagerly investigate any place that offers possible stories. (As an exec, I would often check out with similar services, because you never know where a great story will come from. [I remember working with one called PilotProject.com.] But not only did most not last long, they rarely had good material. And unless a "source" has a consistently high batting average of providing stellar material, you have no choice but to move on quickly to greener pastures.)

But execs also have very limited time… which is why they continually return to trusted contacts (reliable agents, managers, producers, etc.) where they repeatedly get solid material.

So while the Internet is certainly offering new opportunities to creators, buyers, and sellers alike—it will never (any time soon) be a replacement for how 99.99 percent of Hollywood finds content: by talking to colleagues, sharing material, relying on trusted associates who share your sensibilities.

So is it a triumph for a service like tvfilmrights.com to have had some success getting undiscovered material to execs, agents, producers? Sure—I totally applaud that.

But that doesn't make it a reasonable way for aspiring writers or producers to LAUNCH A CAREER.

The stories we hear of people who sell things via websites, contests, etc., are flukes; they're not indicative of how Hollywood works… or, most likely, will ever work. And while we all love to hear inspirational stories, it's not really an advisable way to LAUNCH A CAREER. (After all, the reason they're inspirational is because they're flukes. How many people want to read stories of writers who spent years as assistants, fetching coffee, reading scripts, writing their own material, getting rejected, taking any little writing job they could find… until they finally got a break? What people like hearing—and what fuels so many dangerous illusions—are stories of anomalies.)

If you want to launch a career, you are best served by following professional paths.

If you want to be a hobbyist, submitting to contests and websites, that's fine… just don't fool yourself into thinking you're building a career—any more than a guy who buys a lottery ticket every day is "supporting his family."

(And for the record—I have no problem with hobbyists. I've written extensively that I believe everyone should be writing… whether journals, poetry, screenplays, essays, comic books, jokes, plays, whatever. Writing makes you a better person, a better artist… it's creatively fulfilling… and, hopefully, puts great literature into the world. But if you don't want to take the industry seriously and follow professional paths, don't fool yourself into thinking you're building a career.)

Next up… Nicholas Iandolo...

...who responded to my November 5th post about whether or not screenwriters must live in L.A.

"As the author of the book ‘Cut The Crap and WRITE THAT DAMN SCREENPLAY!,’" Nicholas "totally disagreed with me" when I suggested that yes—aspiring writers needed to live in L.A. if they had serious hopes of launching a career.

Well, it's pretty powerful being disagreed with by another published author… but what Nicholas failed to mention was that he's a SELF-PUBLISHED author.

Now, this is not meant to disparage self-publishers. There's a huge value to self-publishing, and those who do it must often work harder and learn more about selling, marketing, and promoting a book than authors who publish with a house that has established marketing and promotional departments.

Is a self-published author qualified to give professional advice and insight on PR and marketing your own book? Quite possibly. Is he qualified to give advice on self-promotion and becoming an entrepreneur? Perhaps. Is he even qualified to write, like Nicholas does, about overcoming writers block, finishing projects, getting inspired? Probably!

But is an unproduced screenwriter who's never worked in the industry or sold a screenplay—and who self-publishes a screenwriting book—qualified to give "professional" advice on how to break into Hollywood?...

Not a chance.

And lest you think I'm picking on you unfairly, Nicholas, I'll point out that you came onto this blog, voluntarily, not only to disagree with me (which is welcomed), but to promote your book… including a link to buy it. And I have absolutely no problem with that… but it does open the door for me to respond. And when I smell bullshit—especially from someone offering unqualified disagreements—I call bullshit. And I am calling MAJOR BULLSHIT.

There's often a difference between what aspirants, even talented aspirants, WANT to be true… and what IS true.

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And I have to wonder: of all the people who disagreed with me so vehemently, how many of them—including Nicholas—have WORKED PROFESSIONALLY in the entertainment industry?

And if they haven't… why are they refuting professional advice or experience?

(And to be clear… putting shorts online does not make you a professional. Submitting one hundred screenplays to the Nicholls Fellowship does not make you a professional. Producing an indie feature that gets into festivals does not make you a professional. Being a "professional" means working in some PAID CAPACITY in the entertainment industry. That's not to say making online shorts or submitting to the Nicholls or getting into festivals isn't valuable. It's all incredibly valuable. They're great learning tools, terrific stepping stones along the path to becoming a professional.)

And for the record—not being a professional doesn't mean you're not talented. You can sit in a cabin in Louisiana and write the greatest 30 Rock spec ever written. You can be in Alaska and compose a brilliant screenplay. But until you're staffed… or sell a script… or get a job as a paid producer, writer, manager, exec, agent, assistant, whatever… YOU ARE NOT A PROFESSIONAL.

Also for the record—there's a difference between being successful and being a professional. I am nowhere near the most successful writer or producer in Hollywood. There are hundreds of more talented and successful people out here than me. But I have spent twelve years working professionally in this industry. As a writer/producer, I've written or produced on over ten shows—scripted, reality, broadcast, cable, Internet. As an exec, I've covered countless projects, scripts, pilots, and series. And that gives me a certain amount of experience to back up the advice I offer. It doesn't mean I'm always right. It doesn't mean you don't have to take my advice. You don't even have to believe it. But unless you have your own professional experience to back it up, you can't REFUTE it.

Having said all this, Nicholas...

I'll make you a deal.

Your book may be the best screenwriting book ever written, the best motivational tool ever devised. I haven't read it-- so I have no idea. But I'd love to take a look. If I like it, if I find it valuable, I'll review it and promote it here, complete with artwork and a link for people to buy it.

In the mean time, I don't want anyone to just take my advice-- or discard it-- at face value. After all, Hollywood is filled with people more talented and successful than I am... so I figured I'd get thoughts on these questions from some other professionals out here. Do screenwriters have to live in L.A.? Is the Internet a viable way to break in? Are contact and relationships really necessary to launch a career?

Here's what some other writers, agents, execs, producers, and managers had to say…

Do you have to be in Los Angeles to launch a writing career?

From Dean Ward, screenwriter/producer (Let Me In, I Hear Laughter (HBO); Tow Truck (The Weinstein Company); Talk Soup; Penn & Teller: Bullshit)

A few years back, I actually decided to move back to Boston after five years in L.A. By that point, I had been an assistant at Dreamworks and New Line, worked on several TV shows, and sold a documentary to HBO. I figured I had enough experience and contacts to make things work from the East Coast. After ten months, I packed up and moved back to L.A. It was only then that I finally sold a feature and things started picking up. I'm not saying it can never be done from a distance, because there are certainly examples to the contrary. But you have to ask yourself, 'Do I want to pursue this career in Los Angles and face difficult odds, or stay where I am and face nearly impossible odds?'

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From Aaron Kogan, talent and literary manager, The Operating Room…

Can you do painting from anywhere in the world? Sure. Can you write a book? Sure. Those are finished products. A screenplay is not a finished product. It's a blueprint. It requires other people to bring it to fruition; someone has to look at it and say, "I see what this can become." And if you're not here to make that case, it's much more of an uphill battle.

More importantly, script sales are only a small percentage of paid writing work in this business. The biggest upside of writing a piece of original material is NOT selling it… but writing something that opens the door for someone to want to meet you and—based on meeting you and what you've written—say, "This is someone I might consider paying to write something else." If you even want a shot at those opportunities, you have to be here.

Brendan Clifford, writers assistant (Lil' Bush, The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show)

Even after four years of establishing myself and building a good resume in LA, when I'm not working and leave LA, it is impossible to find work. Every job wants to see you in person within a few days, or they think you're not serious or don't care.

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I have a writer friend I get jealous of sometimes. He works a few days a week at a restaurant and writes the rest of the week. He pays his bills. He has lots of scripts. But he has no connections. I'd love to have less stress and more time in my life, but at a certain point, if you want to be in this world, you have to be in it, you can't be sitting outside of it. You can spend your life writing anywhere, but if you have no one to show [your work] to who can help you, you have nothing. Being a screenwriter (small or big screen) does not start and end with your computer. Anyone who thinks it can, will, or should, is in the wrong field.

Is the Internet-- submitting to online websites and contests, or even producing Internet content-- a legitimate way for non-L.A. writers to get noticed and break into Hollywood?

From Rich Hull, producer (She's All That, Daddy Day Camp, Tenure), executive (Warner Brothers, Blowtorch), author (Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step With the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business Is Done)

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All the available digital tools are just delivery devices. So if you're already writing a script for a studio, then the digital devices today allow you to do that from almost anywhere. However, Hollywood is a closed club, and there are a lot of people trying to get in. So digital can't replace the art of meeting an agent at a party, having lunch with a studio exec, or being able to take a meeting on two hours notice.

From Doug McKay, creative executive, Phoenix Pictures (Black Swan, Zodiac, Shutter Island)

People need to realize there is such a large influx of material coming in to studios and production companies, emails or scripts submitted via websites simply get overlooked. Many projects we have in development come from reading a spec script we liked but weren’t interesting in making. We sit down with the writer and hash over other ideas, often coming up with one that works for all of us. The Internet is an efficient device for sending scripts back and forth, but it doesn’t come close to the value of sitting in a room with someone, talking about ideas and trying to find a project to develop together.

From Gil Cunha, writer/producer (The Hollywood Show (Comedy Central pilot); This is Hollywood? (AMC pilot); The Woody Wittman Show(Comedy.com)…

Several years ago, my partner and I started a website satirizing Hollywood. One week after we launched, we were contacted by Robert Morton, former executive producer of The Late Show with David Letterman. A few days later, we were having lunch with Robert and talking about a show he was developing with Jenny McCarthy. We were also contacted by Brian Unger, former correspondent for The Daily Show, who liked our website and had a development deal at Comedy Central. Weeks later, we had an agent at William Morris and were working on a pilot. If we weren’t living in Los Angeles, we would have missed those amazing opportunities.

You can write for the web from anywhere. But is there enough money to have a successful career? It seems to me… you’d be better off in L.A., working on a web series that has potential to become TV show. The director of the show I’m currently on just showed us a five-minute web sitcom he shot and produced. It was funded entirely by a major Hollywood studio… a studio he would have had no access to outside of L.A. Bottom line: if you’re serious about becoming a writer, moving to L.A. is the smartest thing you could do.

From Ryan Saul, feature agent (APA)

You can launch a career from anywhere, but to nurture that career, you need to be able to drop everything for a studio or producer to meet with you. Technology allows video conference, file sharing, writing from across the globe, but there is nothing like sitting down with someone looking them in the eye, and gauging a reaction while they are pitching or trying to get a job.

From Ed Crasnick, writer/producer (Raising Dad, Win Ben Stein's Money (Emmy-winner), Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, The Writers Room (Sony Crackle), This Week In Comedy with Ed Crasnick)

Absolutely, the Internet can help create a world for anyone. Whatever vision you have, you can now export it for all the world to see. Any writer must learn to film and edit their own work. And when I say 'writer,' I mean ME.

Make things. Shorts, web videos, plays, anything. Write. Have people read your work and read theirs. Read Network. Have a casting party; put it in a living room or on a stage. Cut together a reel of clips that inspire you. Shoot a moment from your screenplay.

Anytime you can create and stay in your pajamas is a good day. That's the beauty of the Internet. So let's recap… you make it big, stay where you are, and then you can hire me. And I'll move where you are… in my pajamas.