PRIMETIME: Rebuttals & Smackdowns... Cool Websites... and a Question for YOU

Why do people hate thinking of screenwriting as a profession like any other? It may be a "creative" field, but so what? Designing airplanes requires creativity… yet no one expects Boeing to accept designs from amateurs over a website.
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Happy New Year, folks! As a fun way to kick off the new year, I want to pass on some helpful, interesting, and unusual film/TV/writing links. But first, responses to some of your posts… as well as a question I'm hoping you can help answer!

Also, special thanks to Art Fuller and Nick Campbell, who both reviewed my book, Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer's Guide to the TV Business, on their blogs. Art blogs on his SmashCut Productions website… and Nick, an aspiring TV writer/future showrunner, wrote a wonderful review on Nick Campbell Has Spilled. Thanks to both of you!

And special thanks to Jessica Butler's Hollywood University for recommending my list of links and resources. I keep a fairly extensive website of helpful TV-writing links at ChadGervich.com. It's not exhaustive, and I update when I can, but I have links for job-hunting resources, writers blogs, networks and studios, agencies, etc. Check it out… and if you know of websites that would be good additions, please let me know!

Anyway, moving on to posts and comments…

First up, CCW's response to my statement that legal and medicine professions don't use contests to hire people… so why would TV or screenwriting? CCW writes…

Medicine and law do have contests, the MCATs and the LSATs. That’s not all you need to do, and these tests have plenty of imperfections, but they still make more sense to me than hiring the guy who brings in coffee or knows your brother. (No matter how nice and competent the secretary at a law firm is, she’s not going to get hired as a lawyer.)

Comparing MCATs and LSATs to screenwriting contests is ludicrous. MCATs and LSATs are aptitude tests, not contests sponsored by magazines or websites. They're designed differently, evaluated differently, used differently. Plus, MCATs and LSATs are required exams used to admit students to grad school (just like many students applying to film schools must take the GRE), while contests usually position themselves as direct pathways to a professional career.

Black white imbalance

So not only are MCATs and screenwriting contests incomparable as evaluation processes, they're not even equal analogies. Screenwriting contests aren't offering to get people into grad school; they're offering to make them a professional. And nowhere will you find a professional law firm offering to turn an amateur into a professional lawyer simply by winning a contest, and hospitals don't let untrained doctors become surgeons just by submitting to a website.

(However, CCW—if you do know of any law firms that would hire an amateur based on their submission to a website, please let me know. I've never been to law school, but having seen a lot of legal shows and movies, I'm pretty sure I could make a damn good lawyer. Of course, since I already have a family and career, I can't go to law school or follow the "traditional" paths… but if I can win an online contest, I'd love to try my hand at lawyering. Is that possible?)

CCW goes on to say

Law firms and accounting firms don’t throw your resume in the garbage because you don’t happen to be living in their city at the time you apply, as long as you’re willing to move there for the job. This you-need-to-live-in-LA-and-schlep-in-admin-jobs-for-years is pretty exclusive to Hollywood, and it’s not “professional”, it’s myopic.

I think we're confusing a couple different things here: 1) How scripts are read (and writers are hired) and 2) How people are hired for other positions.

First of all—no writer gets a job because they "bring you coffee" or "know your brother." Writers get hired because they're talented, competent writers. But…

A) As in every business, people with connections to and relationships with those doing the hiring have an edge. And…

B) In order to prove you're a talented, competent writer, your script must get read. And when it comes to reading scripts, not all scripts are created equal.

To be clear, producers and execs do not reject screenplays or writers simply because they're not from L.A. In fact, as I've continually said on this blog, most producers, agents, and execs are desperate to find the next hot script or writer… no matter where it comes from. So it's not that these people only care about L.A. screenwriters or don't believe non-Angelenos are untalented. Talented writers can live anywhere, and producers and executives know this. BUT…

Agents, producers, managers, and execs receive literally thousands of scripts and submissions a year. More scripts, in fact, than they—or their assistants—could ever possibly read. So they prioritize, using their time as efficiently as possible.

Ladder woman climbing stack of papers

Here's how scripts tend to be prioritized:

  1. Scripts from professional colleagues. These colleagues tend to be agents or managers, Hollywood's salesmen, who have repeatedly proven to have an eye for quality material. This is the stack where readers (producers, execs, etc.) believe they have the best chance of finding something great... because it's the stack containing scripts from people who already have a track record for sending viable material.
  2. Scripts recommended by other professional contacts. These contacts may include other trusty execs or producers… writers or directors they've worked with before… new contacts, such young agents or managers reaching out to them… even assistants whose recommendations they've come to trust and respect.
  3. Personal friends and family. Next, people read scripts that come to them via personal relationships. I've had scripts recommended to me by old college roommates, cousins, friends of friends, old teachers and professors, alumni from my high school and college.
  4. Other sources. These include contest winners, cold submissions, websites, etc.

As you can see, most paths open to out-of-towners fall into the fourth category. Not because other places can't produce quality material, but because they're less known, less reliable than other sources—like contacts and professionals whom people have come to trust over years of working together. (And don't tell me this isn't how other businesses work. It's how every business works; as reader JamesH points out, people return to trusted sources—friends, colleagues, vendors—no matter what profession they work in.)

Scripts from colleagues and agents also get higher priority because these are the relationships you work hard at building and maintaining… and if you ignore or dawdle too long on reading these, people stop sending them to you. They instead send their recommendations or talented clients to other companies or execs, where they get faster, better responses.

So it's not that producers/execs don't want to read out-of-town scripts… it's just that they're low on the "priority list." So low, in fact, that they almost never get to them.

This is where your script is. So if you want it to get read, you better give an exec SOME reason to move it to the top of the stack.

This is where your script is. So if you want it to get read, you better give an exec SOME reason to move it to the top of the stack.

When I worked as a development exec at the Littlefield Company, which first had a deal at NBC Studios and later at Paramount, my office was filled with stacks upon stacks of scripts, organized according to priority.

When I received a cold submission… or a script from a contest winner… I wouldn't usually chuck it in the trash, but I'd put it in the lowest priority stack. I'd always hope to read these, but as higher-priority submissions pour in each day, the low-priority scripts languish and languish. Finally, every six months or year, I'd do a big office cleaning, dumping all the unread low-priority scripts in the trash. Not because they weren't good… but because you realize you're never going to get to them—and they're clogging up your office.

You don't have to like this, but this is how almost every exec, producer, and agent works… (and if you tell me you don't have paperwork, projects, assignments, or ideas in your office that you never get to—and eventually throw out—you're lying).

So… the reason you should be in L.A. is NOT (I repeat: NOT) because agents, producers, and execs are necessarily and actively discriminating against outsiders (although there is a belief—which, frankly, is based in a certain truth—that if you're serious about pursuing a career a specific field, you'll go to where the action is)…

The reason you should be in L.A., as I've stated before, is because you need to be in a position where you can network and form relationships with the people who get your script moved to the top of buyers and readers' priority list. Winning most contests will not get your script moved to the stack of anyone's list; a recommendation from that person's co-worker… or an agent friend… or an assistant director they know… or a trust assistant… WILL.

You are MORE THAN WELCOME to stay in Flagstaff or Madison or Knoxville or wherever you are… and you may be the world's most talented writer… but talent does not move you to the top of anyone's list. And if you're not close enough to the top of that list, you'll probably end up in the trash. There are always exceptions… and hopefully you'll be the rare exception… but odds are: your script will wind up as kindling. Not because of discrimination, but because no producer/agent/exec has enough time or energy to get to every script they receive. So…

How do you get yourself into positions where you can form relationships with professionals?...

You not only need to be in L.A., but—and I know I sound like a broken record—you need to be working in the industry. This should not be a bombshell. If you wanted to form relationships with people working in car manufacturing, wouldn't you get a job in the auto industry?

Delivering coffee won't get you hired as a writer. It WILL, however, allow you to form a relationship with people doing the hiring.

Delivering coffee won't get you hired as a writer. It WILL, however, allow you to form a relationship with people doing the hiring.

This, however, is where out-of-towners are often discriminated against. And it may be "myopic," as CCW suggests, but it's also practical.

Most of these jobs are entry-level positions—assistants, P.A.'s, runners, loggers, etc.—and most of them become available quickly… and need to be filled quickly. When an agent or producer needs a new assistant, they often need them to start immediately… much sooner than an out-of-towner can be interviewed, selected, hired, and moved to L.A. Plus, there are usually so many local applicants, there's no need to look further; there may be a great candidate in Colorado Springs, but the time and energy it takes to do a nationwide search isn't practical.

(Not to mention, many networks and studios will only hire assistants who have "agency experience" working at an agency—which you can only get in LA or NYC. We'll talk more about this, however, in a different post.)

And while these jobs may not seem directly related to screenwriting, you're not—to quote CCW—"schlepping." These jobs are intensely educational, offering experience and knowledge (as well as contacts and relationships) you can't get in film school. You'll learn development and production processes, how to write and read coverage, how to survive a writers room, where and when to network, how films are budgeted, why scripts go into turnaround, how to navigate a punch-up session. And if you think being a screenwriter is just about sitting in a room writing, telling stories, THAT is "myopic."

Next, Greg Hatchuck writes, also in response to my statement that most contests aren't paths to a career…

Someone should also let all the athletes know about how useless contests are. They need to know that the best way to break in is to move to the town hosting the next olympics, get a job for the olympic committee and make those connections, man.

Well, Greg, you prove my point even more. Because moving is exactly what talented athletes do. If you're a high school football star with a real shot at going pro, and you have your pick of colleges, where do you go to school? Not Podunk University or Local Unknown College. You go to USC… or Michigan… or Notre Dame. Why? Because these are schools frequented by scouts, agents, and coaches… and where coaches and athletic departments have tight CONNECTIONS to the professional world. This doesn't mean you won't get discovered at Podunk University, but you certainly have a better chance if your coach has Drew Rosenhaus on speed-dial.

And lastly, to briefly address AprilR, who writes

You can’t compare science and law with a creative field. They are different.

Actually, they're not different. They're both PROFESSIONS that take specific skill sets and practical knowledge. In fact—with all due respect—it's this attitude, the notion that screenwriting is somehow "different" from other professions, that keeps aspirants from breaking in.

Muppets

He makes a mean osso bucco... but can he run a restaurant?

People want to believe they can make it based solely on creativity… but this is a BUSINESS. Just like law. Or starting up a store. Or manufacturing.

You wouldn't start a restaurant thinking you only needed to know how to cook great food. Cooking is a highly creative endeavor… at least as creative as writing… yet to start a restaurant, you need knowledge of bookkeeping, promotions, management, technology, interior design, etc. Or rather, you don't NEED to know these things, but trying to start a restaurant career without knowing these things is a pretty sure road to failure.

Which leads me to the question I have for all of you…

Why do some many people hate thinking of screenwriting as a profession like any other?

If you wanted to start a career as a dentist… or an architect… or a mechanic… you would go to dental school… get an internship at an architectural firm… or take classes in engine repair.

If you wanted to become a doctor and someone said you needed to go to med school… but there was no med school in your hometown… you wouldn't kick and scream that the industry is "myopic" in its hiring practices.

And sure—screenwriting may be a "creative" field, but so what? Designing new airplanes requires creativity… yet no one expects Boeing to accept airplane designs from random amateurs over a website.

So why is it different with writing?

I'm not asking to be a jerk… I truly want to know. I'm constantly amazed that so many people think this—unlike any other industry on Earth—should be a pure meritocracy.

I know I frustrate many of you when I trumpet these ideas over and over… but I'm not saying any of these things to be negative—I'm genuinely trying to give practical advice to help you achieve your goals. Yet people resist this. WHY?! Why do people believe they should succeed at this simply because they want it badly enough… and work hard in the confines of their own home offices… without understanding or respecting how the industry functions? You may not like how the business world works, but if it's the specific business you hope to thrive in, wouldn't you spend your energy trying to understand and crack it… rather than dismissing it?

Please let me know what you think… your answers will not only be illuminating, they'll help me figure out how to communicate better about these issues in the future. For now, however...

Let's get to my list of websites!

These are all unique websites for people interested in film, TV, writing storytelling. Some are special events… others are services… others are just plain entertaining. But they're all a bit unusual and under the radar.

Enjoy!

NO MEANER PLACE – Founded by Neely Swanson, David Kelley's former development executive, No Meaner Place features great scripts and teleplays that—for one reason or another—never made it to air. Most are from professional writers, followed by an interview.

JINNI - Like Stereomood or Pandora, this site offers movie and TV recommendations based on your mood, plot preferences, favorite actors, etc.

ELECTRIC LITERATURE – An electronic literary anthology, Electric Literature "publishes" quarterly to Kindles, computer, iPhones, or almost any other digital device.

CINEMA SIXTEEN - Cinema Sixteen is a NYC "film society" that hosts screenings of obscure silent films… but then invites contemporary musicians to compose new scores—that they then perform live during the screening! It's a blend of styles… pairing avant-garde and experimental films with opera, rock, and many other genres of music.

KICKSTARTER – A site that allows artists of all stripes—writers, filmmakers, photographers, sculptors—to find funding and solicit donations from art supporters of all stripes.

OPENFILM - An online distribution platform that allows filmmakers to finance and distribute—and movie buffs to find—the latest indie shorts and features. Depending on what level of membership you prefer (the basic is free), you can also join webcam chats and interviews with filmmakers or OpenFilm's board members, including James Caan, Robert Duvall, Scott Caan and Mark Rydell.

TRIBECA VIRTUAL FILM FESTIVAL - If you can't make it yourself to Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Festival, this is the next best thing… an online portal allowing you to stream the festival's independent shorts and features!

ZOOBURST - Great for writers with kids… or writers who are kids… Zooburst allows you to write, illustrate, and "produce" online 3D pop-up books!

FUTURE CINEMA - Future Cinema is an event company—based, unfortunately for those of us who are stateside, in London—that produces live recreations of movies. I've never been to one of their events… although I would LOVE to go, but they seem to be hire-able for events, and the video on their website looks like one-part rock concert, one-part costume party, one part rave… and all film geek paradise!

DONE DEAL PRO – This entertainment "news" site tracks current sales and deals. Although you can read the headlines for free, you have to pay to read the article… or just Google it for free.

TOUCHING STORIES – This is an iPhone app that delivers interactive, "choose-your-own-adventure" mini-movies write to your mobile device. You can change the angle… and the direction of the story… just by touching the screen!