I just love meeting go-getters. You know these people—not only are they talented, but they have ambition, drive, and perseverance in spades, and it’s a treat to watch them do their thing and succeed.
One such writer is Leanna Woodley, a screenwriter from Seattle who used her time during the pandemic to make connections remotely and jumpstart her writing career in a big way. I was excited to chat with her about how she made meaningful connections with some heavy-hitting Hollywood players from the comfort of her (Christmas-themed) office.
Rebecca: How did you get started as a screenwriter? How did your love of holiday movies come about?
Leanna: My undergrad degree was in Television Writing & Producing from Columbia College in Chicago. But I’ve loved writing since I was a child. In fact, I won a contest in middle school for my poem, “If I could give the world a gift, I would give a home. To every homeless person, a place to call their own…” I think when you’re a writer, it’s just in you and wants to find a way out. My dad is also an author. Genetics might’ve played into that one as well!
My love of holiday movies is also something I’ve always had. It’s no secret to those who know me that I adore the holidays, especially Christmas. I’m a November 1st Christmas decorator! But my love of writing holiday movies is a newer development. However, it now gives me an excuse to keep one Christmas tree up all year long for inspiration.
Rebecca: You’ve done an amazing job connecting with industry players remotely. What inspired your strategy?
Leanna: Thank you! Honestly, it’s been a lovely journey of unexpected connections but also a lot of hard work. A long-time friend invited me to a Zoom session with Steven Soderbergh, which of course I wanted to join. The mentorship host, Jeff Rivera, continued these wonderful Zoom sessions with industry professionals for us to continue to learn throughout the pandemic. This one invite kickstarted many further connections for me. That being said, I had to do the work on the other side.
I had a photography studio before the pandemic. I made the decision to close that and focus on writing full time, and once I started, I couldn’t stop! I wrote script after script, but also used coverage services, used a script doctor for one, submitted to contests for feedback and many placed, some repeatedly, which helped me decipher which ones to focus more attention on.
In addition to my few one-hour dramedies, a tween multi-cultural dramedy, and two preschool animated scripts I wrote back at the beginning of the lockdown, I decided that I wanted to write holiday movies. Considering the state of our country, I needed a joyous escape. I knew how to write a screenplay, but like every niche, there’s a specific formula and rules to Christmas movies. I attended every webinar, workshop, class, and Zoom cocktail hour I could find within this subgenre. I wrote three screenplays of my own, sent them out for coverage, and learned from that coverage, doing the necessary revisions.
But on top of that, I created my brand. I’m the girl with the Christmas tree in her Zoom background! I hear people say, “At Leanna’s house, it’s always Christmas.” This has become my thing, and I love it!
I did pitch sessions through Roadmap Writers and Stage 32 to get feedback and work on my pitching skills. As a trained actor, being in front of people didn’t worry me, but learning to pitch this genre, just like any, takes some practice. I had wonderful feedback pitching at Austin Film Festival and kept going from there.
Writers sometimes forget that writing the script is only part of the equation. I spent the year both writing and networking, learning from both all the while. Well…and also watching an enormous amount of Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix Christmas movies. Tough job, I know!
Rebecca: How did you choose which organizations to mentor through, and which sites to use to pitch your work?
Leanna: As I mentioned before, my mentorship with Jeff Rivera’s BIPOC group was through a college friend’s recommendation. Roadmap Writers and Stage 32 are pretty well known and although they’re pay-to-play, it gets you in a room with execs you might not interact with otherwise. I did a handful of those to get more familiar with the process.
Rebecca: What projects are you currently working on, and what successes have you found through connecting with industry professionals remotely?
Leanna: Through my searching for holiday movie writing workshops, I stumbled upon Story Summit last year. This was an enormous blessing. I took a handful of workshops with them, from book publishing to a logline workshop to a small group mentorship with the amazing David Paul Kirkpatrick, former president of Paramount and founder of Story Summit. Not only has this experience offered me growth and insight and introduced me to lovely life-long friends, David kindly introduced me to Paulo Di Oliveira, a producer of many fabulous fan-favorite shows, who previously produced Outlander. I’m pleased to say we are now working together on a series that is a mutual passion project.
Additionally, my lovely agent, Carlyne Grager at Dramatic Artists Agency, who I’ve been with since my early years in the industry, has connected me with producers and a director, and together we are working on a couple of Christmas movie concepts at the moment.
Additionally, a contact from Jeff Rivera led to me pitching holiday movie ideas to a production company that makes movies for Hallmark. We’ve developed a couple of concepts together since and hope to attach talent to those in the new year.
Again, the mentors in the last two years have been invaluable. But it’s up to you to know your genre inside and out so when they open that door, you can confidently walk through it.
Rebecca: What advice would you give to others looking to break into the industry, especially as the pandemic continues?
Leanna: This is an interesting time for the world, but it has left us writers with opportunities to connect that have never been here before. Not needing to be located in Los Angeles is a huge gift for us writers. Find Zoom classes, workshops, IG Live events, regional scriptwriting events, mentorships.
My advice would be two-fold. One: find your niche. I know many of us are capable and interested in writing many genres. I mentioned before, I have one-hour dramedies, a tween half-hour dramedy, two preschool animated series, a totally off-genre drama limited series, and my Christmas movies, as well as a Christmas series I’m developing with my writers’ group.
However, I limit my immediate focus to only a couple of front-burner projects at a time. For instance, right now, I’m pursuing a series—a powerful drama requiring both fortitude and serious responsibility in portraying its incredulous story and societal message. And, in balance to that level of discipline in writing, I am working on the other side of the writing spectrum on the Christmas series and a comedic holiday fantasy. The holiday fantasy is a lighthearted project where I can let my imagination soar. In fact, the producer is bringing in a top special effects designer and Oscar-winning visual effects team to work on the film’s development. How fun is that?
The second point of advice is: You must keep writing and learning. You hear this everywhere for a reason. Writing one script and hoping it will sell is a real shot in the dark. Write one, learn from it, and write another. And another. The more you write, the better you get. But, equally, if you don’t reach out for coverage/feedback in one way or another, you’ll never know how you can improve. Plus, it’s good practice, because there will always be rewrite notes, and you’ll need to learn how to take them graciously and make changes.
I frequently submit to contests to test the market with my writing in various genres. If the feedback is positive with workable suggestions and solutions, I do the work with rewrites and storyline development. If that project doesn’t move forward right away, I figure, it’s probably just not the right time in the market. If the feedback I continually receive on a specific screenplay or a certain genre of work is tepid, I move on from it. If you get too spread out trying to cover every topic or genre, you run the risk of not being very strong in any.
I guess my final advice would be to enjoy what you’re doing. It might not always be fun, in the sense of, “Is everybody having fun?” but there should be a sense of fun in the fulfillment, purpose, and accomplishment of your writing. I find it important for creativity to spark from passion and joy. When it isn’t enjoyable, I take a break. Not to say it isn’t hard. It can be quite difficult, but are you enjoying the journey?