Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: Landing that first job

Eddie Manna wrote in last week with this question:

I'm about to finally make the move to LA and had a question about finding a job with a writing staff. I've finished a few mediocre screenplays (they have their strengths but I can admit are not exceptional at this point) and am wrapping another which I believe to be by far my best work. All my readers (and I personally) can tell I am getting better with each attempt and I believe that ultimately I can write professional quality work. I also have an MBA and spent the last few years working a Wall Street job.

My question is do you have any advice to aspiring writers seeking entry level staff writing jobs? Of course landing a spec sale is what every screenwriter dreams of, and I will continue to develop my spec ideas along the way, but it seems clear aiming for a more humble entree into the writing world is a more realisitic goal. When I get to LA I will of course attempt to network like crazy via writing/acting classes and seminars but any additional advice would me greatly appreciated.

I'm tempted to go for the easy joke about the only job market less stable than Wall Street these days is the entertainment industry, but I'll let that one slide.

If you're coming out here with no agent, no connections and nothing but a spec, expecting to land a staff writing job on a TV show right away is probably unrealistic. The uber-simplified version of what you need to do is:

1) get your script in the hands of an agent.
2) have that agent fall in love with it.
3) have that agent find showrunners who also fall in love with him
4) impress the hell out of showrunners when you go in for a meeting.

None of those steps are easy, and everyone's story is different. For one such example, check out this part of my interview with Dan Callahan about how he sold his first script. Dan was luckier than most. His one connection at a big agency happened to love his spec and went out with it more or less immediately.

The other route to go is to get hired as a production assistant on a series, work your way up to writer's assistant, and eventually that can lead to writing episodes of the show. I recall that one of David E. Kelly's assistants had written a spec for Boston Legal and gave it to him for notes. He liked it so much that he decided they were going to produce it as an actual episode. Every now and then things like this happen - but remember, most of those lucky writers spent a lot of time "paying their dues" by getting coffee and rolling calls.

Which leads my to my Tuesday Talkback question: for those of you who live or have lived in LA, how did you "play your dues" when you first came out here? Any career strategy advice for Eddie?


  1. I'm still waiting to pay my dues (if anyone knows where I send that check, let me know), but I had another question.

    I'm going to the Austin Film Festival. I'm a semi-finalist in a couple of their screenwriting categories. Do you have any tips for making the most of this? I've never been any good at networking. I usually clam up in social functions where I don't know anyone. Heh, a writer with poor social skills. If I was a character in a script, I'd mark it as cliche.

  2. Yes, still paying. I'm working in post-production. I've found that I can make a lot of in roads there, meet a lot of interesting people, and never have to be someone's grunt in an office. I think it depends on your skill set and connections. I started out as an intern at a development place, and ended up being a freelance editor and story assistant on a reality show. But yeah, still haven't turned that into a real screenwriting gig.