Thursday, March 26, 2015

More on meetings, why you should be in LA, and industry growth.

It's been interesting seeing the passionate reactions to the post I wrote last week about why aspiring writers still need to move to L.A. I honestly didn't expect quite so passionate a response because I felt like it was a topic that had been covered a number of times. My assumption was that the new followers of this site would take it in, but that most readers would go, "Oh yeah, we've had this talk."

What I didn't expect was that this would blow up as much as it did on Twitter, to the point that a lot of working writers I follow ended up discussing it - and largely agreeing with it. Even knowing what sometimes happens on Twitter, it was unexpected to see some really aggressive responses spitting venom at those writers for daring to say this. I think that most people who bothered to read the entire article took it to heart, but there is definitely a vocal minority who registered their displeasure with a lot of rage.

The dissenting opinions typically fell into one of the following categories:

1) "No, you're wrong." - no effort made at refuting the points I made in my post. No effort at providing a counter-argument. Just "you're wrong." Persuasive.

2) "Well, Gary Whitta/Justin Marks/C. Robert Cargill/etc don't live in LA and they're successful!" - Marks spent a decade building his career in L.A. and didn't move away until after he was hired on THE JUNGLE BOOK, and he still regularly comes back to L.A. for meetings. He's made a name for himself, so he can be absentee. Whitta and Cargill came into the industry after making names for themselves in other aspects of it (and in Cargill's case, he pretty much had director Scott Derrickson demand he write a script for him.) There are unique circumstances like this for most of the names people threw at me.

Also, my whole post was about how just finding exceptions doesn't disprove the rule. Amy Purdy didn't have legs and was runner-up in a dancing competition, but that doesn't mean every amputee stands a chance of keeping up with the cast of the next STEP UP movie. So when someone responds to a post about exceptions by saying, "Hey, I found an exception!" it suggests they kinda missed the point.

3) "You're just trying to keep people from becoming competition!" - Geoff LaTulippe had the best comeback to that, saying something to the effect of, "I don't need to discourage people to come to LA in order to protect my job. Lack of talent does that for me."

4) "There are plenty of indie filmmakers who live outside of L.A. so you're full of shit!" - I wasn't talking about indie film in my post, so it's weird to try to move the goal posts here. We're talking about being able to make a living as a writer, and that's very, very hard to do in independent film. Indie film is often very low budget and the writer is not going to make a great deal. Yes, the exception is if one happens to write My Big Fat Greek Wedding or a Slumdog Millionaire AND if the writer's deal some how cuts them in on the success of that film. It's hard to overlook that the indie film successes make up only a fraction of the indie films actually produced. Indie screenwriters tend not to be rolling in dough - at least not from their films. If you knew the right indie filmmakers you might be able to see your stuff produced, but writing a $500K feature is not the sort of thing you'll quit your job for.

5) "Moving to LA is hard! It's expensive! I don't want to uproot my family!" - Not really addressing any of the points I made. I'm telling you what you need to do to have the best shot at making it. You're telling me why you can't do it. Your inability to follow through does not make my point any less true.

Here's the hard truth, folks. You think moving to L.A. is hard? It is a fucking cakewalk compared to how hard it is to become a writer strong enough to sustain a career. Moving to L.A. is the easy part of this plan. Anybody can move to L.A. It's WAY easier than getting a sale.

The responses weren't ALL dumb, though. Landon recently wrote me with what is a fair question:

With the current film industry growth in places like Atlanta and Vancouver, do you think in the next 20-30 years that we might see some small time screenwriting opportunities pop up in those cities? Or do you believe the vast majority of screenwriting opportunities will continue to be in and around LA for the foreseeable distant future?

Twenty to thirty years is always hard to forecast out. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that the film industry growth in Atlanta and Vancouver will have basically no impact on screenwriting opportunities. They're production hubs, but they're not where the real business of TV and Film is. L.A. is always going to be the center of that aspect of the industry, just as the American financial machine is always going to have Wall Street as its Mecca.

Atlanta and Vancouver, as well as New Orleans are hot spots for shooting thanks to tax incentives that drive down production costs. Those love affairs are only going to last as long as it's financially viable to stay. It's really no different than the production companies that shoot a lot of movies for cheap in Bulgaria or Budapest, and that's been going on for decades without the business end of things packing up and leaving L.A.

This is where the powerbrokers are - the agents, the studios, the decision-makers. If your job requires an interface with them - and as a screenwriter it does - Hollywood is the place you want your roots. If you were trying to work on a crew, then moving to Atlanta or one of those other places probably makes sense.

I heard from a lot of people via Twitter after that post. Some of those who agreed with me were people who regretted not moving out to L.A. sooner when they could have capitalized on their own heat. One writer had been a Nicholl finalist and regretted not making the leap when people still cared who they were. There were a couple other people who'd tried it at a distance and wanted to turn the clock back too.

You might take 150 meetings just to get that one meeting at a production company that likes your script. Think about that - 150 meetings. That's not something you can squeeze in during an occasional week-long visit to California. Then there's the "shit happens" factor, the reality that a lot of meetings get bumped and rescheduled several times - especially when you're a low priority. Being told your meeting on the Warner lot is two weeks later is no big deal when you live in Echo Park, but when you're from Wicker Park... I trust you see my point.

If you write a good script, there's a strong possibility that many of your meetings won't be about making that script so much as they're a "hey, we like your writing. Maybe we can find something to work on." That usually means feeling out their tastes and pitching a new idea they like. When that happens, you'll probably be writing on spec. Should you find yourself in that position, make sure you know if you are able to take that script elsewhere should these people say no. If they hand you a graphic novel and tell you they'd love your take on it, you won't be able to do anything with that intellectual property elsewhere.

There's also the possibility that they're going to have multiple writers working on different pitches and treatments for that I.P. simultaneously, which again means more meetings without any guarantee it'll lead somewhere. Then after all that, they'll need to make your deal to write it - or they'll have you write it on spec and you're praying to God that some studio somewhere falls in love with it.  If you're not writing it on spec, you'll probably be pitching it, and again, that means more meetings.

Time. Meetings. And very little cash. Being out of L.A. only prolongs this process.

I think people have this idea that you can just write from your hometown, send the script in, and two days later get the response, "Great! We're going to make this script! It'll be a movie. Tell us when the next script is ready." Your average film is the result of so many meetings, development sessions and general glad-handing that you need to have a presence in town. It's the invisible part of the process that many aren't aware of, but is critical to a writer's sustainability. I don't see that aspect packing up for Atlanta, nor do I imagine it being conducted over Skype.

And to wrap up, I want to collect a series of tweets written on Tuesday by GOING THE DISTANCE screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe. It fits neatly into our discussion of the advantages of being in L.A. versus everywhere else.  Geoff gave his permission for me to do so. The only alterations I have made has been in combining some sentences into paragraphs.

Allow me a couple Twitters in a row here to tell you a story. [The] story is about how important both professional and personal relationships - which often end up being the same thing - are in ths industry. And it's a pretty good reverse flowchart of how just LIVING in LA drastically improves your position as an aspiring screenwriter. So come along with me on this journey back in time, won't you?

The project that's currently getting the bulk of my attention is set up at one of the major studios. It is my first project with them. This project was set up with two production companies, one of which was founded by a music industry icon. It is my first project with them. So how did I come to partner up with this company? Through the second production company involved. Production Company A came to Production Company B with an idea, because B owned the rights to an article of that exact subject matter. They hit on the shell of an idea they liked, and decided to go out and find a writer. I was suggested first by the producer at PC B.

Why was I suggested? As it turns out, this producer used to be at a different major studio, and was overseeing another project there.

Why was that project there? Because one of the producers on THAT project had a strong standing relationship/track record with the studio.

At the time it was purchased, the Producer on my CURRENT project wasn't even aware of me. They took a chance because of the relationship. Now, how did the producer on the EARLIER studio project know me? We have the same agent. In fact, she was going to write the very project I ended up attached to, but she got too busy, so she farmed it out. I was on the farm!

How did I get on that farm (in other words: with my agent)? She was the very first person one of my friends, a producer at a major prodco sent GOING THE DISTANCE to when she initially read it, literally days before it sold to New Line. How did I make THAT friend? Through one of my best friends at New Line, where I started as a reader. The same guy I developed GTD with.

How did I meet THAT friend? He was one of the very first people I met in LA, at a Dodgers' game, introduced to me by my mentor.

And how did I meet my mentor? On a screenwriters' Internet message board, way back in the late 90s.

My mentor started as an aspiring writer, moved out to LA, optioned a script, became an assistant became story coordinator at New Line and then several years later hired me. We'd stayed in touch the whole way through and he liked my writing. It was as simple as that.

So that's about 10 layers of an industry relationship onion there. It all started off with a personal connection I made on a message board. Five years later, I moved to LA. The next two levels up in that story? People I met here, on the ground, within six weeks of touching down.

Would ANY of that have happened to me if I'd stayed in PA, hoping to become a writer from my parents' house? No. Christ, no. I had to move here, act like a person, meet people, establish relationships, and then make the most of my opportunities when I had them.

Anyway, some had been asking for a practical example of how being in LA helps writing careers. That was my arc. Hope it helped to read it.

PS - I don't say it enough, but I owe many of the best things in my life to said mentor, @lukeryansays. I'm nowhere if he doesn't pluck me.

1 comment:

  1. It's also amusing with the indie film argument is that it fails to acknowledge that, based on my observation, there's really no market for filmmakers LOOKING for stories to film. Most ideas are already developed, and mostly by the director and/or producer that is in charge of the project -- and I live relatively close by to Sundance country. The infrastructure just isn't there for somebody wanting to make a solid living as a screenwriter, especially as THE day job.