Finding Screenwriting Success Outside of Hollywood
By Jacob N. Stuart
Do you have to live in Hollywood to be a screenwriter?
This question is asked daily all over the web — from Reddit to Quora — with every Dick and Jayne offering up their two cents.
Here’s the answer: Yes and No.
The answer is not as black and white as you may have hoped; I know, it’s troubling.
Let’s start with TELEVISION.
TV is king right now.
Let’s take today’s standard Comedy. It used to be that a Comedy feature could survive in theatres, generate just enough cash flow to make a sequel. Not anymore. Anyone who denies that is out of touch.
Even Vanity Fair called it in 2012 [www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2012/05/wolcott-television-better-than-movies], when they said:“Anyone looking for comedy should just nest at home, because Hollywood comedy has become a plague, a blight, and an affront to humanity. The gross-out element in film comedy (puke, poop, sperm, breast milk—any bodily fluid with projectile possibilities) has gotten so prevalent and predictable that it’s as if filmmakers had their heads diapered.”
A-listers are no longer taking roles in Film. Why would they? It’s just recycled and cliche characters that we’ve seen over and over again. They want something new, something that challenges them, helps them grow. So they go to television.
I think there is a lot of misunderstanding on how TV came to surpass film. Many believe it’s because TV (especially comedy) wasn’t at its best until recently.
False. Comedies on television have always been funnier: I Love Lucy, Sanford and Son, Mash, Cheers, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, The Simpsons — just to name a few.
The issue was the star power in these shows. There used to be a fine line between being movie famous and television famous.
In 2009, my first class at The Los Angeles Film School, I was told by my career advisor that if my screenwriting career ended up in TV over film, to consider my career as a failure.
But here’s the truth for screenwriters who love television.
If you want to work on an existing or new network television show, in order to be staffed, you must live in Hollywood (the only exception (maybe) is New York).
New stories are bought in Hollywood, developed in Hollywood, and re-written in Hollywood. You won’t find major writers’ rooms (there’s always an exception, yes) outside of Los Angeles County.
Don’t let states like Georgia, New Mexico, and Louisiana fool you. While plenty of major shows are being filmed in these states, that’s only because of the generous tax incentive. These shows, though, were born in Hollywood.
How important is it to live in Los Angeles County if you want to write for a network?
I had the pleasure of speaking on a screenwriting panel at the Cincinnati Film Festival in 2014 with Mickey Fisher (writer/creator of ‘Reverie’ and ‘Mars’). Afterwards, I picked his brain for about an hour. He used to live in Ohio, but moved out to Orange County after taking his career to the next level. He submitted his spec tv pilot, EXTANT, to a script contest. Although he didn’t win, it got attention by managers and agents. A showrunner was attached, then Steven Spielberg, and then they cast Halle Berry as the lead. The series was produced by CBS. The rest is history.
But here’s the catch. Mickey had to leave the OC and move to LA County. Network executives are discriminative to those outside of LA. They frown upon staffing writers who have to commute. So while the OC is just a hop, skip, and jump away, it still wasn’t Los Angeles County.
So what can one do if they want to write an episodic series but choose not to live in Los Angeles?
A lot. So don’t fret just yet.
While you may not be able to join the staff on a popular animation series like ‘F is For Family’ or ‘Bojack Horseman’, or something on a larger scale like ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Walking Dead’, this shouldn’t detour you from making content.
Cities like Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Vancouver, Toronto, and Miami are all on the rise. Talented producers have flocked to major cities across the U.S. and Canada where opening up an office is largely cheaper. They don’t have to deal with film permits, they don’t have to deal with egos, they don’t have to deal with equipment costs — they can just make compelling content. Furthermore, they get to reap the generous film tax incentive.
But what was the one major setback for these producers a decade ago? Talent. Not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera (like writing). These cities didn’t have the right film commissions and schools in place to develop industry rock stars. But that has all changed.
These cities are major players in the industry. Some of the top film festivals have set up shop in these areas. When this domino effect happens, producers begin making small “sequential episode-by-episode” projects in-house. And what do we call these type of projects? Yes, a web-series.
Check out ten tv shows (there are plenty more) that started online: www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/tv-shows-started-online.html; In fact, back in 2009, my editing instructor was Kyle Newacheck. Kyle was working on a tiny web-series (in which he had us edit for experience) called ‘Workaholics’. Maybe you heard of it? You know, the series on Comedy Central that lasted 7 seasons, with over 85 episodes produced. The show was picked up in 2011. It all started online.
So write a web-series. If you can’t shoot it yourself, team up with directors, producers, and actors. Don’t know where to find them? Go to your local film film festivals, local film commissions, industry workshops, join industry Facebook and Linkedin groups in your area. These people are everywhere.
Push content. There’s no excuse in today’s world not to be working on projects weekly. Mark Duplass at SXSW, said:“We’re in a place now where technology is so cheap that there’s no excuse for you not to be making films on the weekends with your friends, shot on your iPhone..”
Mobile filmmaking has picked up popularity over the years, with successful films such as UNSANE, TANGERINE, & AND UNEASY LIES THE MIND, all shot on a cell phone. Stephen Soderbergh, Oscar winning director of TRAFFIC, has now shot to major movies on his i phone.
So you might be thinking, “Wait, a web-series? Isn’t YouTube oversaturated with these?”.
Yes and No. If you have something original, intriguing, with a great marketing plan, you will be discovered on YouTube. Period.
But what if YouTube is not your thing? No problem. You can write serials on other platforms. SnapChat and Facebook are places to stream your projects. Techcrunch calls SnapChat the “Mobile HBO” [https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/10/snapchat-originals].
Did you know this? Finding original stories is at an all time high, so much so Hollywood is now looking to Podcasts [www.nytimes.com/2019/01/01/business/media/podcasts-hollywood-tv-shows.html] to turn into television shows.
There really is no reason why you can’t write and shoot a series, even if each episode is only 3 minutes. Even old time horror radio shows are making a comeback.
There’s an old adage in sports that says if you are talented you will be discovered. The same can be said in this industry. But no one will know you are talented unless you push content.
Now, will TV always be in Hollywood? It’s hard to say. But I do believe that Los Angeles is collapsing. The taxes are too high, the cost of shooting is too expensive, the corruption in politics is at an all time high. All these factors (plus more) I believe will slowly push out some of your indie and b-list companies. So there might be a time where you can write for TV outside of Hollywood (we already see this in Atlanta). But for now, it’s still LA County.
On a side note, Netflix is building a studio in New Mexico. It makes sense since so many of their original programs are shot on location there. This does nothing for writers at the moment. It mainly employes below-the-line crew and small speaking roles for actors. But I do believe there will come a time when it makes more sense to hire writers that are local (instead of flying them in from LA). Why not develop ideas on location? Writers who already know the area, know the local talent and crew, and can get to work in 5 minutes. There is no evidence to back this up — just a hunch…. way down the road.
If you are still dead set on writing original pilots but don’t want to live in Los Angeles, take advantage of major tv pilot contests, such as: TrackingB, Austin, LaunchPad, Screencraft, and Page.
And one last thing. If you plan on moving to Los Angeles in the future as a tv writer, consider building a portfolio of original work, not samples of already written shows. This isn’t a personal opinion, it’s what showrunners want: www.vulture.com/2019/05/tv-showrunners-advice-staffing-schur-khan-flahive-mensch.html
Okay, now onto writing for Film.
Now, do you have to live in Hollywood to write movies.
- I put that in caps because there are still old school film-types who believe you do. The answer, and I mean this, is NO. Film is a global business. China, Bollywood, and Nigeria produce more movies a year than all of North American combined. The state of California came in 4th as the top place to shoot a film last year. The days of dropping out of college and moving to LA LA Land are over. Film is everywhere. Content is everywhere. And the definition of a film now has everyone baffled — from Steven Spielberg to the Academy. Hollywood is in disarray right now trying to define film, and they blame it all on Netflix! So while the privileged Hollywood elites discuss the meaning of film behind closed doors, people all over the world are defining film themselves — all by producing content.
It used to be a film had to be 2 hours to be considered a film. Not anymore. Take Amazon’s ‘Guava Island’. It’s 56 minutes, and that includes credits. You have people over at Variety [https://variety.com/2019/film/news/guava-island-explained-donald-glover-rihanna-1203190025/] who call it a short film, or something in between a feature and a tv series. But, if you follow the Academy rules, anything over 40 minutes is considered a feature, right? And this is why no good films get produced out of Hollywood. It’s all politics and theory. This film has taken up all the headlines — not because of its story, but because of its runtime! Really? They are too worried about the new wave of movie-making, that they forgot how to make good films.
Creators create. And that’s all the matters.
With the access to equipment and software, coupled with some of the best film schools being outside of Los Angeles, there are qualified producers all over the world. And they make movies in their backyard, for a fraction of the price.
Where do you find these industry professionals. Everywhere. Use sites like mine (www.screenwritingstaffing.com), as well as other similar sites like The Black List, InkTip, Virtual Pitchfest, Stage 32, IMDb Pro, among others. Join film Facebook groups (I think I’m a member of well-over 500). Same with groups on Reddit and LinkedIn. Connect with industry professionals over email and Twitter. Don’t underestimate the power of Twitter. It’s a dying social media platform for the gen z demographic, but it’s still the go-to for top celebrities and screenwriters. Even the movie ‘YOU MIGHT BE THE KILLER” started from a Twitter feed: https://nypost.com/2018/10/03/how-a-twitter-feed-morphed-into-a-syfy-movie/
Look up MEETUP groups in your area. It’s great to go to screenwriting ones, like PSA, but also branch out to ones that consist of crew and cast. Too! We often times get caught up in groups online, but real networking and deals happens in person.
The top film festivals in the world are not in Los Angeles (Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Venice, Hong Kong, Austin, and Raindance). Go to these. NETWORK. I don’t mean go to everyone — but find some of the best festivals in your area. Many have pitchfests there. Pay a little extra to attend the mixers. Watch all the films. Congratulate the directors and producers. Exchange contact information. Add them on social media. It’s all about planting the seed.
You also don’t need an agent or manager to option or sell a film script anymore. This is opposite with TV. Most agents won’t bring you on if you aren’t based in LA or NYC. Of course, there is a major dispute going on with the WGA and agencies right now (but we will save that for another time). Point is, you can sell material on your own in the film world. I had a literary agent from 2012-2016. I probably optioned (or sold) 6-7 scripts? As well as landed at least 8 or so writing assignments. You know how many she facilitated? One. And it was a short film (sigh). I also had a literary manager from 2016-2017. You know how many projects she facilitated. ZERO.
OK, so moving on.
Does this mean you will never have to go to Hollywood to see your movie produced? No. All roads usually end in Hollywood. So always have a rainy day fund if you need to get out there for a meeting. Although I don’t live in Hollywood anymore (left first part of 2017), I’m still probably out there 4x a year for a full week.
So whether you live in Arizona or Bangladesh, keep writing. Never stop. Push as much content as possible. Play around with different forms. Tell stories. Your location should not stop you from writing. But do keep in mind how the industry works; don’t be as naive to believe that you can live in Minnesota and write a new series for ABC from your home computer via skype. There’s not a showrunner alive who would accept that. Conversely, don’t be fooled into believing that 1) you can’t create content where you are, and 2) that if you want to write for film that you need to pack up your stuff and empty your savings account to live in some over-priced apartment in the Valley.
I’ve been working as a screenwriter for 11 years now. A little over 5 of those years were spent in Hollywood (including a year for film school). Where did I live the other 6 years? Dallas, Las Vegas, Orlando, Cincinnati, (outside of) Indianapolis, (outside of) Tucson. I have found more success (in film) outside of Los Angeles.
There’s no denying the power of Hollywood. It’s the hub of networking. It’s where the cream of the crop lives. But it’s not like it used to be, where you had to be in Hollywood to work in film. The game has changed. Don’t let your current situation and surroundings dictate how and when you write.
If you visit my site’s success story page (where projects like Hallmark’s ‘Bramble House Christmas’, ‘Deadly Reunion’ (directed by James Cullen Bressack), and Amazon’s ‘Cheetah in August’ were found), you will find that only 25% of the writers who have sold/optioned scripts or landed a writing assignment are actually based in Los Angeles
www.screenwritingstaffing.com/feaured-success-stories, www.imdb.com/search/title?companies=co0524287. The same can be said about the other sites I mentioned.
Just last week I published two success stories on my site. One was for a Los Angeles producer who optioned a feature screenplay from a writer outside of Los Angeles. The second was a producer in Atlanta who hired a writer in Florida to pen an episode on a web-series. So 4 people on my site found success, only 1 from Los Angeles. Do that math.
If you can only get out to Los Angeles once a year, do it the first part of November. Why? Because in Santa Monica once a year over 7,000 industry professionals and buyers come together to sell, finance, and purchase films. It’s called THE AMERICAN FILM MARKET: https://americanfilmmarket.com
In closing, I wanted to note that this isn’t just some blog where the contributor is peddling advice that they don’t live by.
After seeing a lot of my writing butchered by producers and companies, where I had limited or no control, I decided this year I will produce two films on my own (1 short, 1 feature). And what am I shooting it on? A Samsung Galaxy S10+, using anamorphic lenses, a gimbal, video rig, lavalier and zoom H4N, edited in Adobe Premiere. So what am I paying out of pocket for? Cast (which is small) and craft services. Locations are free and the equipment I own is cheap and already paid for.
Don’t wait for other people to produce your work. I have. I am currently sitting on 4 options (3 features, 1 short). One of them has been optioned since 2013. If you want to stay relevant in this industry, you have to be a content-pusher.
I’m doing it. So should you.
Both films are being shot in Arizona:
See how you can be a part of them:
Short horror film, BORDERTOWN VLOG: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/bordertown-vlog
Feature thriller-drama, FROM GRINGO TO GRAVE: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/from-gringo-to-grave
Article was written by Jacob N. Stuart. Jacob is an award-winning and produced screenwriter and filmmaker. His films have been screened in theaters across the world, and distributed traditionally through DVD/Blu Ray. He currently has 3 films on VOD, 2 of them on Amazon. Jacob has a long history of film festival success, with over 50 film festival appearances, winning nearly 10 of them. He is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing and a graduate of The Los Angeles Film School. He has taught screenwriting professionally and has spoken on film and writing panels across the country. Outside of writing articles for the Phoenix Screenwriters Association, he has also contributed to publications such as , Final Draft, Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and MovieMaker Magazine. You can reach Jacob by email: firstname.lastname@example.org