I met Bradley Jackson at the Austin Film Festival, where he handed me his short film. It’s nicely made, and serves as a great calling card. I’m happy he’s finding success, and unsurprised.
Bradley volunteered to write up a post about his experiences trying to get a film career started while living outside Los Angeles. As with earlier First Person posts by Adam Davis, Jerome Schwartz and George Sloan, I think most readers will find a lot of practical advice in it. Bradley is indefatigable. That plus talent tends to lead towards success.
You should know that I disagree with one of his central premises: LA is for suckers.
He doesn’t quite say that, of course, but there’s a distinct tone of having figured out the secret solution for having cake while eating it.
Yet that attitude and hustle is part of the reason I think Bradley will make it. So I didn’t ask him to tone it down.
My name is Bradley Jackson and I’m a 26-year-old writer/director. On Twitter, I’m @BradleyJackson.
Like many of you who frequent this site I aspire to write and hopefully direct great films. Also like many of you, I don’t live–nor do I have the desire to live–in Los Angeles or in California. I currently reside in the great state of Texas and more specifically the even greater city of Austin.
Austin is an amazing place. I have great friends, pay cheap rent and have gotten to work on and make some quality films with amazingly creative people. Plus, my entire family lives in Texas. Moving to LA would seriously damage the good thing I’ve got going here.
However, I’m not an idiot. I know that the beating heart of the film industry resides on the west coast. So I’ve made it a point to visit as often as possible. I recently got back from a very productive two week stint in LA and I’m here to report to you fine readers the pros and cons of being a writer/director who doesn’t live in Hollywood-but wants to work for them.
Know who you are
I don’t have an agent or a manager. I just optioned my first feature script (a high school comedy) to a company out in LA. I also recently won a 110K grand prize in a big film festival for a short film I wrote and directed last year called The Man Who Never Cried.
I’m not telling you these things to be cocky, but rather to be honest. These are simple facts that people in the film industry will want to know if they’re going to set aside time in their busy schedule to meet with you. Without a letter of rec from Spielberg, very few producers, agents or managers will want to meet with you unless they’re impressed by something they’ve seen or read from you. If you’re a newbie writer with only a few loglines under your belt it’ll be much harder to get meetings than someone who’s got several (respectable) IMDB credits to your name. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try!
Write your filmography in a four-sentence email
This is helpful because you’re probably going to be writing a lot of emails. If you’re emailing to try and set up a general meeting it really helps type a short, succinct (five sentences or less) email listing who you are and what you’ve done. Also, if you have a mutual connection it helps to list that. Here’s an example:
Dear Mr. Fancy Pants,
My name is Reginald McFutureOscarWinner and I’m a good friend of Timothy AwesomeFace who I believe line produced your last three films. I’m a screenwriter visiting LA for the next two weeks, and I’d love to find out a time to meet up with you to discuss potential projects. I recently wrote and directed a 10-minute short film that was accepted to SXSW and Palm Springs (include online link here if you have it), and I have a few screenplays and treatments that I feel would line up nicely with your production company. Please let me know if you’d like to meet up in the next two weeks. I’m also happy to send along the scripts and treatments if you’re interested in reading.
Don’t be offended
These people get a gazillion emails like this a week so don’t be offended if they don’t write back immediately or at all. Make a concerted effort to follow up if you don’t hear a response (wait two to three days) but if they don’t write back after the second email it’s probably because they’re too busy or just not interested in you (yet).
The important thing is you send out a ton of these emails because the likelihood of everyone agreeing to meet with you tiny. This leads me to my next point…
Make a list of your connections
If you’re going to try to make your LA trip successful then you’ll want to mine every single connection you have. Depending on how green you are the in business don’t be afraid to take every single meeting or opportunity thrown your way.
Make a list of all your old college friends who are now living out there. Did you make a random friend at a film festival two years ago? Email them! You never know what it will lead to. Even if they don’t work in the industry, send them a friendly email saying you’re making the trip and would love to meet up for coffee (and you’re buying). You’d be surprised at what connections even the most random people have.
And if you’re a generally friendly human being with a decent amount of talent most people are willing to at least help you try and set up meetings.
You’re a salesman not a writer this week
Another cost of living away from LA is that when you do visit, it’s absolutely imperative to take advantage of every moment you’re there. This means writing six hours in a quiet coffee shop is not in the cards for you this week.
If you can, make sure your LA trip coincides with a time when you’ve finished a script or are between projects. That doesn’t mean you can’t have story meetings. In my ten day Hollywood trip I met with a director I’m writing a script with. We met about five times for a few hours at a time to work on a treatment. He lives in LA and I don’t so I figured it was worth it to get some good face time. It’s all about taking advantage of things you can’t get back home.
Not everything is a meeting. But it kind of is. Don’t be afraid of grabbing an after work drink with someone. Just because it’s not during business hours or at their office doesn’t mean that they don’t want to hear about you and your scripts. If a producer asks you to meet him at 8:00PM for a drink, that’s a good thing – just make sure they don’t get you drunk and try and make you sign something.
Have your pitches ready
But don’t expect them all to ask for a pitch. When you pitch make sure you keep it short and brief and always offer to email them the script or treatment when you get home. DO NOT bring in a hard copy of your script (unless they ask for it ahead of time.) But DO BRING a DVD of your film if you have one. And bring more than one copy because it’s likely they can pass a copy along to another person in the office or to another office nearby.
Don’t just talk about yourself
You’re there to sell yourself, but always ask people about their projects. Not only is it just good conversational practice, but also getting them to talk about themselves could lead to an interesting connection or opportunity.
The only reason I optioned my screenplay was because last time I was in LA I had a meeting with a junior exec and asked her “What kind of projects are your company looking for?” She immediately responded: “Comedies in the 7 to 15 million dollar range.” I had just finished a lower budget comedy so I told her I’d send it to her. Six months later I had my first ever option check in my hand.
Meetings should lead to other meetings
One of my first meetings on this trip was with a rather BIG SHOT producer… I only had 30 minutes because he was preparing a shoot for a huge pilot for ABC. However, at the very end of the meeting I asked him “Who’s one person in Hollywood that I need to meet; and they need to meet me?” He looked at me skeptically for a moment. I thought he was about to blow me off, but he then named another big time production company (that I’d admired for many years) and told his assistant to give me all their email addresses. I had a meeting with that company two days later. To me it proves that if you make a good impression on people they’re at least happy to make a connection for you.
Smaller points of advice
Assistants and interns will be executives one day. Don’t be afraid of taking meetings with an assistant or an intern. They’ll give you more time and they’ll probably be running the company in five years.
Dress for LA. If you’re a writer you don’t have to get dressed up for these meetings. However, it does get cold at night and you probably won’t go home all day so have a sweater or jacket in your car.
Don’t take a day off. Saturday and Sunday are workdays when you’re visiting LA. And it’s most likely someone will schedule a meeting for during normal business hours and then ask you to push to the weekend. These days are also good to set up more informal meetings with old friends and non-industry folks.
Have your phone/email with you at all times. Meetings change constantly so having handy access to your email is a necessity. You also might get lost a lot so a good smart phone or GPS can save your life.
Have a car. If people do end up wanting to meet you they’ll want you to come to them. And you’ll likely have at least two or three meetings a day all on different sides of town.
You will be late. LA traffic makes everyone late. If you’re gonna be more than ten minutes late, try and call or email your contact to let them know. Also keep in mind that just because your next meeting is 10 minutes away doesn’t mean you should allow yourself 10 minutes to get there. It always takes at least 5 minutes to find parking. Add another five minutes based on the fact that you’re not from LA and you probably don’t have a clue where this person’s office is. If the meeting is on a studio lot add another five minutes because those places are a maze that feel like Christopher Nolan designed them on a bender.
Have cash and quarters on you at all times. Parking sucks in LA so you might have to valet or pay a buck fifty in change to park on the street. Try and at least have 20 bucks in cash on you and two bucks in change on you (or in your car) at all times.
Follow up twice. For each person you meet, make sure to follow up with them when you get home at the end of the day (or first thing in the morning next day) and follow up with them when you get back home. This keeps you on their radar. And if you do end up sending them a script, film or treatment make sure to follow up with them every couple of weeks to see if they’ve read it.
Follow the companies and people you met with. Both on Twitter and in the news. If they make the trades for a film or a script then send them a congratulatory email. It may seem small, but small things can pay off big.
Assess. Was this your second or third LA trip? Compare and contrast this most recent trip with your past ones. Was this one better or worse? Were meeting easier to come by or harder? Based on this, figure out when the best time would be to return.
So what was my final takeaway from this trip? If you’re a writer you DO NOT HAVE TO LIVE IN LA.
In my aforementioned meeting with the Big Shot Producer I asked him if I should move to Hollywood. He said the following: “I’ve worked with writers in Australia, Detroit and Minnesota. You live in Texas -– that’s cool. And plus, you’re only a three hour plane ride away. So write where you want to because LA will always be here.”
At the end of the day I realized that, while I really do enjoy Los Angeles; my heart and soul reside in Austin. I feel creative and inspired while I’m here. I’m sure if I moved to LA my career might forge ahead a little faster; however, the joy of living where I do far outweighs the material gain I might glean from living in Hollywood.
I love Hollywood, but I can work for ‘em without living with ‘em.
As counterpoint, I know a hundred screenwriters, and can only think of two who managed to start a feature writing career while living outside Los Angeles or New York. Bradley might be number three. It seems early to be making sweeping pronouncements.
I’ll grant him this: If you’re going to insist on living outside LA, full-throttle gunning is probably the only way it could work. He’s being extremely proactive in trying to forge the contacts that might otherwise come up if he lived here.
But they’re contacts. They’re not relationships. I think it’s fair to ask: how is he helping the people who are helping him? Near-strangers are setting up meetings for him. That’s great and generous. But since he lives in Austin, does he have any way of repaying the favor?
Talent and luck accounted for part of my success during my first few years in LA. The rest of it was due to my peers: friends in film school, co-workers and fellow interns with whom I’d exchange scripts and offer notes. I got an agent through one of those friends. A writing job through another. But just as importantly, I was helping them get their careers going. And it didn’t feel like work. There was no calculation or list-keeping. These were people I was going hiking with, going to movies with. We were all in it together.
I don’t blame Bradley for not wanting to leave Austin. It’s a great town. But I’d caution against taking his approach as gospel. I think he’s giving up more opportunities than he realizes, and so would any other young college grad considering where to begin a film career.