I met Jerome Schwartz during the WGA strike. He recognized me from the blog, and told me that he’d applied for his job at the guild specifically because of one of my posts. After the strike, I asked him to keep me apprised of how his career was going. I had a hunch he would find a path.
I can remember, in the years before moving to Los Angeles, being constantly frustrated with Hollywood “breaking in” stories. I would devour those tales in search of details, steps to follow, at least an outline. But people seemed remarkably cagey about their first step. They gloss over, they skip the details. And now, after eighteen months in L.A., I realize why that is: The stories are useless.
Maybe useless is too strong a word. What I mean is, these stories are not replicable. There is no outline to follow. Hollywood careers all have their own weird combination of factors — luck, skill, circumstance, the flow of the industry, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. The ingredients may be similar. But the meal is never the same.
So, disclaimers aside, here is my own little story.
I moved to Los Angeles in October of 2007. It was a move I had contemplated for a while, but resisted. At the time, I was living in Portland. And I loved Portland. It had friends, mountains, good coffee and better beer. I wrote a lot. I made a few films. But I finally concluded that script writing outside of L.A. was really just a hobby. If I wanted a career, I needed to wave goodbye to the evergreens and head to the land of sunshine and smog.
On Day One in Los Angeles, I picked up a copy of the LA Weekly. I saw mention of a little thing called the “Writers’ Strike.” And I thought, great. Of all the ill-timed ventures, I just made my big L.A. move two weeks before every writing job in the city was about to disappear. Nice move, Schwartz. Real nice.
Fortunately, I read John’s blog. And he pointed out that the strike was a blessing in disguise for young writers. Under normal circumstances, you arrive in Hollywood, and can’t find a single working writer to talk to, much less reveal the arcane secrets of the industry. Because they are all working. But now they were all standing in a pack, in front of the studios, holding signs. Looking for a little conversation to kill the time.
A week later, I found a temp agency hiring out to the Writers Guild, and pressed them for a job. This sounded like the perfect opportunity. To be around writers every day, networking, supporting my future guild, and getting paid for it? Dreamy.
On my resume, I was a “Volunteer Coordinator.” But to the writers, I was “That Van Loading Guy.” Put simply, the guild operated strike lines at all the major studios. Those striking writers needed signs. A lot of signs. And water. And food. And sunscreen. And chairs, and tables, and flyers, and so on. Every night, vans returned from the strike line in need of fresh supplies. Writers arrived to volunteer, and I put them to work loading those vans.
It was a funny reversal of the Hollywood story. I had just arrived. I was supposed to be getting these people coffee. Instead, I was ordering them to haul water jugs and clean dried orange juice out of vans. One time, a volunteer came up and said, “That was gutsy. Asking Cameron Crowe to haul your garbage.” I thought, “That’s Cameron Crowe?” I didn’t know what he looked like. To me he was just another easy-going volunteer, someone who wouldn’t mind taking out the trash if his guild depended on it.
The work was simple. The kind of work that is only made bearable with chit-chat. So there was a lot of it going on in the basement of the guild. And in Hollywood, I have often found chit-chatting to be synonymous with networking. I had always thought of networking as a particularly vile form of communication, reserved for slick, soulless Hollywood types. But in practice, it’s really just a habit of making friends. And eventually, friends may be in a position to help you.
100 days later
The strike ended after 100 days. Unemployment loomed. So I emailed all my writer friends, and started hunting for that elusive first job. And finally, a job came through. One of the van-loaders was a writer on “The Office,” and he got me a job in the post production department. As a P.A. I loved the show and was excited to work there. I learned a lot in a short span of time. Problem was, I wanted to write. And I wasn’t learning about writing.
About two months later, a second opportunity arrived. Another writer from the guild (okay, full disclosure, this writer happens to be my girlfriend) passed my resume along at “Cold Case,” where they were looking for a writers’ P.A. This was much closer to what I wanted. I jumped at the chance.
Let me explain the job, at least as it plays out on “Cold Case.”
As a writers’ P.A., you are the lowest person in the writing department. Meaning coffee, lunch runs, and photocopies. But, at the same time, you are right where it’s all happening. Your work is all for the writers, and you will inevitably get to know them. You’ll see how they shape a script from concept to production draft. You learn the language, the techniques, and the pace of TV writing.
Now, I don’t know about other staffs, but the writers at “Cold Case” were also amazingly supportive of my own fledgling career. They gave me great critiques, which helped sharpen my material. A few of them passed me along to their agents, which was huge. As someone who has cold-called every agency in town (just before my L.A. move), I assure you it goes nowhere. You need a personal connection. And the writers at “Cold Case” were willing to recommend me, for which I am extremely grateful.
While working this job, I wrote a “Mad Men” spec that was well received. One very generous writer (from my guild days) thought the script was good enough to pass on to showrunners. Thanks to her belief in me, and a strong script, I landed two showrunner meetings in my first year in Hollywood. Neither worked out; one show wasn’t picked up, the other said close, but no thanks.
But getting those interviews was huge. It put me exactly one step away from that elusive dream of writing for a TV staff. Also, it impresses people. I was suddenly getting read by more agents and managers, because they heard about these meetings.
At this point, I had a little buzz, but nothing tangible. My spec was good, but not enough on its own. I met with agents, and was told repeatedly that I also needed a great original piece. So I buckled down, did my research, and wrote a one-hour dramatic pilot. In the process, I gained new respect for the art of the pilot episode. Setting up a unique world, a great cast of characters, a full season of conflict, and a satisfying story arc in 59 pages is no small task.
The here and now
As I write this, I have just completed that pilot. I have been getting notes from writer friends. I passed it on to agents in hopes of representation. And last week, I finally secured a manager. He agreed to manage me only because I had a personal recommendation, a good spec, showrunner meetings, and a good pilot. All these factors finally made me an attractive client. And I couldn’t have gotten good management without them.
Eighteen months ago, I had no idea what a Hollywood move would do for me. Now, after a lot of legwork, I at least have a toe wedged in that ornate mahogany door. I ain’t there yet, but the path looks a lot clearer than it once did. And for that, I feel pretty good.