In episode 267 of Scriptnotes, we shared stories from screenwriters who managed to build careers while living outside of Los Angeles, New York or London.
We then did a follow-up post featuring tales from several more writers.
In the weeks since, even more stories have come in. Here’s a sampling.
I was writing and directing short films while living in St. Louis, MO. I did a two week summer film program in Missouri for women only. The program was run by a lovely gentleman and Missouri native named, Ken LaZebnik, who has worked as a TV writer.
I kept in contact with Ken over the years and when a position on the writing staff for the tv show ARMY WIVES opened up, he contacted me. He’d previously written on the show. Ken thought I’d be a good fit because I was prior military. I was living just outside of St. Louis when I hit send on some writing samples to Ken. He, in turn, forwarded the samples to the showrunner of ARMY WIVES and after I flew out to LA using frequent flier miles to meet with the showrunner, I got hired onto the show.
It was a Cinderella story. After ARMY WIVES was cancelled, I went on to work for a small zombie apocalypse show on SyFy called Z NATION.
But here’s the caveat to my Cinderella story. I hadn’t spent years in Los Angeles prior to getting staffed. I hadn’t been an assistant anywhere. I hadn’t been all over town on the water bottle tour. Nobody knew who I was so that makes getting subsequent jobs more difficult.
My agent was unable to get me any meetings so that’s when I decided to attend UCLA to get my MFA in Screenwriting. One, to further hone my craft but two, to make connections that I simply didn’t have because I was literally plucked from obscurity.
I’ve chosen to split my time between LA and St. Louis for my own personal sanity. I’m just not an LA person and probably never will be. Every individual must decide what’s right for them.
Alan from Connecticut:
I am a produced screenwriter with screen credits for two Lifetime movies.
I have lived in Connecticut my whole life and attended an online college program through the Academy of Art based in San Francisco. I majored in Motion Pictures & Television with a focus on screenwriting.
After graduating, I worked on several spec scripts and began the long process of manual queries. I placed in a few screenwriting competitions, but they led no where. I finished a MOW Thriller and used IMDB Pro to get production contacts for niche low-budget companies. After getting a few hits, I used my spec to get my first assignment and it was produced into the film “Her Infidelity.”
All of my meetings, contracts, and contact has been done through phones, email, and faxing. It has worked out fairly well. I have other projects in development, but have not reached a point where I am screenwriting full-time yet. I also edit wedding videos and do a lot of freelance writing to help supplement my screenwriting career.
I may not be a traditional screenwriter, but I am happy and proud of my credits and hope to have more in the future. I just wanted to let you guys know that I have had screenwriting success without stepping foot in California and am still in continual development on projects.
I’m a screenwriter who’s based an improbable distance from LA.
Having written books for children and working in Adland, I decided to make the jump to writing for screen full-time about three years ago.
Right now, I am in the fantastic position of having an animated tv series for kids in production in Australia; a live-action for teens in Development with a UK/LA based Production Company; and a feature film in development with a third company also based in LA. I am the creator/writer of all fore-mentioned projects. I do not have an agent or manager in LA.
So I feel I’m proof that if you are prepared to think outside the box, break some rules and back yourself, it is possible to work with production companies in LA while living outside the bubble and actually, if you’re clever, turning it into a bonus.
- Back yourself by attending conferences (MIPCOM, Kidscreen, Asian Animation Summit) and network so that people think you’re easily accessible.
- Use time zones to your advantage. My producers in London think I’m the most efficient writer in the world because I have whatever they’re needing on their desk at 9am London time, which is my 5pm.
- Never allow distance to be a problem. Down play it. Better still, don’t even mention it. If you believe you can add value at a meeting, make sure you’re there, even if it’s a 22 hour flight away.
Funny enough, I didn’t start getting paid as a writer until after I moved out of LA after being there for eight years (and the Bay Area eight years before that).
Long story short: my wife’s mom got cancer which moved us abruptly to Texas to care for her with six months to live.
As a DGA director of commercials, docs, and music videos whose childhood dream was to make features, it wasn’t until I got out of town and finally focused on writing scripts that I was able to jump into writing and directing films instead of having “good meetings” that went nowhere.
My first script with writing partners in Texas became my directing debut SIRONIA. When my mother-in-law passed, we moved to Austin where I went right into adapting an optioned memoir for my second film VICTOR. I was then paid to adapt the novel Benjamin Dove for the screen, and now my second solo writing effort has become my next film WHEN JACK WENT GLAMPING — currently wrapping up post production.
These are all indie films financed in Texas in the under $2 million range, so maybe this isn’t truly “in the system.”
Tim Carter from Vancouver:
I’m from Vancouver, Canada but had to move to LA to get any kind of traction at all. So to a large degree I echo your assessment that proximity is important and the hill for an aspiring writer is significantly steeper if they’re not in a major entertainment hub.
That said, there are a couple of strategies your listener from the Midwest might consider.
First, expand your career search to include video games. The institutional barriers to entry are significantly lower and the industry is not geographically concentrated the way film and television is. The odds are still not great, but it’s worth exploring. Many games emphasize character and narrative and the skills you develop will be very useful in film and television. I sold several projects in LA before landing my first major game credit back in my hometown. It’s hard to say which was more useful to my career.
Second, find out if anything at all is being produced locally. It might not be big Hollywood features, but many big American cities still have something going on.
When I started out I wrote several terrible horror movies for local indie producers. I’m rather happy none of them saw the light of day, but they were invaluable learning experiences, I got paid, and they opened a few doors. These days you’re more likely to find opportunities on a web or digital series, as they are being made all over the place and will offer you a chance to get noticed.
Again the odds aren’t great, but they may be better than emailing unsolicited specs to strangers in LA.
Aaron and Jordan:
We are Hawaii born and based professional screenwriters (and identical twins) who landed our representation and sold our first spec script while living in Hawaii, where we continue to live and successfully work. Which proves that it is possible to to be a screenwriter outside of Hollywood. But before we can recommend our absentee-ballot path to screenwriting, there are a few caveats to our story worth sharing.
Representation: Our manager flew to Hawaii to sign us after reading our first two spec scripts… something we have NEVER heard of happening to anyone else. Would they have flown to Kansas? We can’t say. Was the fact she got to write off her mai-tais on the beach a motivator… undoubtedly. Needless to say we got powerball lottery lucky. One in many millions odds. And we’ve stayed with that manager ever since.
First sale: Several years and many unsold scripts later that manager got one of our specs into the hands of an agent who agreed to to hip-pocket us if he sold it. The offer from Disney came in while we were in the middle of teaching an SAT prep class at Obama’s alma mater. And the first thing our agent asked us when the script sold was “When are you moving here?”
And for a time we did…
We lived in LA for three years. Took the usual round of water bottle meetings. Built a rolodex of contacts, fans and friends. And didn’t sell a single thing until we decided to move back to Hawaii.
And ironically, almost the moment our feet sunk back into the warm sand, our careers took off. The funny thing is, when we lived in LA, we were always available to take a meeting -— or more often than not -— have that meeting canceled while we were already an hour in traffic across town and half a day of writing wasted. In the three years living in LA, we probably took around 30-50 meetings. Now whenever we fly into town, we often take that many in a week. And none of them cancel. When they can’t have you, that’s when they want you. Such is the law of mating and meetings.
Sustaining a career: We find we are more productive creatively when we are away from the Hollywood hustle because we can focus solely on writing. But if you want to sustain a professional career, the business side of the career demands that, while you don’t HAVE to live in LA, you do have to travel to LA and pound the pavement, be present often and whenever needed, and at the drop of a hat. Otherwise you quickly drop off the radar completely.
We write from Hawaii but try to fly to LA at least once a quarter. Also we are primarily feature screenwriters. So BIG CAVEAT: if you want to write for television or animation… you NEED to live in Los Angeles. Last year for example, we had to relocate our families for seven months to work on “Moana” for Disney Animation.
In summation, it’s becoming easier in a video-conference world to be a working writer who lives anywhere in the world, and we are an exception to the rule that you must live in Los Angeles to be successful.
That said we’re a rare exception. And while we believe you can write and sell great material from anywhere, ultimately you have to recognize the odds are even more stacked against you living outside the hub of Hollywood.
But if that’s what brings you joy, fuels your passion and creativity and makes you a better writer then follow that bliss. And work your ass off harder than anyone. That’s what we do.