Saturday, April 26, 2008

I've moved to LA. Now what??? Advice for writers

From time to time I get questions from aspiring writers who have thrown all their belongings into their car or rented truck and have made the big move to LA.

QUESTION: I will obviously have to take another job. The best jobs would seem to me to be production assistant (watching a show get made from the inside) and writers assistant (working with someone who knows what they're doing). How do I start looking for work in these areas?

ANSWER: First off, it helps to know somebody. ANYBODY. This is the automatic answer to any question involving industry employment. Don’t sleep with anyone to get one of these jobs. Having to get sandwiches for them is demoralizing enough. Short of a connection, write to every show and offer your services. Write to the production companies and networks too. Find out what writer/producers have development deals. They may need assistants. Do a little homework. Who went to your college? Who’s from your hometown? Who got drunk and sang “My Heart Will Go On” in a karaoke bar one night? Shows start staffing around the beginning of June. New ones are the best. You’re not competing with any returnees.

QUESTION: I'm working under the assumption that PA and WA jobs are entry level. Is this correct? What skills should I emphasize for these jobs?

ANSWER: You are correct. As entry as can be. The pay scale was set by the Triangle Shirt Factory in 1911. For Writers Assistant positions you must be very proficient in computers, can type like the wind, and can hold your tongue when you hear morons less talented than you pitch jokes that people on laughing gas wouldn’t chuckle at. For a Production Assistant -- have a car.

QUESTION: What does a writers resume look like?

ANSWER: There isn’t any standard format that I know of. I think Kinkos provides a few sample templates although they may insist you xerox a thousand copies before they’ll let you see them. It’s pretty basic. List pertinent information. What you’ve written, educational background, any awards, previous experience that might be impressive. Leave out hobbies and special skills. You’re not an actor. We don’t give a shit that you can fence, yodel, or ride a horse.

QUESTION: What other jobs might you recommend that might help me as a developing writer?

ANSWER: A script reader, providing coverage for a studio. Interning at a studio or network in their development or current departments. Mailroom in a talent agency (the Guantanamo prison of show biz). Personal assistant to a writer (if a writer can afford a personal assistant he’s probably somebody and helpless). Network page. Dialogue coach.

QUESTION: Where could I go to get an unbiased critique?

ANSWER: It’s not a question of whether the reader is unbiased. It’s whether he knows a good script from GIGLI. Writing instructors often are a good source. Or fellow writers whose opinions you trust. I’d avoid the folks who want to charge you to critique your script. They’re usually bad writers with gambling debts.

QUESTION: Are there any contests, competitions etc. that you consider legit? For example if you were considering hiring a new writer what contest could they have under their belt which might make you inclined to give them a thumbs up?

ANSWER: A Heisman Trophy. Actually, there’s no one contest that is the Pulitzer of specs. But any competition you win or place highly in is a plus… except maybe PROJECT GREENLIGHT. Winning the Diane Thomas Award from UCLA is pretty big stuff. You would certainly get agent consideration by acing one of these competitions. And whatever prize or bowling trophy you get is keen. If you win a playwrighting contest you might get the benefit of a reading or staged production of your work. That’s way more valuable than a plaque. But ultimately it’s your spec script that is going to sell you.

QUESTION: If I can’t get an entry level job in the industry what are the best jobs to get?

ANSWER: Assuming that while you work you’re going to continue writing specs you need a job that pays enough to live on (duh) and you don’t take home with you after your shift. If you’re writing with a partner you obviously have to coordinate your schedules. Get a gig at Starbucks so you can walk around and see what everyone else is writing. Work at an LAX parking toll booth. That way you only have to use .000001% of your brain. I taught idiots how to be disc jockeys at a Broadcasting School. What a jerk-off job that was. But I was done everyday at 6. And no weekends. The students needed that time to memorize how to announce weather forecasts.

QUESTION: There are sometimes ads looking for screenwriters. Is that something worth pursuing?

ANSWER: I say beware. Usually these are not WGA signatories which means you get screwed. The pay is crap, you have no rights or protection, you’ll work like a galley slave, and chances are the movie will never get made. I know it’s tempting and you’d rather get a job using your skills than putting on a straw hat and serving "cups of dirt" at TGI Fridays, but trust me, your writing time will be better spent crafting a spec, which, if it sells, will pay infinitely more than some laundry magnate’s pet project on the man who invented Sanforizing.

We all have to start somewhere. At times it’s confusing, exasperating, demeaning, and depressing. But when you make it you will look back nostalgically at that period as one of the best of your lives. And for me there’s the added glow that I contributed so much to radio.

37 comments:

Annie said...

Thanks again, Ken. While it's tough to break into the business, on the flip side, if you've got the bug and never give it a shot it'll bother you the rest of your life. I'll spare you the details because knowing the crowd here, they'd probably turn it into a movie.

Now, where's that waiter?

Rafe said...

This reminds me of another good question though - with the world shrinking so drastically through the internet, do you have to actually move to LA in order to pursue writing? Sure, you can't hammer on doors first-hand, but is it possible to pursue a screenwriting career without moving to California?

Sam Kim said...

Sage advice. Thanks. But I think I'll stick to trying to write clever comments in blogs until someone recognizes my stunning wit. I was almost a semi-finalist in a Komedy Kontest once.

Michael said...

First off, it helps to know somebody. ANYBODY.

Can we use you as a reference?

David Schwartz said...

I'd add one more thing to your list, Ken. Consistency. Back in the 1980's when I was writing spec sitcoms I sometimes worked alone and sometimes with a partner. However, one of the things I did that I think was a mistake was I stopped writing new material after completing a spec that I thought was strong. My feeling was, "We've given them a sample of the quality of our work, now they can hire us." During that period, I watched another writer who was trying to break in at the same time write spec after spec after spec. After he finished one he started up immediately on another. His strategy worked, as he was able to sell something pretty quickly. Clearly, his persistance and the fact that he probably kept improving with each new script made an impression. If I had it to do over again, I'd have written much more material during those struggling years and not relied on a single sitcom spec or two, no matter how strong, as my only calling card.

TCinLA said...

QUESTION: What other jobs might you recommend that might help me as a developing writer?

Any goddamned job that doesn't have diddly squat to do with the movie business. Open your eyes, open your ears, and shut your over-educated under-intelligent mouth and find out what in hell actual people do in their life. Writers are supposed to be observers of life, but most of you trust fund babies come here with no experience of life whatsoever and the result is you pitch recycled bullshit from the idiot TV shows you watched as kids, and the idiots on the other side of the desk have the same background, so you all go do it and the business goes downhill at a steeper angle.

The truth is, unless you have had some really life-changing event like being shot at and missed when you're under 30, you have no clue whatsoever why anybody does anything. So character motivation is a complete mystery to you. Most of you fit what my old friend David Freeman was talking about when he said in his great book of short stories "A Hollywood Education" (which you can still find and if you read it from first to last you really will have a "Hollywood Education") that "Hollywood is the last respectable outlaw profession for upper class white boys (and nowadays, upper class white girls)"

All those PA and WA jobs are bullshit. Writers don't need to know any of that unless you're some suckup who thinks that parroting what you heard in your college classes into a blue book constituted an "education." If you actually want to be a writer, go out and experience some actual life and observe it. My old mentor, the late Wendell Mayes (look him up in the imdb, he wrote some pretty damn good movies) told me that he learned everything he needed to know by being the guy who vectored fighters to intercept the Kamikazes in 1945 when he was a Fighter Director Officer on an aircraft carrier and had to learn to not sound as scared as he was so as not to scare them (and he was always learning more, always interested in more, right up to the day he died six weeks after turning in the last script he was hired to write). If you look at what he wrote, you'll see he learned well.

Most of you would do well if you had the guts to join the Army. You think our host Ken Levine learned how to write those incredible scripts for MASH by being a surfer dude?

Of course, that sort of choice to learn to be a writer would take guts. Unfortunately, that's not something I see too much of when I go to WGA meetings and watch the Ivy League wussies pretend to be bourgeois Bolsheviks.

sephim said...

Writers are supposed to be observers of life, but most of you trust fund babies come here with no experience of life whatsoever and the result is you pitch recycled bullshit from the idiot TV shows you watched as kids, and the idiots on the other side of the desk have the same background, so you all go do it and the business goes downhill at a steeper angle.

Great speech... 18 years ago it would have been useful.

Bitter Animator said...

I don't know... even 18 years ago I think bitter, pointless rants only serve to give the ranter something to do. I should know. They're all I've got.

I'm surprised the dirty hippies and bleeding heart liberals didn't make it in there somewhere.

emily said...

I'm a bad writer with gambling debts, but I can fence and yodel while riding a horse. And I would have won a Heisman Trophy if I hadn't been a girl.

Paul Duca said...

With the stories about how many agents and other power players started out in the mail room of talent agencies, I don't understand why you'd consider it hellish, Ken. Boring I could understand--especially for those with a college degree. But presumably those are people particularly motivated to get out of there, so they watch and learn and network, viewing it as the equivalent of production assistant for aspiring writers--the thing that gets you in the door.

angel said...

Ken,

Someday, can you do a entry about why a writer chooses to write with a partner? Writing tends to be solitary pursuit and I find the fact that you write with a partner, interesting.

I am still new here, so if this has been addressed before...carry on.

Annie said...

bitter animator is right - that speech needs a smidge more exposition about dirty hippies and bleeding heart liberals. And how come no one told me I have a trust fund? Not fair, not fair, not fair!
For the record, I WAS shot at before I hit 30. He missed.
I think PA and WA jobs give you a sense of the process and keep you close to the action. They don't, however, give you talent.
rafe - not sure about screenwriting, but for sitcoms, I think you have to be in LA. Punching up a script at a writers' table is one of the most thrilling & grueling things I've ever done. (remember, I've been shot at, so that's sayin' something)
angel - writing with a partner can motivate you thru competition, keep you moving forward, and give you another perspective on your writing. Of course, you could irritate him to the point of him shooting at you.
Now excuse me - I have a fencing/yodelling appt with emily and I have to get the horses ready.

jbryant said...

Wendell Mayes was awesome, especially the 3 films he did for Otto Preminger, all of which I've seen and enjoyed multiple times.

Emily Blake said...

I was gonna say a little bit of what tcinla said, but I wasn't going to be quite insulting or bitter about it.

But it's true that you don't absolutely need a job in the industry. Just living here and meeting people will also get you connections, just a little slower. I've been a high school teacher in LA for three years and I know tons of people in the industry and can still make short films on my own time, but I also have the added benefit of having soaked up all the stories I could from my kids and being able to pay my bills.

D. McEwan said...

jlb"Most of you would do well if you had the guts to join the Army."

Yes, but it's just so damned hard to write anything good after you've been blown to smithereens by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Could you let me know where my parents hid that trust fund they never told me about? As I am unaware of it's existence.

It's true I've never been shot at. It's sort of a goal of mine, to never be shot at. I have had a gun pointed at me, once in a bank when I was working as a bank teller (not that I learned anything about what motivates real people working in banks.), by a person to whom I immediately gave $5000 to not shoot me. The other time the person pointing a shotgun at me was Jackie Cooper, yes, THE Jackie Cooper, that bastard! And he fired! Then the director yelled "Cut!" Man, you can't write shit until Jackie Cooper has fired a shotgun full of blanks at you.

tcinla, the resentment, envy and rage in your rant is really scary.

I'd rather have a country full of the "Over-eductated" (A null concept. You can never know too much, Hitchcock movie notwithstanding.), than one full of the undereducated, as we have now, electing dolts like Bush.

My dad was in the army during that little skirmish with Germany and Japan a few years back. He never wrote squat. 35 years ago, I went to a lot of trouble to stay out of the army and out of Vietnam, and I have two books in print.

However, your advice to listen to people around you, and notice what motivates people is sound advice, even if it sort of ignores that one can also pay attention to your own motivations. We are all, after all, real people also. You don't have to be shot at to have real life experiences. Anyone who has made it to 40, has 40 years of real life experiences. Maybe you might be writing about people who have never been shot at. Lot's of us have never dodged bullets you know.

I took a look at Wendell Mayes credits. Fortunately, I kept looking even after I finished laughing at being whipped with the resume of the man who wrote THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and HOTEL, two of the worst pieces of crap I ever paid to see, and got down to ANATOMY OF A MURDER, which is certainly a fine movie. I also see THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS in his credits, a movie my dad took me to when I was 7. Good picture.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I was shot at before I was 21, several times. It didn't help my writing but I tend to be calm in the face of disaster.

l.a.guy said...

"With the stories about how many agents and other power players started out in the mail room of talent agencies, I don't understand why you'd consider it hellish, Ken."

It's certainly a good place to learn about the business of writing. I know I learned more about "Hollywood" working one year at an agency than in four years of college. Of course I was a physical education major, so that may have had something to do with it.

(Film Major)

Anonymous said...

I think some of you are missing the point TCinLA was trying to make. If you don't have life experiences, your writing will be shallow and lack any authenticity. But even things like raising a child, being in love, getting divorced, and serving in the military will give your stories depth. How can someone write a love story if they've never felt the pleasure and pain that love provides?

Working somewhere that isn't part of the movie business will give you a unique perspective that will show up in your writing. It's that unique perspective that will give you an edge when someone is reading your work.

Anonymous said...

A note to D. Mcewan.

Don't piss on someone else's credits when you don't have any. Even if that writer's ONLY credits had been "Poseiden" and "Hotel", his writing achievements far surpassed your most prolific and award winning blog commentaries. Really. I'm constantly amazed by the balls of the people who can't write to disparage the people who can. How pathetic. And if you want to know why I am anonymous, it is because I have many credits, some very poor, some medicore, and actually a few that most people would find impressive. But I don't use my credits as a bludgeon, nor do I take shots at other people's credits. Perhaps if you ever get something published in a non-blog forum, you will understand.

TCinLA said...

Bitter Animator said:

I'm surprised the dirty hippies and bleeding heart liberals didn't make it in there somewhere.

Why? I am both a dirty hippie (since the first of the dirty hippies) and a bleeding heart liberal (since back when I was in the civil rights movement), not to mention tha - in my neighborhood - I am "the crazy cat lady." I even think of myself as a "happy warrior."

As far as saying it 18 years ago, B-A, I've been pushing that boulder up the mountainside since before the last strike.

Sorry if the rant sounded bitter, unless you mean "bitter" the way Obama meant it in his original speech. I'm sure anyone will tell you it was more fun when there were more opportunities to do movies that were about something (from Wendell and his friend Billy Wilder, I learned it was no easier back then than now).

But my point is this: writing about writing, making movies about movies (or TV shows) is ultimately crap and if you had any desire when you first came here to do something you might be willing to show your friends back home and to show up all the Kewl Kids who used to laugh at you, you need to actually become a Writer, a high and good calling.

And then follow Churchill's advice: "never give up, never give up, never give up, never give up." The people you need to meet are out there, you're just unlikely to find them working as a WA or a PA.

To the writer who laughed about Wendell having done "Hotel" and "Poseidon Adventure" - nobody laughed harder than he that he was nominated for an Oscar the first time for "Anatomy of a Murder" (and then the other two Preminger movies) and then won for a piece of dreck like "Poseidon." He used to always think of it as "Hollywood Justice," keeping him from being too in love with himself.

As to choosing to write with a partner, I have done it both ways. If you choose the right person, they do things you don't (I've always been more of a structuralist with an ear for dialogue, so partners who do good characterization help). Beware if you break up (I did, twice, out of successful partnerships) - if writers are "observers of others," you know your partner (as to why they do what they do, think as they think, etc.) better than their spouse does, and it's a truism that the closer the relationship the more bitter the divorce. A good friend whose first script was "The Elephant Man" will tell you he never really recovered the breakup of he and his partner after they got screwed on "Dune."

That said, my current screenplay, a little tale set in Afghanistan written over the net with a very good writer who was doing the research for the "action sequences" firsthand while we were writing the script, brought a committment to deep character truth and an awareness of detail I would never have accomplished in adapting his work myself - and the proof of that is that the scenes that make people drop the script are the ones he and I worked hardest on together to get to the real truth beneath everything. When you do that, you know why you chose to write with a partner.

TCinLA said...

"Anonymous" - I'd like to meet. I think we speak the same language.

tcinla1311-at-sbcglobal-dot-net

Rory L. Aronsky said...

and then won for a piece of dreck like "Poseidon."

Actually, the honor of total sucktitude belongs to the remake, of the name above. At least the original had some semblance of characters in it.

TCinLA said...

Actually, the honor of total sucktitude belongs to the remake, of the name above. At least the original had some semblance of characters in it.

Of course it did - it was written by a writer, rather than one of the (not so) creative typists who "write" most big studio pictures nowadays.

jbryant said...

Actually, Wendell Mayes' only Oscar nomination was for adapting Anatomy of a Murder. He was up against Ben-Hur, but that didn't win either (though it won in every other category in which it was nominated). Room at the Top took the honor, but I think Mayes should have won, and then another for Advise and Consent, which was completely shut out by the Academy in 1962.

d. - great Jackie Cooper story. I heard that the only way they could get him to fire that gun at you was by having a guy off-camera threatening to shoot his dog. That cruel old trick worked every time on Jackie.

D. McEwan said...

rbvgrf"A note to D. Mcewan.

Don't piss on someone else's credits when you don't have any.

... Perhaps if you ever get something published in a non-blog forum, you will understand."

Anonymous dear, Who said I don't have any? As I mentioned in the comment, I have two books published, in print, available from Amazon.com or anywhere else. One published by Kensington Books, the other by Alyson Books. I spent the hours since I posted that comment working on a chapter of my next book.

Additionally, I had 12 TV scripts produced back in the 1970s at KHJ-TV (Yes, cheapjack local TV, although they were syndicated nationally), one play produced, and numerous comedy reviews to which I contributed some or all of the sketches produced, as well as a lot of produced radio comedy. I've been earning money writing comedy since 1967, although my first produced works were two short plays my elementary school staged, written in 1960, when I was 10.

Nothing I've written can touch ANATOMY OF A MURDER or ADVISE AND CONSENT. (a movie I really, really liked.) All of it, including the plays written at age 10, is better than HOTEL.

"But even things like raising a child, being in love, getting divorced, and serving in the military will give your stories depth."

Certainly true. Of course, EVERYONE falls in love, and just about everyone gets their hearts broken. Even people who have only worked in the entertainment industry (And I have certainly had non-show biz jobs. I've bank tellered, driven trucks interstate, and even parked cars.) raise kids, lose loved ones, face death, etc. You can't live without having life experiences, no matter what your job is.

"Actually, the honor of total sucktitude belongs to the remake, of the name above."

Rory, so which sucked worse, the TV remake or the theatrical remake? I subjected myself to neither.

D. McEwan said...

JB,

Well the Jackie Cooper incident was in 1974 (For an episode of POLICE STORY), so Jackie was a bit past the "We will shoot your dog." stage, although I've heard he has a room full of National Lampoons purchased just in case.

(Actually, the author of the "Buy this National Lampoon or we'll shoot this dog" gag was Ed Bluestone, who used to be a friend of mine back in my Comedy store MC days.)

(Sorry about the alphabet soup at the top of my last comment. Them damn word varification jumbles get into the text sometimes.)

Anonymous said...

D. McEwan said:

"I have two books published, in print, available from Amazon.com or anywhere else. One published by Kensington Books, the other by Alyson Books. I spent the hours since I posted that comment working on a chapter of my next book."

"Additionally, I had 12 TV scripts produced back in the 1970s at KHJ-TV (Yes, cheapjack local TV, although they were syndicated nationally), one play produced, and numerous comedy reviews to which I contributed some or all of the sketches produced, as well as a lot of produced radio comedy. I've been earning money writing comedy since 1967, although my first produced works were two short plays my elementary school staged, written in 1960, when I was 10"...

Okay, D Mcewan, see, now I'm not going to do to YOUR credits what you did to Mr. Maye's. And as extensive as your credits are, including local tv and some radio comedy, not to mention the elementary school productions, well, I think that everyone can judge your body of work for what it is. The same as they could have judged the body of work of Mr. Maye's without your cheap shots which really just mask enormous jealousy. Again, pathetic, but nothing that myself or a lot of other real,working writers out here haven't seen before. Enjoy your "career", Mr. McEwan. Just remember next time, before you take a shot at a man who wrote some major MOTION PICTURES, that you might extend some kindness instead of mean-spirited disparagement, not unlike the kindness I have extended to your "credits" here.

I am through commenting on this. To continue it any further would only serve to feed your ego for attention. And I wouldn't want to take you away from working on your next radio comedy bit.

jbryant said...

While I'm all about respecting Wendell Mayes' impressive career, I'm not sure I follow anonymous' point. Having done excellent work gives us a pass on our lesser efforts? Oh, if only.

d. - I've always wondered if Jackie Cooper saw the humor in that Lampoon cover.

Brian Scully said...

Billy Wilder once said, "A writer is as good as the best thing he has ever done." I always thought that he really got that right. What a wonderful way to be judged at the end of one's life and career.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Rory, so which sucked worse, the TV remake or the theatrical remake? I subjected myself to neither.

I saw a bit of the TV remake when it re-aired I think on the Hallmark Channel, and even that was better than the theatrical remake.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

By the way, the major difference between the theatrical remake and the television remake is that the one I unfortunately sat through as an IMAX presentation (the last time my local movie theater had the IMAX format; it ticked me off that they didn't show "The Polar Express" again the Christmas before) retained the tidal wave aspect. The television remake involves terrorists disguised as the kitchen staff who cause the capsizing.

BigTed said...

Get together with your chums at the Harvard Club and talk over all the smashing pranks you used to play with the boys at the "Lampoon." That always works! (If it doesn't, you'll have to ask your dad to give Rupert or Sumner a call.)

D. McEwan said...

Anonymous old bean,

In both my comments on Mayes I expressed respect for his best work, while snarking at his worst, and did neither anonymously, whereas you're still taking shots at me anonymously. Is he, and does he seserve to be, a more respected writer than me? Of course. But when I paid my admissions to HOTEL and THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE, I paid for the right to note whether or not they were worth my money, like every one else. and they were not.

I brought up my own, certainly-far-lesser credits only when you presumed to announce that had none. You wrote, "Perhaps if you ever get something published in a non-blog forum, you will understand.", so it became necessary to point out that I have been.

Yup, I have never written any motion pictures, even lousy ones, let alone great ones for a major director, but I've been a "Real, working writer" for 40 years.

You wrote "I think that everyone can judge your body of work for what it is." Yes they can, which is more than I can say for yours, since I at least have the guts to sign my snarks, Anonymous.

D. McEwan said...

"The television remake involves terrorists disguised as the kitchen staff who cause the capsizing."

Yikes! I'll never put the salad fork on the wrong side again!

alan said...

I wish I had read this 15 years ago. Thank you from the next generation who will hopefully read this and not make the same mistakes I did.

Paul said...

Excellent list, Ken. However, I'd disagree with the advice to become a production assistant. Those jobs are 10-16 hours per day, which leaves you no time to write. Studios are overflowing with "writers" who, when asked, can't point to a single thing they've written. I used to be one of them, and I'm glad I've quit the PA world so I can write every day.

As many of the greats have said, if you want to do something, don't sit around waiting for someone to hire you for it. Go out and do it every day as much as possible. Contacts are worthless if you have nothing to show them.

As for competitions, I've always liked Slamdance. Winning their teleplay (TV) competition won't necessarily get you anywhere, but they give good, thorough notes.

anton said...

Newgamblecasino.com casino poker game online