Every screenwriting manual tells you to move to LA. Now. Or yesterday. Friends and relatives ask when you will. It used to be seen as a rite of passage, a sign that you were serious about your screenwriting career.
But the way the Industry runs today, with script-hosting sites, job listings sites, and scripts and query letters all sent via email, are LA-based early-career screenwriters any better off than those in other parts of the world?
There’s no doubt that LA is still the center of the filmmaking world. And once a screenwriter finally breaks, they are expected to drop everything and be in LA within the week to attend endless rounds of meetings. But it can be years, decades even, before your work gathers that kind of momentum. Moving to LA before then can just be an expensive vacuum.
Downsides of LA Living
The cost of living is higher, and any job you actually might want invariably isn’t an actual job, it’s an internship. So you’ll have to get a second job just to pay for gas, and rent will drain your savings.
If you do somehow still find the time and energy to write, what original thing will you write about? Every LA exec has already been where you are right now. They’ve thought what you’re thinking. Besides, the unwritten rule is that only after you’ve become successful are you allowed to write about Hollywood’s insides.
William Goldman says, “I find LA a very difficult and potentially dangerous place to work in, and I think anyone serious contemplating a career as a screenwriter ought to move there as soon as it’s humanly or financially possible.”
Goldman wrote that back in the decades before the internet. He has lived in New York pretty much all his life. But he has a point: if you’re still only contemplating a career as a screenwriter, a stint in LA will help the scales fall from your eyes.
Many of us, however, have already firmly decided that screenwriting is our milieu. So, move immediately to LA. Or not? That’s the question.
For those of us without American citizenship, the answer’s made for us. We can visit for non-work purposes, we can be sponsored by an American company or, if we work hard and gain the required credits, we can apply for a 0-1 Visa, granted to those with “extraordinary ability.”
If you’re American, congratulations. You’ve already passed the first hurdle. You can pick up and move to LA any time you want to. But should you?
On the plus side, a writer should always put themselves in the biggest pond, and for screenwriting, there’s no bigger pond than LA. But on the downside, there are literally tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of individuals in the Greater LA area who are writing what they truly believe is the next Great American Screenplay. Move to LA and it is very likely you’ll be drowned out in the white noise.
Plus, there’s a trend in the fashion, media, music, film and television industries at the moment whereby all the most-coveted internships (that once went to the talented but unconnected) are now going to the kids of the rich and famous.
In the past, these celebrity-progeny rarely felt the need to be anything but famous-by-birth. Now they all want to be “self-made,” just like you. And they have several very distinct advantages over you.
Simon Doonan has a great chapter on this in his most recent book The Asylum: True Tales of Madness from a Life in Fashion. Fashion is his industry, but his information is equally valid for the screen industries.
How to Up Your Odds
If LA’s not the smart move before a screenwriter breaks, what is?
Just like fame-progeny have their unique selling point, so too must you. Were you an Army brat who grew up all over the place? Do you identify as LGBT? Are you from a minority whose stories are under-represented on the big screen? We all have some things that help others to group us and make us stand out from the crowd. Maybe you don’t like to see yourself that way, but having a label can help those in the Industry see the marketing potential of you. And once you’ve got an in, you can show that there’s more to you.
States with Tax Breaks
Another way to increase your odds is to do a little research into producer off-sets. Not just in America but all around the world. Cities and states stand to make huge financial gains if they can become the next go-to place for film and television companies to shoot in, so they offer financial incentives to production companies. But there are catches.
One of the conditions of these off-sets is usually that a certain percentage of the people involved in the project must be locals. There are often separate, more generous financial incentives for projects with a local screenwriter.
In the UK, for example, you don’t have to be a British citizen to apply for such programs; you just have to be residing in the UK. There are similar programs in Europe, though you generally have to be an EU citizen for those.
Subscribing to sites like LA Screenwriter and the trades allows you to keep your finger on the pulse from almost anywhere on the planet.
The Independent Route
One strong indie film from your local (or adopted) country is enough to get LA agents and producers circling. Stuart Beattie only had one indie Australian credit before Pirates of the Caribbean.
Once they start calling, you are expected to already have a professional skill set and manner. If you don’t the phones will stop ringing just as suddenly as they started. And you really are expected to be on the next plane to LA and be all set to capitalize on the moment of interest there is in you.
Open to Adventure
So get out into the big wide world. It’s only by truly living that we find which stories are unique yet universal. And look into the incentives and writers programs offered by the various states surrounding you.
Who knows, a few hours research and you might find the perfect local-residents-only emerging writers fellowship that you’ll be eligible for if you move a mere two towns away.
The screenplay you write there could just be just the exact thing jaded LA execs are searching for.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.