TUESDAY'S BIZ TIP:
When I first came to Los Angeles I didn't have any connections at all. I was an ex-forklift jockey from Concord, California who had dropped out of a 2 year community college after 3 years and who had accidentally sold a script to a company with a deal at Paramount. I didn't have an agent, didn't know any producers, and didn't know how to get my scripts into the hands of people who might buy them and make them. I thought all of that would just take care of itself - you sell a script to a company at Paramount, you instantly have a career, right?
Wrong. The film was never made, whatever heat I had eventually faded without an agent or manager to push my career. I began to realize that I needed to get my scripts to producers or *anyone* who could help me. I needed connections and I needed them *now* - but how do you develop Hollywood connections when you've just moved to town? I didn't know anybody!
People often complain that there is this giant wall around Hollywood to keep out new writers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Or that there is some sort of a cabal with a secret handshake that keeps those who are not in the inner circle out of the business. Again, not true. Hollywood is looking for new writers - they are cheaper than the old established ones. They are looking for new blood, because they have new ideas and interesting ways to tell stories. But the big difference between the film business and a job driving a forklift is that I filled out a job application to work in the warehouse... and there are no job applications to be a screenwriter. Your script is the application, but where do you turn it in? Where is the Human Resources Office?
Though most of my career has been accidental - one of my scripts gets passed around town until it lands on the desk of someone who either wants to buy it or meet with me to talk about other projects - the normal way to get a script read is through connections.
The way I got my job at Safeway Grocery was through connections. There was a Safeway store manager I had a nodding acquaintance with and I asked him how to get a job there. He told me where to fill out an application and said I could use his name in the "recommended by" space. That's one of the things that also helps in Hollywood... having someone who will recommend you, or someone you kind of know who can help you out. But where do you find these people?
Being a Production Assistant sounds like an important and glamorous job doesn't it? That is the official title of a go-fer, the lowest ranking job on a film set. They go for coffee and go to get something or stand on the sidewalk and prevent people from getting too close to the filming. If someone spills something on the set, the PA is probably the one mopping it up. Oh, and the wages suck. The great thing about being a PA is that it is an entry level job that requires zero experience or talent. You just have to work hard for very little pay. But you get to be on set while they are filming the movie every day, and if you aren't a complete bozo you may be trusted with doing boring go-fer work for the director or cast members or other key crew people. And like everything else in Hollywood, the PA working next to you may be just as important as the star they try to keep you away from.
Just about every PA is there to make connections and climb the ladder to a better job.. Want to find the recent grads from the USC or UCLA film program - the directors and producers of tomorrow? They're making next to nothing as a PA on some film set, looking for a way in.
Of course, being a PA is a stepping stone... but sometimes you aren't going to be able to make any good connections as a PA except with other PAs... so you might consider moving up to some other crew job that has you working directly with the director. Props, Boom Op, Craft Services and several other important set jobs don't take much technical skill but get you much closer to the action. You will move your way up from basically a PA who works as Prop Assistant to eventually becoming Prop Master... and that's a department head who deals directly with the director and has a relationship with the producers. Frank Darabont began his film career doing props.
There are also Office PAs who hang around the production office all day making copies and answering phones.
Producers work out of offices. Offices need receptionists and mail room people and all kinds of other cruddy jobs that also don't pay well but put you in the very same building as the people you are trying to sell scripts to. Of course, most of the people working in some agency or studio mail room are UCLA or USC film school grads... or Harvard Biz grads... trying to make connections. Small production companies are more likely to hire someone who isn't summa cum lade from Harvard. Don't think because it's a small company that there aren't connections available. One of the things that frequently happens in offices is that you may be asked to handle some of the reading - and end up doing coverage on scripts from professional writers. This often helps a new writer see just what is expected from a screenplay - and maybe even be the one to reject some pro writer's latest screenplay. Office work also may mean you're answering the phone when Spielberg calls (a friend of mine must have told Spielberg "Just a minute, I'll connect you" a hundred times). Though I don't think suddenly pitching your script to Spielberg will result in anything other than you losing your job, and maybe some sort of restraining order; you may be building up some connections that you can use later.
Okay, now imagine that office job without even the meager pay check every week. Sweet! Because so many people are trying to break into the business, the law of supply and demand has pretty much screwed us all. Many companies hire interns (unpaid) to do all kinds of work - from working as assistants to answering phones to reading scripts and writing up coverage. There seems to be an endless pool of labor who will work for free at some production company - because they are making connections that they can use later. Working without pay is a young man's game - it's hard enough to get by on the minuscule pay they give to paid office help... Probably the reason why so many actors are waiters is that you get tips. No tips for interns, though I know of some people who end up with gift baskets and all of the other free stuff that ends up in a production company office. Though there are plenty of people willing to work for nothing to get the connections, I'd look at *who* you are working for and what kind of connections you can get out of it. When I was writing a column for Hollywood Scriptwriter, they had an office full of interns.... and I'm not sure what any of those kids got out of it aside from college credits. Sure, they put together the oldest screenwriting newsletter in the biz - but I may have been the biggest name they ever met.
When I first moved to Los Angeles I didn't know a single person, so I joined the Scriptwriter's Network, which is probably the oldest group of screenwriters in Los Angeles. When I joined, it was fewer than 30 writers who met in a community meeting room on Ventura Blvd. Then went across the street to Dupars for coffee afterwards. We swapped scripts and contacts and war stories. Now the organization is *hundreds* of writers, and there are two monthly meetings - one with a big name writer or producer or agent plus another meeting with educational content. They also have a screenwriting contest, and a thing called Producer's Outreach where they have a list of producers interested in reading approved scripts from the Network. Most of my long time friends in Los Angeles came from joining Scriptwriter's Network - they provided me with more than potential contacts, they had people with the same interests as I have who were looking for people to hang out with.
There are some other great screenwriting groups in Los Angeles, including the Alameda Writers Group (which you think would be in Alameda, but I think it may have started on Alameda Blvd in Burbank) which also has great guest speakers (I was one) and some great programs to match writers to producers and directors. I was a member of a group that met in the Westside for a while, too. There are probably as many writers groups in the Los Angeles area as there are writers - and each has a different mission. Swapping scripts for notes, guest speakers, etc. When you come to town, find a group.
FIND / AFI / IFP
One of the mistakes that screenwriters often make is *only* joining groups of other screenwriters. Though it's great to meet people who share your interests and you can swap scripts with, you also want to make connections with people who can further your career - like producers and directors and even actors. The Independent Feature Project is a national organization of independent film makers... and in Los Angeles they have morphed into FIND (Film Independent). The great thing about FIND is that for a low yearly membership fee you not only have access to all kinds of classes and film equipment and a library of books and information on making movies (which includes screenwriting), you also get to go to the movies for free! They have screenings throughout the year, and at awards time they have these marathon screenings of films that are either nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, or the producers hope will be nominated (and you get to vote!). The marathons are usually these weekend things where they show movies from noon until midnight, and you can catch up on all of the indie films you may have missed in a couple of weekends.
The regular screenings throughout the year usually have cast or director or producer doing Q&A afterwards, and you can usually talk with them afterwards. Events like this are great for making connections... and as with every other event - the people sitting next to you are connections, too. A friend of mine met a line producer at a screening that was interested in producing his own films, and optioned my friend's script and took it out on the town. People my friend could never get the script to would gladly read it from a producer with a bunch of credits on movies. I also know a writer who wrote some shorts for a director he met through FIND that ended up playing at festivals. The other thing FIND does is connect you through classified ads in their newsletter and other methods - if you need something or someone, you can use their network to find them.
AFI - the American Film Institute is more prestigious than FIND/IFP and more pricey... but you may end up at a party with Marty. A friend of mine is an AFI member, and brought me along to a party where I was surrounded by famous people... I kind of choked, but ended up having a conversation with this nice guy who produced a couple of Oscar winning movies... and wanted to read a sample script from me. Nothing came from this - I didn't think it would, I didn't have that Oscar winning screenplay sample, but it was an honor to be read and rejected.
Organizations are a great place to meet people, both famous people and other folks like yourself who may be on their way up and need a screenplay or a rewrite. And another great place to meet people when you're new in town.
OTHER PERIPHERAL BUSINESSES
Though I joined the Scriptwriter's Network and IFP and drank plenty of coffee, when I was scrambling to find a place to sell my scripts, I thought, "If I couldn't get my scripts into the actual hands of Producers, my best bet was to get them into the hands of people who regularly deal with Producers. Who, other than agents, talked with Producers about films on a daily basis?"
I read an ad in The Hollywood Reporter for a "below the line" employment agency. (When budgeting a film, the actual budget is divided into two parts: Talent and Technical. Talent is "Above The Line" and technical is "Below The Line". As a screenwriter, you are "above the line", but you'll be treated as if you were "below the line"). This agency handles everything from Directors of Photography to Key Grips to go-fers. If a Producer needs some crew people to work on his film, he calls an agency like this one. The agency talks to Producers EVERY day.
Because I live in town, I was able to stop by the employment agency's office and
talk to the owner. You could write a letter from ANYWHERE. I told him who I was, how I'd sold a couple of scripts, and how I would pay him a 10% finders fee if he found a Producer who would buy one of my scripts. Basically, I turned him into an agent. Part of his job involved reading scripts, and after he read mine, he had no qualms about recommending it to the Producers who called for crew members. Paying him 10% was no problem: That's what I would pay an AGENT for doing the exact same thing.
The bad news: This employment agency has never sold any of my scripts...
The good news: On one of the projects set up by this employment agency, I met a
personal manager for some low budget actors. He read one of my scripts, to see if his actress would be interested in playing the lead. Although he didn't think it was right for her, he DID like the script. A few years back he called to ask if I'd sold the script yet... He had a buyer. He didn't want 10% from me, because he was already getting 10% FROM THE PRODUCER as a finders fee for my script. PLUS, he'd be getting 10% from a some of his actors who will be playing major roles in the film. He would have ended up making more money off this deal than I would! Ten 10% equals 100%, after all!
The bad news: This deal fell through! But every time your script gets out into the world, every time someone reads your script, that's a CHANCE to make a sale. You have to get your scripts out there!
Though employment agencies proved not be the best place, you can make your own
connections. You just have to start looking. If you don't know anybody at the top, start at the bottom. Remember that every receptionist in Hollywood is a wanna-be agent or producer. You can't get through to the producer, but everyone can get a receptionist on the line. That's a connection!
The thing about "breaking in" to the business is that there are a million different ways to do it - a million different ways to make connections and find your way over that mythical wall that surrounds Hollywood. There are so many different ways to make connections, that this is PART ONE and there will be a follow up with even more ways to make connections when you move to Los Angeles! First thing to do is look around you - and use the same amount of imagination you use writing screenplays to find an interesting and creative way in.
Your career is in your hands - do something with it!
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