I moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. But that was before the internet made the world a lot smaller. So what’s the value of living in L.A. now? Is it necessary?
Of course you can write anywhere, and you can learn about writing (and even take courses and get professional feedback) from anywhere. And you can send in your work to potential managers (usually the first step to selling or working professionally) remotely, as well.
In the best case scenario, when these managers love your stuff and want to meet you, you can fly out to L.A. And then leave. And then come back again if you have meetings with producers and such.
This can definitely work for writing features. For TV, it can be dicier. While everyone hopes to sell their original pilot and have it produced and reach an audience, the more practical reason to come up with a series idea and write a TV pilot on spec is to use it as a writing sample to try to start a TV career. And where do TV careers start? Working on someone else’s show, as part of the writing staff. Which means — if you’re one of the fortunate few who lands such a job — going to an office every day. In L.A.
Yes, I know some shows shoot outside L.A., and some of them are written in the same place where they’re shot, but those writers are virtually always L.A.-based, and they move to that location temporarily while they’re on the job.
But say that’s not your interest. Say you’re just starting out, and maybe you’re only writing features. Or you figure that if you stumble into success in TV, you can always consider moving to L.A. when that happens. Fair enough. (Although people don’t really “stumble” into those coveted jobs.)
Do you really need to move to Los Angeles? No.
But somehow writers who find success usually turn out to be ones who did.
Why is that?
A couple things…
To succeed in this field tends to require an extraordinary amount of commitment and chutzpah. It’s not just a hobby. It doesn’t tend to happen for writers with just one script, even if they’ve endlessly rewritten it. It tends to happen for people who are working at this constantly, somehow, daily and passionately, and putting everything into it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a day job and some other sort of life. But your level of passion, belief and diligence probably has to be really high. You might even have to be certain that this is the life you want, the only life you want, and you’re going to have it.
People who decide that tend to move to L.A. Because it’s “what you do.” So maybe part of the reason why most who succeed already lived in L.A. has to do with that. Their attitude and approach to this undertaking caused them to make a lot of good choices along the way. And one of those, coincidentally, was moving to L.A.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Living in L.A. can jumpstart one’s success for three other reasons:
- If you can surround yourself with people doing what you want to do and learn from the inside, you’ll tend to learn better and faster.
- As you do that, it will help you make it all seem “real and possible” in your own mind.
- In the best case scenario, you’ll also make contacts within the industry. And you’ll naturally be something of an insider already, if and when your work reaches the point where it’s ready. So you’ll have an easier path in moving it forward.
Obviously what I’m talking about here is not just living in L.A. and working at a restaurant. I’m talking about working in the industry as a day job. This usually means starting at an entry level. For writers, it traditionally means entry level office assistant jobs, as opposed to on-set production jobs. And those tend to start with “temping.” If you were to Google “Temp Agencies Los Angeles Entertainment,” you would quickly find the handful of companies that place secretarial “temps” at the major entertainment companies. All of them are looking for new people. It’s easy to apply, and to get placed in short-term assignments. Which can lead to long-term assignments. And assignments in tangentially related entertainment offices can lead to ones that are right where a writer wants to be. Like working for a production company that’s developing material. Or even better, a writer’s assistant job on a TV show.
These are all things that I did when I started out. And trust me, they helped.
When you look at writers who get their first representation and first sales, so often they were already working in the industry in an assistant job, or sometimes as an executive. But it’s not just that they were able to meet the right people in those jobs. The right people mean nothing if the writing isn’t there. Working in those environments and being part of the industry also probably helped them to get it there.
If you’re an assistant, you might get to know people at your level, where you help each other, give feedback, etc. It’s also nice to be local for in-person events, classes and resources that can’t be replicated online. (Though the number of those is shrinking.) But I think the biggest is becoming familiar with the industry and how people think, and how things operate. Being around professional scripts, writers and producers helps you get a feel for things. And it helps you build in yourself that belief that this could be you, and it should be you, and you’re one of them, and you’re ready.
It gives me no pleasure to point all this out. Because I know for a lot of people who are serious about screenwriting, moving to L.A. just isn’t in the cards. Their life situation doesn’t seem to allow it. And maybe they wouldn’t be good candidates for those kinds of “day jobs,” even if they did. (It’s true that they mostly go to people in their 20’s.) But I wouldn’t be honest if I said it makes no difference at all, and it’s equally as easy to get your work to a professional level (the first and hardest part, by far), and to do these other things, from somewhere else.
If nothing else, I would recommend to writers outside of L.A. that they take these things to heart, and try to do what’s described here to the best of their ability, anyway. So much of it is about having the right approach, and about honest and high-quality self-education. And you can do that anywhere. It might not be as easy, but hey, there are a lot of reasons why living in L.A. isn’t easy. Or ideal. It’s definitely not for everyone. But as someone from Ohio originally, I have to admit that the weather is pretty awesome.
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads. And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.