Reports | Screenwriting

LA Redux

1 Aug , 2007  

Written by Randy Steinberg | Posted by:

A New England-based screenwriter unloads a bag full of scripts in Los Angeles, again.
In February of 2005, I traveled to Los Angeles for meetings with industry producers, development executives, and agents.  I reported on my trip for  Two and a half years and six new scripts later, in June of 2007, I returned to LA for more meetings.  How had my career progressed?  What was my strategy on this trip?  What can I pass on to other aspiring screenwriters from New England who may be contemplating a trip to LA?

It’s hard to measure success in screenwriting.  What, you may ask, can that mean?  What about the dozens of new movies we see debuting each week?  Who’s writing those films?  Those writers must be doing quite well, you imagine.  It’s true: if you write a blockbuster film you will receive a nice paycheck.  But there is very little room at the top, and for every screenwriter who earns a six-figure paycheck for writing a script, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of struggling scribes who have not made a penny in the “business they have chosen.”

To get into such an exclusive club — to even earn a decent paycheck — is not easy.  You’re either in or you’re out in many people’s eyes.  You’ve either sold or optioned a screenplay for big money or you haven’t.  To the layperson, explaining small successes in screenwriting probably won’t resonate.  Telling your friends you got a top agent to read a script when you couldn’t get that done six months ago doesn’t mean much to them.  Graduating from placing in a regional screenwriting contest to having producers and executives of note interested in your work might be a nice benchmark for you, but to the world at large it won’t register.

There is a large middle ground of success that will never be appreciated by those not working in the field. There isn’t even a good analogy:  a young lawyer gets a promotion to partner, an intern becomes a resident.  These are tangible steps up that anyone can process.  In screenwriting, there is no such comparison; again, to many, you’ve either sold something or you haven’t.

But until you make that big sale and break-through, there are benchmarks that a screenwriter can point to as indicators of progress — even success.  I am one of those thousands of screenwriters who have yet to make the big sale, but two and a half years after my first trip to Los Angeles, I believe I have made progress.  The trip was useful for me to assess how, even lacking a significant sale, that is so.

My strategy in heading to LA was simple:  I, along with my writing partner, tried to pack as many meetings into six days as we possibly could.  We brought a bag of scripts, and the goal was to give away enough scripts that it would be unnecessary to check this bag at the airport on the return trip.

This strategy did not vary much from the previous trip, but one noticeable difference was the size of our network of contacts and the range of our material. In the intervening time, we had more of our own scripts to shop as well as those of other writers (we had also begun to represent other writers’ screenplays).  The more you have to offer, and the larger the amount of people you can offer your work to, the closer you will be to moving out of the gray middle zone and into the sale category.

To be more specific, we started with a list of about 75 contacts.  We knew some people and networked others.  When you live in Boston and you want to meet folks in LA, you have to meet via network with just about everyone at some point — though a few folks were blind email queries once upon a time.  But to get names and contacts through a network is also a success because people will only recommend you and your writing to others if they take you seriously:  If they didn’t have confidence in you they wouldn’t make the referral.

With limited time, it was a balancing act to decide which folks might be the most productive in terms of meeting our goals.  We used a large Excel spreadsheet to keep track of whom we contacted when and the results of the contact.  Just about all of this was done via email, though we eventually did call some people when pinning down a meeting day and time.  We ended up with 10-12 meetings that we felt were solid.  It’s also a measure of success that we actually had to decide not to meet with some folks.

And now the whirlwind summary of the trip.  Fresh off the plane, on a Wednesday, we drove to Screen Gems where we met with several production executives.  One tip about LA, get a GPS device.  It saves so much time and aggravation to be told exactly where to turn and how far you have to go.  This device is a lifesaver where cars are essential and traffic is an unavoidable fact of life.  But back to the meetings.

The following day we met an independent producer at the lovely Grove Mall in the La Brea area of Los Angeles.  That evening we met a Mandalay Television executive at the posh L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills.  Billed as “the writer’s bar,” there are famous scripts tacked to the walls and hotshot agents and models congregating throughout the lounge.

On Friday, we made our first trip across town to Santa Monica for a meeting with the head of development at Orly Adelson Productions.  From there it was back to LA proper for a rendezvous with a development person at actor Tyrese Gibson’s production company HQ Pictures.  Keep an eye on Gibson who stars in the recently released Michael Bay blockbuster Transformers.

On Saturday, we headed to the beach and met with a writer/producer from Four Oaks Productions and had a nice dinner at La Scala (famed star-gazing restaurant) in Beverly Hills.

Sunday was a day off and a day of celebration as we attended the Los Angeles Film Festival in support of Boston writer James Carroll.  Carroll adapted his acclaimed book Constantine’s Sword, which is a review of the Roman Catholic Church’s relationship with the Jews, into a feature-length documentary.  The film is a deeply personal and political work and is eye-opening to say the least.  At the after-party, we rubbed elbows with Hollywood producing legend Bernie Brillstein who attended the film in support of Carroll.

It was back to business on Monday.  We hustled to the Warner Brothers lot in the morning, grabbed coffee with a development executive from David Greathouse Productions in the afternoon, and sat down with Mickey Freiberg of the Acme Literary and Talent Agency in the evening.

On Tuesday, we hit up another agency, Metropolitan Talent, in the morning before journeying to Bel Air in the afternoon for a meeting at Ufland Productions.  And just before jumping on a plane back to Boston, we stopped off at Universal Studios to meet with a producer currently working on the latest Bourne film.

The trip was stressful, and it was good to get back to Boston and let out a breath.  The goal of leaving enough material behind so as to be one bag short on the return trip was happily met.  Besides, few people will take a meeting if they are not interested on some level.  The proof is in what happens down the line; some people fall off the radar and some remain interested in you and your work.  That’s part of the game.

One smart piece of advice we did receive was to make our trips to LA more frequent.  Two and a half years between sojourns, when trying to break through, might be too long.  “Out of sight, out of mind” is an apt apothegm to live by in the screenwriting business.  You must be seen and read to gain attention.  This can be done remotely, but more than one successful producer told us it might be a better idea to come to LA more often.

So back in Boston we have done follow ups (a mix of calls, emails, and hand-written notes), and that’s a crucial tactic as well.  You must gently remind people you left your work and are waiting for a reply.  But it’s another balancing act not to be too pushy.  Agents, producers, and others have mountains of material to read and they might not be able to get to your script for a few months after you’ve left it.  But once they do read it, you cannot be annoyed if they pass on it because they may buy or rep the third script you send them.  Making and keeping your contacts is a large part of the battle.

Do I believe myself higher in that middle zone of screenwriting success?  Do I think I am closer to the elusive breakthrough sale?  Yes to both questions, but as famed author and screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.”  So, I must also admit that I don’t know anything with certainty.  Only time and a green light will tell.