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Do You Have to Live in Hollywood?

By Skip Press

I wrote 'The Writer's Guide to Producers, Directors and Screenwriters' Agents' somewhat by accident. I quit Hollywood in disgust after two feature screenplays were purchased, but not filmed, this after years of options and some TV work, but no feature credit. I went back to writing articles and books for a living. One day, I noticed I was about to be out of a job, so I started promoting to publishers in the Members Directory of America Online. Two weeks later, I had a signed contract to do the first Writer's Guide.

I wrote the first edition for people not living in Los Angeles, or even New York, and writers all over the world reading my book write me on a daily basis to express their gratitude that I took an Internet emphasis in my book.

Fast-forward two years. While speaking at a conference in Dallas, Texas, I met an author of one of the myriad Complete Idiot's Guides. A few weeks later, she emailed to say her editor was looking for someone to do one on screenwriting. I got the job, never met the editor and transmitted all the work via email.

Does this means you can live outside Hollywood, do business via email and never have to come to Smogville?

It's difficult, but it can be done. I know a writer living in Maine who sold a screenplay to the Disney Channel via an agent she found in my Writer's Guide. I know another writer living in New Mexico who sold a screenplay to a German company after seeing a post on a newsgroup. I was a staff writer for a United Paramount Network show filmed in Minnesota, with the production company in Kansas. I found them via a listing on an Internet job board. In all these examples, we used email to sell scripts, and in two cases, 'Hollywood' could be defined as film and television in general. Here are some tips on how you might break into Hollywood without living here, adapted from my 'Complete Idiot's Guide.'

I maintain that if you show any kind of screenwriting talent at all, you'll get noticed. The rest depends on making friends, persistence, timing and luck, in that order. As long as you know your own strengths and write commercially interesting screenplays (the kind people will pay to see), you're in the running.

If you send a query letter to an agent or producer, it's a toss up whether they'll read the letter at all. I advise calling instead. Email only if you know they're open to hearing from you that way. When you write a query letter or an email, keep the following elements in mind:

(a) Never send a 'To Whom It May Concern' query or any query that looks like it's been sent to several people. Find out who the person is who receives scripts and learn how to spell their name;

(b) Tell them what you're trying to sell. Get right to the point;

(c) Explain why you chose to write to them, indicating you've done some research (and you'd better have really done it);

(d) Tell them who you are, succinctly. If you have any credits at all, any particular qualifications for writing your script (like being a vice cop for 20 years if it's a detective script), any prizes for your writing, tell them;

(e) State when you are available to talk about the project, if they're interested. If you work during the day and can give out your work number, do so. If you have a cell phone, give them that number. People in Hollywood pick up the phone more often than they email. Try to be as 'reachable' as you can without sounding desperate;

(f) If you'll be in their city soon, let them know that you're coming to meet with some other people (you don't have to say whom) and use that to stoke their interest in meeting busy you.

Any letter should be a page or less, emails much shorter. I doubt there is one person in 10 who will read a query letter longer than a page. The average agency, particularly any agency listed in well-known contact books like the Hollywood Creative Directory, gets thousands of query letters every year.

Forget tricks, chocolates, dancing delivery people, etc. They've seen it all. Do not waste your money getting a query letter to anyone overnight or by special delivery or use any kind of special envelope to make it get noticed. It won't help. In Hollywood, scripts are sent by messenger from place to place. How letters arrive doesn't matter; they just go in the pile.

Oddly enough, people will read an emailed script these days, or even an ebook. I found that out when producer Robert Katz ('Selena', 'Introducing Dorothy Dandridge') flipped for an ebook Western by a writer I sent to him. The catch is, when she mentioned my name, he opened the email. Then her logline (description of the project) interested him. And he read. But if the first ten pages hadn't continued to inspire his interest, he would have stopped reading. And if she had asked him to read or download her script at a Website, he would have never been there.

Writers ask me: 'How long should I wait after contacting someone before I follow up?' If you don't hear from them, you're not going to hear from them, I say. Cross that name off the list, and move on to the next. If you're convinced they're simply the perfect agency or production company for you, and it's been six weeks or more, you might post a very short, polite follow-up. Although it might seem intrusive to pick up the phone and call someone you don't know, you don't know Los Angeles. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people in Land Rovers, BMWs or SUVs cutting through expressway traffic with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a cell phone to their ear. They might as well graft it to their ear, some people use the phone so much.

Remember, personnel at many production companies change all the time. They move from one studio to another, depending on projects. They might even switch area codes. Normally, a production company will have an answering machine to give you their new numbers (including fax) that does not record messages. This means you have to be willing to spend some money on long distances charges, if you're calling from out of town. (Makes Internet phone calling sound better all the time, doesn't it?)

If you don't live in Southern California (or even if you do), you'd better get your hands on some contact information from the many sources available, and do your research, so you can ask for a specific person and ask if they're willing to look at unsolicited material. I f you get a cold 'no', just politely say thanks and hang up. If they say 'sometimes' or give you an opening, you'd better have a pitch ready. You'd better know the logline of your script cold. If, after hearing about it, they say they want to see your script, ask whether you should mail it or email it. If they say email, all the better. Nothing like striking while the iron is hot.

Remember, people in Hollywood have suffered through the same email abuse (spam) as everyone else. They'll answer email because it's quick, but some of them are very protective of their email address. Just about everyone I know in Hollywood has email. They're checking it on their laptop, their Palm Pilot, their desktop. They're swapping emails all day long, some of them. I still think email is very effective in getting someone to read your screenplay. You just need to know a very simple trick -- the subject line of your email must compel them to open the message. And don't use subject headers like 'The Greatest Script on Earth.' That one will be deleted.

Perhaps because the Joseph Campbell myth structure is so well known these days, the people who are the 'threshold guardians' of agencies and production companies are looked upon as opposing forces one must conquer. The exact opposite is true. In many classic stories, the first threshold to new and unknown territory was passed by providing the guardian with a shibboleth, a secret password. In your case, that would be the logline to your very good screenplay. You must impress the development person. If they discover your property, and it goes into production, they're likely to make a lot of extra money and be on their way to being a producer. So if you talk to someone in development and they sound cross, they've either had a hard day or they don't like your pitch. Don't worry about it. Just wish them a good day, and go on to the next one.

There are several hundred production companies with Websites. Some, like Centropolis (http://www.centropolis.com), use their site only to show off their products and provide public relations stories; they specify that they will not accept material submitted via the Website. Others, like Nicolas Cage's Saturn Films (http://www.saturnfilms.com), started off actively looking for material via their site and have since scaled back. Other companies have affiliated with websites they know will draw in writers and accept material via those sites.

The absolute best website for reaching people via email is http://www.filmtracker.com. With hundreds of top companies subscribing to and active on this site every day, no other site even comes close.

Here's another trick on finding company information via the web. You can look up the street address, phone and email contacts of just about any website at http://www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois or http://www.register.com

Many companies have registered domain names, but do not maintain websites. They merely use the domain name to set up email addresses. Or, they have a website, but do not list email addresses. If, however, you know only one email address within that company, you can figure out the listing of other names. For example, if you know John Smith is jsmith@warner.com, it's likely that Mary Smith is msmith@warner.com.

Even top agencies are now experimenting with accepting queries via the Internet. Others, like Hart Literary Management, a company run by Susan Hart, have used the Internet to build a business. Susan signed up clients all over the world while a manager, and now has her agent's license. She's set up projects at major networks and major production companies, even though she lives two hours away from Los Angeles. Her site is at http://www.silcom.com/~tibicen.

Still, the best way to gain access in Hollywood is in person. If you don't live in Southern California, get here at least for an industry-packed event like the Hollywood Film Festival at http://www.hollywoodfilmfestival.com or Selling to Hollywood at http://www.sellingtohollywood.com or the bi-annual 'Words Into Pictures' event put on by the Writers Guild of America, West. Visit http://www.wga.org/manuals/foundation.html for details.

You might also try one of the week long events put on by Sherwood Oaks Experimental College (available at http://writersstore.com/store/script_writing_production_seminars.htm . You'll get to have lunch with development people and find out what they need, one on one. This is an incredible way to meet working professionals.

So do you have to live in Hollywood to make it here? Maybe not, but show me some other place where you can ski in the morning, surf in the afternoon and have lunch with the star of the latest blockbuster at a table nearby? (Of course, you have to know where to look, but that's another article altogether.)

Go ahead, stay where you are and sell your scripts. The rest of us who love this town won't have to pay as much for houses...

Meet the Author: Skip Press