Getting Started in L.A.
By Larry Brody
Each year hundreds of screenplays become feature films. And each year thousands of teleplays become television episodes. Opportunity-wise, televisions's got feature films beat. TV's got the heat. The magic. The glitz. All that's missing is you.
How do you change that? Well, first you've got to dedicate yourself to the Game. Accept the fact that TV is a personal business. It's about YOU first and your talent and ability second.
Your next step is to adopt the "career" mindset. In television almost no one hits the jackpot with one script. In television we make a reputation for ourselves, amass credits and contacts, and get to a place where we can go to work everyday. Staff writing jobs are what TV is all about.
Like most managers, TV execs want to work with people who are just like them. For many that means YOUNG. For almost as many that means NEW. But most of all it means you've got to be THEIR KIND OF PERSON.
In all likelihood, you're already leaning in that direction. It helps, though, to learn as much as you can about what captivates the hearts and minds of the execs, and, fortunately, it's relatively easy to do so. Just pay attention to the television shows and publications that report on them.
Watch the "E!" network now and then. Also Entertainment Tonight. Read "Daily Variety" and "The Hollywood Reporter." Ditto "Entertainment Weekly," "Movieline," "Premiere," even "People" and "Us." These shows and mags are almost as intrigued by the showbiz power structure as is the power structure itself. They'll tell you who the people in charge are, what these people own, what they want. Is the in, hip, and trendy car this year the Mercedes or the Bimmer? Which model Mercedes or Bimmer? Know the "in" food. The "in" clothing. The "in" music.
"People" and "Us" will report all this straight, as though it means something to the world. "Entertainment Weekly," "Premiere," and "Movieline" will cover it ironically, but they tend to be more in the know, probably because their reporters and editors want to be TV (or film) writers as much as you do.
Once you've become an expert in the hip and trendy, it's time to move to L.A. Just as you can't be a cowboy if you live in the Bronx you can't be a TV writer if you don't live in L.A. It's not a freelance business anymore. You've got to go where the Industry is.
And why wouldn't you want to? What's better than living in a place where no one mocks your dream because everyone shares it? Where the desire for stardom is part and parcel of life? Where on every street you can find someone who's tried what you want to try - and succeeded?
If you love showbiz, you'll love L.A. It's the company town where you'll make the friends and contacts who'll help you create your career, and for whom you can do the same. That's right, I said "friends," because your friends will be your best contacts. They're the ones who'll go out of their way to help you. They'll do it for love, and you'll give love back the same way.
L.A. is alive with show business electricity. No matter where in the area you are, you'll hear the keywords of show business existence used all around you. "Option." "Deal." "Pay or play." "Pitch." In L.A., everyone's a salesman, regardless of job title. As a writer, you'll be working the world's largest deal-making shop, surrounded by potential buyers at all times.
The best way to move to L.A. is with a few prospects. You want to get as close to a writing job as possible, which means you want to be in or near the TV biz daily. If you can arrange an apartment in advance through one of the area's many rental agencies, do it. Make a realistic budget for yourself, and get a studio or one-bedroom or guesthouse in West Hollywood, Venice, maybe Santa Monica. Or a little farther out in the San Fernando Valley - Studio City, Burbank, Woodland Hills.
Before you leave, put out the word that you're going to L.A. to family and friends and ask if they know anyone who knows anyone who's in the biz. Get the names and numbers of everyone in L.A. who has even the remotest connection to the TV industry and call them all before you leave. Don't ask for a job. Just explain who you are and what you're up to and ask if you can get together once you get to town.
As soon as you're in your apartment under the Hollywood sign on Beachwood Drive or your converted garage in Burbank within sight of Universal City's Black Tower, call back those you alerted and let them know you've arrived. Take them to lunch or breakfast. (Their dinners are reserved for "important" meetings with people who can help them the way you're looking for them to help you.)
Now's when you hit on these men and women for help getting a job. Do they know of any openings? Do they know anyone else who might know? Do they have any names at all for you to call?
Understand that the jobs you should be asking about aren't just any old jobs. They're jobs that'll get you into studios or network offices and put you in the trenches alongside other writers and showrunners and execs. Jobs that will automatically lead to networking and take you another step closer to the staff writer position that's your Holy Grail.
The primo job - your first choice - is to be the lowest of the low on a series that's already on the air or is about to debut. What you want is to be a Production Assistant. Or a Writers' Assistant. Or a studio messenger. Or an assistant anywhere along the chain - series, prodco, studio, network, or talent agency. Is there an opening in the mailroom of a production company with a zillion shows (or even just one) on the air? Go for it.
Production Assistants are gofers. They get lunch for the production staff. They make pick-ups and deliveries on and off the set of the show. Writers' Assistants are gofers too. They get lunch for the writing staff. They make pick-ups and deliveries in and out of the offices of the show. Studio messengers by definition are also gofers. They get lunch for the execs and make pick-ups and deliveries for them as well. The mailroom staff picks up and delivers the mail. In fact, just about everyone with the title "assistant" is an errand runner of some kind. (Unless you're an "executive assistant," or "personal assistant" to a producer or exec. Then you're a secretary, scheduling the gofer assistants and running your boss' life. If that's your job, you probably don't want to be a TV writer; you've got much more power right where you are.)
Internships in these same areas also are good ways to start. In the TV business, "intern" translates as "unpaid," so as an intern you'll need a day job to support your day job. But as an intern you're in the thick of things.
If you haven't come up with anyone to call, or all your calls have failed, work your new neighbors. Get all the leads you can. L.A. is home to literally thousands of TV and film companies, and most of them are in accessible office buildings just like any other company, which means you can make the rounds.
Go to Century City, Wilshire Boulevard, Venice Boulevard, Ventura Boulevard. Walk into the lobby of every building and check out their directories for company names with the words "Productions," "Entertainment," "Agency," and "Management." Then walk in the door and throw yourself on the mercy of the receptionist. He or she will understand your situation. Odds are that a week ago he or she was you.
Sooner or later you'll get an interview. Find out all you can about the company where you're interviewing and the specific person who's interviewing you. Know what kind of shows this company or person produces or talent it, he, or she represents. Know the titles, the genres, the ratings, the stars. Be eager. Be bright. Be the kind of person you'd like to mentor if you had the chance to mentor someone because a mentor is what whoever hires you is going to become. Be someone worth your mentor's time, prestige, and position; someone who obviously will benefit from what you're taught and who'll reflect well on the boss. Someone who'll remember to thank him or her in your first Emmy Award acceptance speech.
And if that doesn't work, it's time to see what you can do about getting a second-tier job such as driver for a private messenger service, script typist, Kinko's clerk, or wait person in the right hang-out (preferably in Malibu, Beverly Hills, or Brentwood).
Or get a hobby that brings you into contact with working writers and execs. Being in the right basketball league has done wonders for several people I know. So has walking their dogs in the right park and jogging around the public track at UCLA.
Classes can work too. Take a TV writing class at UCLA and get in good with the teacher, who almost certainly will be a working pro who could - if he or she wanted to - help you out.
Whatever avenue you take, your attitude is the key. The "you" you are has to be a Getalong Guy - respectful, reassuring, and thrilled. You also must be the absolute BEST at your job, hobby, or class, distinguishing yourself with your energy and performance.
You may know damned well that bringing the latte to the writers' room with just the right amount of milk and at the perfect temperature, a big smile on your face, and a biting yet worshipful wisecrack on your lips has nothing whatsoever to do with your potential as a sitcom writer, and the writers who drink the latte and see the smile and nod at the wisecrack know it too - but this is still how you're going to get your Big Break. This is what's going to make one of the writers or producers or whatever give you that edgewise look people with good TV jobs give people without good TV jobs and say, "Did you say you want to be a writer? Got anything I can read?"
And if what they read is as good as you think it is you'll be on your way.