6 Ways Breaking into Hollywood Is A Total Nightmare
I moved to Los Angeles from Indiana roughly five years ago. I sold pretty much everything I owned, buckled my overalls, hopped on my tractor, popped a stalk of switchgrass in my mouth, and made my way out to the Big City, where organic grass-based smoothies flowed like water and the streets were paved with actual pavement. I had one goal: to become a staffed TV writer.
And I'm still waiting, because while a lot of the things people believe about the film industry are untrue, the common belief of it being difficult to break in as a writer is shockingly, heartbreakingly, pants-shittingly accurate. So if you've ever wondered why so many writers are alcoholics, read on!
There's No Codified Way to Break In
Before we really get into this, allow me a quick caveat: everything I'm writing here is based on my personal experience. If you disagree, instead of contacting me to inform me of your Very Important Opinion, consider doing something more useful like eating a handful of toenail clippings or drinking the fluid from neighborhood hummingbird feeders to theoretically increase your speed.
I'm glad we cleared that up. Anyway, a question I get asked a lot is "how do you become a professional screenwriter?", the answer to which is "if you find out, please tell me -- I am very hungry and cold also." Unlike most industries, there's no single codified path to breaking in. There's not a clear ladder to climb. You don't put together a resume, address it to Movies, and hope you get hired as a junior writer and get promoted over a period of several years. Like with pretty much every job ever, you get hired because of your connections. You don't, as my grandmother once advised me, "ask Pat Sajak for help" because he "seems like a nice man."
Breaking in to screenwriting is like playing Monopoly in that nobody actually knows how to do it and it destroys families and ruins friendships. There are thousands of ways people have broken in, but the "traditional" way of becoming a staffed TV writer is to become an office PA in a writer's room, then be promoted to a writer's assistant, and then eventually become a staff writer, give or take a few steps. The thing is, though, that even becoming an office PA for a writer's room is extremely cutthroat, and even if you do get in, you'll be making terrible money -- which is a serious problem in LA, where rent is the GDP of most island nations.
So many of the people who can afford to go on this path are people who made connections by going to college in Southern California and have some way to subsidize living in LA for a few years until they're making an actual salary -- which usually means coming from wealth. But even if you meet all these criteria, there's no guarantee you'll become a staff writer. What if your show gets cancelled? Well, then there's a good chance you'll have to start all over again from the bottom. Hope you didn't want to own property by the time you're forty! This is why many writers try alternate methods to break in, such as querying managers hoping they'll be able to get staffed or have their script sold that way.
This is also why people have done some crazy things to break in, like paying for a billboard to advertise their script:
This isn't for a movie. This is for a script. This dude paid thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands of dollars, for several billboards around LA to advertise his script -- which is about a boy's dead dog being reincarnated as a shark, and no that's not me riffing on the title. I never read this script, but if that piqued your interest the comedy writer Brian Scully did a great play-by-play of the script on Twitter. The writer who paid for billboards for his script about a dog possessing a shark has a confidence usually only seen in 80s Karate Bullies, and frankly I kinda have to admire the sheer goddamn audacity. This dude has such little self-loathing I'm wondering if he's actually a writer. People have tried all kinds of crazy schemes just to get their scripts seen -- for example, I pay a skywriter to write my scripts in the sky over the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, one page a day.
Your Dumb Plans Will Backfire
Even though Billboard Guy probably could have found a better use for the $15,000 he spent on billboards, like one month's rent in LA, I'm fundamentally sympathetic to him because nobody really knows what they're doing. Lest you think I'm trying to say I'm above doing dumb schemes to try to get a job writing TV, here's a story of a way I tried to break in.
I was inspired by how Rob McElhenney, a man I admire deeply for coming from nothing and creating one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, shot the premise pilot for what would become It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia for almost nothing. I heard him talking about shooting it on Marc Maron's WTF podcast as I was moving from Indiana to California, watched the pilot, and thought to myself: "...I could do that. I could do that, but better."
Hollywood itself romanticizes the scrappy underdog who puts everything on the line to shoot their shot. And, like an idiot, some part of me thought I was a scrappy underdog and that risking everything would be rewarded. So, along with some friends I'd made when I was working as a PA, I took every penny I'd saved (about $2,000) and made a premise pilot that was meant to accurately display the sadness, poverty, desperation, and weird racism of my home of northwest Indiana.
It definitely had flaws, and some jokes I'm not sure I'd make if I could shoot it again, but ultimately I think we made something that proved we string some jokes together. Some of the people I had in that have gone on to have successful careers, and they all gave shockingly incredible performances for what I was paying them (bottled water and the cheapest cheese platter Costco had). The idea here was to make something that says "if we could do this with pocket change and wishes, imagine what we could do with an actual budget and a professional crew!" I spent dozens of hours making an elaborate pitch deck to go with it to explain what I wanted to do with the series (namely, to depict Rust Belt poverty realistically). I was so confident I wrote about half a season's worth of episodes. I gave the final version to some producer friends of mine (I was an PA on a movie they produced), made some changes in the edit based on their feedback, then gave them the final cut, which they then showed to contacts at several comedy networks. Then I sat back and waited to hear back, vacillating between planning how I'd shape my media empire and literally vomiting from anxiety.
Since I'm currently writing this in a crappy apartment and not on my yacht heading to my private island where I'm having a real-life Gundam built to fight whales with, you can probably guess what happened: nothing.
Not a peep of interest from the networks. Nary a note in sight. I'd bankrupted myself and burned through quite a bit of my friend's good will with nothing to show for it. Because what I didn't realize was this: Rob McElhenney's pilot was shown to the networks by his agent. Mr. McElhenney already had an in to Hollywood that I didn't. A good agent has much more access than anyone I know. I put it all on the line, shot my shot, and learned something valuable: the only reason we have so many stories about the scrappy underdog coming out on top is because stories where the scrappy underdog follows his dreams and comes out on top validates the subconscious belief we all have that if we really wanted to we could quit our jobs and become a famous chef, or a UFC fighter, or a dog that plays basketball. Also, stories where the scrappy underdog risks everything, does their best, and still fails and becomes crushed by debt that he's only able to start recovering from when he starts writing Internet comedy years later tend to be very sad -- and sad only sells in French markets.
But there are people who assure you they know how to make all your dreams come true, and lucky you! They'll clue you in ... for a modest price, of course. Because:
There's Whole Industries Devoted to Preying on Young Creatives
It probably goes without saying that Hollywood has more chicanery than Gwyneth Paltrow's Chakra-Realinging Vagina Crystals R Us, a clumsy joke which itself is rooted in the audience implicitly believing that Hollywood is full of charlatans, proving my point that it goes without saying. One of the ickiest aspects of the film industry are the subsidiary industries that exist simply to prey on the hopes and desperation of young dreamers. Because thinking you can become a professional screenwriter (or actor, or anything creative) requires hope, and there's no easier mark than the hopeful -- because the hopeful want to believe.
That's why there are an absolutely staggering amount of screenwriting competitions, only a few of which can actually help your career. The rest just exist to take your money, ruin your life, and at best validate your belief in yourself, which alcohol also does but much faster.
There are so many examples of these industries that I don't even know where to start. I'll say this: going to college and studying film is easily the single biggest regret of my life, just above not buying those magic beans. Because there's nothing film school teaches you that you can't learn online for free. Even worse: I spent my years in college studying hard, working on my portfolio, and putting in effort in my classes like the dumb chump I am when I should have been seeking out networking opportunities, and since I went to school in Indiana there were pretty much zero of those. It's too bad my degrees aren't refundable -- I'd even take store credit and exchange them for more useful degrees, like a Bachelor's of Platypus Milking or an Associate's in Ghost Therapy.
When I moved to LA, I thought my education and experience working for PBS for several years (including an Emmy win) would make it easier for me to get jobs, and boy howdy was I ever wrong about that. All it did was make me the mid-twenties PA trying to keep up with literal teenagers who could still abuse their bodies on twenty-plus hour shifts and not spend the next week hearing their joints creak like the door to a haunted house.
Pretty much everything that claims it tells you how to write is bullshit. Possibly the most famous screenwriting book ever written, Save the Cat, has probably done more harm to young screenwriters than anything except ramen-induced scurvy. This is still a pretty contentious stance in Screenwriting World, but Save the Cat is, in my estimation, only slightly more useful to learning how to write a good script than getting hit in the head with a ball peen hammer. It just seems to me that, I don't know, maybe we shouldn't be taking advice from a guy for whom 50% of his produced films are Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, generally regarded as one of the worst films ever made. ("Old People Doing Things They Don't Normally Do" is such an insipid comedy premise that it hardly keeps its novelty in the time it takes for a grandma to rap the legal disclaimer that Boneral side effects may include Fear-Based Ejaculatory Response Syndrome at you in a fifteen-second commercial, so there's no surprise it wears pretty thin during the span of an entire movie.)
But Save the Cat is popular; so popular, in fact, that if you're familiar with the way the author lays out his infamous "beat sheet," -- that is, the way he says a good scripts story goes -- you can predict the plot of most big-budget literally down to the minute. While there might be some good in Save the Cat in the same sense that Charles Manson's biography might also include a pretty good recipe for Uncle Charlie's Helter Skelter Huevos Rancheros, it's probably not worth the decades of cookie-cutter plots it's engendered.
And this is just the most famous screenwriting book! There are hundreds of books that claim to tell you how to write a screenplay, and of those that I've read only a few that were particularly useful: Christopher Riley's The Hollywood Standard (which is only about format, not style), Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's Writing Screenplays For Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! (which has some questionable advice but is vastly more readable than Save the Cat), Stephen King's On Writing (which isn't even about screenwriting!), the Harmon Story Circle (which is mostly helpful for understanding formula and structure), and Abbot Campion Winterbury-Upon-Stratfordshire's Thee Meanes, by Wiche, if Follow'd Moste Closeley, One Myght Yet Avoid the Terrible Clawes of yon Dreadfull Falcone (not real, but useful for both avoiding large birds and getting out of this paragraph on a joke).
Look. You don't need dozens of screenwriting books or a paid online seminar or an MFA in screenwriting or an expensive writing retreat in a haunted Scottish castle or to sell your soul to the devil to write a good script for the same reason you don't need an advanced degree in applied physics to ride a bike: you can just ... do it.
The best way to learn how to write a good script is to read a shitload of scripts, many of which are available for free online, and then write a shitload of scripts and be really honest in your self-appraisal. A willingness to fail also helps. Writing, like most artistic pursuits, is one of the few things in life that actually works like grinding up an attribute in an RPG: every single time you do it, you will get better, even if only slightly. That advice will be $250, please. Make checks out to "Cash."
And with all of that being said, there is one sure-fire way to break in:
Everything that I just wrote is about cynical grifters trying to take advantage of people, but even earnest people with good intentions often give bad advice about breaking into Hollywood. Usually it's because of survivor's bias. ("Loading scripts into a t-shirt cannon and then shooting them through the windows of mansions in Beverly Hills at random is how I got my first paid writing job, therefore it's the best way to become a paid writer!")
The thing is, though, that often the way people become writers is a fluke or a stroke of luck. And while many, many people reflecting on how they broke in will readily admit how much luck played into it, some don't. I imagine that's because it must be difficult to be a celebrated artist and admit the major reason you've been able to get to where you are is basically because you won the lottery. There's a bit of Just-World Fallacy in there, too: well, my script got made, therefore it must be because it was good -- if your script didn't, it's simply because it wasn't good enough. And even when there's none of this going on, often the advice you get from working professionals was how they broke in thirty or twenty or ten or even five years ago, when the landscape of the industry looked very, very different. But most of all, there's one thing that most won't admit helped them: nepotism.
Hollywood is a monarchy masquerading as a meritocracy. Not everyone is successful because of nepotism, of course; some people were able to guess the password to the child sacrifice/orgy where they decide what movies will be made next year. It's pretty much common knowledge that the film industry is rife with nepotism, and honestly it's not surprising. With the advent of the Internet, there was a huge explosion of people trying to become screenwriters and also people realizing they're turned on by balloons popping. The conventional wisdom used to be that if you wanted the right people to read your work, you had to live in Los Angeles. Now people from all over the world have found that it's trivially easy to enter screenwriting contests and query managers -- which probably explains that gold rush of sketchy contests I mentioned.
The point here is that there is an absolutely titanic amount of scripts out there. I've read amateur scripts that were better than anything I saw in the theater that year, and I've also seen professional scripts that were probably haunted by tree ghosts furious that they died so someone could write this fucking shit on them:
I am absolutely unsurprised that Max Landis, human uninvited dick pic, the guy who wrote that monstrosity of faux-wokeness, is a fucking monster. This is from the script for Bright, which Netflix bought for three million goddamn dollars even after seeing the phrase "badass intelligent female" used without a scrap of irony or self-awareness. It's one of the most expensive scripts ever bought on spec. Max Landis gets to be a screenwriter despite being a hollow skinsuit brought to life by an incel wizard because his dad is John Landis, a director made famous for his screwball 80s comedies and decapitating children -- and then throwing a party to commemorate the one-year anniversary of getting away with what was essentially murder.
Even before Max's sexual assault allegations started being made public, it was pretty much an open secret that Max was an asshole. Every single person you meet in LA, myself included, has one of two stories: either about the time they ran into Andy Dick and he acted like a primordial Chaos Demon or one where they met Max Landis and he was a total dick. It's an LA rite of passage, like peeing in an empty-ish Gatorade bottle while stuck in traffic or seeing someone who once insulted your appearance on a billboard.
What I'm trying to say is that there are so many scripts out there, simply "being good" isn't enough to get your work noticed. Knowing somebody who knows somebody is the best way to get attention to your work, which is why nepotism is so prevalent. It's not necessarily malicious; it's the logical conclusion of a system with no formal means of entry. But look, you don't need me to tell that maybe a relatively small incestuous circle of people making the most visible art in the world is maybe leading to an overall decline in quality anymore than you need me to tell you that the guy selling you Authentic Werewolf Repellant on the dark web probably isn't on the up-and-up. If you don't have connections, you're fighting an uphill battle.
It's All a Black Box
Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of trying to break in is that all of your efforts go through a black box. You can see what goes in (a script that you've poured your heart and soul into), and you can see what comes out (utter indifference), but you'll never know what happened in between. It's inscrutable. If you wrote the world's funniest script and entered it into a contest but your reader's father died after laughing himself to death when he imagined a boner farting and has since carried a grudge against all mirth, you probably won't get any recognition.
Was it because your work wasn't good enough, or because it simply wasn't to the taste of whoever happened to read it? And, all things considered, I'm actually lucky since at least I don't have to deal with the rampant racism and sexism involved in hiring TV writers -- 65% of whom are white and 56% of whom are men (still better than screenwriters, who are 80% white and 73% male). "William A. Kuechenberg" is a name only marginally less white than "Smoothjazz McHonky," so at least I never have to wonder if my work is getting passed on because of my race.
Let me tell you a story. A few years ago through a connection at my alma mater (which is a form of nepotism in and of itself, really) I had the opportunity to interview to be a writer's assistant on a hugely popular animated comedy/sci-fi program aimed at adults (probably exactly the one you're thinking of). I was elated, since generally (but not always) after a few years writer's assistants generally become writers. I fixed up my resume. I went out and bought a suit I couldn't really afford because I wanted to have every advantage possible.
Then, less than twenty-four hours before the interview, they called me and cancelled it. They said they'd decided to promote from within. Promoting from within is always better than hiring some jackass off the street, but part of me will always wonder if they just cut me out because somebody's cousin needed a job. I would have at least liked the illusion that I had a chance.
One more story about the inscrutability of the process. Last year, somebody I knew introduced me to a producer who was looking for an adult animated comedy for a pitch he had with a certain large-river-themed streaming service/online marketplace. I sent him a script and treatment I had written for a pilot called HelL.A., which is about demons living in Los Angeles. He said it was "funny," but "too edgy and subversive" for what he wanted to pitch. Which is bizarre, since I wrote that pilot especially to network TV standards -- and if there's one thing no animated sitcom aimed at adults has ever done, it's be subversive by parodying American culture. Most likely that guy just didn't vibe with my writing and was trying to be nice ... but there's always the doubt that he didn't even read my pilot when he saw Satan is a main character.
This article is already bloated and meandering (like much of my writing!), so I'll spare you more examples of my close calls with success, which is also the future title of my autobiography. They all boil down to this: does my work suck, or is it just not to the taste of the people seeing it?
A horror script I co-wrote once got me attention from a management company, who then ghosted me after requesting a read. I once posted that script on a screenwriting forum where someone told me it was so bad I should quit screenwriting, because the Internet is just porn, casual cruelty, and cats in various configurations. I occasionally get hate mail because of that script, which I have up on a few websites. But here's the thing: I think that script is one of the best things I've ever worked on. I cannot tell you how many sleepless nights I've had wondering if I should give up the dream and became a lumberjack or perhaps a sexy lumberjack. I've spent years of my life being poor and miserable chasing this dream, and continuing requires a level of confidence that I struggle with.
That script just made the semifinals in the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship, generally regarded the most prestigious screenwriting competition in the world. It's the first time I've ever placed in any writing contest, ever. I'm not telling you this to brag about my extremely impressive accomplishment, though that is a nice side effect. I'm telling you this because this is the first-ever professional validation I've had in over a decade of serious writing, with a couple thousand pages of screen- and teleplays under my belt. So maybe nobody knows anything and it's all just a numbers game. You'll never know if anyone's reading your work, or if they are reading it, you'll never know if they're reading it closely or just skimming over it while they're taking an Uber Hydrofoil to their eleven o'clock general meeting to adapt Everybody Poops into a sexy teen drama.
You've Got to Become a Brand
A weird side effect of the labyrinthine process of becoming a writer that you've probably noticed is that so much of what Hollywood produces is totally unrelatable to the majority of Americans. Poverty especially is something that's always fumbled to the point of being laughable. There are so many barriers to becoming a professional writer that poor people just don't really get to write TV. And poor people from outside of Los Angeles? Wait, you guys have TV outside of LA?
This is why critical darlings like Master of None get effusive praise from professional critics for being a realistic depiction of the lives of millennials even though it's a show about a dude who bangs incredibly hot people on the reg, has a large circle of friends, a loving and supportive family, lives in an apartment in New York that's basically palatial, is living his dream of being an actor (then jumps to a completely different dream career), but still feels unfulfilled because ???. Yeah, that's the one lesson that defines my generation: money doesn't buy happiness. Us millennials, always wondering why we're sad despite having so much material excess. I'd like more realistic depictions of what it's like to be poor, like calculating whether the nutritional content of a can of Spaghetti-O's is enough to keep you alive after cutting it with water so you can eat it for dinner tomorrow too.
And Hollywood is learning this lesson. Especially in the realm of TV writing, people want writers who aren't just from wealthy families in SoCal and New York. They want writers who can write realistic, relatable stories by drawing from actual personal suffering and not "suffering" like having to go to Brown because they didn't get accepted to Princeton. I fundamentally believe this is a good thing that will lead to richer, better media ... but it's also had an unfortunate side effect: to stand out from the crowd, you have to brand yourself.
I mean you're expected to sell yourself not on the strength of your writing, but on what you've experienced. Maybe this is the finger on the Monkey's Paw curling, but part of me feels like there's something a little dehumanizing about this. Most screenwriting contests ask for a brief biography. Many fellowships ask for personal essays about the hardships you've faced.
I don't like that trauma has been commodified. I understand the logic of needing to have interesting people to tell interesting stories, and that living an actual life adds verisimilitude to stories. I also understand having so much talent out there necessitates some factor besides being a good writer. But we're writers! Pretending is our entire job! If someone is good enough at pretending, does it really matter where they come from?
Donald Glover, who is in my estimation one of the best comedic voices in a generation, is the creative force behind Atlanta, one of the most realistic depictions of poverty on TV ever ... and he was writing for network TV while still in college. I have nothing but respect for Mr. Glover, but it sure seems like the best mainstream voice talking about poverty has never been poor as an adult. That's not a slight against him -- if anything, it's awesome that he's using his platform to talk about the experiences of the majority of Americans. But it goes to show how you don't get to make TV about poverty without having a certain amount of cachet, and you don't get cachet in this industry without having money, too.
Trauma is to writers what ingredients are to a chef. I get that. But isn't it enough to be a good writer? Can't I get hired because I can write an entertaining story or create multifaceted characters or craft jokes about farting in an elevator that work on several levels? If you've read some of my other work here on Cracked, you probably know I'm originally from the Most Miserable City in America. I have to market myself as Guy Who Has Seen Firsthand Humanity's Capacity for Evil. I'm going to show a level of vulnerability here that I usually only reserve for watching The Return of the King and allowing myself to cry about hobbits: I sort of resent being defined by my suffering.
Once I was getting gas and a man stumbled around the corner clutching his stomach. His shirt was either soaked with blood or he'd just gone belly-first down a ketchup Slip 'N' Slide. He'd clearly just been shot, almost certainly by a shotgun. I won't describe what it looked like because if I did you'd never want to touch ground beef again. He looked at me and said, "Help me, man. I'm hurt real bad."
And you know what I did? I got in my car and I drove the fuck away. I called the police once I was a few blocks down the road. That story doesn't paint me in a very heroic light, but self-preservation took over. What happened to that guy? I don't know. I regret not helping him pretty much every day of my life. I'm not sure what I could have done for a sucking chest wound with no medical training, but I feel like I should have done something. But when you come from Circumstances, you understand implicitly that getting involved in the business of others is a good way to get yourself shot.
That's probably the least horrifying story I can tell you while and still have this article technically qualify as comedy. It's taken me years to come to terms with the things I've seen. And now, to get a job, I have to trot it out like an inbred Pekingese at a dog show.
Now I have to tell that story and others like it to show what I've experienced. The lowest points in my life are now the most interesting thing about me. I'd like to be judged on the strength of my imagination and my command of language instead of how many points my life story scores on the Pathos-O-Meter. I always thought the worst things in my life would be something I'd transcend through my creativity, not something I'd need to keep reliving so I can afford food. Ideally, I'd like everything I've seen and done be something I overcome on the way towards believing that humanity isn't fundamentally evil instead of something that makes me marketable.
Unless you want to staff me as a writer on your TV show, in which case I'll be more than happy to trade my humanity for money. Then I'll teach you how to identify the sound of gunfire by distance and caliber!
Top image: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock