The Brutal Truth Of Getting Hired By Hollywood To Write
This week on Cracked, William Kuechenberg will be taking you through the maze of madness that is breaking into Hollywood. Read yesterday's article here.
Hollywood, baby! Tinseltown! The city o’ dreams and the silver screen! A city as rich in tradition as it is botched lip fillers, home of the $28 cup of juice and that one Maserati you see driving around the valley with a bumper sticker that says “I Heart Hentai.” Surely in a city with so much gorgeous Googie architecture and with such a wealth of history would value traditions, right? Right?
On the off chance you clicked this article by accident without reading the title first, allow me to answer that for you: When it comes to how you get a job in the writing job of the film industry, the answer is a resounding “No, you dumb idiot.”
Don’t Listen To Your Elders
There’s a whole ecosystem, a whole sub-economy, of unscrupulous people taking advantage of the desperation of young creators. Breaking into Hollywood is an incredibly obtuse labyrinth and, like the movie Labyrinth, it’s full of weird little ghouls trying to mislead you for their own personal gain.
There are innumerable sharks out there offering to teach you that One Weird Trick you need to know to get your foot in the door, and all it’ll cost you is a few hundred or thousand dollars. They’ll offer to help you polish your script over the course of a few weeks. You just need to pay a little more. One more class. One more paid “mentorship.” One more online lecture series. Look, just give me three hundred bucks and I’ll give you these magic beans: plant them and they’ll grow into a vine that will give you a magical fruit that gives you the home address of every agent at WME. Make checks out to cash, please!
I really can’t overstate how many of these types of things there are. If someone’s asking for your money in exchange for Forbidden Knowledge, don’t take the deal. Come on. Did fairy tales teach us nothing? That’s like Fairy Tale 101. If you’re from a German household like I am, you’re probably also reasonably afraid that these people will cut your penis off with a pair of scissors to punish you for your gullibility and for being ein naüghty naüghty junge.
But here’s the thing: while there are plenty of ignoble sitcom writers who haven’t written professionally since pubic bedazzling – vajazzling – was in fashion, it’s not just garbage people trying to make a quick buck off writers fresh off the turnip truck from Dogmayor, Arkansas, who can’t help you. You see, not even the advice of well-meaning people can help you.
I know that sounds harsh. I’m not trying to be a dick – it just comes naturally, wocka-wocka! I absolutely appreciate that there are a lot of successful writers who very earnestly, with good intentions, will share how they broke into the industry. Your dad’s favorite director may have jumpstarted his career from nothing when he cornered Jack Warner in a restaurant and forced a script into his hands, but if you did that today instead of “a five-picture deal” you’d get “forcibly removed from Little Dom's.”
This is an industry which changes incredibly quickly, which means that advice can have a short shelf life. It’s not really useful to, say, listen to the story of how two extremely successful podcast hosts broke in during the 80s – it’s just not applicable anymore. The industry has changed so much as to be unrecognizable from what it was a decade ago – for example, there are now far fewer scripts written by Max Landis. Hell, the industry is even vastly different now than it was before COVID – many writer’s rooms have decided to go remote full-time, meaning they meet over Zoom rather than in a physical room. This has become so common that a friend of mine, an enormously successful network writer, recently decided to move out of Los Angeles for this very reason. Because if you can make LA wages without the LA $7-a-gallon-of-gas cost of living you can pretty much live like a king or at least a small-town midsize sedan dealership owner.
The point is that you can’t just listen to how other people broke in and expect to replicate it, partially because there’s a lot of luck involved, but mostly because things just aren’t the same any more. No matter how well-meaning older people going out of their way to help you might be, they might as well be aliens giving you advice on the best way to gliffsnorp your bwyxnuxian crystals. The preponderance of the Internet has lowered the bar of entry, for good or ill – now any idiot can google “how to write a screenplay,” write it, and cough up the money to enter it in contests. Agents, managers, and producers are inundated with more query emails than any before, which means cold querying has mostly become the screenwriter’s version of playing the lotto.
Anybody can reach these people. It’s shockingly easy to get the email addresses of even the most powerful movers-and-shakers in Hollywood. You come here thinking that they use some secret email client that you have to prove you’re in the Illuminati to use, but then you move here and you find out that JJ Abram’s email address is some shit like JJAbrams@gmail.com. (That’s just an example, I don’t think that’s really his email address, please don’t send any emails.)
Things Just Ain’t the Same
My best friend once told me that breaking into the film industry is like breaking out of prison – once they figure out how you did it, they make sure no one else can do it the same way. That mostly applies to people who got in with some clever ruse, such as leaving opened copies of your script around the Hollywood Forever Cemetery so it looks like famous ghosts like it. But even more traditional means of breaking in have begun to shut down.
Inasmuch as the film industry has ever had a codified way to become a TV writer, it was like this: you got a job as an office Production Assistant in a writer’s room – it’s your job to make copies, pick up lunch from Tender Greens, and let the producer practice his karate on you. Then, after a season or two, you move up to a writer’s assistant. Then, after two seasons, you get to the Promised Land: the coveted position of Staff Writer. It’s all Twitter verification and being able to write video games off on your taxes as “story research” from here on out, baby! You made it! You’ve Arrived!
Except it doesn’t work that way anymore. It’s rare for shows to even run that long anymore. Netflix has straight up said they try to end shows after two seasons because it’s more profitable to bring in new viewers than to retain old ones. The Algorithm deems it so. If the future of TV is 90% of shows run for two seasons while a handful just go on until the heat death of the universe, how can a writer’s assistant get those two consecutive seasons under their belt that’s traditionally required to become a staff writer? Good damn question.
This leads to situations where you have people who’ve been writer’s assistants for five years, ten years, even fifteen years. Which then in turn leads to this weird situation where showrunners who’ve been successful for 20+ years – people who, remember, don’t really “get” what it’s like to be an outsider in the industry today – see writer’s assistants who have somewhere around a decade of experience and they assume it must be because they suck at writing.
Or, even worse, I’ve seen listings now looking for a writer’s assistant which require 5+ years’ experience. Just a few years ago that would’ve been unthinkable. And whether because of the aforementioned lowering of the bar of entry or because of the collapse of the traditional climbing-the-ladder system, simply becoming a writer’s assistant – a position which was once considered the no-skill, entry-level, foot-in-the-door position – is now absolutely cutthroat. I’ve been trying and failing to score a writer’s assistant job for years. I won an Emmy for my producer work, goddammit! I know how to do office work and make sure everyone’s Teslas are charging!
All of us writers are just stumbling around in the dark like a bunch of frat boys at a haunted house. If that metaphor isn’t evocative to you, I recommend you watch Ghost Adventures. What I’m trying to say is that things aren’t just difficult to navigate for people at or below my level – even more established writers are having difficulty finding their way around in what is essentially a funhouse Hall of Mirrors where the walls are constantly moving, the deep-fried birthday cake you ate was laced with LSD, and also there’s a live panther with a taste for human blood.
Here’s an example. I’m kind of a weird case because, while I’ve never written on a wide-released TV show, I do have a manager due to high placements in some respected screenwriting contests. There was a time when you’d see a new project announced in the trades (that is, websites dedicated to really granular business deals in the film industry, like Deadline), and you’d have your manager submit you for that show. This isn’t really how it works anymore, particularly since streaming services will often pay for an entire season at once rather than just a pilot.
Literally the very minute I saw Deadline announce there was going to be a TV show made in the Fallout universe, I called my manager to submit me. I thought I had a decent chance: I have a fascination with the 50s, a weird obsession with the end of the world (when you’re raised Catholic, you either get that or a nun fetish), and I’m from Gary, Indiana: this means I have about as much hands-on experience with the post-apocalypse as it’s possible to have as an American. I even had a sample script about a post-apocalyptic Chicago that, no joke, originally started as a writing exercise about what I thought a Fallout game taking place in the Windy City would be like.
My manager called me back the next day. Not only were they no longer accepting samples, the room had already wrapped. The whole first season was written. Principal photography started next week. This was less than 24 hours after the project was announced. Something similar happened to me when Amazon announced their Mass Effect series. Many, many writers have run into this same problem – the only way to know about upcoming projects is to personally know the showrunners or producers involved. When you’re an uncredited writer, that’s a lot like saying the easiest way to get the inside scoop on all the hot new Giant Hat Trends is to simply ask your close friend, The Pope.
Is There a Lesson In All This?
Dang man, I dunno. There might be some cold comfort in this: since precedent has largely been thrown to the weird coyotes that live in the Valley, you can’t really be doing anything “wrong.” In fact, since the industry is changing so quickly, if you’re a young writer you might actually be in a position of opportunity: now’s the time to find new and exciting ways to sleaze your way into the industry.
Scheme. Plan. Try new things, stuff nobody’s done before. Design an ARG utilizing graffiti around the city that links to a mysterious website containing a mystery and hope it goes viral. Upload videos to Pornhub with titles like Super Hot Girl WRECKED By Gang of Old Men!, but it’s actually a filmed table read of your drama script about a young woman being forced to get a back-alley abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned, set against the backdrop of a Florida town suffering under an unprecedented climate-change-induced heatwave. (Wait, actually, don’t do that, that might work and I call dibs.)
The old world is dying, the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of gimmicky, hacky innovation! Just be smarter than the guy who paid tens of thousands of dollars advertising his script about a dog ghost possessing a shark.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock