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Scott W. Smith: There are dozens of working screenwriters I can think who came to their success in different ways, but the one thing they have in common is it took time to reach their level of success. And there’s no doubt that most of them have a L.A. element to their success. But John Logan is someone who comes to mind that honed his craft for ten years in Chicago writing plays and working in a library until he connected with a agent in L.A. where he eventually moved on his way to writing Any Given Sunday, Hugo, and Rango.
Screenwriter Greg DePaul: Well, sure, you can say the same thing about David Mamet, and David Ives, and a few other playwrights who started in NY or Chicago. Exceptions that prove the rule. The point is you have almost no chance if you don’t move to L.A. And if you do go to L.A., you have a very small chance – but it’s better than almost no chance.
Scott: I think when Tiger Woods stormed on the scene we all thought that there was going to be a whole army of black golfers rising up and winning championships. But that just didn’t happen. Tiger Woods was the exception. And perhaps the lesson of Diablo Cody’s sudden rise from the suburbs of Minneapolis to winning a Academy Award back in 2008 was an exception to the rule. An anomaly.
Greg: Nothing you read about anybody’s success in Hollywood can be trusted. Nothing. I’ve made a fetish out of telling that to students. Once you break in everyone goes back and re-writes their bio. It’s the cult of the author. I can’t tell you how many people don’t tell you the truth about their origins. But also because they want to refashion the story.
I’ll give you an example. Do you remember the N.Y. Giant player 20-30 years ago, that guy, Phil McConkey, who caught a pass in the Super Bowl?
Scott: I’m drawing a blank.
Greg: Back in the late 80s the Giants had Phil Sims, Mark Bavaro, Lawrence Taylor, and a guy named McConkey. He was a blue-coller guy and he walked on to the team [at age 27 after serving in the Navy for 4 years], he was never drafted. He earned his way on the team. And he ended up in the Super Bowl. But would you tell somebody to do it that way? No. You don’t teach the exception.
Scott: Fair enough. Well, you are talking about the traditional Hollywood way of breaking in, but I recently heard a couple of writers on Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin from Australia and they’re doing an online cooking show that has lively banter and is part cooking show and part drama and all of a sudden they’re taking meetings in L.A.
Greg: My teaching is for writers who are writers who aren’t good at anything else. I work with a group here called The Collective in New York, and they’re a group of actors founded by Amy Schumer and Kevin Kane and some other very talented actors. And Amy Schumer is also a screenwriter. I’ve met her, but I don’t know her. The one thing I know about her is she started as a comedian. Well, I’ll tell you right now there is a separate path for comedians. If you tell me you’re moving to New York to be a screenwriter I’ll say you’re making a mistake. If you tell me you’re moving to New York to be a stand-up comic and you might like to be a screenwriter like Amy Schumer, or move up like Louis C.K., I would say that’s smart. Because I have observed in the last ten years there is a real particular path for stand up comics in Manhattan. And if you can then get offered a show then you become a screenwriter because they need you to work on that show. But that’s not a straight screenwriting path. Amy Schumer is not the example of the writer starting from scratch who is not a stand-up comic. She’s the example for a stand-up comic who might also blossom as a film star and screenwriter.
Scott: So you’d also look at Robert Rodriguez down in Austin as example of a filmmaker who produces, directs, writes, shoots, etc not an example of someone who only writes.
Greg: Yeah, most of the people I’m teaching are writers. That’s it, they’re screenwriters. They’re not making their own things. All you have to do is go to IMDB, and go to Box Office Mojo, and see who the names are for screenwriter on like 20 movies and figure out where they live.
Scott: Which will be 98% L.A.?
Greg: Well, maybe 90% live in Los Angeles County. I remember about five years ago I was at a comedy show in New York, and I met a guy who was a writer on 30 Rock. And I said, “You’re a screenwriter, I’m a screenwriter and I just moved to New York, where’s the community of screenwriters here?” and he said, “There isn’t one.” He said there’s just us at 30 Rock , there’s him and like six other writers. And I said But this is New York. And he said, “Get over it.” And this is a guy who’s successful.
Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.
Starting a screenwriting career outside of LA (or New York, or London) at JohnAugust.com
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Are You an Anomaly?
Scott W. Smith