is breaking into hollywood really so tough

– . – Is breaking into Hollywood really so tough?


Is breaking into Hollywood really so tough?

Toy Story 2 writer Doug Chamberlin wrote this article for movieScope back in March this year.


When I first set out to “break in” as a Hollywood writer, I was overwhelmed by what seemed like incredibly low odds of success. I analyzed the numbers, the supply and demand of writers to jobs, and concluded that I had a statistically better chance of getting into the National Football League than I did of becoming a working Hollywood writer.

Some time later, when I found myself sitting in Steven Spielberg’s home taking a script meeting with him, it occurred to me, ”Hmm, I’m pretty sure I’ve broken in.” Was I exceptionally lucky? Did I have an uncle in the business? Am I astoundingly talented?

The answers are “no,” definitely not”, and “don’t make me laugh.” The fact of the matter is, the odds are misleading. Let’s take a look at the “bad news” first.

• Approximately 12,000 members of the Writers Guild of America.

• For every writer in the WGA, there are an estimated ten non-guild writers in L.A.

• For every writer in LA, let’s say there are another four somewhere else who are seriously aiming their sights at Hollywood.

That makes your “competition” nearly 500,000 writers! Ugh!

Now, how much work is there to go around in Tinseltown?

• About 200 major movie gigs at any time.

• A few hundred TV gigs at any time.

• Some direct-to-DVD, Internet, podcast, radio and other miscellaneous writing.

So we have 500,000 writers interested in about 600 writing gigs. That’s over 800 writers per available gig. Again, ugh!

Right, that was depressing. But it’s also misleading. Let’s take a closer look at these seemingly overwhelming odds.

The reality is that you are not in competition with most of the 500,000 writers out there. Let’s hone down this teeming mass of competition:

Of the 500,000, a good 75% of them are hacks. What is a hack? You know you’re a hack when:

1. You have not actually written anything.

2. You spend more time boasting than you do writing.

3. You have exactly one half-finished script in the boot of your car.

Okay, you’re not a hack. But LA is teeming with these wannabes. They are not your competition. That narrows our field down to 125,000. Let’s continue zooming in.

Of the remaining writers, 90% of them have one thing in common. Unlike the first group, these writers do have scripts—bad scripts! They haven’t yet learned their craft, and it’s often obvious from the first page. The formatting is bad. The story is confusing. The voices all sound the same. So while these folks do qualify as writers, they’re not yet good writers. If you perfect your craft, continue to rewrite, and put the effort into making your scripts great, then this well-meaning lot are not your competition either.

Now our group of competing writers is 12,500. That’s still large, but getting tantalizingly smaller.

On to the next hurdle. Of the remaining writers who actually do put the effort into crafting an excellent script, a good 50% of them do not take the next necessary step: networking.

That old adage is true: you do need contacts to help get your work noticed. Many introverted writers focus all their effort into writing the perfect script and shun the business of meeting helpful people. They dismiss networking as “schmoozing” and hope to join the handful of writers who got lucky without networking. Most of this group will remain good writers, but not successful writers.

That brings our field of writers who (A) actually write, (B) write well and (C) treat writing like a business down to…

A bit over 6,000! Hmm… a one in ten shot is not so imposing.

Welcome to the shortlist. These writers are realistic, talented, and business-minded. But even for them, the going might still get a bit rocky. It often takes time for the cream to rise to the top. Unfortunately, some of these writers will not be able to see that, and after a period of time they will make what they think is a prudent choice: they’ll quit. Having “given it a shot,” they’ll pack up, move home and get a real job.

I was warned of this danger early on. When I was a naïve young student at the AFI sketch writers workshop, I was lucky enough to meet some old-time comedy writers. These guys worked on shows like I Love Lucy, The Carol Burnett Show and Duffy’s Tavern—and they all gave me the same advice: “Kid, don’t quit. If you simply refuse to quit, you will break in.”

Not only did I break in, but virtually all of the friends I made during my early years in Hollywood who did not quit also became professional, working writers. So unless I’m some sort of King Midas who has the power to make all his friends successful, I think those old-school cigar-chomping writers were spot on. Unfortunately, about 40% of our shortlisted, promising competition will disregard this rule and will quit, perhaps when their big break was just around the bend. But you’re not one of them.

So now our competition is 3,600. These hardy souls are realistic, talented, businesslike and persistent. What else could possibly eliminate some of them?

Quite frankly, they’re annoying.

Surprised? You probably thought being obnoxious, rude, crass, difficult or just plain insane would make one a perfect match for Hollywood… not exactly.

Being assertive, passionate and eccentric is an asset in Tinseltown, but that’s different from insulting people, smelling bad, never listening, throwing tantrums or not showing up. Movie stars and a select few A-list writers may get away with notorious behavior, but not so for new writers. Producers and execs are looking for a writer they can work with.

Have you ever wondered why people in the entertainment business often hire their friends? Is it nepotism? Is it repaying favors? Partially. But consider this: if you’re running a television show and will be spending days locked in a staff room with writers, who do you want in your little bunker? The most talented writer ever — who smells like a Parisian waiter, aggravates everyone and stubbornly slows up the process? Or a reasonably talented writer who works well with the staff, listens to suggestions, doesn’t make you gag and adds to the creative process?

Sol let’s discount 25% of these remaining writers for having atrocious people skills. That means that if you are good, professional, persistent and not excessively off-putting, then the actual number of writers you are still competing with is only about 2,500 for 600 writing gigs. That’s one in four.

Did you hear me? If you are really serious, your chances of breaking into Hollywood are now down to one in four.

But wait… nobody said you had to have a writing gig all the time.

No Hollywood writers are employed for 100% of their careers. Why would you want to be? Writing can be exhausting, and if you never have a life, what will you write about? In Hollywood, if you’re working a third of the time, you’re doing fine. Considering the impressive pay that Hollywood writers garner, you can be quite comfortable between gigs. So your competition at any one time is really down to more like two to one or even one to one.

Congratulations. You now know the truth behind the statistics.

Fortunately I listened to those old-time writers who assured me of the “don’t quit” rule. Just as they predicted, it eventually happened. I went from unproduced “baby writer” with no contacts… to apprentice sketch writer… to animation TV writer… to sitcom writer… to animation film writer… to live-action feature writer. There was every reason to tell myself “no” because of overwhelming odds, but fortunately I didn’t listen.

You shouldn’t either. Your success will come not by beating the odds, but by choosing to disregard them entirely.

Doug Chamberlin is the author of TOY STORY 2 as well as several other films and television programmes. His course, Mastering Hollywood, teaches writers how to break into the entertainment industry and what to do after they’ve written a great script.



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