Hit the Ground Running: A Writer’s LA Survival Guide

By David Willis · April 2, 2013

Congratulations. You’ve made it to Hollywood. If you’ve just arrived, you may be overflowing with excitement to have all of your dreams just on the other side of that famed studio wall. If you’re like me, you are also horrified by how great Hollywood looks on television versus what it looks like in reality. The moves you make in the days to come are going to have a great effect on the next few years of your life. I’m going to assume that like me, when you came to LA, you were dead broke and starting from zero. My parents weren’t going to be kicking in any funds. Needless to say, it can be a rough landing, so here are some recommendations, from one transplant to another, that can help you keep working and keep writing.

Let’s start from your first day in the “real world”. Your internship is over, or if you never had one, you’ve just arrived. You are going to need to secure a job and a place to live right away. It’s time to build a foundation. So where are you going to stay when you’re just getting started? Until you find some solid work, the first month and security deposit of your soon to be acquired apartment can seem insurmountable. This is the dividing line between those who go to film school and those who just move to LA. If you have no connection to Los Angeles, it is going to be difficult to form that network of friends that will keep you alive during this period. I have slept on couches, floors, and rented the right to have an air mattress in a spare room or office while I lived out of a suitcase. You may ask why all of these people had jobs and apartments when they were my contemporaries? The simple answer is that I was the only writer. They all specialized in technical areas, which though still competitive, offer more entry-level opportunity.

It won’t be glamorous, but take whatever work comes your way. Search Craigslistfor non-industry work that can keep you alive until you get a job with some security. Ten dollars an hour to assemble Ikea furniture? Sure. Or how about a weekend spent doing inventory for a Jewish music labelin an indoor storage facility? Yes. You have three goals. Eat. Pay Rent. Find a “real” job. You may be convinced there is some room somewhere where professional script readers are gathered with mountains of scripts, furiously typing away. However, in the modern industry internships have swallowed up the majority of what used to be considered entry-level, so I’m afraid this is a thing of the past. I have on occasion found work doing festival coverage, but this pays worse than the Ikea furniture.  Here is a list of resources that can help you find work online:

Among this type of listing, the most important document is the UTA Joblist. Unfortunately, it exists as an email chain that is passed all over town. Ask around until you find somebody willing to forward it to you. If that fails, ask the career services department of your film school, which is what I did. Though it has lost some of its prestige, the jobs on this list are usually all assistant and office PA jobs, which is a better place to start as a writer than working fourteen hour days on a reality TV set. If you have your eye on a coveted studio jobs, there are also the following:

A word of warning regarding all of these… you may get meetings, but no matter how sparkling your resume is, it is extremely unlikely that you will get a job this way without a strong connection to the office that is hiring. The good news is that even the loosest connection can get you in the door, the whole town runs this way. It can never hurt you to meet with people who work where you want to work. I was able to parlay one loose connection in a small office on the Universal lot to a series of “informational meetings” that led me all over town to different studios. I have had several executives tell me to my face that they only hire internally and that all of their online listings are just there to make things seem less nepotistic.

So what’s the point?

I met a lot of executives, and some of them asked me what kind of scripts I was working on. Have elevator pitches ready. Some of these meetings are only going to happen once, so use the meeting to make an impression. Don’t overdress. I’ve made this mistake. Everybody is “Hollywood casual” out here, so for entry level, dress the way you plan to if you get the job. Most importantly, make sure you send thank you emails to each and every person you encounter. If you feel the connection is strong enough, follow up in a few weeks. You should be able to acquire an ice-breaker during your meeting by asking about their projects in production, etc.

So after all that, let’s assume you didn’t walk into a studio and blow the doors off with your brilliant script. You’re still getting part time work, but it’s a slow climb to stability. If you have any additional skills, like camera knowledge, you can blast out cold emails. I once sent cold emails and faxes to every camera house in Los Angeles. It was an act of desperation at that time. I didn’t get a call for months, but one of those resumes landed on the desk of a guy I went to school with and lead to a job that was writer-friendly that I kept for over three years. Query letters and emails cost you nothing but time. You may have connections you don’t even realize.

Your primary concern right now is to keep writing until you get a script in your hand that people want to pass up the food chain. You need to be a race car. All motor, no frills. My first apartment in LA was tiny and I had no real furniture, but it was cheap. By keeping costs down, you allow yourself to work less and write more. Instead of buying a game console that will only distract you further, funnel any extra money into contest fees. Pick and choose wisely. Do your research.

Also, and this is the hardest part when you are dead broke: save money.

If you were day-playing as a PA on set, it could literally take months for a check to hit the mailbox. You have absolutely no control over this, so whenever possible, you need to put money in savings. It’s going to be very tempting to spend it when you get tired of eating pasta for the fourth night in a row, but there are going to be dry spells with no work, and you need to be prepared.

You’re a writer. You knew this wasn’t going to be easy. You are in the most difficult stage of your career. This is the part that sends a lot of people packing. Just take the work as it comes, but never stop looking for more. Above all keep writing.