My good friend Colin Costello, a former Chicagoan who moved to Los Angeles, recently wrote an article about the how a writer needs to be in Los Angeles to be a professional. I asked Colin to define his terms—if, by professional, he means in the strictest sense someone getting paid to practice the art of screenwriting—then sure, L.A. is where the money and infrastructure is. The six TV shows shooting in Chicago right now employ reams of local actors and crew, but the production $$$ making this happen isn’t homegrown. It ain’t coming from Oz, either. These are L.A.-based production companies cashing in on Chicago’s great production resources, locations, and that soft money 30% tax incentive.
Sure, the established Writer’s Guild writer going the traditional route of agencies, pitching, and assignment work would have to be in Los Angeles. But if he thinks that the only way to make it, then I’m willing to debate him any day of the week.
You do not have to be in Los Angeles to make your movie.
Which might lead to the broader question of what “making it” even means.
I never used to write with budget in mind. I had stuff to say, I went about saying it. I knew I was a writer because I was going to write, with or without a payoff. Back in those days it was poetry and plays. The only thing complicated was attempting to pay the bills as a horse-and-carriage driver, a vibrating pillow salesman or even working the graveyard shift at the porno bookstore (Screenwriter Tip: If you take a gig at a porno bookstore to try to write your play in peace, don’t pick the graveyard shift. That’s the busiest shift by far. You’ll want to go morning shift. Write that down.)
Writing plays for non-equity Chicago theater companies, you don’t think about stupid shit like niche or budget or audience. You’ve got the paper-pirate Ar-tist hat on sideways and none of that other bullshit matters.
In a perfect world writers would write the scripts they need to write. Writing with that passion would result in a better script, maybe even a great script. This would garner a great placing at Inktip or Black List and attract the A-List producers who comb online websites for the next big thing. Or maybe it makes semifinals at Nicholl Fellowship and bags you a manager. The script would then be sent on to Jeremy Renner’s production company where you would sign a 6-figure deal, watch major talent attached and the movie make 50 million. You would then be part of the Writer’s Guild, take meetings, pitch and do assignment work.
In a perfect world…
You’ll tell me there are dozens of writers who have been signed off Black List and writers XY and Z who have gone on to make AB and C from such humble spec roots. It’s likely the craps dealer in me that wants to point out that for every writer you can name with a magical spec script story, I could certainly point to a thousand whose dreams did work out quite as well. That Bukowski line about the American Dream, and how the mythology tells us we can all be big-ass winners, while ignoring LOTS of folks in the gutter who never got a taste of the dream.
Great Peditto, so you’re saying stop dreaming? Don’t let rip? Don’t pour out your original and dazzling and passionate ideas?
Nope. I’m saying know thyself…and your project.
By ignoring budget and shooting for the stars you pretty much guarantee needing other people’s money. This guarantees the need of L.A. and the entire L.A. mechanism.
Sure, you might bag a producer off Black List who will option the script and ask you for budgetary changes. It happens.
It also doesn’t happen. Everybody writes the best story they can write. Everybody gives it their all. Everyone dreams of that glittering prize of a writing future you’ve got in mind.
If you’re doing assignment work for an Indie producer or Studio writing within their budget is mandatory. Chances are you won’t have reached this stage without full conception of what your words cost. If they’re budgeted at 5 million and you hand over a 50 million dollar rewrite, they won’t be able to use it, and won’t be happy with you, at all.
Writing the spec script is different. If you feel you need 100 million to tell the tale, go ahead and write it. Just understand that the list of folks who can actually make your flick just got narrowed by the necessity of find 100+ million.
Needing other people’s money, by definition, cedes power to them. It’s why you should consider writing with budget in mind.
From here on in, I will.