I get asked a lot how I got to where I am in my career, ie, Bekah, how does one get into Hollyweird, because it feels like all doors are not just shut, but guarded and locked? (And it’s forever Hollyweird to me, because sometimes, or often, it all feels fake, or like a very good dream, depending on the day.) I was responding to one such email the other day and Morrison had the very good idea that I put my response here, so that when asked again, I can direct people to this post. Now that I know that I have at LEAST eight blog readers, maybe you can pass the post along to anyone who’s trying to break in, too. SHORT VERSION: it’s a long long road, and you must keep writing and stay humble and get your work out there even in the smallest of ways.
So I came into tv / film writing via playwriting, and it’s been quite a long journey. I started writing plays in college at UNC Chapel Hill, I was a theater and creative writing minor. I went straight from college into an MFA program at the New School for Drama in NYC, a program that focused on playwriting but also provided a few super basic TV and film writing classes.
While in NYC, during and after the 3 year graduate program, I did a lot of temp jobs to pay my rent (VERY lucky and grateful for some support from my parents during this time too, though I’m still paying those school loans off :), helped start a small theater company that produced a lot of my little weird plays, and then just wrote and submitted plays a LOT. Like an obscene amount of writing and submitting to any playwriting festival or contest I could find, to any theater I could find, just to get my work out there, and gradually, I built up my resume with a production here, an award there. I was not precious, in retrospect I was hilariously UNprecious, like rarely spell checked things before I printed and sent them off (this was back when you PRINTED and MAILED things!) I was surrounded by other incredibly talented writers, but I tried to surround myself with friends who loved my work so that I could stay out of my head, overcome insecurity and keep writing. (And this is actually the advice I always get to writers who are just starting out: surround yourself with ppl who think you are brilliant, and write from that loved and confident place.)
During my post grad school life, while temping and submitting plays, I did two things to keep myself writing / get my work out there: I started a custom monologue writing business for actors, Bekah’s homemade monologues, in which I’d have them answer a few questions then for 60 bucks I’d ‘bake’ them a monologue that was theirs forever. Some months that was how I was able to pay my utilities. I also started a blog, that I’ve now been writing on for 17 years, which feels insane, because it feels like yesterday that it began. I wrote on it every day for about 13 years, and it’s definitely slowed since I’ve had kids, but for me, it’s always been about having a practice of writing daily, even if it’s a small, ridiculous thought that 90 other people have surely articulated better than me.
This practice has kept me diligent, has sort of served as a scrapbook of my life which is useful when you get older and forget everything, but most importantly, I think it’s helped me find my voice and place as a writer. Not all writers are like this, but for me, I can’t write for shit unless there’s something really personal at the heart of what I’m working on. I always start from a place of truth, if what I’m working on makes me feel extremely embarrassed then I tend to know I’m onto something. I didn’t intentionally create a quote unquote brand for myself, but I absolutely found parts of myself that made me unique as a writer and human. And when it comes to Hollyweird, it’s incredibly useful to be able to carve out a niche for yourself based on your lived experiences.
As to your frustration with cold-calling agents, I hear you. How are you supposed to gain access without representation? I’ll share that during that post-grad school time I won a few one act playwriting competitions and sent a whole series of queries with this news to agents and heard back absolutely NOTHING. The few times in my career that I’ve tried to seek out the attention of agents and literary managers, it’s never worked. The hard truth is, these connections are pretty much only successful when they come to you because they’ve seen or heard your work and already love it. More on that later.
So after about 3-4 years of post-grad hustle, after applying and getting rejected from many writer’s groups, I was lucky to land a spot in the Ars Nova play group, a group for emerging playwrights. After about a year in that group, an agent from William Morris (still my agent today! 15 years! Bless him) saw a reading of my play at Ars Nova and decided to represent me. When I started with him, he introduced me to a TV and film manager, who I also started working with, who I’ve also now been with for 15 years. At the time, it was a HUGE moment for playwrights working in TV. Playwrights were getting staffed on shows left and right. But for me, it still took years, and I had a hard time staying confident during that time when a lot of my colleagues were getting jobs and I wasn’t. About 2 years after I started working with my manager, I got a job as a writer’s assistant on an MTV show in Brooklyn. It was a short writer’s room, but I was able to do my job and also learn a bit about the writer’s room process, which I knew nothing about, and there’s quite the learning curve.
Because of my work on the first MTV show, and because a theater colleague happened to be reading scripts to staff the next, I got staffed on another MTV show soon thereafter, which brought me out to LA, and when that show didn’t pan out, I was already in LA and was able to hop on a different show, and well, it’s sort of been hopping from show to show, plenty of successes but just as many failures, ever since. I think I’ve been out here 10 years now.
You’re not wrong, the industry is incredibly insular and very very relationship driven. Even though I do have a team of agents and managers working for me, so many of the opportunities/ jobs I’ve gotten is because of a pre-existing relationship, oftentimes a buddy from theater, OR because the people know my work / have seen it (which is unique to being a playwright — people see your work onstage.) And I think that’s what’s key — people being able to see your work, or at least hear about it, so that they come to you.
So in terms of starting your path towards becoming a screenwriter / gaining access (and again, it can be a long path!) I see three ways forward (though surely, there are others)
1.) Complete a grad / MFA program in screenwriting (does not necessarily have to be in LA but should be a reputable program with teachers who have worked in the business who can mentor you and guide you forward, make connections for you based on a deep knowledge of your work.
2.) Produce your own work. I would challenge you to turn either of your feature length films into short films, study any and all of the Oscar nominated and winning short films for structure, write the ideas as short films, and connect with likeminded friends, or film students (at NCSA for example) to help you produce your film. What you will have then is a proof of concept of your bigger idea, which is a HUGE bonus and selling point when trying to show potential agents and producers who you are, and what kind of stories you want to tell. Your work can and should speak for itself.
3.) Enter all of the prestigious screenwriting competitions, ie The Nicholls screenwriting fellowship and the Final Draft competition, just keep submitting to those, winning those WILL get you access to the agents / managers. The Virtual pitch fest is a great idea, I would keep researching those opportunities and through yourself at all of them that seem legit (always question the ones that come with hefty entrance fees, even though paying their readers IS a legit expense, if they’re qualified readers.)
I hope this helps, and I feel for you! Keep writing, reading and watching.