Do you have to live in LA to be a Screenwriter?
September 16, 2022
This is a question that’s commonly asked by many aspiring screenwriters: do you have to live in LA to be a screenwriter? Speaking from my own personal experience, I know you don’t need to live in LA to land your first screenwriting job or sell your first spec script. Because I didn’t when I did both these things.
Back when I decided to shop my first spec script, PIERRE PIERRE (co-written with Frederick Seton), I was living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and had no contacts whatsoever in the film industry. I was in my 20s and hadn’t even visited the west coast yet. LA was just a place I’ve seen in movies and TV shows. I was also a community college dropout and washing dishes for a living.
After hours of online research, I had amassed a list of e-mail addresses of agents from all the major talent agencies. I then composed a query letter (essentially a pitch for the script) and with my collection of e-mail addresses I went to work. One fateful night, I e-mailed agent after agent. Never with the script attached; I only e-mailed the query. There was a lot of copying and pasting of the same query but addressed to a different person each time. The following morning I got a bite: just one, but sometimes that’s all you need. It was a senior agent from ICM. His reply was simple enough. One line: “Sounds funny.” That’s it. No “Please send it” or “I’ll take a look”. Just “sounds funny.” Still it was something, so I replied: “I think so. Want to read it?” He replied: “Sure.” And just like that: my script was solicited!
And so I mailed PIERRE PIERRE to him and waited.
One week later, I got the call from the agent. It’s the call every aspiring screenwriter dreams of getting: the agent loved our script and we got hip-pocketed (unofficial representation) and after a major rewrite and several months, the script went out. As I was still living in Pennsylvania and washing dishes, I had a team of ICM agents shopping our script around town and showing it to producers and development execs. The script soon took on a life of its own: execs emailed it to other execs, assistants emailed it to other assistants. The script had gone viral. We eventually sold PIERRE PIERRE for seven figures with a movie star and A-list director attached. We became officially represented by our agent and the team of “Ed & Fred” gained massive heat (i.e. many people in the industry wanted to work with us).
A couple months prior to the PIERRE PIERRE sale — simply based on the script making the rounds — Fred and I were offered a chance to pitch on a project with a comedic actor attached. For a couple of months, we developed the pitch over the phone with the producers and e-mailed them different drafts of a treatment. When the treatment and pitch was in good shape, the producers flew us out to LA, all expenses paid, to pitch the project to the studios. This was the first time I had ever been to the west coast and the City of Angels. Fred and I were put up at the Le Montrose hotel in West Hollywood, and we spent a great week meeting people — people we had only spoken to on the phone or had e-mail exchanges with beforehand — and we went on a pitch tour. Not only was it my first time in LA, it was my first time with studio drive-ons. We hit them all: Paramount, Warner Brothers, Universal, Fox, Sony/Columbia, etc. We ending up selling the pitch to Paramount and Lionsgate (who partnered up to acquire the project). It was my first paying gig as a screenwriter. Even before the big spec sale, this job paid enough that I was able to quit my day job. No more washing dishes for me!
And after the PIERRE PIERRE sale, I was able to move out of my parents’ house (yeah, I was also living with my parents in Pennsylvania). I asked my agent if I should move to LA and you know what he said? No. He said it wasn’t necessary and moreover, Fred and I had an outsider mystique because we didn’t live in LA. Our agent had turned the fact that we were “those crazy guys from Pennsylvania” into a brand and told everyone he could about discovering us via an e-mail query and how we had never been to LA before, didn’t go to film school, I was washing dishes, etc. Hollywood loves novelty and our agent played it for all its worth. He even told our story to his former college roommate, Doug Ellin (creator of HBO’s Entourage), and it inspired the episode “Fire Sale” in which two outsider screenwriters, repped by the character ‘E’, score a massive script sale with a movie star attachment. Giovanni Ribisi’s character, “Nick”, is essentially based on me. Fred and I even read for the parts, but they wisely went with professional actors. Of course this further contributed to our heat, and heat matters far more than geography.
Over the next couple years, Fred and I got a rewrite job for Spyglass, sold another spec script (six figure deal), sold two original concepts to Disney and Universal respectively, sold a TV pilot to Comedy Central, and took part in a round table for Judd Apatow. During this period, neither of us lived in LA. We continued to simply visit the town whenever we pitched on projects and took important meetings. Le Montrose became a second home to me.
Eventually, there came a time in which I ended up being in LA more often than not — and I was sick of all the flying — so I relocated there (a few miles from Le Montrose). I continued to have success selling and working on projects, but after awhile some of the mystique and heat started to fade. It didn’t help that most of the Ed & Fred projects didn’t get produced, but I also noticed that living in LA made me appear a little less special to people in town. Suddenly they weren’t as excited and rushing out to meet with me. What’s the hurry? It wasn’t like I was going anywhere, right?
In the long run, I discovered that heat or no heat, people prefer you in LA when you’re not always around. Again, Hollywood loves a novelty, and if you drop into town at strategically key moments, you can make far more of an impression than if you’re just another Angeleno with a MacBook and hiking route. In a post pandemic world, this is even more the case. Most meetings are now held over Zoom (even if all the participants live in LA). The real players are now spread out across the country and world. Hollywood isn’t a centralized culture like it used to be: it’s just one town in a global village. Earlier this year I interviewed a screenwriter from South Africa and he’s been having much success. The world is changing and so are its boundaries.
Thinking it over, the periods I’ve lived in LA have never been my most successful periods. In recent years, I started selling scripts and getting writing jobs again after a long dry spell and I’ve been doing it from Tampa, Florida. I talk to screenwriter friends living in LA and they’re taking Zoom meetings and conference calls just like me. The most important thing is the writing.
If you write something people want to make into a movie, it doesn’t matter where you live.
Focus on your writing. Not your geography.
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.