Breaking Into Hollywood:
Why every writer should go

By Alan Denman

You’ve booked your flight, packed your outlines and scripts and dvds of your short films, you almost forgot the sun cream – and the business cards you just got printed, you’ve checked your passport and your ESTA form for your 90 day visa waiver, fed the cat and said goodbye to your envious friends.  You’re heading off to Heathrow for a visit to Dreamland – Hollywood and Los Angeles, the Mecca of filmmaking for almost a hundred years.

For Page To Production with Alan DenmanTen and a half hours and five and a half thousand miles later you step off the plane at LAX, Los Angeles’s main airport. The first thing that hits you is the light. You’re closer to the equator here and the light is bright, much more intense than in the UK. Good job you remembered those expensive SUV sunglasses. You’re going to need them. And it’s not just the light and the heat that’s intense. You’ve entered an environment where immensely driven, creative talents gather and where careers can rise or plummet like a game of snakes and ladders.

Driving to your hotel or your friend’s apartment, you notice something else. Scale. Everything’s bigger. The pavements (‘sidewalks’) are bigger, the main roads – boulevards – have three lanes, and the motorways (‘freeways’) can have up to seven lanes. More light, more space. Gone is the cosy and sometimes claustrophobic compression of British and European cities, most of which grew out of winding medieval towns and villages.

Space, light. Los Angeles is a huge, beautiful monstrosity in which you can either get lost and suffer severe alienation or discover a new and  expanded self. You can drive 20 miles to your friend’s place and still be in LA. You can drive 60 miles and still be in LA. Los Angeles is 80 cities all fused together like melted glass. In overall size it is said to be equivalent to the whole of the South East of England. Built on a grid system, everywhere looks pretty much the same at first. You feel hot, dazzled and overwhelmed. You’re a tiny minnow in a giant sea.

How you respond to this challenge of scale depends very much on your focus and preparation. Study a map and you will see why LA is so extraordinary. A long range of hills, where coyotes, mountain lions and rattlesnakes live, divides a vast strip known as the Valley from the West Side, which stretches down to the Pacific Ocean. Read up on LA and its history and you will soon discover why the big film studios set up shop here – because there was so much light and so little rain. Property was cheap and they could build huge lots. Nearby were hills and deserts that made great locations.
Then there’s your focus. Are you coming in on a wing and a prayer? Far better is to have specific meetings and events lined up – an appointment with a production company or agent, a course you’re going to attend or a shoot you’re going to help crew. Initially, your survival depends upon  “intensive deletion”. LA is just too big to get your head round, so just focus on specific things and blank out the rest. But of course, don’t close down too much because it is perfectly possible that the person sitting opposite you at Starbucks is a Disney development executive and you just happen to have a very cute family animation about a displaced family of mice that take over an empty mansion. This kind of synchronicity happens all the time in LA.

On the other hand, the person sitting opposite you at Starbucks may say they’re a Disney executive but they are full of b.s. and you’ll never see or hear from them again. This happens too. So you have to be open to new possibilities, but always remain focused. You have to be open and keep up your radar up for who is genuine and who’s fake – though even here there may not be any clear dividing line. You are learning a whole new set of social rules and don’t let the bad experiences sour you. These experiences are one of the things that gives Hollywood a bad name, but the truth is there are also a lot of dedicated, hardworking people in the film industry there. So learn from the negative experiences but keep faith and remain focused on your goals.

So you’ve come to break in, right? Break into what? LA is not like London where so many offices and post-production companies are gathered in one square mile in and around Soho. There is no centre to LA. There are production companies everywhere – Santa Monica, Burbank, Glendale, Hollywood, Studio City, and so on. And where do the people you want to meet, the shakers and movers, gather after work. They don’t. They drive to their office, start work (usually very early) and drive home late in the day. You might be lucky and find someone on a panel you’re attending or at a breakfast talk, but even then you are unlikely to be able to speak with them for long, if at all. Besides, the way projects get to companies is via agents, managers and entertainment lawyers. Most companies will not accept unsolicited material – they’re too worried about litigation further down the line. (An interesting fact is this: 50% of all the world’s lawyers are in America, so they have to make a living and litigation is a common practice therefore.)

So what do you do? You’re stumped, you’ve fallen at the first fence. D’ you give up and get back on the plane? No, find an entertainment lawyer, of which there are thousands, and ask him or her if they can represent you and send your script to the right person. It’s important to sound professional, so you’d better know who you want to get your project to, but be prepared also that the lawyer may have other suggestions. Entertainment lawyers deal with a whole range of film personnel from writers to producers and directors, so they’re a good central base to work with.

And if you don’t like this approach and you want to be even bolder, then call the production company you think are a good match for your project and ask to speak to their head of development. Then tell them that you are CEO of such-and-such films and you have a project you think could be of great interest to them. You’re coming in here at a higher, more powerful level. Of course, you will need to have set up your own limited company back in the UK to be fully authentic and a website would also be advisable, but that really isn’t too much work. And you know what? They may well accept your project. You’ve got some momentum now, so use it. Make follow up calls, ask for a meeting if they like the script – or they may well invite you to meet them.

So really think about visiting LA. It’s a land full of opportunity, much richer and more diverse than the UK, but you’ll need to understand the physical geography and the new social rules. You’ll almost certainly get confused, make faux pas, get seduced by the glitzy lifestyle, get a hangover, get lost, miss out on great opportunities, and so on. But this is a hungry industry that needs new ideas and being British earns you extra brownie points, so polish that accent.

Make sure you enjoy your time in LA. There is such an amazing history of filmmaking here, wonderful art deco cinemas and incredible people to meet. At first, you’ll feel overwhelmed, lost in a vast, formless labyrinth, but gradually you’ll learn and grow in confidence and start to build some momentum for yourself.

Your 90 days are up and it’s time to return to old Blighty. But you’ll be back, I know you will. You’ve had a taste of something bigger and very exciting; and if you stick at it long enough, you will break in – even though there’s nowhere to break into.

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About Alan Denman

Alan Denman is an award-winning British writer, director and producer with his own production company, Stinging Bull Films. He is also an experienced film teacher and script consultant. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles. More information about him and his courses can be found at:

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Breaking Into Hollywood