Location, Location, Location

Among my failed attempts at careers unrelated to writing, was a three year stint in real estate. I got my license just after the market in Hawaii had reached its peak, largely driven by Japanese buyers who set off a frenzy of selling and flipping properties in the late 1980s. Around 1990 the bubble burst in Japan, and prices deflated just as I was trying to build up my clientele list. The company I worked for was Locations, Inc., which took its name from the old saying that the three most important things in real estate are: location, location, location.

I was still selling real estate in 1994 when I optioned my first screenplay and won a scholarship to attend the American Film Institute TV Writers Workshop at their L.A. campus. After I accepted my $1,000 check from AFI President Jean Firstenberg, I told the assembled Emmy-award winning writers who were going to be our mentors during the month-long program that there were great deals in Hawaii if any of them were looking to buy a vacation home. They laughed, and Jean commented that their goal was to get me out of real estate and into the TV business. It didn’t quite work out that way.

At the time, I didn’t think it was necessary for me to be in L.A. to succeed as a screenwriter. I had made connections through the University of Hawaii screenwriting workshops, and contests — including the one that got me into the AFI program (more on that later). However, I should have set up meetings with agents and managers while I was there to take advantage of my association with the AFI and the option I had just signed. I had no idea how difficult it would be to get repped once I returned to Hawaii.

Years later, after I quit real estate to focus on screenwriting, my optioned script was dead in the water,  and I had no agent or manager. Then I got  a major case of writer’s envy when I read that Lizzy Weiss was credited with co-writing BLUE CRUSH, a movie about surfer girls on Oahu’s North Shore — my side of the island! She was one of the ten writers in my AFI writers workshop group. Lizzy grew up in California, went to New York University film school, then returned to L.A. after the workshop. From what I recall reading, she worked at MTV and that eventually led to her selling her first script.

Meanwhile, I had written scripts set in Hawaii that involved local legends and folklore, which did well in contests but weren’t getting much interest from producers or agents. Had I moved to L.A. or made more business trips there, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But I love Hawaii, and the month I spent on Franklin Avenue staying in the aptly-named Mirage Hotel convinced me I wasn’t cut out for that scene.

Eventually, I did sign with a Hollywood manager who liked my family/adventure script about the mythical little people of Hawaii, called the Menehune. Her name was Cathryn Jaymes, and she was semi-famous for being Quentin Tarintino’s manager for 10 years before he dumped her to sign with a William Morris agent — that she introduced him to. CJ also repped a martial arts actor named Mark Dacascos, who was from Hawaii (he’s the Chairman on Iron Chef America and was on Dancing With the Stars). She was looking for projects set in the islands that Mark could be in, so my home address helped in that instance.

The downside was it was difficult maintaining a long distance relationship with a manager via emails and occasional phone calls. Agents and managers like to set up meetings for their clients. CJ’s house in Studio City was also a place where Tarantino and his original writing partners used to hang out. For a writer like me, being out of sight was being out of mind when she was having lunch with people like Guillermo Del Toro or chatting on the phone with Oliver Stone. Before she passed away earlier this year, she admitted to me that it was tough for her to rep writers who weren’t in L.A. Then again, maybe my scripts just weren’t good enough. The thing is I don’t know what her contacts thought because I never got direct feedback from the people she supposedly sent my stuff to. Out of sight, out of mind.

Anyhow, the reason I’m writing about this is the subject of location came up in the recent controversy over a blog comment made by someone who used to judge scripts for one of the bigger screenwriting contests. She flippantly asserted that if the writer’s address on the title page wasn’t in L.A. or New York, she might dismiss the script right off the bat because that person had no chance of breaking into the biz if they didn’t live where the action was. Perhaps, she was being facetious or exaggerating things, but it was a dumb thing to say… except, there was some truth to it. The blogger/contest judge had worked on staff for a TV series, and the reality is you pretty much have to be living in L.A. or New York if you want to work in television. If you want to write movies, pitching and taking meetings to get assignments for studio projects is another reality. And those meetings happen in Hollywood.

Yes, there are exceptions and specs sell from time to time by writers who wouldn’t be caught dead in LaLaLand. But if you’re young or can afford to make the move, and are convinced that you have what it takes to work in television or the film industry, there’s only one way to find out for sure if you can cut it: put yourself in a position to maximize your chances of success. Be there.

Yet there is another way to make location work for you. Write something extraordinary about a real or fictional place that resonates with readers, no matter where they live or work. Then use your local connections — many states have film offices and some have their own screenwriting contests to promote that state as a potential movie location. The indie movie, SUNSHINE CLEANING, got discovered through a Virginia-based screenwriting competition.

Which brings me to my last point related to contests. On other screenwriting message boards, I keep reading comments by wannabe writers who say it’s not worth entering anything but the big ones like the Nicholl Fellowships or Austin Film Festival. That’s bull. If you think your script is good enough to beat out 5,000 other entries, why wouldn’t it be good enough to win money or prizes in contests that “only” get 200 to 500 entries? Moreover, some of the better small contests have agents, managers and producers reading the finalists. And then there are ones like the AFI contest I entered that got me into the TV Writers Workshop.

For that one, you had to write an Afterschool Special, which are now extinct. But back then, a number of Emmy winners got their start writing and directing those hour long drama/comedies that were actually geared to stay-at-home moms — not kids. In 1994, Kurt Cobain killed himself and MTV was still popular among young people, so I wrote my version of an Aftershool Special that dealt with depression, alcoholism, addiction and suicide. Some of the AFI people thought it could have been a good movie… and had I stayed in L.A., who knows. Maybe it would have happened. But I have no regrets… I live in Hawaii, after all.

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2 Comments on “Location, Location, Location”


  1. I guess I wasn’t too off the wall for secretely laughing at an acquaintance who got an agent in Cleveland. So do chances improve for those in the corn belt by having a NYC or LA agent?

    • richfigel Says:

      One reason you want an agent or manager who is based in LA or NYC is that theoretically they rep you, making where you live less important… until it comes time to take meetings. I know screenwriters who live outside of LA, but will schedule trips there two or three times a year to do meet-and-greets and take meetings with agents or producers.

      However, if your agent isn’t in those cities, I doubt they will be taken very seriously by major players. For book writers, I don’t think it’s important that they live in LA or NYC — which makes it all that much more important to have an agent who does live and work where the publishing action is. Still, any agent is usually better than no agent (unless it’s one that charges “fees” for making copies, postage, etc., which is a gigantic red flag that screams, run away!).


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