Engaging CultureMedia Production

The Geography of Your Hollywood Dream

I get regular calls and emails from up-and-coming filmmakers and producers who live in places like Des Moines, Omaha, or Albuquerque, and want advice about pitching a TV series or movie idea to Hollywood. Some have even gone to the trouble of filming a entire pilot. Many of you reading this are in a similar position – you have a dream to produce a TV series or movie, but you live somewhere outside of the major media centers of Los Angeles and New York. So what do you do?

I’m not in a position to tell anyone how Hollywood works (it’s one of the great mysteries of life), but here’s a handful of thoughts based on my experience and the experience of numerous friends in the industry that might help:

It’s true that with the dramatic changes in technology, you can produce a movie or even TV series anywhere these days. In fact, Atlanta, New Orleans, Wilmington, Vancouver, and other cities outside Hollywood have become major production centers.

However, while movies or TV programs are being produced in many cities across America and the world, that’s not where the projects are given the green light. For the most part, the decisions to produce the projects are still being made in New York and Los Angeles, so being there is important for pitching and follow up meetings.

As a result, most people in cities outside LA and NY being hired are “below the line” crew members: make-up artists, assistant camera operators, drivers, production artists, assistants, extras, etc. In most cases, the “above the line” positions (Producers, Directors, DP’s, lead actors, etc) are hired and brought in from NY or LA.

Geography matters. The truth is, you’d be surprised at how many projects I’ve produced in Los Angeles that began with conversations with other industry professionals who were also parents at our daughter’s school, someone from church, or a chance meeting at an industry conference – and sometimes at a coffee shop. Meetings often happen at the last minute, and if you can’t drive across town within the hour, you may lose the project.

Early in my career, I tried to make it work living in Oklahoma. But my revelation happened when I was asked to produce a movie trailer for Walt Disney Studios, and ended up doing five roundtrip flights in two weeks. They just wanted me to be there and watch each edit together. At that moment, I realized that if I was serious, I needed to move.

There generally only two exceptions in my experience:

1) Established, bankable filmmakers who have proven themselves. In other words, Steven Spielberg, Emma Watson, or Johnny Depp can live wherever they want. You and me? Probably not.

2) Filmmakers and producers who find funding locally. Many independent filmmakers find funding sources in their local area, so they don’t need a studio relationship – at least until it’s time for distribution. But if you need a studio relationship for funding, supervision, a long term series, or other reasons, then it will be very difficult to live elsewhere.

Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule, and no one but you has the final say on your career, but if you’re serious about making major studio and network driven entertainment projects – and you can’t find the funding locally – for the most part geography matters.

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  1. Phil speaks the truth! As someone who also got started as a filmmaker in Oklahoma, I too made the move to LA and made it my home for 16 years. That move was a key part of the plan to get truly established. My partners and I took many road trips to LA to have a week of meetings, but nothing beats living there. Sorry to say it… If you want to make cars, you live in Detroit. Same with making movies. Meetings get pushed constantly. Things are always liquid on the calendar. So you have to be in the city to shift with those changes.

    The two exceptions you mention are very true. There are a lot of great pockets of the country where filmmakers can flourish. But the big BUYERS live in LA. The big machines that dictate the larger moves of the whole industry are in LA. We all joke about how insular and self-centred Hollywood can be, but that’s also because that’s where the circle of influence is.

    The positive aspect of moving to LA is that yes, you will run into people, you will rub shoulders, and you will know-a-guy-who-knows-a-guy-who came to your friend’s one act play last year. It happens but it takes time and it takes living there.

    Living in LA is not for everybody. HOW to move there and live there is a whole different blog. But I’d start with a steady day job, cheap rent and roommates with similar dreams. That’s enough rocket fuel to get you through the first two years… and you will need it.

    — Cory Edwards (Writer, Director, Taker of 1000 meetings)

  2. good advice Phil, but be sure you know why you are coming out here to LA. if you think connections will happen by just being here, not true. you need skill sets that production companies want, or IP that studios want. you are better off getting some skills where you are, local flavor, and then bring your short film or experience to leverage in LA. If you want to start with a blank slate, be prepared to compete with thousands of other competitive folks.
    And Corey is right, the buyers live in LA mostly, so you or your project will pass through LA at some point,

  3. I hate that I must agree with this article. I have said many times I can do more by accident in a week in LA than I can on purpose in 6 months at home. I have funded nearly all of my features with money outside of LA and have yet to produce something within the state. State rebates and foreign incentives will keep you focused on finding the best money pools for your project, but sadly distribution and licensing will usually find its way back to LA. I spend about 4 months per year in the Los Angeles area out of necessity. Love the weather, creative community, and sheer number of opportunities that continually present themselves. Hate the traffic, a lot of bad, arrogant attitudes, and gun laws.

  4. Phil, you have defined our business and our city exactly! I too get many calls and emails each week from people who believe they can just call a friend in LA to help sell their script or TV or Film idea. It’s nearly impossible. The problem is that some people have heard of the one exception and believe they can follow that path. But honestly, they can’t! And if they can, then me telling them it’s impossible won’t hurt them! To me, it’s like someone hoping they can be a surgeon but they don’t have any education or medical experience. However since they have a friend at a hospital they call and ask to help find them a job. Working in the entertainment industry is a life-long commitment and it takes 10,000 hours of hard work, experience and many personal relationships to get established, let alone successful! There’s too much competition here already with people who are serious about this pursuit for us to try to help others who are hoping to do it the easy way from out of town.

  5. Back a million years ago when I lived in Florida, I had a group of filmmaker friends that all puttered around together making commercials and short films and dreamed of the day that Hollywood would “come to Florida.” It never quite happened. Occasional movies would get made and people would get a once a year job but slowly all my friends one by one moved out to Los Angeles. Finally one day, I knew that if I really wanted to pursue the dream I would have to pack up my stuff and just do it. And I did… Sold everything and boldly drove across country. It took three years of pretty intense struggle of random temp jobs, and reader jobs but somehow I finally landed in an agency and worked my way up. Yes, the world is digitized now. But the dealmakers are here in Los Angeles. If you are living in Kansas when you get a call to be at a meeting at 4 that afternoon in Beverly Hills – you won’t be there. And no, they don’t schedule things for your benefit. There are too many people who are here and ready to go. However, once you are TRULY established you can maybe have your second home next to Oprah’s in Maui. But before that happens – plan to experience the L.A. sunshine and traffic. I did mention that you need a working car, right?

  6. I’ve produced hundreds of films, videos and television programs out of Michigan, but none of them at the scale we see come out of Hollywood and end up at theaters. Everything I’ve done out of Michigan has been funded by myself or by the network I’ve cultivated for decades. And most importantly, almost all of those programs have been financially “safe.” Nothing had the level of risk associated with narrative features. I’ve also been involved in several dozen narrative features as a story consultant, but 99% of those were deals started in L.A.. When the State of Michigan decided to play the tax incentive game to attract narrative feature films, people here always asked: “Why doesn’t Hollywood come here? We’ve got everything they need.” And they would list off the great locations, the below line crew and the two or three rental houses. But of course Michigan didn’t have then, and they don’t have today, the high-risk deal makers that control the hundreds of millions of Dollars required, the infrastructure, or the deep Talent pool. The Dollars and the Talent, of course, attract each other. And since you can’t build an infrastructure without both, you end up with places like LA and NY. But the common denominator (in the motion picture industry) between people who have Money and people who have Talent is a thirst for — possibly an addiction for — high risk stakes. That is very rare indeed. So, rare in fact, that most of the people that go to Hollywood to “break into” the industry, end up leaving. It requires a very special kind of person…talented (very talented), persevering, resourceful, and a rational passion.

    1. Wow. Well said Stan, and you’re exactly right. I was filming a project in Nashville about 10 years ago, and during dinner at a local restaurant a woman (fairly drunk I think) ripped into me because I lived in Hollywood. “Everybody knows Nashville is the new Hollywood, and you’re living in the past if you stay in LA.” Needless to say, Nashville is a fun place to shoot, but her prediction never came to pass. 🙂

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