Author Archives: Chad Garland

Los Angeles filled with challenges for aspiring writers

By Chad Garland

Hollywood is full of stories. Film, television, comics and music all rely on stories for content in some fashion. But it’s also a city full of stories about how content is created.

You might have heard the story about the writer whose mother’s next-door-neighbor’s hairdresser’s husband got him an agent, and now he’s writing for a hit show.

“Everyone’s going to have a different story,” Amanda Pendolino said. “You could do what person ‘A’ did that was successful and then it wouldn’t work for you, or you could not do it and then you’d be successful without doing it.”

Pendolino is an aspiring screenwriter for film and television who created The Aspiring TV Writer and Screenwriter Blog shortly after moving to Los Angeles in 2007. Even if they can write from anywhere, she said aspiring writers should come to L.A. because it’s a place where writers can get industry jobs, typically as assistants at either an agency or on set with a film or television production, and make connections in the business.

“Work your way up and eventually, the idea is, you’ll have someone to send your stuff to,” she said. “Agents and producers don’t accept unsolicited scripts.”

Los Angeles can be an expensive place to live, and film and television writing jobs can be tough gigs to land. Some people don’t like the uncertainty of not having a set path to a writing career, Pendolino said, and it can be frustrating for them to imagine spending five years working at something without getting any closer to success.

Yanique Sappleton graduated from California State University, Northridge with a degree in screenwriting in December 2012.

“I had a professor tell us that if there’s anything else we can do, we should do it,” she said.

But Sappleton can’t imagine doing anything other than writing for film and television, she said. She’s has been working on two unpaid internships—one with a talent agency and one with a casting website—since late January. She also volunteers for The Scriptwriters Network, a nonprofit created by writers to provide educational programs and improve opportunities for aspiring writers.

For the moment, Sappleton is living with family, but she hopes that one of her internships will lead to a full-time job. But, even if it does, that doesn’t mean she could afford to live on her own.

An apartment in a decent area of town would be $1,000, Sappleton said, and there are the other expenses such as car insurance, gas and parking (nobody walks in L.A.), not to mention food.

In 2012, Los Angeles ranked as the ninth worst city for renters, and nearby Santa Ana ranked 10th, according to Forbes magazine. The median rent in Los Angeles is nearly $2,300 per month, with half the rents above that mark and half below, compared to the U.S. median that’s under $1,300, according to real estate website Zillow.com.

Rent for about 40 percent of efficiency apartments in Los Angeles County falls at or below $911 per month, according to the 2013 Fair Market Rent data published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For a two-bedroom apartment, that figure is $1,421 per month, ranking the county among the 10 most expensive in the state, along with neighboring Orange to the south and Ventura to the north.

Pendolino estimated that, even splitting an apartment with a roommate, people coming to Los Angeles should expect to pay at least $1,000 for monthly rent.

“If you’re willing to live out in some suburb, it really wouldn’t be that bad,” Pendolino said. “I prefer to live here (in Hollywood) because I’m in the middle of everything, but you could go rent a place out in the suburbs for $500.”

Adam Wilson came to Los Angeles from Edmonton, Canada for an academic conference in March, and decided to stay and apply for a visa so he can try working his way into a TV writing career.

Even though the cost of living isn’t any lower in Los Angeles, than it is in Edmonton, the city has advantages over home that make it worth it for Wilson.

“I paid $800 a month for a studio apartment in Edmonton, and it’s cold nine months of the year,” he said. “I feel like you can work a menial job for 35 hours a week, pay your rent and go to free comedy shows, go to the beach. There’s enough else going on that it’s worth being here—you’ve got to look at a [writing] career out here as a bonus to living here.”

Wilson is willing to work at coffee shops and bookstores to pay the bills as he did for several years in Canada, he said, but he may not have to after submitting a spec script for ABC’s Modern Family to a contact at Disney.

Wilson’s path to Los Angeles is one of those unlikely Hollywood stories. While completing a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Alberta, he began to develop a reputation not only as a “serious writer,” as he puts it, studying under a Nobel laureate, but also as a humorist for his posts on Twitter.

Through his comedy on the social media platform, Wilson caught the attention of TV writers who invited him to visit them in L.A., where he visited the shows they worked on, such as The Simpsons.

“Just being slightly associated, just hanging out and having those guys be like, ‘You’re cool enough to actually come and watch what we do,’ last year I had a grand tour of Family Guy,” Wilson said. “This year I got to meet with people at Nickelodeon, I got a big tour of Disney TV Animation. I also got to give them a spec script.”

This latest visit to L.A. was his third after making connections with successful writers on social media. When changing his return flight home was going to be more expensive than canceling and rebooking later, he made plans to stay—permanently if his visa gets approved. His friends from social media have been helping him out by letting him crash on their couches or paying for a night in a hotel.

Even though Twitter gave him a direct channel to communicate with the Hollywood writing community from far away, Wilson said he still has work to do now that he’s in L.A.

“I still have to do it the old-fashioned way, but I have connections that would’ve taken years to develop otherwise,” Wilson said. “I still have other issues, like I still have to get a visa and I still have to get a job… My life might not be any different, except it’s here and I’m working toward something.”

Pendolino made her way in Los Angeles a more conventional way, working her way up from the mailroom at a talent agency where people made as little as $350 a week to a coveted job “on a desk,” the industry lingo for working as an agent’s assistant.. But there are many types of assistants in Hollywood and the pay can range widely, Pendolino said.

Some assistants make $500 to $600 a week on average, she said, but that can range from as low as $400 to as much as $800, with some salaried studio assistants making around $50,000 a year.

For aspiring writers coming to Hollywood, Pendolino recommends having at least enough saved up to cover a month of expenses while looking for an industry job—she said getting such jobs from outside Hollywood could be difficult. It also helps to have help from family, if possible, she said.

Andrea Zevallos is an aspiring screenwriter who grew up in Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles where Warner Brothers Studios and NBC Universal are located. She moved back to live with her parents after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 2011.

It took her about three months to find a job as an assistant at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she now helps with a directing workshop for women, but she can’t yet afford to live on her own. She expects to work a “nine-to-five job” until she lands a paid writing job, she said.

“All of my writer friends work day jobs and then go home at night and write,” Zevallos said.

She said she usually writes for three hours a night, working on her first script.

While the benefit that makes living in L.A. worth the expense is developing connections working on sets, in agencies or, like Wilson, on Twitter, writers still need to find time and energy to write.

“A lot of people have one of two problems,” Pendolino said. “Either you’ve written a lot of amazing scripts and you have no one to send them to, or you spend all your time networking and have these amazing contacts, but no scripts to send.”

It took Pendolino about five years to land her first paid writing job, she said, making connections and demonstrating her writing ability as she worked at the talent agency, then branching out on her own doing freelance writing work and doing “coverage” for a production company.

Coverage involves reading script submissions and providing feedback to a production company, but it’s not a job that’s easy to land without connections in the industry, Pendolino said. Companies are also paying less for coverage now, she said, because there are more readers than there are coverage jobs available.

“A writer/director that I’ve worked with used to be a reader in the ’90s and made the exact amount of money that readers get paid now,” Pendolino said. “So that’s not really a business that you’d want to be getting into, to be honest.”

Overall, Pendolino said it’s harder now to get started as a writer than it was when she started in 2007, due to the downtown in the U.S. economy.

“What’s ironic is, I don’t really remember the financial crisis at all,” she said. “I remember thinking like, ‘I don’t have any money anyway, how has this changed?’ ”

Tonight Show production a well-oiled machine

By Chad Garland

Whatever you do, don’t take photos inside Studio 11 on NBC Universal’s Burbank Lot. A small army of NBC pages and contracted security guards keep a watchful eye for anyone snapping a shot on their camera, phone or tablet.

Aided in their lookout by an unseen surveillance team, these hawk-like stewards won’t just frown on surreptitious snapshots, they’ll give shutterbugs a stern talking-to, and they don’t like repeating themselves.

This obsession with control of the hundreds of tourists who fill the audience daily is all part of a systematic routine that keeps The Tonight Show with Jay Leno running smoothly day after day.

The show is taped live and blasted up to a satellite passing overhead at just the right time (about 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.) and sent to the East Coast for broadcast later that evening.

“We tape for an hour, we take a one-minute break for one-minute commercials, a 30-second break for 30-second commercials,” Leno told the audience. “All the flubs and mistakes stay in.”

Aside from a few of Jay’s lines — called “pick-ups” — that are rerecorded later and dubbed in to cover bad sound in the original recording, the show airs with little post-production editing.

This means that the show needs to come off without a hitch, and that means tight audience control.

When I arrived with a group of students from the Cronkite School to watch a taping on March 14, we were all greeted by an energetic page who led us to a security checkpoint where we passed through a metal detector and bag check that would make the TSA proud.

After giving my bag a thorough screening in which she checked every pouch and asked me to identify certain contents, the security guard warned me to put my camera in the camera bag before entering the studio.

Benjamin Kuerschner came through the West Coast Page program pipeline after graduating film school at New York University. The page programs — there’s one on each coast — are year-long and serve as NBC Universal’s “primary pipeline to entry level positions,” according to the company’s website. Of approximately 9,000 applicants to the West Coast program, only 50 made it into the 2012 program, according to one Tonight Show page.

Kuershner landed a position as the show’s audience coordinator after completing the program in 2011. He herds audience members into sections of the studio’s parking lot according to their status — walk-ins, groups, guests of employees who work on the show and a few other categories.

A cadre of pages work with Kuerschner to prepare the audience for the show, lining them up, issuing tickets, instructing them to throw out food and drinks before entering, warning them not to take photos and, of course, counting them.

It’s a thankless job, but an important one for a show that fills 386 seats five days a week, but usually overbooks its seats. Everyone wants in, but not everyone gets in. Kuerschner’s team decides who makes it and who doesn’t.

At the appointed time, the pages lead groups into the audience seating area, escorting each to various sections in what must be a systematic fashion, although the method seems random to a casual observer.

Guests of the show’s employees apparently get priority for floor seats, where they have the opportunity to high-five Leno at the top of the show, just before his monologue.

One security guard who had recently started working at the show got tickets for two of his buddies from his weekend job at the Anheuser-Busch brewery in nearby Van Nuys. He asked Kuerschner to get them on the floor, and sure enough they were seated just off stage right.

It’s at this point, during the seating, that the rigorous no-photo policy is enforced. A colleague of mine was cautioned about taking a cell phone photo. A guard wearing an earpiece checked the last photo on another colleague’s iPad to ensure he hadn’t snapped a shot of the empty set.

“They told you about your camera, right?” the same guard asked me before returning to his post in front of the dimly lit set.

I nodded and said they had, surprised that he even knew about the camera in a messenger bag shrouded in shadows under my seat. I soon realized that a larger security apparatus was at work and communicating with the guards via radio.

With the audience seated, a denim-clad Jay Leno walked out on stage to give some pre-show guidance, tell a few jokes, shake some hands and pose for a few photos with guests. He reminded the audience that the “most important thing” was their applause and laughter during his monologue. Not for himself, mind you, but for his guests—James Franco and Jay Mohr that night.

“If they just hear silence during the monologue, they’ll start to think there’s something wrong with them, personally,” Leno quipped.

As with much of the process, there seemed to be an underlying system to selecting the guests for photos, but the method was still unclear, leaving it to seem somehow random again. There is a consistent and constant effort to maintain an illusion of spontaneity to mask the rigid structure and mechanics of the production.

Leno’s casual pre-show rapport-building was as much a part of the production as the taped elements that would begin 15 minutes later. As Leno retreated to his dressing room, comedian Don Reed appeared to warm the audience with a mix of instruction — “People seated on the floor and on the floor only come up, give Jay five, then quickly sit back down” — and comedy, such as his slow-motion impression of a man thinking he’s cool, getting drunk on tequila, and getting kicked in the jewels.

Once Reed had worked the audience into a fervor of clapping, whooping and whooping and clapping, it was as if audience members’ identities drained away and we fell under the control of the show’s producers. We applauded when applause signs flashed, stood and clapped to the music when the band played, sat in rapt attention when Leno interviewed his guests and laughed on cue.

When the show was over, the promos taped and pick-ups dubbed, we were released from our spell and returned to the Burbank parking lot outside. We weren’t victims of a production cycle, we weren’t spectators, either. We were participants, part of a promotion machine greased to drive viewers from across the country to movie theaters to watch a Disney movie, a Warner Brothers picture, a DreamWorks animated film.

For that hour of taping in Studio 11, we weren’t tourists anymore, and so we didn’t get a souvenir photo. But, on the way out, returned to our natural state, we could snap a shot with a laminated, life-size Jay Leno standee or purchase an NBC peacock pillow for $19.99.