I get a lot of people who ask me how to get started in the industry, i.e. how to sell a script or something or get somebody to produce your idea or get a studio to buy your screenplay or make your podcast or whatever.
I’ll let you in on a secret:
Nobody is going to make your thing.
Unless you’re famous or get to take advantage of some sweet, sweet nepotism, people aren’t gonna make your film/show/podcast/interpretive dance show about aliens.
The Cavalry Isn’t Coming
Mark Duplass gave this incredible talk about how you need to make your own content, and how no gatekeepers are going to come and save you. We as creators need to find our own way in the world.
“There is no excuse for you to not be shooting $3 short films on your iPhone with your friends on the weekends.”
I really like this talk in part because it’s so universal. No matter if you’re wanting to get into indie filmmaking, TV writing, immersive theater, scripted podcasts, or whatever — you need to start by building, doing, and making.
There is no excuse to not be making things, even if those things are low-budget scripted podcasts or Zoom musicals.
How I Made My Own Stuff on Basically No Money While Working Multiple Jobs and Going to Classes
I’ve been writing, shooting, editing and producing my own work for as long as I can remember.
I made my first short films when I was gifted a tiny little DV Film camcorder thing in something like sixth or seventh grade. I cut together music videos with my brother and I, and was constantly writing scripts and coming up with stories that I would rope my friends into acting in.
From parody musicals called “Middle School Musical” to spy thrillers to times where I literally draped a green sheet over the back of my parent’s car to create a car chase with some very rudimentary green screen editing, I taught myself how to shoot, edit, write, and produce all of my own content.
A lot of my early videos still exist on the internet, like my short film called “VOICEMAIL” I wrote, shot, edited, and acted in ninth grade with said car chase. That 30-second trailer summarizes the whole plot in a way I still get a kick out of in that cringe-y way when you’re looking back on your own work.
In high school, I slowly got more sophisticated with my filming and editing after many, many hours running around my hometown shooting things, as you can see for my trailer from a short film I shot called “Swap the Rook”:
My junior year of high school, I gathered all my friends and all the nerf guns and plastic champagne flutes I could find, and we shot my spy thriller New Years’ Eve short, called The Final Countdown:
Because, of course, why WOULDN’T you write yourself into a film saying the words, “looks like we’ve got a party to crash” into a script??? I don’t know what you guys did for fun in high school, but this was my whole life and I loved it.
All of this stuff is what helped me get into USC for screenwriting, and helped me explore the themes, characters, and plots that I loved.
I didn’t mean for this to become a recap of Why I Didn’t Go to Parties And Had To Make Up for That Post-College, but here we are!
Immediately when I got to USC I started shooting stuff. That began with my webseries Antidote 15, which was made for like $50 and a bunch of help from my film school friends. I shot and edited most of season one, which turned out pretty good seeing as we had basically no gear and our dollies were longboards and I couldn’t hold a camera steady for the life of me:
Season one was so much fun, I somehow not only managed to convince everybody to return for season two, but I also roped in more lovely and talented people for season two:
After Antidote 15, I was like, “hell yes I love not sleeping and producing things outside of class, let’s do more of this!!!”
So, from there I made my flagship USC project, CON, which was nominated for two College Television Emmys by the TV academy and won Best Drama and Best Actor at the Miami International Webfestival:
Everything I made in college I made for basically zero dollars: just favors I would pay back (or continue to pay back!). A lot of the people I worked with on these series are people I hired to work with me on the scripted podcasts I now make at Kingdom of Pavement, and are people I’ll work with forever.
I made the mistake and listened to advice that I was given when I graduated. I was told that I needed to go and learn the industry, go and do the assistant route. So while I continued to write, waking up at 5am to get to a coffeeshop to write before my assistant job started, I put most of my producing work on hold.
Until this year, where I produced The Last Station Podcast, and created an entire media company built around trying to empower rising creatives to make art in an ethical, sustainable way.
I’m back in the mix of making a whole lot of cool stuff with equally if not much cooler people, finishing up a novel, and turning all those screenplays I’ve been writing into scripted podcasts and other forms of media.
Because if you can write something great, make it yourself, and find an audience — that’s true power in this industry. And you don’t need a zillion dollars to do it, either.
Be a Builder, Not an Exception
We love stories of exceptions: that one USC grad who sells a script worth millions or lands an agent at First Pitch and that kickstarts their career.
If you’re an exception already — great! That’s awesome. Take that momentum and run as far as you can with that.
If you’re not an exception and haven’t landed a multi-film deal or are showrunning your own TV show, that’s totally okay. Some of the most talented writers and creatives I knew had careers that built slowly and holistically, and they spent years happily honing their voices and churning out great work. Their patience was rewarded, and they grew into their own.
The key here is building. You should be constantly writing, creating, and building your body of work.
In high school, I wanted to learn how to write. So, I read every book on writing, but most importantly, I wrote a ton. In high school alone, I wrote something like four or five screenplays, four novels, dozens and dozens of short stories and short scripts, and produced full-length webseries, short films, and tons of short-form content.
In every minute of my spare time, I was able to experiment with my storytelling, hone my craft, and find a joyful sense of play in everything I make.
Today, I still love playing in my joyful little corner of the world. I wanted to play radio DJ and do a music-inspired podcast that incorporated music from my favorite artists around Los Angeles I had met during my time hosting open mic nights for my company Kingdom of Pavement. So, I created The Last Station that did just that.
I’m naturally a builder, and we can all build our worlds in different ways. Creativity and writing should be fun to you, like you’re building a super cool lego empire.
If it’s not — if you’re not naturally energized by getting into the nitty gritty of making stories — you should re-evaluate what brought you to this profession. Are you in it just for the status? Because nothing else seemed to fit? Do you actually love this work, or are you in love with your perception of what it could be in the future?
My colleagues and I notice people who want to be showrunners but don’t want to put in the work of being writers. That’s like saying you want to be a painter but don’t want to bother with colors!
I routinely find myself awake at 2am at my laptop, giggling to myself as I type out a 9-page short film or a chapter of my novel. I’m addicted to writing and telling stories, and I feel happy just in the experience of storytelling. Even if nobody read my work, I would still be happily typing out my stories in the middle of the night.
So: build your art. Make stuff. Experiment. And most importantly: find the joy in it all. If there’s no joy, there’s plenty of other careers to explore that might be a better fit, and there’s no shame in realizing that.
What You Gain When You Produce Your Own Content
First and most importantly, you gain confidence. Confidence in your own abilities as a storyteller, and your ability to bring something to life.
Secondly, making your own stuff is so much fun. There’s generosity in collaboration, and there’s so much we can learn when we work together. All of my produced work was elevated by my collaborators, who lended their own inspiration to projects that made them feel really special, even as they were mostly student projects. I still look back fondly on these projects, and they exist as time capsules of what we were able to do on a shoestring budget, and are infused with love, hard work, and deep collaboration.
You learn, most of all, you can’t do this alone. We have to build communities to create art. The myth of an auteur is just that. My name might be on these projects, but these stories would not exist without the lovely people who poured their time, energy, hearts and souls into bringing them to life.
I’m still striving to make higher quality pieces of art, still trying to learn and listen and collaborate to hit the notes I want my stories to hit. I will be learning for my entire life, and I’m grateful to be learning alongside some of the best and most talented people in the world I’ve been able to surround myself with.
So, make stuff: that way, you can learn what it feels like to collaborate and experience the magic of making stories with talented people.
If you’re generous of spirit and hard working and persistent, you can absolutely find a way to spend your life telling stories.
Question Traditional Advice
In almost every panel or Q&A in Hollywood, you always hear writers asking, “how do I get an agent?”
My best friend and business partner-in-crime Kyle Cords said it best when we were talking about this the other night:
“We’re constantly wanting to be chosen, because that means we’re special. But the ability to choose is really what makes us special. College builds into us that we need approval and need to be validated. But it’s not about being represented at an agency, it’s about finding the agency within ourselves.”
It’s true: we’re conditioned to seek out validation, to go to the gatekeepers and ask permission. To do things any other way feels like we’re frauds, like we can’t actually “make it.” Like we’re failures.
In reality, it allows us to take back our creative powers and make the art we want to make. And the proving grounds of making your own stuff? That’s where you ironically have the best shot of having the leverage you need to get the reigns of larger industry projects if that’s what you desire from your career.
Be Your Own Cavalry
This is something I return to over and over again:
Nobody is going to say yes to you: you have to say “yes” to yourself.
Our peers are more important than gatekeepers. Rising stars are more important for us to collaborate with rather than established celebrities. We’ve got to create our own projects and spark the bonfire in order for our friends to join us around it and share their own stories.
There’s so many low-cost or very cheap ways to write and create your own work. Even on platforms like TikTok we’re seeing storytelling at the lowest budgets take off to the largest audiences.
Now is the time to produce your own podcast, publish your short story collection, shoot that one-person single-location short film, and be your own cavalry.
The Resources I’ve Written to Help You
If you’re daunted, that’s okay! The way that you overcome that as a new screenwriter or creative is to just commit yourself to a journey of learning and embracing the beginner’s mind.
Feel free to look through the archives of this here blog, which go all the way back to 2008, when I started my own journey. You’ll see me speaking with authority on things I’m learning about, some of which I still believe and some I don’t. You’ll see me teach myself different art forms, sometimes to silly results and sometimes to a kind of time-capsule-approved success.
You can find the full list of my most popular posts here, and below are some more resources that you might find useful.
Want me to write a blog post about something? I’m always taking recommendations! Get at me on Twitter @Sutoscience
How to Write and Produce a Scripted Podcast
Scripted podcasts are all the rage right now, as they should be! Looking to make your own? Check out these posts:
- How to Write a Scripted Podcast
- How to Produce a Scripted Podcast
- Podcast Production Services: Hire Help to Make Your Podcast