Nobody has ever asked me this – because why would anyone ask me anything? – but I see the question come up time and time again on screenwriting blogs and messageboards: how do non-Americans make it in Hollywood? Now, having not yet made in Hollywood, I’m not an expert on the subject, but here are my thoughts for what they are worth:
Firstly, the basic truth about making it as a screenwriter in any way shape or form is the same wherever: write something amazing and someone will find a way to make it. Passes that appear on the surface to suggest that American producers won’t make British writers’ work, or that British producers will never take on an American-set project are just passes: write better and try again.
In many ways, Hollywood is less the American industry and more the epicentre of the international film industry. In the very early days of filmmaking, the French, German and British film industries actually had higher rates of production and innovation than the Americans, but then the First World War happened and Europe spent the next couple of decades recovering, so the best filmmakers headed for the relative affluence of America and thus Hollywood became synonymous with movies. In the decades since, Hollywood has continued to hoover up the best talent, the best stories, from all over the world… with one thing in common: they’re universal.
Hollywood films are rooted in primal hopes and fears that pretty much every human can identify with. They may literally be set in America with American characters, but, whether they’re action, comedy or thriller, they all have in common a strong, simple, emotional anchor that makes the story and characters accessible to people whose lives are otherwise a million miles from the world of the movie. You don’t have to have been a glamorous advertising executive in Manhattan to have been terrified you’ll never find love, or an FBI agent to know that you would do anything to protect your family. What I’m getting at, is that whether or not you can successfully employ “y’all” in dialogue or write about baseball is less relevant than whether anyone can pick up your script and ‘get it’ regardless of whether they’re familiar with the French sense of humour or lived through Thatcher’s Britain or whatever. In fact, a fresh setting or unique perspective is absolutely a strong selling point, and if the story has that emotional anchor it won’t be obscure or inaccessible however foreign or unusual the world it inhabits may be.
So, assuming your writing is universally appealling to most humans, how then to get it in front of American producers? In my experience, cold querying from thousands of miles away is pretty much a waste of time. Cold querying full stop is a long shot, but when the producer knows that even if they’re mildly interested enough to invite you in for a coffee you probably won’t be able to come, it becomes a long shot wearing a blindfold. My advice is to start where you are – as I said above, Hollywood hoovers up talent from everywhere, you just have to come to its attention first.
I’ve heard people respond to that “but I only want to write Hollywood films – what’s the point in trying to make a British/French/Ukrainian first for the sake of it?” To that I say: universal. There are extremely few Hollywood films that couldn’t have been made with a different setting – see every (good) remake as evidence – so write the local ‘remake’ of your Hollywood film first. If it’s of a budget that seems to you to be out of the league of your local market, the writing (if it’s of Hollywood standard) will still make make a producer sit up and take notice. There are ways and means that any producer worth their salt will figure out; that’s their job not yours.
Or, they might just remember that studio scout they got wasted with at Berlin or Cannes that time, and pass it along. As I said above, the movie business is international: everyone is working with everyone, and most people you want access to probably hung out at a festival or awards show once upon a time with someone you realistically could have access to. No studio exec in LA wants a cold call from a random screenwriter (of any nationality), but a call from a Swedish producer or Australian agent they met and exchanged cards with? Different story, and if you’re in Stockholm or Sydney you probably have a better shot of running into that producer or agent than you would getting hold of the exec in LA. I currently have a pilot with a manager in LA who was contacted by the Swedish agent of the actress I wrote the lead for, in whose garden shed I lived for a little while.
One thing to keep in mind if you are determined to only write American movies set in America, is that you need to have an ear for American dialogue. Fluent English isn’t enough, in fact there are plenty of British or Aussie writers that can’t write American dialogue for toffee (or vice versa). I work a lot with Swedish scripts in English and am invariably itching to tweak the dialogue, however grammatically perfect it may be (in fact, that’s often part of the problem). So before sending a screenplay to an American producer/manager/agent, have it read by an American if you possibly can (even if your first language is English) – there are a few cheap notes services that would be worth it for that alone.