I’m writing this in Denver, Colorado, my new home.
I lived in LA for ten years. I went there because a script I wrote got optioned and I stayed to do the rewrite. I remember when I arrived in LA how I loved overhearing people talk about movies at every table in every restaurant, how it made me feel like I’d found my home when everyone in any given café seemed to be working on their scripts and hustling to get their films made, just as I was. I felt like I was at the Cannes film festival…but it went on all year! I loved it. I did not however plan to stay; I fully intended to return to my life in Barcelona, Spain after delivering my script.But sometimes life has other plans for you, and in this case, it certainly did: shortly after arriving I met the man who is now my husband (love has a habit of getting in the way of the best laid plans), then I was hired by legendary director John McTiernan to rewrite a script with him, and so I stayed on. Fast forward a year after my initial arrival, and my life was unequivocally in LA. And so I went back to Barcelona to pack up my belongings and a new chapter began.
Over the years, at film festivals and workshops across the country, I’ve met many people who want to be filmmakers, and many of them have asked the same question: do they have to move to LA to have a career in film?
Like any question, the answer is complex and very much depends on your goals. If you’re a director, and your aim is to direct studio films or TV, it’s pretty simple. LA is unavoidable. You have to be here. The question really is just when you should move. Should you make a film or two in your current town and then make the move? Or should you dive in to LA as you are? Overall, I’d recommend the former. LA can be expensive and harsh – having a solid calling card in the form of a lauded indie film or (if you’re a screenwriter) a hot script will help open doors. Taking the time to achieve that could make your landing in LA a lot easier.
But if your goal is not to direct studio pictures, but to be an independent filmmaker, I don’t think you need to be here at all. In fact, in many ways I think it might be detrimental, and that you’d be better to make films exactly where you are.
On the plus side of LA, you will meet a community of filmmakers, and that can inspire you. You’ll also have a better chance of forging a good relationship with a manager and/or agent, and those relationships can be key in helping you move forward in career, wherever you are. And of course, when it comes to actually making films, you have access to an abundance of extremely talented, experienced cast and crew. Even at very low budget levels, you’ll find great people for every job.
On the negative side though, I think there can be something deadening for an artist to live in a city that is so focused on the commerce and the business of their art. What seems fun at first (“everyone is talking about movies!”) begins to feel limiting. It all can seem like a massive popularity contest/competition with everyone battling for success, which of course has nothing to do with art or with the true quality of it. In LA people speak without irony about “Awards Season”, but given it’s 75 and sunny year round, I guess it’s essential to break up the year somehow. Still, the industry is based around hype and bluster and the pursuit of external success, and when you live here, you can’t avoid that. Again, it can be fun to observe for a while, but if your aim is to work humbly at your craft and to grow and evolve as an artist (not as a product), it’s not necessarily ideal.
Another negative is the cost of living. In the ten years since I was in LA, the price of living has skyrocketed. I read in last month’s LA Magazine that an average rent for a 2 bedroom apartment in downtown Santa Monica is $4000/month. My rent literally doubled in the time I was there, though the amount I earned certainly didn’t. If you want to make creatively bold, risky indie films, choosing to live somewhere more affordable makes sense.
Just over a year ago, my husband and producing partner Chris and I started Rebel Heart Film because we wanted to share what we’ve learned making films, the honest truth of our experiences so that other filmmakers could make better choices and thereby create strong, sustainable careers and make better movies. I’m excited by the new evolving models for raising finance and distributing films, models that involve crowdfunding and selling directly to the audience. Because of these technology based shifts in our industry, it seems it’s truly no longer necessary to live in LA or NYC if you are a filmmaker. For this reason, I’ve been passionate about taking the Rebel Heart Film Workshop to other cities, encouraging and empowering filmmakers across the country to make films where they are.
I took a leap with my third feature, OF DUST AND BONES, and made it 100% according to this new model. I didn’t need to be in LA to do it; the money didn’t come from any production company here and we didn’t shoot it here. I’m now about to adapt a novel into a screenplay (so excited about this!). It was set up by my agent in NYC, and again there’s no need for me to be here in LA.
I’ve also recently been thinking about American indie filmmakers I particularly admire: Kelly Reichardt, Jeff Nichols, Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant. None of them live in LA, and all of their work seems richer for that fact.
And so with my family, we made the decision to leave LA ourselves. We’re settling into Denver, Colorado, seeking a gentler way of life (read: less traffic, more affordable housing, better public schools), mountain air, hiking, skiing, camping in the wilderness. We’re also seeking life in a community that doesn’t revolve so powerfully around the business of filmmaking. A community that has other concerns, that will inspire us in our continued journey of making films and helping others to make theirs. We’re excited to get to know the Denver filmmaking community, and to be a part of helping it grow, but we’re equally excited to get to know lots of other people who have nothing to do with movies other than watching them.
I really don’t believe you do need to be in LA to have a great indie filmmaking career, and I guess in the coming years, I’m going to find out if I’m right.
PS If you’re reading this, and you happen to be in Denver, please get in touch! Looking forward to connecting with our tribe here 🙂