On any afternoon at the Insomnia Cafe on Beverly Drive, half the patrons are staring intently at laptop computers while sipping their lattes.
They look as if they're working on screenplays.
"Everybody in here is," admits Johnny Cho, 27, with a laugh.
Hollywood lore had it that everyone in Los Angeles was an actor, that waiters slipped their head shots in with the check and car salesmen tried out monologues on prospective customers. Today, though, it seems everybody's second job is screenwriter, and, like actors, most of them aren't getting paid.
Of late, America's best-known screenwriter is Laura Hart McKinny, Mark Fuhrman's cafe confidante. A professor of screenwriting at the North Carolina School of the Arts, McKinny has never sold a feature script. And she is just one of tens of thousands trying to win big--$4 million is the record for a screenplay--in Hollywood.
"It's the easiest way to break into filmmaking," says Harvey Warren, a former officer of the Writers Guild of America. "You can't be a producer unless you can get $10 million. You can't be a director unless you can find someone to give you $10 million. But you can certainly be a writer. It's just between you and a ream of paper."
With his parents' financial support, Cho has been working on comedy scripts for about 10 years, though he hasn't sold anything yet. "It's frustrating and painful, but it's always enjoyable," he says.
Like many other young writers, Cho says he dreams of being the next Quentin Tarantino. The Oscar-nominated writer-director of "Pulp Fiction" worked at a video store before breaking into the business with "Reservoir Dogs." Edward Burns fetched coffee as a production assistant for "Entertainment Tonight" before winning acclaim for "The Brothers McMullen," and Ken Smith used his convenience store job as fodder for "Clerks."
It's not hard to find college-fresh writers around town, working odd jobs to support their ambition. Matt Fallon, 23, has worked as a writer for a pet show on community access cable and driven for a printing shop while working on "The Breaking," which he describes as "Tarantino meets 'Reality Bites.' "
But there are also many older Angelenos with bona fide careers who yearn to write for the big screen. Tony D'Angelis, 31, teaches high school math but considers himself a writer.
"That's always been first for me," says D'Angelis, who is working on his second script, a kids' movie called "The Crew." The first script remains unsold.
Julie Corman, the owner of Concorde-New Horizon Films, says she receives heaps of scripts from such recreational writers, especially "lawyers who don't want to be lawyers anymore."
"There's a perception now that there's more flexibility, that people can change their jobs when they're in their 30s and 40s," says Corman, whose company is producing films for Showtime.
"I'm not sure if they actually succeed, though."
With so many cab drivers and accountants trying to sell their projects, the field has never been more crowded. The Writers Guild of America West registered 31,079 scripts last year, an increase of about 4% over the previous year. Only a small fraction of those scripts found buyers.
The guild reports that about half of its 7,600 members are working in the industry at a given time, and even that number is misleading--one must sell a certain amount of work to be eligible for guild membership. McKinny, for instance, is not a guild member.
Because the majority of screenplays remain unsold or unfinished, it is impossible to gauge the number of self-professed screenwriters in L.A. But several years ago, a local TV station randomly stopped people on the street and asked, "How is your screenplay going?" The majority of people were indeed working on scripts.
With so many scripts around, most agents and studios will not take anything unsolicited.
One screenwriters' agent declined to be interviewed for this article, afraid of the deluge of unsolicited material that would arrive if her name were published.
Neophyte writers, then, have to rely on the old standby: a friend of a friend who knows someone in the business.
According to Warren, persistence is the key to survival and success. "My writing instructor in college was Rod Serling, and he said, 'Cream always rises to the top,' " says Warren, who has sold several scripts with his wife, Joy, though none has been produced.
"Great writing is in very short supply, so if you have talent, they will find you."