I always knew that I wanted to be a screenwriter. I grew up in a big poor Catholic family and quickly discovered what a spectacular escape movies could be. Movies inspired me. And all I wanted was to make my own.
So after college, I saved up money for a year – doing a fun mix of minimum wage construction jobs and part-time medical testing – and moved across the country from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in hopes of pursuing my dreams.
I gave myself two years to break in. I would write, network, do all the things I needed. If I hadn’t made any inroads into the industry after two years I would move back home and figure out something “real” to do with my life.
Shockingly, after 24 months I had not yet made it big. It was my 27th birthday and for the first time in my life I was wondering if I should quit. In 24 months I had settled into a new city, become a development intern, moved up to development assistant, and then jumped over to physical production as a PA on TV shows and movies. And I had written. I wrote two new features in two years. I entered them both into every screenplay contest I could find and showed them to every human being who would talk to me. Nothing came of either.
I didn’t quit. I doubled down and gave myself a new ultimatum – by the time I turned 30 I would have a manager, an agent and would have sold at least one spec script or I would move home. Three MORE years.
Turning 30 was hard. I was a PA on the set of TNT’s Hawthorne. A good job but not the one I wanted. I had written seven features in three years. My life was basically set PAing 70 hours a week for eight months a year and then taking four months off to write as much as I possibly could. I had entered a million contests – placed in several. I had had scripts optioned for no money by smaller low budget producers – done countless rewrites for free – only to have nothing come of any of it. I was a set PA at 30 – no manager, no agent, not a single script sold.
What I did have was enough days to join the Directors Guild as an assistant director. I had a choice to make. Maybe it was time to stop writing and focus on ADing full time. I would still get to work in movies – just not in the way I had dreamed. I didn’t do that. I quit set PAing completely instead. I came to LA for a reason – to write.
I rebuilt my life, discovered long form improv, started doing a million random jobs just to pay my rent and kept writing.
I thought about giving up one more time. I was 35 years old and I still hadn’t made it. I had written dozens of scripts, came close to selling something dozens of times but I still hadn’t had my break. But I was lucky. I was so old and had been trying for so long that I felt I had missed my opportunity to go back. I couldn’t quit now – I didn’t have a choice. The thought was oddly freeing as I decided that no matter what happened going forward – I would never stop trying. No more ultimatums, no more time lines, this is just who I was and what I was going to do.
I got my managers, my agent and sold my first script all within a month. When it finally happened it happened fast. A good friend who I had met through improv had won the Launch Pad Feature Screenplay Competition the year before. We were in a writing group together and he pushed me to enter the competition. I had entered a million screenwriting contests over the last decade but seeing him succeed opened me up to trying another. I did not expect much. When my script got into the top 100 my future manager reached out. It was that simple. 12 years. 15 scripts. Countless close calls. It was that simple.
I sold that script to Netflix the weekend of my 37th birthday. It was my first real break. I have so much more I still want from my career but I don’t stress about it the way I used to. It’ll happen when it happens. The only thing that matters is that I never stop trying.
Dennis Curlett is a writer, director and comedian originally from Chichester, Pennsylvania. His experimental sketch and improv comedy team Funk Shuffle performs regularly at The UCB Theater and The Clubhouse. He sold his spec screenplay JUST. ONE. KISS. to Netflix in a bidding war after winning the 2019 Launch Pad Feature Screenplay Competition.