Since moving to Los Angeles in 2008, native Mainer Bo Belanger, 31, of Portland, has steadily climbed the enduring, competitive ladder in pursuit of his goal to make a career out of writing in Hollywood.
He has written for the Disney Channel, produced his own YouTube series, and most recently was the staff writer for a new Netflix series about a modern-day Richie Rich.
Here’s what he had to say about his time in LA, the work that he’s put in, and the grind of Hollywood:
Getting a Foot in the Door
I moved to LA in August 2008 after writing in Charlotte with a buddy named Matt Lynch following college.
I started off waiting tables in LA because I had no ins to the industry, and it’s really difficult to get that first job unless you know someone.
Then through an alumni connection from Fairfield University (where I went to college), I got a job as a Production Assistant on the set of a Disney Channel pilot “Oops,” which was later named “Good Luck Charlie”.
Then I had a couple lucky breaks.
On the set of this pilot, I had these cards made up that said I was a writer.
I gave one to a couple of the writers on set and said that I would love to work for them if this pilot gets picked up. It did and they remembered me so I was hired as the Executive Producers assistant for Season One.
We had two Writers’ Assistants on the show – those are the people who sit in the room and type for the writers. Basically, a recorder. One of them left after season one to be a part of a writing group that Ron Howard’s production company, Imagine, was putting together.
So I slid into the writers’ room for Season 2 and stayed there through Season 4. That’s also where I got my first two scripts, both co-written with the other writers’ assistant, Jonah Kuehner.
I also got an agent during this time, which is a huge step for a writer, and one that I thought would be much easier than it was- although I’ve found a lot of things to be like that out here.
Making a Name for Himself
I got spoiled a bit because for those first four years I had steady employment. When we had breaks for a couple of months between seasons, I knew that I had a job to come back to, which was a luxury.
When it ended, I had a hunch I might be unemployed for a bit so I decided it was a good time to produce something.
I had been writing script after script for the previous six years, working six, if not seven days a week on these various scripts – getting up early before work, putting in longer hours on the weekends.
When Good Luck Charlie ended, I had an itch to make something. I felt like I needed to take a swing and get something out there for people to see.
It seemed like all the young people making big breaks in Hollywood were doing it because they’d produced stuff that got the attention of the right people in town (Workaholics dudes, Lena Dunham with her indie movie Tiny Furniture, even going back to It’s Always Sunny guys).
I had just written a twelve-minute pilot with Adult Swim in mind about Jesus and his famous friends in Heaven. It was called “Pearly Gates” and was a satire on the Christian afterlife with the idea being that once you made it to Heaven, your work was done, you didn’t have to be good anymore and you could act like a jackass.
(Note: Pearly Gates is pretty risqué and carries an “explicit” warning, but you can find the episodes here.)
Initially, I reached out to animation students at local colleges, saying, “Hey, let’s be partners on this. I’ll write and produce and you animate.”
That plan got me nowhere because a) kids in school for animation are already super busy and b) partnering up and cutting them in on our YouTube revenues was not enticing because YouTube is not exactly a moneymaker for creators- especially for all the time and effort of producing animated content.
So I felt a little overwhelmed because just before that I’d met with a friend who was an executive at a big YouTube multi-channel network and he told me you’re going to pay $5,000 to 10,000/min for animation. I certainly didn’t have that type of money.
Then I stumbled onto this website called Elance which connects freelancers with jobs.
On Elance I found a lot of foreign animators who did great work and did it cheap.
I know, I know, I’m a bad American, but I was able to make three videos which introduced my main characters for a fraction of what I was told it was going to cost.
For the past year, I’ve been working with the same animators to produce four episodes of Pearly Gates (each around 8 minutes).
The difference is this time around, I’ve hired professional actors for voiceovers and have a professional editor helping me out with post-production. They look and sound more professionally produced.
I’m very happy with how these Season One episodes came out. I’m going to release them all at once on March 18th on my YouTube channel, Classic.
The hope is that someone will see them, like them and want to make more.
Taking the Next Step
I landed my next job through a connection that I made at the Disney Channel with a young executive named Mallory Jaffe. She and I got along well there, and she’d seen the Pearly Gates episodes and liked them. So when she switched jobs and went over to AwesomenessTV (owned by Dreamworks Animation) and was looking for a staff writer for a new “Richie Rich” show, she thought of me.
For the twenty-one episodes we produced, it was just me and the two show runners, Jeff Hodsden and Tim Pollock, on the writing staff. On top of that, we were producing two episodes a week. Compare this to the normal one episode a week and eight writers on Good Luck Charlie and you can see we had a lot of work to do.
We eventually brought in some consultants to help us out a couple days a week for punch up on rewrites, but it was still a ton of work.
But it was fun. I loved writing with Tim and Jeff.
We clicked, got all each other’s references, things like that. And the executives at Awesomeness were easy to work with, which made our jobs a lot more enjoyable.
For a first staff writing job, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I got all the experience I could have asked for being in a writers room of three. Tim and Jeff treated me like an equal- which is incredibly rare- and they allowed me to weigh in on casting, set, prop decisions and help with editing.
It was an incredible learning experience.
Originally, the show was supposed to air on YouTube, so the running joke was that we were going to check the view count on these episodes in a year and it would be at like ten or something.
But it was also exciting because we were going to be the first full length sitcom on YouTube.
A Dream Come True
We heard Netflix was interested and they visited our set as we were producing the 12th and 13th episodes, but nothing came of it.
So we took a month off then produced the last nine episodes.
It wasn’t until after we wrapped and we were editing that we heard Netflix bought it. It was great news because it’s the cool place to work in Hollywood right now.
We’re all thrilled about how it all played out and hope Netflix is pleased with the viewership so we get to make some more.
It’s an incredibly interesting time in our business. Netflix, Amazon, Yahoo – companies with big piggy banks – are now producing content. YouTube with its insane viewership numbers now has competition from a brand new company named Vessel.
HBO recently announced they’re offering an over-the-top service where you don’t have to have a cable subscription to get their content. CBS is doing the same. NBC announced two weeks ago they’re doing a similar over-the-top product for all their comedy content.
Basically, the old cable model is blowing up. Slowly. We’re going to look back at this current TV model as old and weird just like we do when we think back to the days in the 70s when people only had three channels to choose from.
So while the money is still in traditional TV (and I’m not going to pass up a chance to work there anytime soon), I’m very interested in getting in and trying to understand this new business model as best I can – both as a writer and a producer.
Thanks for reading, fellow Mainiacs.