This page is print-ready, and this article will remain available for 90 days. Instructions for Saving | About this Service | Purchase History
AT 3 p.m. on a recent weekday, the gloomy interior of Insomnia Cafe in West Hollywood was brightened by a dozen glowing laptop screens. The owner, Lucia Yi, looked after her customers like a den mother. ''Most are screenwriters,'' she said proudly. ''The regulars will show me their scripts.''
Nearby, Efram Potelle, the director of ''The Battle of Shaker Heights'' and an Insomnia regular, sank into a worn velvet couch. ''I get stir crazy if I'm at home too long,'' he said. Instead, he has been writing at the cafe for six months.
If the script is the foundation of a Hollywood film, its architect -- the screenwriter -- is an oddly homeless creature. The problem is simple: Where to work? Even a shoebox-size office in an industrial neighborhood runs $500 a month, a price most struggling screenwriters cannot afford. Those who rent anyway or work at home soon discover that having a room of one's own is not all it's cracked up to be -- those blank walls quickly drive them batty.
In Hollywood, the prime afternoon writing hours set off a gridlock of screenwriters who converge on coffee shops to scribble and type. The cafes are de facto offices for those who aspire to be the next Charlie Kaufman, the renowned screenwriter (''Adaptation,'' ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'') who cut his own teeth in a coffee shop, House of Pies.
Any Los Angeles screenwriter, struggling or successful, will say that the perfect writing place is the holy grail of the craft. ''It's always a search,'' said Todd E. Kessler, a writer for the NBC drama ''Crossing Jordan.'' ''Let's face it,'' he went on, ''Writing is a solitary art. Sometimes it becomes too solitary -- you live inside your head and it becomes destructive. It's nice to be in a cafe where you're alone but not alone.''
Mr. Kessler will never hurt for company. In the cafes he frequents, many of the people sitting around are screenwriters. The person who serves coffee is quite likely working on a screenplay; so is the dishwasher in the kitchen. After all, the Writers Guild of America alone registered 50,000 scripts last year.
A significant fraction of those scripts are probably written at Insomnia Cafe, one of the best-known screenwriter coffee shops in town, on Beverly Boulevard. Insomnia's popularity can easily be explained. It has the right proportion of comfortable seating to electrical outlets to coffee cup capacity. Popular screenwriter coffeehouses -- Stir Crazy, Bourgeois Pig, Psychobabble, the Coffee Table and Espresso Mi Cultura -- are dimly lit, have couches and wireless Internet and offer free parking.
Screenwriter cafe culture comes with its own set of rules. It is bad form, for example, to unplug someone else's laptop and even worse to use your cellphone to hash out a development deal with your agent. You are not supposed to ask anyone sharing your table what they are working on, nor let them catch you gawking at their scripts.
''The best seats are the ones where people can't see your screen. That's critical because you don't want people to see what you're doing,'' explained Sharon, an aspiring screenwriter who wouldn't give her last name for the same reason that she shielded her screen. ''There is a level of embarrassment,'' she said. ''Not that people are going to steal your work, but that you are a cliché: an out-of-work screenwriter in Hollywood.''
''It's such a scene,'' said a television writer, Samantha Corbin, who favors Insomnia and the occasional hotel lobby (including Casa del Mar in Santa Monica and Maison 140 in Beverly Hills). ''At Insomnia you can't throw a rock without hitting a screenwriter.''
Those who want to avoid the pack take refuge in the city's many grungy diners, where you can get a $7 hamburger special and sit in a booth for several hours. The House of Pies, in Los Feliz, an enclave of writers and directors, is not popular for its décor (tacky floral) or clientele (retired), but because its pie is excellent and the tables are large. No wonder Quentin Tarantino (''Reservoir Dogs'') and Charlie Kaufman (''Being John Malkovich'') wrote scripts there. Jon Favreau wrote ''Swingers'' at the 101 Coffee Shop nearby.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are elegant hotel lobbies and boîtes, more refined cocoons for fledgling screenwriters hoping to rub elbows with those already living the dream. This comes at a price. At the quiet Elixir Zen Garden in West Hollywood, it's likely you'll see Keanu Reeves, and as a bonus you can get your tarot cards read. But when your laptop battery dies, that's it -- there aren't any plugs.
On Sunset Boulevard, in the hushed lobby of the celebrity stomping-ground Chateau Marmont, you are likely to spot Sofia Coppola or Sean Penn, but a glass of plain orange juice will set you back $8. ''I go to the Chateau when I want peace and quiet, since it has a certain monastery quality,'' said Mr. Kessler, the ''Crossing Jordan'' scriptwriter. ''But you have to nurse the same iced tea for a couple hours because it's so expensive.''
These days, perhaps the priciest haunt is the Office, a sleek two-month-old workspace-cum-cafe in Brentwood. For $5 an hour or $25 a day or $469 a month, you can rent a workstation with an Aeron chair, DSL and all the lattes you can drink. The owner, Aleks Horvat, a screenwriter himself, brought in a feng shui master to bestow positive karma. Writers like J. J. Abrams (''Alias''), David Self (''Road to Perdition'') and Jim Uhls (''Fight Club'') are charter members.
Mr. Uhls considers the Office a good compromise between cafe chaos and the solitude of a formal office. ''The energy in the room somehow raises your own energy level and increases your concentration in what you're doing,'' he said. ''At the Office it's sort of understood: You are there to work, and if you want to have a conversation you'll go outside. At a coffeeshop, it's a free-for-all.''
At Stir Crazy on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, Steven Steckel is such a regular that his double espresso is waiting for him when he arrives every afternoon. Breaking protocol, he has befriended other writers and can give you a rundown on everyone's projects. His reasons are selfish, he said: ''I get a lot of help from them. It's a good collaborative place. We trust each other enough not to steal ideas.''
The greater fear is not that someone would steal your story arc, but that the setting is just an excuse not to write at all. As Samantha Corbin said, ''Procrastination is such a huge part of the screenwriter's art: you have to find the exact right place and the right chair and make sure your latte is triple half-caf extra soy. Cafes give a lot of excuses to goof off before you get to the business of writing.''
Many cafes are not thrilled about becoming screenwriter haunts. Writers tend to hog the large tables for hours while nursing one drink. Hot spots like Urth Caffé, an organic restaurant on Melrose, and the Coffee Table in Silverlake ban laptops and lingering during peak hours.
But at Insomnia, Ms. Yi takes a different attitude. ''Businesswise, it isn't good for the money,'' she said. ''But I love the people who come here, the atmosphere they create.''
That atmosphere, like most of what Hollywood produces, comes with the illusion of optimism. As Mr. Potelle put it: ''I like to imagine that everyone here has development deals. I want to believe that people who spend their entire day writing get paid for it. Because that's what I'm doing. And I want to get paid.''
Photos: THEY HAVE HIS COFFEE WAITING -- Steven Steckel, an aspiring screenwriter, is a regular, along with his laptop, at Stir Crazy, in West Hollywood. (Photo by Stephanie Diani for The New York Times); BORN AT 101 -- ''Swingers'' was written at this coffeehouse. (Photos by above, Jamie Rector for The New York Times; inset, Everett Collection); TARANTINO'S OFFICE -- The House of Pies, in Los Feliz. (Photos by above, Jamie Rector for The New York Times; inset, Everett Collection)