Screenwriters Breaking In: Jorge Rivera
The very best part of my job is watching new writers break into the industry, go from emerging to working professionals. And in my line of work, because of the talented scribes who have chosen to seek out my services, I get to observe this more often than many. These days, little gets me as giddy as news of one of my writers getting staffed for the first time, being accepted into a television writing program, selling a spec or a pilot for the first time, or landing a first writing assignment. Every time this happens, I want to know: What decisions did these writers make along the way that brought them to this point? What was their unique journey? And what did they learn that the can now share with the rest of us?
Jorge Rivera is one such writer. In the short time that I’ve known him, he has gone from a participant in the FOX Writers Intensive to a repped writer to a staffed television scribe. So how did he do it? As Jorge says, if you ask 100 different writers how they broke in, you will hear 100 different stories. And these are exactly the stories that every writer has so much to learn from, the same sort of stories that will be featured in my upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES. Below, then, is my interview with Jorge Rivera, and how he went about getting his break.
1) When did you start writing?
The first project that I wrote was an independently produced TV pilot that became a digital series. I wrote it with two other writing partners around 2006, but the final incarnation didn’t get released to the world until 2009. It was called RHYME ANIMAL. It won a few awards and opened some doors for me in the digital space. But more importantly, it got me hooked on wanting to write and make a career of it.
2) Why did you choose to write for television specifically?
I had been writing and producing digital content (web series) for about four years before I decided I wanted to do long form television. The stuff I had been writing and producing looked and sounded more like the types of narrative drama you see more on broadcast and cable television and less like the short form content you’d find on YouTube. I have great respect for YouTube, but my vision felt like it belonged more on television. Around that time Netflix, Amazon and Hulu started creating long form original content and my interest expanded to include those platforms (and others that came later).
3) Once you decided to become a writer, what education did you pursue on both the craft and the business, and what did you find to be most educational?
Once I switched gears to long form TV (as opposed to short form digital), I took few years to study TV writing at the TV Writers Studio at Long Island University. I got my MA there. It’s a TV writing program founded by Norman Steinberg who had co-written Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks. Norman has been a great mentor and teacher. I also worked privately with Sarah McLaughlin and Jen Grisanti, both are also amazing teachers/coaches. I’d say the three of them probably influenced my writing the most. I highly recommend all of them.
4) You originally started writing on the east coast. What brought you to make the move to Los Angeles?
I love New York. It’s an amazing city. But there’s probably only about 5% of the opportunities for writers that there are here in Los Angeles — at least in television. If I had been content to pursue my own independent film writing and producing, New York would have been a great place to continue doing that. I was just dead set on television and it seemed like it wouldn’t happen unless I came here. This is my home now, and I love it. Though, New York occupies a very special place in my heart and I visit every chance I get.
5) You were selected for the Fox Diversity Program, What was your experience in the program? What were some of the highlights?
I think one of the great take aways from the program were the other writers I met. I think that I’ll always be in touch with them to some degree and we’ll be inspiring each other and helping each other as we grow our careers. We also had some great class visits from Fox executives and show runners. They provided some very valuable insight into how the business works. Then, of course there were the staffing interviews. I have the program to thank for getting my career started because of how actively they pursue staffing for their program participants. Gina Reyes runs the program. She’s amazing.
6) What were your expectations coming out of the program, and how different was the reality?
I had two goals: get repped and get staffed. I was able to make both happen, so I’d say the reality was pretty much what I’d hoped for (thanks to some guidance from you, Lee (wink)).
7) When did representation come into play for you, and how did you select your rep?
Because of my entrance into the program I knew there’d be some leverage there to attract a manager and/or agent. So, soon after I got in, I started to do my research, made a list of people I thought shared my vision, and met with as many of them as I could. In the end, I chose people that were excited about me and who I knew would work hard for me. I’d much rather work with a small company that would work hard for me, rather than a big company where I’d be low on the priority list.
8) How do you work with your reps on an ongoing basis?
Around staffing time, I was in contact with them almost daily. We’d discuss the shows I thought I’d be good for and why, so they had some ammo when submitting me. Then when I’d get an interview, we’d talk about interview strategy and how to adjust my personal pitch to fit the show and who I was meeting with. Now that I’m staffed I’m in touch less frequently, but I do email them whenever I have some interesting news to share about how I’m doing on the show. They check in with me regularly to see how I’m doing and somewhere down the line we’ll be strategizing about what comes next. Right now, I’m focusing on kicking ass on A.P.B. (where I’m staffed).
9) This past June, you were fortunate enough to get staffed on a TV show for the first time. What was the process of getting the job?
Yes, I was really happy to be staffed on A.P.B. which will be coming out in February 2017. The Fox program sent out our samples to all the new Fox shows in the spring, and then started sending us out on interviews with the shows that lined up with our writing styles. But that was only half of the battle. My reps, Gina Reyes (the program director) and a few other people went to bat for me, in addition to my interviews. It really took a village. Even though I was in the program, there was a lot of competition, and there were several folks vouching for me.
10) Once you got into the room… What was that like?
It was simultaneously the most terrifying and wonderful experience of my life. It’s scary because it’s brand new, and you really want to do well, so you wind up putting all this undue pressure on yourself…it’s the moment you’ve been working towards for so long. I can laugh about it now, but I’m pretty sure I bombed most of my pitches in my first few weeks. A month or so later, I was voted MVP by the writing staff…so, I got better.
11) How was the room different than you might have expected?
Every room is a different (so I’m told). Ninety percent of the advice I got from people before I started was to shut up and listen. Chose your moments to speak carefully. At A.P.B. they want everyone to speak up and contribute equally. I don’t think I was prepared for that. I’m much better at it now.
12) What should a new writer know about being in the room for the first time?
Be over prepared with ideas, but read the room and learn to follow cues from the upper level writers. You might be in a room where the staff writer is expected to be seen and not heard from much, or you might be in a room where they really want, and expect you to speak up. Pitching is tough at first, but you’ll get better. And, the only way to get better is to get in there and do it.
13) Are there any mistakes that new writers should avoid when getting into the room?
Failing to read the room is the big one. Don’t overstep and don’t disappear. You have to learn the unspoken rules of your room as soon as you can, and plug in appropriately. Also, you can never be over prepared.
14) What is next for you and your career?
Great question. At the moment, I just want to kick ass at A.P.B. I honestly can’t think of anything else right now. In the long run I’d love to create and run my own shows, but for now I just want to crush my time on this show.
15) What advice do you have for new writers looking to break in?
Never stop writing. Always be honing your craft. And, don’t do it in a vacuum. Hire a good coach or teacher that will give you real, professional feedback. You can also get good feedback from a good writer’s group. Your writing has to be as good as what’s on television and it’s hard to understand where that bar is set unless you’re getting professional feedback on your writing. Also, believe it can happen. Stay positive. If you ask a hundred successful writers how they did it, you’ll get a hundred different answers. But I guarantee you, they all had the craft down and a positive attitude.
Jorge Rivera is currently a Staff Writer on the new Fox series A.P.B., set to premier in February of 2017, and a recent fellow of the 2016 Fox Writers Intensive. Previously, he was best known as the creator/writer of RHYME ANIMAL, the digital series about the cannibalistic hip-hop rapper that won the Independent Film Quarterly’s Best New Media Series of 2011. That same year, another pilot he wrote was an NBC Shortcuts finalist. He’s written two series for hire (starring Dorian Missick of SOUTHLAND and guest starring Michael K. Williams of BOARDWALK EMPIRE) that were optioned to the BET Digital Network, one of which was also the recipient of the SYFY Network’s Imagine Greater Development Award. Before relocating to Los Angeles, he wrote on the web comedy EAST WILLYB, which was touted as the “The Latino Show for a New Generation” by the New York Times. He is repped by Bellevue Productions and The Kaplan-Stahler Agency.