Breaking into Screenwriting: Features vs. Television

When approaching the industry strategically, many writers consider not only what they enjoy writing or what format speaks to them, but also where they might have greater odds for building a tangible, sustainable, screenwriting career. Judging by the numbers, there are more opportunities in television than there are in film. In 2014, over 4,000 WGA members claimed income generated from working in the television sector; by contrast, only 1,800 WGA scribes made their money in the feature film sector. Therefore, it’s easy to assume that there are just more opportunities in television, and accordingly breaking into that particular sector should be easier. But is that really the case?

Even though the film and television spaces share obvious similarities, there are quite a few important distinctions to take into consideration.. Think of the television space as a more corporate business environment, complete with long term and short term business strategies, a highly politicized hierarchy and a 9-to-5 (or 9-to-7) office environment, while the feature film space is more of a run-and-gun start-up, more agile and flexible, with each feature project representing its own start-up opportunity for a short-term business proposition, unless of course you’re in the franchise business. Therefore, and outside of the writing itself, writers who thrive in television tend to be those who relish stability and appreciate learning and climbing each step of the ladder, while feature writers tend to possess more of an entrepreneurial business mentality, one that can sometimes be slightly daring, fiscally speaking, and are comfortable starting potential new businesses with every new spec script they finish.

Breaking into television and breaking into film represent two wildly different propositions. Manager John Zaozirny of Bellevue Productions broke it down like this when I interviewed him for my upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: Being a writer in TV is like being a mechanic on a train that is currently in motion whereas being a writer in features is like being a mechanic on a car that’s in the shop. With the car in the shop, you go in, you do the work, if you screwed up your work, someone else will go in there and fix it. But if you screw up your work on the train that’s going down the tracks, the train might derail, and so they can’t take any chances. And so it’s much harder to break people into television. But the good news is once you’ve kind of broken in, the momentum tends to keep you going.”

Echo Lake’s TV Lit Manager Zadoc Angell illuminated further: “In the feature world, the writer is not king. So you can buy one writer’s screenplay. If it’s a beautiful screenplay, that’s all a studio really needs to acquire. They don’t care if you live in LA or Montana if the script is amazing and they find a beginning, middle and end movie that will be amazing. Then they can have traditional Hollywood screenwriters do the rewrites for them, throw on a big director who’s going to make it his vision, go cast it, shoot it, and the writer is totally out of the process. In TV, if you buy a pilot from a writer, you’re buying that writer’s vision, not just for one episode, but hopefully for 100. So you’re investing in that writer in a much bigger way, and it’s a long-term ongoing relationship and success.”

When looking at what a writer needs in order to break into the feature film space, one thing sums it up: An outstanding feature spec. The belief is that if you write that amazing, standout, undeniable spec, it will find its audience. Whether that spec goes on to sell, get made, or just create a lot of buzz and places on prestige lists such The Black List, The Hit List, The Blood List (if it’s a horror or thriller script) or The Young & Hungry List, is almost secondary. With an outstanding spec screenplay on your hands, you will be able to get representation, get introduced to the town, go on tons of generals, and build a much-needed fan base. In the feature space, an outstanding feature is the conversation starter that every writer needs to have. Much as it did with the likes of Nick Yarborough (LETTERS FROM ROSEMARY KENNEDY) and Chris Thomas Devlin (THE WRETCHED EMILY DERRINGER), an outstanding spec can take a writer from complete unknown to toast-of-the-town in the industry equivalent of mere seconds. And while buzz does not in any way mean that the writer is going to be guaranteed a hefty screenwriting check, it does offer the scribe lucky enough to enjoy it the sort of attention that – if used correctly – can launch a new writer into the screenwriting space in a big way. But without a “script du jour” it is hard to find a way for a new feature writer to gain traction in the feature writing space.

Breaking into television seems to be a much more loaded – and therefore challenging – proposition. It’s true what they say: Once you’re in, you’re IN. It’s getting in that’s the challenge. In order to do so, not only do you need to have that outstanding sample script on hand, one that puts your voice, creativity, structural chops and world-building skills on display, but you also have to network, network, network. In the time of PEAK TV, many TV scribes hope to bypass the room and skip lower-level staffing, pass go and jump directly to becoming a content creator. But even though in the past few years on rare occasions we have seen new, unvetted writers set up a show and go straight to the top (for an example look no further than Mickey Fisher), it turns out that in today’s television climate an entirely unknown, unproven writer is going to have a hard time selling a pilot to network unless he brings with him some undeniable elements. As one of the interview subjects for my book put it: “Without Kevin Spacey, Beau Willimon would have never gotten on Netflix.” While in the feature world every bit of the writer’s vision better be on the page, in the TV world the buyer, i.e. network, cable or digital streamer, is banking on the writer’s longterm vision for the future progression of the show at hand, a hefty gamble to make with an unknown writer who has yet to take part in the ongoing process of creating television, whom the networks have yet to designate as one they want to be in business with.

Because of this, breaking into television usually takes multiple efforts on multiple fronts, which often can take many, many years. Although there is no sure thing in breaking into television, there are two more sure paths for making it: going the assistant route, which usually means putting years in the room as a writer’s assistant, showrunner’s assistant, coordinator or even room PA before you are granted either a freelance episode or a promotion directly into the writing staff (that is, if the show runner is even open to promoting assistants to writing positions, and if the show doesn’t get cancelled), OR gaining entry to the TV writing programs (also known as the TV Fellowships) operated by the major networks, which in no way guarantee a direct path to staffing, but can put you at the front of the line, especially if diversity, and therefore diversity dollars, is involved. While diversity has proven for many to be a double edged sword (many newly staffed diversity writers feel branded by that moniker) it is a great way for a new writer to get into the room. However, it has been said that it’s harder to get into the TV writing programs than it is to get into Harvard, and writer’s room assistant positions are hard to come by as many young writers compete for them. The less sure path is once again writing that amazing sample that separates the writer from the pack, and hoping that it will inspire an agent, a showrunner, EP or network executive (or all of the above) to take a chance on its author.

The general belief is this: it is easier to break into features, but harder to sustain a career (and make a continuous, consistent living) in the space, while television is harder to break into, but easier to sustain a well-paid career once you’re in. Whichever your destination, be sure to learn all you can and set your expectations accordingly. The good news is that new writers are breaking in all the time. One of the luxuries of my job is that I get to see and celebrate this on a regular basis. But I also get reminded often that the writers who do break in are those who not only possess superior talent and work on their craft continuously, but also those who learn and understand what it takes to break into the business sector they have chosen as their destination.