Breaking into Television

Back in the day television used to be the place where screenwriters went to die. With such series as Breaking Bad, Lost and The Sopranos, the new age of television has brought with it fertile creative ground, which we see explored every day in shows like True Detectives and House of Cards. The dream of many a screenwriter is to get staffed on a TV show, or one day become a show runner. The challenge? This is not exactly the sort of job for which you just apply.

So, short of becoming a writer’s assistant (which is only advised for those at the start of their career, willing to put in long hours for little pay without paying their standard of living much regard, all in hopes of getting an opportunity for a writing credit a year or two after their job starts), how does one crack the television nut? There are a number of ways to get noticed, any of which could one day get you in the room, if you’re lucky enough.

The general approach is that managers promote original pilots (as they are not legally allowed to procure work for their clients) while agents staff their writers. Many will tell you that until you have a hot pilot that (hopefully) sell, it will be tough for your agent or manager to do much for you so far as staffing is concerned.


Your hot feature spec script
There’s little in the industry as valuable as a spec screenplay that is buzzed about. The kind of writing sample that gets passed on from one person to another, that will land you on The Hit List, or The Black List if you’re lucky enough. Of the 300+ specs that came out last year, only 132 sold, so selling a script is not a must. But it does have to be well received. Hailed. Talked about. A strong, talked about spec is exactly the sort of piece that end up in a show runner’s pile come staffing time. When staffing season comes, everyone will be coming his way with material worthwhile, and little will garner as much attention as material he heard about from a variety of sources due to previous buzz.


A killer original pilot
Everyone is looking for an outstanding new pilot, one that presents not only a new twist on a known world, but also offers potential for development that can stretch over many episodes and/or seasons. A great new voice in TV Land is one that always garners a great deal of attention. Like a hot feature spec, your pilot spec, if unproduced, will open doors for you with show runners and executive producers come that all-important staffing season. The challenge? The great new pilot is being attempted by you and everyone else in town. From A-List to novice, everyone is trying to come up with the next great pilot script, so you will be competing with name writers for attention and time.


Your TV Spec
In today’s competitive market, you write a current, strong spec for one reason: To get into a television fellowships. Six major fellowships (known as The Big Six) take submissions every year, with a slew of diversity-driven fellowships awarding positions to new writers as well. While this is a GREAT way in, consider that each fellowship accepts 6-10 writers annually, and many receive over 2,000 submissions. While every fellowships works within its own unique structure, it is a fantastic opportunity to get in front of television executives, and begin to understand how the writer’s room work. Many fellowship recipients have gone on to get staffed in the room, become executive producers and show, and building stellar careers writing for television.


The point? Television is as competitive as film these days. Its great benefit, outside of creative opportunities, is that it offers the opportunity for ongoing, consistent work. And consistent work means consistent pay. Writers and reps alike have set their sites on it. One thing’s for sure: A television writing career doesn’t happen by accident.