Open Letter: TV Writing Program Heartbreak
An Open Letter to Anyone Who’s Had Their Heart Broken By the TV Writing Programs
The days and weeks in which the TV writing programs, specifically NBC, CBS and WB, start contacting those talented screenwriters who have graduated to their next round, be it with a request for an interview or a second, original writing sample, can be incredibly tough for so many. All those months of work writing TV specs, pilots and essays can be either validated or nullified in a matter of days and weeks… Just like that.There are reddit threads tracking which program has begun notifying next-rounders and which haven’t. Sometimes it feels like you can watch it unfold live online, minute by minute. My clients too begin sending those single-sentence emails: “Have they started contacting writers?” “Do you know if they started reaching out yet?” “Have you heard anything?”
Those weeks and days in which writers get the call or the email inviting them for an interview (CBS) or asking for a second sample (WB, NBC) are ones that both bring excitement and create some anxiety. On one hand, I have had the good fortune of learning that programs have started reaching out to those writers who have moved to the second round because they have been my writers. I get those excited calls texts and emails: “Warner Brothers Round Two!” “Interview with CBS next week; OMG, can you meet?” “I MADE IT TO THE NEXT ROUND OF NBC AND I’M SHRIEKING!”
It’s a privileged position, getting to see your writers get a real, significant push for their TV writing career. And I’m lucky to have had these experiences year after year, having had writers in every single TV writing program, from HBO Access to WB’s TV Writing Workshop. I remember every call that I got from writers who just got the call that they’re in, every glass of wine raised, every success celebrated. I remember that one time when a writer with whom I had just wrapped a meeting ran back into the coffee shop to tell me: “They just called! I got in!” Each one of those moments, every single last one, were all so so sweet. I’ve yelped on the other end the line. I’ve happy-danced. I’ve whole-heartedly whooped and cheered.
But for all the excitement… There is also a bit of heartbreak that I feel every year. In fact, this open letter started writing itself on a Friday afternoon as I was desperately distracting myself from the emails and texts that were – and were not – coming in by washing dishes in the sink. Three of my writers reached out to me already, one right after the other, to let me know that they had been requested to submit an original writing sample to one of the programs, one that is, by all accounts, the golden ticket. I could not have been more excited for them: “Yay! Hooray! Amazing!” But then suddenly I stopped in my tracks: “But… what about him???”
The “him” in question is a writer who has long been developing his relationship with the network responsible for and directors in charge of this particular golden ticket. In fact, he was a finalist the previous year. In many ways, he opted to write another original spec just for this one opportunity: to have a chance to submit again. To see if, in this particular year, maybe he will get in. He worked so hard. As he always does, on everything. What if he didn’t even get to make it to the second round? What if he didn’t hear anything?
Fifteen minutes later, as I was drying my hands I got the text: “Praise the fellowship Gods!” They reached out to him! Asked for an original sample. My heart leaped. Yipee! Believe me when I tell you, my excitement for him and everyone else who got invited to submit was absolutely complete.
But at the same time… I was keenly aware that for every writer of mine that gets an invitation to submit a second sample, to come in for an interview or, ultimately, gets invited into any one particular program, there are also those writers – many of whom I also work with – who have worked so hard, who’ve submitted stellar work, who poured their hearts and souls into their essays but who just, for whatever reason, did not get moved forward this year. I find myself thinking about just how much hard work and great writing they put in. I think about all the time and effort that went into every application submitted. And I feel my heart break a little bit for them, even while I’m celebrating.
Writers, by nature, are self-starters. It’s the writer and the page. No permission needed, no approval required. All the writer has to have is a healthy combination of craft, passion, and imagination, and it’s off to the races. But then, when it comes be becoming a bona fide TV writer… a scribe can suddenly feel without agency, desperate for authorization to enter the sought-after world of TV writing professionals. Getting into a TV writing program, then, is akin to receiving a pass into this world; not getting one can feel like a very jarring rejection.
There have been those times when I had a writer get into a program and I thought to myself: “It’s their time. It’s their year. So… naturally.” But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have also been another writer’s year. That I didn’t wish that there were more writers that I knew who were so talented and worked so hard that could, that should, that deserved to get in. So I feel those frustrations. So much so that I sometimes, in dark moments, wonder whether there’s REALLY a rhyme or reason to all of it.
In the end, I know that there is. That those really great, hard working, super determined writers will, eventually, forge their path, find their way into a room, be it through a TV writing program, or by some other means. I believe in the TV writing programs, and in what they can do for those talented scribes who get the call to submit that second script, to come in for an interview, to claim a seat at the table. That is why I continue to encourage my emerging TV writers to apply to them year after year. Those TV writing programs are not just a feather in one’s cap; they are starting points for careers, which is why I know so many hungry TV writers apply to them and again, hoping to be one of the chosen few to get in.
So even though I am so happy and excited for my writers who have gotten the call this year, and for those who have yet to hear (Hello, ABC/Disney!), today I am writing this open letter to those writers who feel frustrated. Disappointed. Hurt. Unsure of what they’re doing wrong or what they could have done better or differently (though I am guessing that a few of you out there might have a bit of an idea, but that’s for another blog post on another evening). I wish that I could offer you something tangible: do this and that and the other thing different, and next year, you will for sure get in. But there isn’t such a quick fix (though this year one of my writers who previously submitted 1-hour samples got the call when she did a pivot towards half-hour specs so… maybe?). Sure, there are tips, and suggestions, and bits of advice, and things that all of us who’ve been observing this space year after year know can help your odds, but… there is never a guarantee.
So what I really want to say is this: To all of those writers who didn’t get the call this year, who were not extended an invitation to submit a second sample, who will not get the call for an interview or be offered a coveted golden ticket… I see you. I recognize your efforts. I know how hard you’ve worked, and how much of yourself you’ve put into this. And I acknowledge your rightful disappointments. It may take hours to recover from this. It may take weeks or even months to get your groove back. To stop asking what’s the point of doing this. Or… you may be one of the lucky few capable of not giving it another thought, and continuing, undeterred with all of your writerly efforts. No matter how you go through this, know that when you get back to the writing, to planning for next year, I, along with many others fans, friends, champions and supporters of writers will be here, solidly watching and rooting for you, eager to see you continue to fight the good and worthy fight for your screenwriting career.
Thank you for this, Lee! I didn’t submit this year. But, I know many people who did who didn’t move forward. I will definitely send this letter to them AND encourage them to keep writing and keep going!
That’s so kind and thoughtful of you! It takes a village!
As a motivated TV writer that is currently 0-5 in fellowship application years, I’m ok with not getting selected. I find the process of speccing and writing pilots every years extremely beneficial to my development as a TV writer and though I wish I was a fellowship participant, I harbor no ill feelings to the programs or the process. Thank you for acknowledging the scores of us that never get out of the first round.. and I promise I won’t give up.
What I would like to say is that not being selected, isn’t what angers me. What angers me is that it is drilled into our heads that you cannot spec an old show, that you must research the show intensely, that you must master this craft, that you can’t write a special or holiday episode and expect to advance and my personal favorite.. that TV writing is a unique skill and writing a script on a lark to see what happens isn’t going to bear much fruit against people who know the story form and practice it frequently. So I, like thousands of others watch and research and practice and see we see ourselves get passed over time and time again for stunt scripts and approaches that we’ve been told to never pursue if we want to get a fellowship.
It seems like there are two sets of rules…that’s what’s upsetting, not the competition itself.