Screenwriters, Reps & the Industry: Industry Update!
One of the questions I hear most often from both new clients just starting out as well as longtime clients and friends who are already well on their screenwriting journey is: “What’s going on in the industry right now?”
It’s been a long couple of years since Covid started, but the industry has remained ever-changing and dynamic. It’s never a dull moment around here, which is fantastic for someone like me who is, for lack of better words, a professional industry observer. This industry keeps it interesting, with endless shifts and changes, as well as some significant surprises along the way. So with us being already well past the first half of the second quarter, I thought it a perfect time for an industry update.
First, context: This blogpost is written in May, 2022. As we all know, especially in this industry, context is everything. The broadcast networks are just wrapping up their announcements and presentations for the fall TV season as part of Upfronts. Thus far, there has been a slew of cancelations, comedy program seems harder to keep on the air, and drama reigns supreme. The word Stability has gotten thrown around quite a bit when discussing network mandates for the coming TV cycle, and, still waiting for some last minute renewals, many TV fans are holding their breath in hopes that they will still be able to find their favorite shows on network TV come fall.
Everyone is waiting to see whether Netflix’s news about 200k subscribes lost in Q1 is a fluke or a trend (the news that they laid off 2% of their workforce as this was preparing to publish didn’t help), and movie fans everywhere are celebrating the strong opening of the latest Dr. Strange as proof positive that the movie-going experience is alive and well. But here in Los Angeles, Landmark Theater announced its (potentially temporary) closing of its Pico location, due to failed negotiations to remain in its current space. There is hope that Landmark will find a new space, but following last years’ news that ArcLight Cinemas were shuttering the majority of their theaters, this is a blow to anyone who enjoys watching independent and foreign movies in the theater.
Alright, now that we’ve looked at the big picture, let’s dig into the more writerly industry updates:
Writing Competitions, Fellowships and Labs
We’re only 5 months into the new year, and already a ton of submission deadlines have come and gone. Two of the big broadcast network fellowships have gone through a major re-brand, NBC opening its Launch program for a short submission window in March, and Paramount, which was previously the CBS fellowship, closing its submission window in early May. The two remaining network fellowship deadlines are just ahead: Both ABC/Disney and WB’s TV Writers Workshop have their deadlines now just a few weeks away. On the feature front, the submission deadline for The Nicholl Fellowship has come and gone. Regardless of last years’ hubbub, Austin Film Festival’s screenplay competition is back, and heading towards its late deadline coming up on June 1st, and Final Draft’s Big Break Competition will close for submissions later this summer. If you’re not sure which competition, lab or fellowship you should be submitting to, check out my blog post, My Top 50+ Screenwriting Competitions, Labs and Fellowships.
Changes in representation landscape
Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen some significant changes in the literary representation landscape. When the pandemic started, a number of agencies – including what was then the Big 4 (WME, CAA, UTA, ICM) – had refrained from signing the new WGA franchise agreement. However, the almost complete industry work stoppage at the start of the pandemic had quickly put an end to that. However, signing the agreement didn’t ultimately leave the agencies unscathed; in the last couple of years we’ve seen a slew of layoffs within the agencies (I’m looking at you, Paradigm) with some big name agents getting the boot, while other agencies have seen top agents step away from their desks and turn their eyes to management.
What’s the cause for this? Is this a Jerry Maguire, “less clients, less money, more attention” moment? Probably not. My friends in management tell me that while a lot of these transitioning reps may have discarded the agent moniker, in reality they brought with them their hard-earned practices to management from the agenting world. In other words? They may be calling themselves managers, but many agents-turned-managers are still operating very much like agents. And the reason? With the sunsetting of the 3%-packaging fee on the horizon (one of the two practices WGA writers fought against when they walked away from agencies en mass in April of 2019), agents at the partner level and on the partner track will likely see their monetary bonuses, which account for a good portion of their income, take a hit. Therefore, a manager friend relayed to me, many of these agents have made the move to management in order to be able to produce for their clients as well as represent them (which agents are barred from), which would, in turn, position them for financial opportunities beyond the customary representation commission of 10% (a large portion of which goes straight to the agency – rather than the agent – in the first place, but that’s another story for another day.)
Staffing & staffing season
Now that upfronts have concluded and the pickups for our next TV season have been announced and locked into place, we are in the thick of network TV staffing season. There has been debate: With streamers picking up new shows and opening rooms (and mini-rooms) year round, is what we knew to be the traditional TV staffing season (usually running from April thru early June) still in tact? When I went into rep meetings as part of Final Draft Big Break Competition’s winners tour, I wanted to know just that.
Staffing season has always been significant for both emerging and working TV writers, as it is the one time of year when bulk staffing takes place. Yes, it’s absolutely true that streamers are staffing year round, but due to the nature of TV upfronts and pickups, and the seats offered in a network TV writers room (as traditionally network rooms tend to be much bigger due to the larger episode order customary on the network front) the viability of staffing season is something I have been watching for a while.
When I talked to my friends in representation earlier this month, all but one confirmed that staffing season is very much still alive. Writers are going into showrunner meetings and getting offers, contracts are being drawn up en mass. But securing those staffing positions in a writers’ room have only become more difficult.
Ever since the pandemic, it seems showrunners are leary of bringing writers who are a complete unknown quantity to them into their writers’ rooms. While a Godsend during the pandemic that allowed writers to keep writing while most of the industry was shut down, Zoom has also made the work that takes place in a writers’ room more difficult. Usually, a writers’ room thrives on fluid conversation, people talking over each other, building on pitches in the room organically, all of which the Zoom reality has stinted. And of course it doesn’t help that showrunners, for the most part, have not been able to meet potential new hires in person, resorting to meeting through zoom instead, which limits their ability to get a real sense of the person, beyond what they can see on the screen. Because of all of this, we are finding staffing to be more of a challenge; for every open lower-level writer seat in the room, a showrunner is estimated to receive somewhere between 300 and 500 staffing samples, an impossible pile for even the most ambitious of readers. Therefore, we are finding that most writers who are getting to those hard-to-get showrunner interviews are those who have come through the network fellowships (which subsidize the writer into the room, making her a free resource for a period of time), those writers who have a direct connection to the showrunner or #2 in the room, or those writers who bring with them life experience that is directly relevant to the material.
Therefore, showrunner meetings have been harder to land. Many writers who have not yet broken in have assessed the performance of their representative by whether or not showrunner meetings have been secured for them. However, today, because of everything I mentioned, this is no longer a valid barometer for a rep’s effectiveness, although I am hoping that as in-person rooms start to become the norm again, emerging writers will have an easier time landing that first staffing gig, which will ultimately get their bonafide TV writing career off and running.
Writing features vs. pilots
One of the questions I get most often is: “What should I write next?”
While it’s important to know the marketplace and have an understanding of what the industry is and is making, it’s important to never, ever chase trends. The writer should know what the market is doing, and where their material, be it a feature or a TV pilot, naturally fits. I’ve said this a million times before (and to those who’ve humored me and read all my previous blogposts I apologize for saying it again), but no one is writing in a bubble. The industry is a living, breathing, dynamic thing, and so anything purchased, developed and, ultimately, produced, only comes to build upon what it is already, in some small way, already doing.
That said, it’s important to write from the writers’ passion, to write stories, characters, worlds and themes that the writer is immersed and interested in. If the writer is not deeply invested in the material, the reader won’t be either. Therefore, every writer should start with those stories, characters, worlds and themes that are meaningful to them, writing the project in the format (screenplay or pilot) that is most suitable for the story they are aiming to tell.
When writing a feature, attachments have become the name of the game; it’s all about writing the sort of screenplay that someone could, one day, attach an A-List actor to. Therefore, the advice to feature writers has become all about developing those meaty star-driven roles that an actor would love to step into, because attaching talent, or packaging, is one way in which a feature screenplay gets attention and moves towards production today.
On the pilot front, it remains, as it has been for some time, all about the world that the writer creates for her show, and the characters she populates that world with. Unearthing a world for the story that we’ve not seen much of before, or expanding upon an often-visited world in a way that’s unexpected is a great way to get the attention of a reader, be they a manager or an executive.
Remember, the industry is ever changing, which is why it’s so important to try and keep up with it. To learn about some of my favorite industry news providers, check out my Resource Guide.