Screenwriting Career Roadmap: Getting Staffed!
Today, there are more writers trying to break into TV than ever before. With 532 scripted programs on television in 2019, it’s easy to imagine that peak TV would create lots and lots of TV writing positions needing to be filled. After all, just 8 years ago in 2012, the number of scripted shows on TV was a meager 288… with the number of shows almost doubling since, it would make sense that lots and lots more TV writing jobs would be available.
While it is indeed true that the more shows we have on TV the more writers’ rooms will exist to construct them, the number of writers has not risen alongside the number of shows on the air in a proportionate manner. Here is just a quick overview of our current TV landscape, as it relates to growth in TV writing.
- In 2012, of the 288 scripted shows to air, the majority were programmed by the Big 4 networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Why is this important? Network shows traditionally order more episodes per season (somewhere between 18 and 24), and therefore assemble bigger rooms, with more writers, for each of their shows.
- Today, networks are retracting, programming less shows year over year, and therefore offering less opportunities for writers looking to staff in writers’ rooms.
- Consequently, writers today find more opportunities in basic cable (i.e. TNT, USA, AMC), premium cable (i.e. HBO, Stars, Showtime) and new media streaming (i.e. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney+) which are generating the majority of original content but doing so with shorter season orders (traditionally anywhere from 6- to 12-episodes for the most part) in rooms that employ fewer writers, for a shorter period of time (i.e. a timeframe that is proportionate to the number of episodes ordered).
The above is just an overview of the lay of the land, as it pertains to staffing in 2020 and beyond. Which brings us back to the original question that inspired this blog post: In today’s environment, with 532 shows on the air, how does a new writer, not previously employed in a TV writers’ room, with a strong pilot (or three) and craft in hand, go on to get staffed?
The good news??? It happens all the time! New writers are breaking in, their exceptional work, contacts and in-the-room skills positioning them for staffing opportunities. The joy of my job is that I get to see it all the time. In early 2020, my friend and client Kim Garland staffed on SyFy’s CHUCKY for the first time, while Lucy Luna, another talented scribe that I am fortunate enough to work with staffed on CW’s 2 SENTENCE HORROR STORIES at the end of 2019. So… it’s happening!
As manager Zadoc Angell of Echo Lake Entertainment told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:
“I think it’s an especially wonderful time for writers who are minorities. There’s such a demand at all levels, actually, not just the entry level finally, for diverse talent. And because we’ve only cultivated it in limited ways over the last generation of writers, there’s still a fairly shallow talent pool of available talent that are diverse and that have great writing and have built up a resume in television. There’s just not enough people to sustain the demand right now, so that’s a big area to win, and if you are a racial minority of any stripe, there’s going to be opportunities.”
But while there are opportunities, it is still not easy to find that first job.
As Bellevue Productions founder and manager John Zaozirny explained:
“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. You go in, you do the work. If you screwed up your work (on the car in the shop) someone else will go in there and fix your work. But if you screw up your work on the moving 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 in there. But the good news is once you’ve broken in in television, the momentum tends to keep you going. If you’re able to get a second job then you’re ‘in’ essentially at that point.”
While getting into rooms for the first time is always a huge challenge, over the years my writers have been able to get their first staffing opportunity via different routes:
Being Accepted into a TV Writing Program
Throughout the years and despite the odds, I remain a huge fan of the TV writing programs, specifically those operated by studios and networks, including CBS’s Writers Mentoring Program, WB’s TV Writers Workshop, NBC’s Writers on the Verge, and ABC’s Walt Disney’s Television Writing Program which ultimately aim to staff its writers at the end of the program, and subsidize them into their first staffing opportunity. Don’t get me wrong: While my writers have all been able to successfully staff out of their programs throughout my many years doing this, I am certainly familiar with cases in which writers took a long time to staff following their participation in the program. But for my writers, across the board, the programs have been an amazing way to launch their TV writing careers.
However, excuses not to apply to the programs are not hard to uncover if you’re looking for one. Most glaringly, acceptance rates on a per-program basis are worse than Harvard. Oftentimes, as many as 2,500 writers apply for a collective 6, or 8, or 12 spots, so less than 1% of applicants can get in. And if you look at those network programs collectively, it’s not much better: There are all of (approximately) 35 spots between them, so we’re talking about less than 2% of applicants getting in. HOWEVER, it is getting in that makes all the difference in a writer’s career, and I’ve seen it first-hand year after year. Getting into a TV writing program is akin to winning the TV-writing-career lottery.
As Bellevue Productions’ manager Jeff Portnoy shared with me:
“The TV writing programs are another avenue to getting staffed. The writer’s fellowships are hard to get into because it’s very competitive, there’s a lot of applicants and only a few candidates are chosen… So entering the writing fellowships at any of the major networks is huge.”
But the network & studio writing programs mentioned above are not the only ones that count. While other programs, such as Sundance Episodic Lab, HBO Access, The Black List/Women in Film Episodic Lab, CAPE, Film Independent and Nickelodeon just to name a few, don’t offer the same direct path to staffing, they can raise your profile in a manner the exposes you to the industry and makes you viable for staffing.
In 2019, Kim Garland got into The Black List/Women in Film Episodic Lab, while Lucy Luna got into the prestigious HBO Access program. One was able to get represented for the first time; the other upped her manager game with her program placement. Within weeks both writers, who specialize in genre, started going out for showrunner and executive meetings, and are both now working writers, staffed in the writer’s rooms mentioned earlier in this post.
Working Their Way Up Through Support Staff
In a world where nothing is certain, one of the sure-fire ways of breaking into TV writing is becoming part of a TV writer’s room support staff, and working your way up to staff writer by continuously impressing your showrunner, becoming next in line for a freelance episode or co-write (i.e episode written with another of the writers on staff), and then, when you do come up to bat, hitting it out of the park.
There are, traditionally, 4 support positions in a writer’s room. They are:
- Writer’s PA
- Writer’s Assistant
- Showrunner’s assistant
- Script coordinator
Circle of Confusion’s Josh Adler shared with me:
“Television is entirely a relationship business. At the very, very base level, if a show is looking for that staff writer level most of the baby writer spots go to either diversity hire for the room or if it’s a show that’s coming back from a previous season, the writers’ assistant on the show gets promoted to that slot… Most of my clients that work in television started out as writers’ assistants or PAs on shows.”
The challenge? There is rarely an “apply here” button at the end of a job post when it comes to getting into the room. Landing that first support staff position is often all about who you know, who you’ve impressed, who’s enough of your fan to give you that shot. Because of that, it’s critical that you get to know as many people who are already a step, or two, or five ahead, so that when such an opportunity arises, you are the candidate that comes to mind.
And a caveat here, if this is the route you want to go: Get to know other assistants in various rooms. They are usually the first ones turned to to fill a slot once they’ve been invited to move on up.
While I do work with a slew of writers who have become staff writers and went on to have fantastic television writing careers following their start on a writers’ room support staff, it’s important to remember that sometimes it takes years, and multiple shows, to get that first co-write while you are still part of support staff, and even longer to get into writing staff. Some showrunners are more open to promoting from within than others, and not all shows will go multiple seasons, ensuring that support staff members are able to level up season after season. While this is a valid and sought-after avenue for breaking in, it’s also important to note that going from support to writing staff can, and in most cases always does, take significant time.
Finding Success in Feature Writing First
Over the years, I have worked with a slew of screenwriters who were able to find TV writing success once they made a name for themselves in the feature space, either by selling specs that went on to be produced, successful films, doing writing assignments, or getting on the prestige lists, i.e The Black List, The Blood List, The Hit List or The Young and Hungry List. While placement on such a list does not automatically translate into a staffing opportunity by any stretch, a raised profile can be incredibly helpful for those showrunners who are already considering you.
My writers with sold specs, produced features and studio writing assignments under their belts were able to parlay that success into writing room opportunities, often staffing in mid- or upper-level positions, instead of having to start out all the way at the beginning, at staff writer.
Making the Right Allies & Advocates
The world of TV writing is incredibly social. Therefore, getting the right advocates can be instrumental to helping you get into a writers’ room.
My longtime client and dear friend Moises Zamora, most recently EP and head writer on Netflix’s SELENA bio series, and previously a writer on STAR and AMERICAN CRIME, shared his story of breaking in with the help of Davy Perez, who was already a working writer when the two met:
“I met Davy at NALIP (National Association of Latino Independent Producers), a three-day conference for Latino Independent Producers. He was part of a panel of TV writers. I spoke to everyone at the panel, but Davy seemed to be more down to Earth and less standoffish. The other writers were great, but with Davy, I felt immediately that I could be my silly self. My conversation was brief and I said that I would love to ask him about his experience in getting into the ABC/Disney Writers Program. He told me to add him on Facebook. To me that was a clue as how to approach him, through social media. Some people give you emails, some take your card, etc., some don’t give you any way of following up. I never actually asked him to coffee or tried to take his time to ask him questions I probably already had answers to. I personally don’t like asking a busy professional for coffee; I think they know that you’re asking them to like you and, if you’re more naïve, you’re asking them for a job. I prefer to develop relationships in a more organic way. I followed Davy on Facebook and Twitter, so I liked his posts. Normal stuff, no stalking behavior. When Davy posted a tweet about teaching a class on writing fellowships, I immediately signed up! I had gone through the process the year before, but frankly, it was about learning from someone and getting to know each other in a non-networky way. I love classroom environments. We were working on our bios and he immediately got to know my life story, my accomplishments and struggles. Additionally, he got to read my work. I was working on a spec for Black Mirror. That’s all it took for him to ask me to put all that together along with my pilot in an email he was going to forward to some ABC evaluator for a show that’s looking for someone who has an immigrant story. I sent all the materials he asked for: bio-essay; letter of interest; resume; pilot; and a PDF with press clippings of my successes. Three days later I got a call from the creative executive of the show to schedule an interview with the showrunner.”
That interview lead to Moises’s first gig as a staff writer on John Ridley’s AMERICAN CRIME.
Now, for the record, I am in no way advocating that anyone reading this get out there and try to meet anyone and everyone working in the industry and convert them into fans. But historically, I’ve had a number of writers who have forged meaningful connections through classes and workshops they’ve taken that ultimately lead to a staffing opportunity. However, when that sort of opportunity presents itself, when you are able to get in front of someone who can become a meaningful advocate, you want to make sure that your pilot script, bio, and anything else that you are asked to submit, are indeed ready for showtime.
Selling a Pilot.
Sell a pilot and, as long as you don’t make any enemies in the process, you will find your way into the room, writing on the show. You will likely have to follow the vision of the showrunner you’ve been paired with moving forward, but it will give you a seat at the table, for sure.
As some of the managers whose input I included in this blogpost have warned, breaking into TV writing is not easy, but if my experience working with writers over the many years that I’ve been doing this is anything to go by, it is very much possible. So if TV writing is your destination, be sure to take the time to prepare along your journey: Work on your craft. Build your relationships. Watch. Listen. Learn. Do all of those things and you will be ready and primed when your opportunity shows up.