This Week in Coaching: Crash Course in TV Staffing Strategies!

Week ending 10/11/19

No names have been changes for this installment. In fact, this week I am happily naming them.

Last week was a particularly good week for my client Kim Garland. Let me set the stage real fast, just to fill you in: Kim moved to Los Angeles from NYC a couple of years ago. She’d written mostly features up until that point, but once she and I started working together, we quickly shifted our focus to television. Kim is a dream client: Hard working, always on it, challenging herself at every turn, going for every opportunity. And it was one such opportunity that made press on October 1st: Kim was named to The Black List’s and Women in Film’s episodic lab.

It’s always so exciting to get into such a program. Even more exciting to see your name announced, black on virtual white. And for Kim, once the train was out of the station, it started going FAST:

On the day that the lab was announced, a manager reached out to her. He read her work in 3 days. Loved her (because, seriously, the woman is soooo talented!). They met that Friday.

One of the things I love most is when a manager calls me because he is courting one of my clients and wants me to put in a good word. That happened on Friday. He met her, and he loved her, because Kim took everything we worked on during the year that passed, all her poise, and charisma, and personal narrative, and killed her meeting. “I’m obsessed with her!” He wrote to me. By the following Monday, she signed with the manager and the company he works with 3Arts. A great reminder that when things happen in the industry, they can happen fast enough to cause whiplash.

As soon as Kim signed, the conversation started: Staffing was clearly in her management’s sights. Getting her into her first TV writer’s room was the thing they had in mind for her (which, for the record, I totally love!) And which lead Kim and I to go back and forth a bit via email, discussing approach and focus as things moved forward.

Now, let’s be clear: Up until this point, we hadn’t talked staffing, because Kim just hadn’t gotten there yet, and she would have been the first one to tell you that. We had only just started talking about her making a push for representation once we got word about her acceptance to the The Black List lab. Which is to say: Kim is not a cart-before-the-horse kinda girl. So there was a lot on which I had to get her caught up. 

In an early morning email, I shared with Kim the general new-writer directive for those trying to get staffed (and the people who are trying to staff them) for the first time. I wrote:

Let’s have the “getting in the room” talk, albeit via email: Not saying this to scare you but… Getting staffed in the room for the first time is one of the hardest things to achieve in Hollywood (but good news: New writers break into television staffing all.the.time. Otherwise, where would all those newly minted staff writers come from?) But I digress. The point is… many showrunners out there won’t bring a previously-unstaffed writer into the room because they just don’t know how the writer will respond to the very fast-paced, on-your-toes, sometimes difficult room environment. What if two months in a new writer decides that this whole TV writing thing is just not for  him? What if the pitching environment in the room is so competitive the writer just shuts down? I can’t tell you how many of my writers have been told over the years: “We love you, but we can’t bring you in because you haven’t been in the room before.” 

What that means is that you want to go out for EVERYTHING, and take whatever you get because it puts you in the room. Once you complete lower levels (Staff Writer, Story Editor, Executive Story Editor), get out of purgatory and into mid-levels (Co-Producer, Producer, Consulting Producer) you have more freedom to choose which room you go into next (though once you complete your 2nd year, you do have more choice, even in lower levels). But the first three years are really about learning how to succeed in the room, rather than carefully picking the show you get to be on. In general, what this means is that for your first show (or two) they pick you; after that, you get a lot more choice as to the show that you want to be on.

All of this is not to say that your first job can’t be a dream room. My client Moises Zamora did his first TV season on John Ridley’s AMERICAN CRIME. April Shih got her first gig on the very last season of her most favorite show, YOU’RE THE WORST. So yes, it can happen. You can land not only in a collaborative, supportive room, but also on a show that you love, that are genuinely excited to contribute to.

(don’t worry, most writers are so excited to get into a room for the first time, they are thrilled to contribute, no matter what the show is about!)

The point here is a simple one: As a new writer just starting out and, like Kim, looking to roll back her sleeves and work her way up, it’s not about which room you get into. It’s about getting into a room in the first place. It’s about getting the opportunity to start building your reputation as someone others want to work with. Once you’ve successfully finished your first year in a room, got invited back for a second year (with a bump!) or took another gig in another room in which you are excited to get started, developed strong relationships and a fantastic reputation for doing the heavy lifting, always executing, never complaining and always stepping up, and once you’ve got a TV episode or two under your belt, THAT’S when opportunities that you are truly excited for will start really showing up.