What to Write: Features, Television, or Both?
The other day, an east-coast writer I had been working with for a couple of months, who initially introduced herself to me as one who eagerly wanted to write television, emailed to tell me: The thought of moving to Los Angeles is too much. She wasn’t loving anything on television at the moment. She was going to try her hand at features first, as she set out to build her body of work.
This got me thinking about something that John Zaozirny, founder of and manager at powerhouse management company Bellevue Productions, who was recently featured in Variety’s Hollywood’s New Leaders: Agents and Managers alongside his partner Jeff Portnoy, told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES. I asked John whether writers should choose to write in one format (i.e. film OR television) or opt to freely vacillate between both. John said:
“I would very strongly advise people to choose one. It’s perfectly fine to be like, ‘hey I’m a TV guy but I also do write features on the side but TV’s where I want to focus.’ Or a features guy, ‘I’m open to TV down the road but features is really where I want to stick.’ But if you’re kind of in the middle, that unnerves us. We’re like, well this guy doesn’t know what kind of writer he wants to be, whether it’s TV or features, then that’s problematic. Because if you can’t make that decision, I don’t want to make that decision for you.”
Which implies that you should just go ahead and pick one, right? For the most part, at least. Decide on your primary format, even if you do end up dabbling in the other one on the side. But for many writers, that is easier said than done. And truth be told, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing which format you should focus on, even if just for the most part.
Let’s break them down:
Do you think in close-ended, contained stories, or are you perfectly comfortable writing part 1 of a 50-part story, i.e. the pilot for your show? If you are perfectly content writing entirely contained stories, each with very clear beginning-middle-end in which an entire journey is arced and completed between the first page and the last, and every loose end is tied up in the third act, then writing features may be more innate to your natural storytelling sensibilities.
If, on the other hand, you find yourself writing the beginning of a much larger story, one that contains its own complete storylines but that is only the starting point of the story you want to tell, setting up your characters and world for a much longer, much slower, much more detailed evolution, then perhaps writing pilots speaks to your natural inclination.
Remember, in a feature, the entirety of the story is on the page. All of the business, if you will, is contained. Internal journey, external journey, plot progressions, escalations, character arcs and so much more, are all right there on the page, nothing is saved for later (unless of course, you are planning on a sequel, but that’s another blog post for another day!). With a pilot, you’re a writing part 1 of a 20-part, 50-part or 100-part story, creating contained and completed pilot storylines while sowing seeds for the much larger story that you are eager to tell.
CASE STUDY: In 2013, I began working with a writer who came to me as a feature writer. She had one strong feature under her belt, and we were working on ideas and treatments for what to write next. Over time, I realized that the writer was struggling with her third act, again and again. So we decided to turn to television and see if, at least for the time being, this was a better fit for her. I am proud to say that today the writer is a Story Editor on a big network show. She continues to also dabble in features and in fact, has a fantastic feature in progress, but television, at least at the start of her career, turned out to be a better fit for her.
Do you like to be left to your own devices when writing, or do you thrive in a collaborative writing environment? Are you capable of writing (and then being re-written) in service of a larger story, or do you need to be the master of your story, so long as it’s your name on the title page? Do you look forward to outlines and/or notes, or do you dread them? Are you a social animal, or introverted by nature? All of those questions should be taken into consideration when deciding which format you should be writing in.
Many writers who prefer to write in the comfort of their own home or office, without much interference or collaboration during the writing process itself, are often better suited for the feature world. As the path to becoming a showrunner often requires putting in some time in a writers room, that can often mean that a writer, especially one that is in the lower levels (such as staff writer, story editor or executive story editor) may be paired with a more senior writer for a “co-write,” especially for their first time out of the gate. Additionally, much story breaking for television happens in a collective writers room, where writers pitch various ideas on the path to a galvanized episode. So in order to write for TV, the writer must have some appreciation for a more collaborative writing environment.
For many up-and-coming writers who are working their way up the television ranks, it is standard practice to be rewritten by their showrunner, or by the #2 in the room, once their episode leaves their computer and goes up to the EP levels. This is neither an insult nor a comment on whether or not the writer whose name is on the episode is actually capable; for many shows, this is just standard practice. In the feature world, the writer is not as likely to be rewritten (at least not while he or she is still on an original project) without some official changes, i.e. another writer being brought in to blatantly rewrite them. While this does happen on the feature side, this doesn’t happen every time, and, in most cases, with the original writer still involved in the rewriting of the work. The thing to remember about features, though, is that when you are brought in for a writing assignment for a Page-1 rewrite on someone else’s script, you may not get the “Written by” credit you think you deserve. That is all about WGA and consequent arbitration guidelines.
Don’t get me wrong: I am all about outlines, no matter your format because I’ve learned that for most writers, venturing to write a script without them is akin to a kiss of death. But in television, it’s all about the outline. And then the notes. And the rewrite of the outline. For the most part, there is no way to succeed in the room without them. Notes come in fast and furious: From the showrunner. From the production company. From the studio. And sometimes also from the network. Changes have to be made again and again – there is no time to agonize over them. If you’re a television writer, you have to embrace the process. On the feature side, specifically when writing for hire, you will either have more time with the outline before going to script, or you may be able to go straight to script from a treatment – it just depends on the person or company who hired you, and what the steps of your contract are.
Those who are more introverted, who don’t look forward to being around other people all day, are often better suited for writing in the feature space. While working with producers and executive does call for some amount of collaboration, for the most part, writing features, unless doing so as part of a writing team, is largely solitary work. Your outline gets approved? You are sent away for six or eight weeks to finish your first draft. After receiving draft notes from your producers, you are sent on to the second, etc., etc., once again, completing the steps of your contract. In the TV world, most writing rooms are just that: Rooms. Offices. Conference Rooms. A changing environment for writers to gather, pitch together, break story together, sometimes even get notes… all together. Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions. Some shows only hold a room for the breaking of the season, after which writers are sent home to work on their individual scripts, while others don’t have a traditional room at all. But for the most part, for those writers who don’t enjoy going into the office day after day, building relationships, making small talk, the writer’s room is probably not the space where they will feel right at home.
If you are a fast, highly efficient writer (which not every writer is, and there is absolutely no shame in not being that), then the room, where outlines are turned around in a week and episodes are written in a fortnight or less may just be your destination. Of course, writing an episode of an existing show is much different than writing an original pilot or screenplay, but for success in the writer’s room, velocity is key.
Case in point: One of my writers, on a major network show, called me a few months ago and told me: “I just got assigned an episode that’s shooting in 14 days.” That meant he had to break the episode, outline the episode, start prepping the episode and write the episode itself, while getting notes from his showrunner and the network, in just two weeks. I’m happy to report that he delivered, but during that time the writer got very little sleep.
Of course, not every room is like that, but luck favors the prepared and I am a big believer in preparing for the worst case scenario.
Writers who naturally need more time to bring a screenplay to completion, or prefer to write without a lot of deadlines, are likely more suited for writing features or writing pilots without the intention of then going into the room (which represents a challenge unto itself). If you prefer to let the writing take the time it takes, and find the pressure of deadlines and milestones to be counter-productive, then perhaps writing features is a better fit for you, though you should be aware that writing assignments, be they page-1 rewrites or polishes, are always done on the clock.
Of the various categories I’ve included here, this one is, at least to me, the most clear-cut: If you are a new writer aiming to break in, and you have no intention of moving to Los Angeles, don’t write television. Period. Are there exceptions? Yes. Are there writers rooms in, say, New York City? Yes, but very few, and each seat at the table is fought for. Television, for the most part, gets written in Los Angeles. Showrunners, for the most part, staff their shows out of Los Angeles. If you don’t want to make the move to Los Angeles, you will have significantly better odds of finding success if you opt to write in the feature space. Don’t get me wrong: It has happened that a writer broke into television prior to making the move to Los Angeles. But those stories are very VERY rare. So if you’re not in Los Angeles and don’t want to move to Los Angeles EVER then you are better off writing features.
The truth of the matter is that – despite the fact that most reps do prefer to work with writers who are Los Angeles based (but not entirely resistant to great writers living elsewhere) – you can write features living anywhere. As long as your craft is at the level of other L.A. writers, and as long as you are able to get yourself to Los Angeles on your own dime and as needed to take meetings and start building a fan base, you don’t HAVE to make the move to Los Angeles if you don’t want to. And not every writer can pack up and move to L.A. – many writers have families and kids that they don’t want to uproot without any guarantees. Yes, it’s going to be harder to break in remotely, but if you are able to create consistently, deliver on the page and also wow in person, writing features remotely should not be a deal breaker.
Remember, this blog post is not written to tell you what you can or can’t do; it’s here to help you decide, in the earlier stages of your screenwriting career, what you are best suited for. You may read this, acknowledge that you are a slow and thoughtful, introverted writer who doesn’t live in Los Angeles but still wants to work in television, or a writer who craves a ton of social interaction but prefers to write features because, at the end of the day, you think in an open-and-shut, three acts (of four acts or eight sequences – you get the point) sort of way. Whatever you decide, do it with your eyes open and with all the information in front of you. Only then can you proceed forward powerfully and with purpose.