Breaking into Television Writing: What’s Possible, What’s Probable?
When I first conceived of my WHAT’S POSSIBLE, WHAT’S PROBABLE? series this past August, I didn’t quite anticipate that it would be as well received as it was. After all, the possible/probable distinction is one I’ve been making for years. I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that, while nothing is easy, nothing is impossible, either. Every time I believed I finally found the one thing that couldn’t be done, there went someone who directly dispelled this belief. So armed with the ever-present desire to never feel like I put my foot in it (which, believes me, I still do plenty!), I stopped separating possibilities into what’s never going to happen and what’s more likely, and instead started making the distinction between what is going to be doable but demanding, and what is highly HIGHLY improbable but nonetheless could potentially happen.
In the first installment of this series, CONTESTS & REPRESENTATION, I explored possible and probable outcomes from winning screenwriting contests, as well as paths to securing representation. Today, it’s going to be all about breaking into television. We hear it all the time: Peak TV. We are in the golden age of television. Sure, there are tons of shows being made, for everyone from major networks to outlets we’ve never even heard of (remember, Hulu wasn’t a must-have until not very long ago), but are writing gigs so easy to come by, they are practically being given away to migrating scribes arriving at the airport? It’s a nice thought but… No. Because television represents not only a lucrative job abiding by WGA guidelines and minimums but also a long-term, sustainable career path, in which the writer gets to work his way up over the span of many years and many opportunities, these jobs are sought after and hard to come by.
As John Zaozirny, manager and producer at Bellevue Productions, told me when I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES: “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, well… someone else will go in there and fix your work. But if you screw up your work on the 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 kind of broken in, the momentum tends to keep you going.”
Before I dig into the Possible/Probable of it all, a few thoughts, rules and caveats I’ve carried over from the previous post:
When strategizing for my screenwriters’ careers, I make a point of keeping them informed when they are in pursuit of success that, though within the realm of difficult-to-achieve, is probable, versus pursuing a goal that has a narrow, speck-size bullseye, making the chances for success in their chosen path – yes, possible but… – not probable. Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily about identifying the path that is most probable for you, but rather choosing the path you want to pursue with full awareness of the odds.
And just one more caveat, so that no one can say I didn’t tell them so: there is no breaking into screenwriting without stellar screenwriting chops and strong writing samples to show them off, be they spec features, television pilots, or both. And as much as some writers hate to hear it, networking, meeting, pitching and people skills go a long way too!
So without further ado, the second installment of the Probable/Possible Series:
BREAKING INTO TELEVISION
Creating a digital series, then having it picked up by network.
No question, this is one of those things that has happened. But that does not mean that it happens often, or that it is likely to happen that much more often moving forward. When I interviewed her for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, Erin Cardillo told me how her show, SIGNIFICANT MOTHER went from a web concept to the lowest-budget show on the CW. BACKPACKERS, too, started out as a digital series, then moved to small screen, backed by the power and enthusiasm of CW seed. HIGH MAINTENANCE, which ran for two seasons on HBO, was based on the digital series that came before it. So, yes. It is possible. But considering the number of digital series that are unleashed every week, month and year, Possible does not in any way shape or form mean Probable in this scenario.
Get to create and run your own show after having a successful digital series run.
I have two words for you: ISSA. RAE. Because Issa did it, it is very much possible. We all know the Issa Rae story from the days of MISADVENTURES OF AWKWARD BLACK GIRL, after which she teamed up with Larry Wilmore and sold INSECURE to HBO and went from web to the height of premium cable programming, without collecting $200 or passing Go. But few others, if any, have had this very same story, and for good reason: While the web is a great space to learn episodic storytelling and physical production, and (potentially) build a following for your narrative content, it is also a highly saturated space, in which it is not easy to get noticed.
As an unknown writer, selling a television pilot.
Yes, it has happened. If you’ve been in this industry for more than a moment, you’ve heard all about Mickey Fisher, whose pilot EXTANT surfaced through the TrackingB contest and went on to run on CBS for two seasons with Stephen Spielberg executive producing and Halle Berry in the starring role, so… yeah. Possible. But probable? Hmmm. Don’t get me wrong: As I write this, scribes that I work with who have yet to prove themselves in the television/episodic space are being sent out there by their agents and managers to pitch new shows and try to sell them. Even so, one has to remember that television shows are a BIG investment, each show representing a satellite business for the parent company (be it a network, basic cable outlet, premium cable outlet or digital outlet) that finances them. While the pilot may hold a great deal of promise, it is usually only part 1 of a business that will have many consequent, and equally expensive, parts to it. This is why most networks, basic cable, premium cable and digital content providers often prefer to buy content from a name content creator who has the in-the-room experience, and who has the track record that he will be able to see the show through from first episode to last. In the cases where new writers are able to sell a pilot, they are often (if not always) paired with a more experienced, network-approved showrunner, who will be able to better ensure the construction of a multiple-episode business.
As an emerging television writer, staffing on a television show while not living in Los Angeles.
I’ll keep it short on this one, because frankly I’ve NEVER seen it happen, though I have heard of such a scenario taking place once or twice before. But the bottom line is that television is an all-hands-on-deck, boots-on-the-ground sort of business. In order to staff, you have to be in town, able to meet with the showrunner on short notice, and able to start in the room from one day to the next. If you have two writers with similar life experience and writing chops, one already situated in Los Angeles, and the other one potentially still having to make the move (which means that he may change his mind and decide in the last minute that he doesn’t want to, or else make the move only to decide a few months in that he wants nothing more than to go back home), who would you invite into the writer’s room?
Staffing out of a television writing program.
Today, the television writing programs, such as Warner Brothers Television Writing Workshop, Sundance Episodic Lab, NBC’s Writers on the Verge, CBS’s Writers Mentoring Program, Fox’s Writers Lab and Disney/ABC’s Writing Program, just to name a few, are considered to be on the forefront of discovery when it comes to identifying the next class of room-ready television writers, many of which the networks seek to be in business with for years to come. While some of these programs are said to be more difficult to get into than Harvard and the competition is high, entry into these programs immediately deems the writer accepted as one to watch, who is being primed and prepped for the fast pace and high pressure of life in the room. Not only will these programs work hard to make introductions and elevate the quality of the writer’s work, but in time they will also seek to staff these writers on shows produced by their networks. The fact that many of these programs subsidize their writers’ first 14-20 weeks in the room only helps, allowing a showrunner to take a chance on a new writer without breaking the bank. And while staffing out of these programs is in no way guaranteed and some programs have greater success rates than others, they certainly are game changers for the writers who are accepted into them.
Climbing the ladder into a staff writer position via an in-the-room support staff position (P.A., writer’s assistant, showrunner’s assistant, script coordinator).
Going from support staff to writing staff is known to be one of the two most viable ways (the other being the television writing programs) to land a writing position for a first time writer in the writers room. But while this does happen, don’t expect it to happen fast, from one day to the next: Many support staffers find themselves working their way up for a number of years (that is, assuming they are able to stay employed going from show to show), hoping to get the coveted freelance, or to be noticed by the showrunner or EP when the time comes to be considered for a promotion. In order for a writer to move from support staff to writing staff, three things have to happen: 1) The writer has to be on a show that has long legs, i.e. one that is likely to go multiple seasons, or have at least one more season in the cards for it, as promotions typically take place from season to season. 2) The showrunner has to be friendly to the concept of promoting from within, which, even today, not all showrunners are. Some love to reward their assistants with a hard-earned promotion, while others prefer to keep support staff consistently in support roles. So if a writer is to get the bump from Writer’s Assistant to Staff Writer, it has to be a concept with which the showrunner is very much comfortable. 3) The writer has to be the next in line for a promotion. If the writer is new to the room in a P.A. (Production Assistant) or coordinator position, they are likely going to be overlooked for a promotion, which will instead be given to the writers working more closely with the showrunner, and who have been in the room longer. Some Writer’s Assistants and Showrunner Assistants may be provided the opportunity to prove themselves on a co-write, or tasked with research or even writing of sections or story areas. Those are the writers who will likely have first consideration when promotions come around. That doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t consider getting into the room on the bottom rung: Getting into the room is considered to be one of the harder things to do in the industry, so swallow your pride and enter via whichever opportunity presents itself to you.
Getting staffed or invited to join support staff via generals, industry contacts and networking efforts.
Getting a support staff position and moving up, or being accepted into one of the prestigious network writing programs is not the only way for a new writer to get into the room. Not by a long shot. Many writers have gotten onto a writing staff following a successful meeting with a studio or network executive covering a particular show, with executives from the production company that’s powering a show, or through a general with any one of the show’s senior level producers. Usually, such opportunities are created when a writer’s original pilot is circulated to possible buyers by his representation (which means that yes, in most scenarios you do have to have representation of some sort in order to staff as a writer. That, however, is not necessarily the case with support staff). Even if the pilot doesn’t ultimately feel viable for development, the executive reading may respond to the voice, and therefore invite the writer in for a general. Through such a general, the executive will identify whether the writer is someone that he or his team wants to work with, and therefore may recommend subsequent meetings for openings/staffing needs on a particular show. Though the writer has likely never staffed in the room before, he may be viable due to his voice, writing style, or the personal stories and life experience that he would bring into the room. And remember, such introductions don’t have to start with a general: It can be through someone the writer met in a class or a networking event. Such contacts are also integral for getting a position on a room’s support staff. Those jobs rarely come complete with Want Ads. Instead, they are made available by word-of-mouth, and usually filled from one day to the next.