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The Big Transition: How to Break into TV Writing, Part One

Justified (Photo courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FX)

Maybe you’ve had some success writing features. You’ve sold a spec, landed an assignment, made the Black List or wrote and directed your own indie feature. Maybe you’re a playwright, or you’ve got a web series, or you’ve made a few shorts, or even written a few good features. Or maybe you’re simply an emerging writer working toward that first sale or produced credit. No matter — in today’s film business, you can be any one of the above and still be thinking about one thing: moving into television. If you’re thinking about trying a TV staffing job, or even developing your own series, this article is for you.

About the television business, veteran writer Ryan Farley (Justified, Outsiders) puts it this way: “Breaking into television is hypercompetitive, and even once you’re in, it can be fleeting — you’re not guaranteed a job one year after the next, and you have to constantly be on, writing at the highest levels. But having said that, television is the place to be if you love long-form storytelling, character-driven drama, intricate world-building and the opportunity to weave in and out of a tapestry of multiple characters and stories.”

Personally, I’m at the beginning of my own journey into television. I’ve got some feature experience, have been around town a bit on the movie side, but I only recently started to push into TV. I’ve developed a few series pitches with producers, and I’ve written a pilot. But I haven’t gone out with a pitch or pilot or for staffing yet. And while my team and I are strategizing next steps, I’m learning that there are a lot of similarities between the way that television is written and created and features are made — and a lot of differences. Spoiler alert: Success at either is hard and requires a lot of work, but as far as TV is concerned, there are a lot of ways in. Fortunately, I found a lot of generous people willing to talk about how it’s done.

Overview of television development

First, a broad overview of how television is created, from overall series creation to individual episodes. I think it’s fair to say that the upheaval and disruption in the television space with regard to streaming and exhibition have been matched by some disruption in the creative space. Today, there really is no one-size-fits-all for how television is developed and produced — or how a series is sold or staffed — but there are a handful of methods and ways that can be described as “usually,” “typically” or “often…”

One of the traditional ways in which a new series is created is when a writer comes up with an idea for a series and either pitches it (typically if he or she is an established commodity, with some credits, sales or staffing experience) or writes an original pilot and then goes out to buyers. Both of these development processes are often, but not always, abetted by a partnership with a creative producer.

Likewise, ideas often begin when a producer has intellectual property, or IP (a graphic novel, a series of YA novels, etc.), and develops a pitch or pilot with a writer. Much as with feature film development, pre-existing IP as the source code for a new series has become hugely popular with producers and buyers alike.

Whatever the genesis, the pitch or pilot then goes around town to various buyers, and ideally is purchased, further developed and eventually greenlit to be made. (Or, of course, dies in development, but that’s another, much shorter, article.)

Upon successful development and progress to production, episodes will be “ordered.”

Typically, a network show will have 22 episodes for a season, while a cable serial drama is usually 13 episodes. But again, “usually”: some network hour-long dramas are ordered for 10 or 13 episodes, and all platforms have “event” and “limited” series with varying numbers of episodes.

In the network space, only a pilot may be made at first, which upon completion will initiate another round of review, development and/or progress. Sometimes a limited number of episodes are ordered, like the “front 13,” which is to say, about half of the season. This allows executives to ascertain once the show is on the air and has had some popular reaction as to whether or not to order the “back nine.”

And sometimes — and this is a best case scenario — a project is purchased “straight to series,” meaning that an entire season is contracted from the very beginning. (This model is generally more popular with cable/pay/streaming outlets.)

Upon selling a project and commencing into production, the writer, with sufficient experience, may become the showrunner, the person charged with overseeing the show on a day-to-day basis. A writer with less experience will likely become an executive producer (and will always be credited as the creator), and a showrunner will be hired to run the series. (These titles and roles will be contractually negotiated by the writers’ agents during the sale of the project.)

Again, as with virtually all other factors around the production of television nowadays, these models are “typical” and “usual,” but by no means the only way in which things are done. But as a broad overview of how things have been done and are still done in many cases, this is a good baseline.

How television is written

Though in certain situations, a single writer will write the entire season of his or her show, it’s far more common for a writers’ room (“the room”) to be assembled. “The room” is usually about six to 10 writers, at varying levels of experience (reflected in their titles), and they will collectively “break” the first season — outlining and building the season and getting it up on “the wall” (a whiteboard wall where a whole season or episode is mapped), and then drilling down into episodes.

As episodes are broken in the writers’ room, the showrunner will assign a particular writer to “go off and write” his or her own episode (and the showrunner will usually write some episodes him/herself). While an assigned writer is off writing, the room will continue to break additional episodes.

Upon finishing an episode, a writer will turn it in to the showrunner, who may take a pass and either give it back for notes or makes adjustments as necessary, or, in some cases, rewrite so thoroughly as to share credit on the episode. After finishing writing his or her episode, the writer will return to the room, more episodes will be broken, assigned, and writers will rotate in and out as they are assigned episodes. Once production has started, on many shows the individual writer of each episode will leave the room to be on set with his or her episode (which is to say, often away on location wherever the show is shot).

But again, all shows are different. Some send writers to cover a few episodes, and sometimes cable shows will have all episodes written prior to beginning production, so only a showrunner or upper-level producers will be on set. As these models exhibit, television writing is a time-contracted affair, with writers often hired for a certain period of time — e.g., a 20-week contract for a 13-episode season — after which they may find themselves waiting to see if they’re going to be rehired on the same show and/or if the show is going to be picked up for another season.

And a note about geography: with very, very limited examples, television writers’ rooms are located in Los Angeles. Even though shows may be set in New York and shoot on location in New York, Atlanta, New Mexico or Detroit, the writers’ rooms are almost always located in Los Angeles, with a very few exceptions in New York City.

Television writers, titles and hierarchy

So who’s in the writers’ room? Beyond the showrunner (who may frequently be away hiring directors, dealing with the studio, supervising production or editing, etc.), the room is typically filled with a combination of newer writers, mid-level and upper-level writers, as well as the all-important writers’ room assistant.

A new writer going up for his or her first job will be submitted for a staff writer position, which is the lowest rung in the hierarchy of the writers’ room. While responsibilities and opportunities differ by room and showrunner, generally, a staff writer’s role in the room will be to contribute ideas and help break episodes. Depending on a variety of factors, a staff writer may possibly be assigned to write an episode, although it’s rare that that’s the case for a first-year staff writer.

The step up from staff writer is story editor, and both of these jobs are paid a weekly salary, and don’t get paid additional per-episode or script fees like the other positions. Above these are “mid-level” writers — executive story editor (ESE), co-producer and producer. Starting at the ESE level, a writer also gets a per-episode fee (meaning a 22-episode season is more lucrative than a 13-episode season). Additionally, these writers get paid for any credits such as “story by” or “teleplay by,” whereas lower levels simply receive their flat weekly fee.

Above the mid-levels are the upper level writers — supervising producer, co-executive producer and executive producer (EP). These writers often may have some additional responsibilities beyond writing, such as being a trusted deputy who acts as a boss when the showrunner is away, or who runs the room.

The showrunner, by the way, is always an EP, but not all EPs are showrunners — some are very senior writers on the team, and others are non-writing EPs, such as actors/actresses on the show.  And not every show will have all of these positions, and some shows eschew staff writers entirely, preferring only to hire upper level writers.

Getting your first job in television

So in 2016 this is how and by whom television is created, with many variables and qualifications. How, then, does a writer who wants to staff on an existing or newly created show, or create and someday run her own show, build her career in that direction? There are several ways to start working in television, and perhaps, no surprise, like finding any work or success in the film industry, all require talent, perseverance, luck, hard work and connections.

From talking to a variety of writers, I’ve heard and seen a few patterns emerge: landing a job as a writers’ room assistant, and eventually being elevated to staff writer; acing a staffing interview with a showrunner on the strength of a great pilot (or, less commonly, a feature) and being hired into the room; being selected into network fellowship or diversity initiative programs (again, usually off the strength of a great pilot), which results in a staff position; selling a pitch or pilot and developing a show as the creator and either becoming the showrunner or elevating immediately into an EP job. (There are surely other routes, and some showrunners actively recruit writers from the worlds of theater or journalism or fiction, but the above ways have emerged as most common with the working TV writers I interviewed for this article.)

Writers’ room assistants

Kristy Lowrey is a former school teacher who has collectively written over a dozen features and pilots. A few years ago she moved from Arkansas to Los Angeles to better position herself as a professional writer. Before moving she had landed managers and agents based on the strength of her scripts and success in several script contests, and she now works as a writers’ room assistant on a network crime drama.

Lowrey’s journey to becoming an assistant underscores how competitive these jobs are and the level of talent that fulfills them — off the strength of a recent pilot script, her agents sent her around town on a number of staffing interviews, including to the show she works on now. “My reps submitted me blindly, and the producers read my pilot and wanted to meet,” Lowrey says. “In the meeting I made a good connection with the creator, who wasn’t the showrunner, and after I didn’t get the job, I reached out to see if they needed assistants. The worst thing people can say in this business is ‘no’ — and you’ll hear that a lot, so eventually you become numb. As luck would have it, they needed a writers’ PA to start the next week. He hired me, and I worked the first season as a PA [a lower level, non-writing-room specific production assistant], and once we got picked up for season two, the showrunner asked me to come back as the writers’ assistant.”

Lowrey describes her job as “assisting the writers and showrunner in any way possible,” and she notes that while a writers’ room assistant job surely varies from room to room, her experiences have included “attending editing sessions, reading original pilots submitted by agents for consideration for staffing and sitting in the room while the writers are brainstorming, breaking story or getting notes.”

Lowrey says there are myriad learning opportunities available to her as an assistant in the room, but most importantly, “you get to watch and learn how a room functions, how to read the atmosphere and to watch the creative process unfold. Writers’ assistant is probably the most creative position as far as assistants go, so it’s perfect for an aspiring writer (and the majority of assistants on a show are aspiring writers).”

Lowrey has even had the opportunity to share her creative voice — being an assistant in the room “lends itself to being able to toss in a good idea at the right time,” she says. “It may get batted down or ignored, which is the majority of ideas in any room, but sometimes they take it and spitball on it, which is a small victory itself.” But she warns that if an assistant — or any new writer, for that matter — goes in “thinking you’re going to talk a lot and interrupt people or be annoying, it’ll be ugly for you down the road…”

Ryan Farley started as a researcher in the writers’ room on Cold Case about eight years ago, after graduating from University of Southern California with an MFA in screenwriting. A writing sample of his was read by one of the show’s producers through a mutual industry connection. He says, “It was a great first job because I was in the room listening to notes and had the opportunity to work hard and prove myself.” He was eventually assigned a freelance episode, and the following year was hired on as a staff writer.

Both Farley and Lowrey agree that one of the best benefits of the way that they started was the opportunity to observe the mechanics and dynamics of the room — to see the process up close and have the opportunity to show off their work ethic and creativity. Both also note that being elevated from assistant to staff writer is not only a common path into staffing, but one that also makes it harder yet again for new writers to break in. Every assistant hired onto the writing staff of their show is one less new writer being hired from the outside. And, as Farley points out, “many writers who bypass being an assistant have had some success elsewhere — maybe having sold a feature, having made the Black List or being a produced playwright.”

Fellowship programs

Another route into writing for television is the highly competitive studio and network programs for emerging writers, some of which prioritize diversity. Lowrey notes that the number of applicants to these programs has risen year after year because “these programs work, and they really push their writers to get staffed on a show. Some studio programs even have their own budget that they use to pay a writer’s salary if a show will hire them. So the show gets a writer for free.”

ABC/Disney has a program, as do CBS, WB and Nickelodeon; NBC has its “Writers on the Verge”; Fox has its “Writers Intensive”; and the Sundance Institute even has an episodic writers’ lab. Most, if not all, of these require an original pilot script as part of the application materials (sometimes not until the second round), and all provide selected writers with access to industry contacts, potential mentors and fellow writers. Unsurprisingly, they’re highly competitive.

Diversity of voices and experience are expressly sought through many of these programs, which is vital and much needed in the industry. Again, as with assistant jobs, getting in to one of these programs starts with a great original pilot. Most programs have about eight to 12 slots, and according to admittedly anecdotal evidence, may have upwards of 1,000 applicants for those few spots.

Being hired directly to staff

Being hired directly to staff is another difficult but not impossible route to the writers’ room. Mechanically, it only requires writing a great original pilot and your reps getting it read at shows with tonal or genre similarities. Next is being selected for an interview with a showrunner or trusted EP, acing the interview and getting hired. Of course, those mechanics belie a host of challenges. As already mentioned, you’re competing against the assistants ready to move up, the graduates of the studio’s fellowship program and the other writers in the pile of scripts being read by the showrunner.

I spoke with Zach Cox, a literary manager at Circle of Confusion who reps screenwriters in both features and television and has had many clients land staff jobs. (Full disclosure: he’s also one of my managers.) Cox says that despite all of the television being produced now, one of the biggest challenges is that “there are very few entry-level jobs. Many rooms don’t even employ a staff writer, as they’ve chosen to load up on mid- to upper-level writers (co-EPs, EPs, supervising producers, etc.).”

Cox says that much of the television hiring process is based on pre-existing relationships, professional networking and having trusted senior writers make calls or vouch for you, a point echoed by Lowrey. “The people who get entry-level positions usually have some sort of relationship, or one degree of removal, from the showrunner, or someone upper level in the room,” she says “The referral is a powerful thing in this business. It can help you get read or a meeting, but you have to do the work after that. Sometimes you’ve been read, and someone who the showrunner trusts puts in a call about how great of a person you are, and it seals the deal of getting the job.”

It’s not lost on me that this reads as massively discouraging. Yet new writers are hired every year, writers who haven’t come up through the assistant ranks or fellowship programs. How does that happen? Cox says, “The only way to beat the system, as it were, is to just write something kickass that stands out in a crowd. Get people talking about your material, get meetings and start to build that network for the next time a staffing opportunity arises.”

Selling a pitch or pilot and starting as EP (or showrunner) on your own show

If I’ve made getting an assistant job, a slot in a studio initiative program or hired directly to staff feel like catching a unicorn, then this may be the rainbow-colored unicorn with wings: selling an original pitch or pilot and seeing it progress to production, such that you’ll be the showrunner (with experience) or an upper-level writer. Yet — it does happen.

Brothers Jason and Chris Thornton are on this path with their series The Revenger, which is set up at Dimension. The Thorntons have written a bunch of features, and for their first foray into television wrote a loud, noisy original pilot that quickly got them new agents and a lot of meetings.

Jason says that shortly after the pilot went out from their team they took “a slew of TV meetings as people were really digging it as a sample, but we had no buyers at that point. But once we got in rooms and started talking about the world and characters — we had about five season’s worth of epic content in our heads — that excitement grew, and Dimension jumped on it. They gave us a healthy option, with a deal all worked out in the event of a sale to a network.”

The brothers also tried using The Revenger as a way to get a staff job. “We did the ‘water bottle tour’ for staffing last year,” Jason says, “and took a lot of great meetings from which our agents and manager got really strong feedback, but no legitimate bites. One thing we thought we had in our favor is that we’re a team, and you basically get a two-for-one financially if you hire a team. But at the same time we have no room experience, and we’re out-of-towners (we were doing all of this from Milwaukee, though Chris has since moved back to SoCal). Considering that our pilot sample has been extremely well received, and we’ve gotten pretty much unanimous glowing feedback from our meetings, I can’t help but feel like our lack of writers’ room experience and not being in L.A. played pretty major roles in not landing a staffing gig, along with the fact that the kind of content we gravitate towards and generate is much darker and hard-cable in its sensibility, which somewhat limits how we might be seen to fit on a network gig.”

About L.A.

You can wait until you get staffed or sell a series to move to L.A., as both Jason Thornton and I have chosen to do (both for personal reasons that involve family.) But neither he nor I are under the mistaken impression that it does not deleteriously affect our professional writing careers to not be living in L.A. (though for writing features it’s a little easier). For television, the industry is in L.A., and if you have a true, zealous desire to write for television in any capacity at all, you should be in L.A. also. Think of it this way: I suspect that very few aspiring coal miners live in Hawaii and claim that they’re working their hardest to break into coal mining. It’s far more likely that they move to coal country. L.A. is television country. If you really want to write for television, and children or a job are not almost literally keeping you chained to wherever else you are, you should move to L.A.

And what to do once you get to L.A.? Or if you decide to hold off and hone your writing and try to make your entry from afar and move later, what next? Write a great pilot.

Whether you’re going to go the assistant route, pursuing studio fellowships, having your agents put you up for staffing or hoping to sell your own series, it all starts with 60 (or so) pages introducing great characters in a fresh new world, compelling stakes and themes, and a narrative promise that these characters and this world can provide the fertile terrain for five seasons or more of conflict, excitement and content.

Check out the fall issue of Filmmaker for the second article in this series, concentrating on what makes a great pilot; what managers, executives and showrunners are looking for; advice, caveats and insight about writing a pilot; and the similarities and differences between writing for TV and features.

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