Friday, June 20, 2008

Into the room

Another Saturday, another Scriptwriters Network panel over at Raleigh Studios. This one a gathering of several writers from one-hour television dramas. Now that I have reached a certain level of comfort with the format and structure of feature films, I hope to make the transition to also being able to write for television. Not only for the sake of having range across media but also because t.v. is a writer's best chance at steady (paying) work here in Los Angeles. Also, with the fragmentation of the market between networks and cable, it's becoming more possible for a newer writer to get their original pilot ideas out there to the various channels, studios, and production companies.

The panelists this week were:

Jeanette Collins - Dirt, Big Love
Dawn DeKeyser - Samantha Who?, Ugly Betty
Jane Espenson - Battlestar Galactica, Buffy
Melody Fox - Flash Gordon
Amy Berg - Threshold, The 4400

Jane is well known throughout the scribosphere for her infinitely fab blog on television writing, And Amy is currently staffing John Rogers's new TNT heist series, Leverage. John has been tracing the development of the show and its writers' room on his blog. A fascinating look behind the scenes and he has very good things to say about Amy as well.

As with the Nicholl finalists, these writers took widely ranging paths to their staff positions. Dawn and Jane were both ABC/Disney Television Writing Fellowship recipients, which provided them with paid staff writer gigs. Before that, Jane had also specced her way into a pitch meeting for Star Trek: The Next Generation (they bought an idea and a script from her). Amy was working at Nickelodeon when she caught the attention of Buffy showrunner, Joss Whedon, with a one-act play about Joss and the rest of his staff discussing how great it would be if Amy could write for the show. Amy was also the first to say that this is not the way an aspiring staff writer should go about trying to land a job. But for her, it worked. Jeanette got noticed doing stand-up comedy and started writing sketches for In Living Color before making the move over to drama. Similarly, Melody began her television career writing for the animated show Rugrats.

The panelists all agreed that any aspiring writer looking to land on a show needs to have at least one spec of a current (read: hot) show AND an original one-hour pilot ready to go. The purpose of the spec is to demonstrate that the writer can nail the voice and structure of the show. The pilot is to show that they also have the ability to create memorable characters and storylines on their own.

With specs, the writer wants to make sure they are not writing for a show that is either so long in the tooth that nobody wants to read them anymore (Law & Order) or so new and untested that they could be canceled before the spec makes it out there (pretty much any new show premiering these days). Spec a show that has been on a couple seasons but is still fresh enough that agents or showrunners will be interested. Dexter was the show most panelists mentioned as being the hot spec of the moment.

As for pilots, the sky is fairly the limit. Although the writer wants a premise and characters that could potentially carry enough storylines for a series, the panelists cautioned against falling back on the old standbys -- cop shows/procedurals, legal, or medical. Or if the writer is going to work within one of those genres, they will have to work harder to put a new and interesting spin on everything everyone has seen a million times before. In either event, the overarching advice was to write something you love (sounding familiar?) and make the subject matter your own. Show them your own voice.

You may have noticed that all five panelists are women. Television, moreso than feature films (and dramas moreso than sitcoms) is more open to female writers than has been historically the case in Hollywood. Programs like the Disney Fellowship have focused on increasing diversity in the room and the panelists' experiences were that male drama showrunners tend to be more open to taking on women writers. Half-hour comedies, on the other hand, remain largely boys' clubs and dominated by guys with stand-up backgrounds. But it was encouraging to hear that the staffing process seems to have moved beyond hiring a lone female for the show.

What hasn't changed? It's still really hard to land a staff writer position, to say nothing of selling an original pilot idea. How to do it? Contacts, contacts, contacts. Assuming, for the moment, that your spec and pilot are blow-them-away level good -- and they have to be -- then it's all about getting it into the hands of a showrunner, agent, or producer. For staff writer positions, the consensus was (absent representation) to beg, borrow, or steal your way to a writer assistant position on a show. Essentially a staff writer in training, this will give you the leg up when staffing season rolls around, either on that show or others that might be looking. A job at a literary agency is also another route. Agent assistants get to read all the hot pilots in circulation and have their ears to the ground for staff hirings. With pilots, unless the writer has been working their way up and through the show ranks, the panel recommended the traditional query letter route. Many former network executives have moved over to the production side and are particularly good targets for the writer's pitch.

ABC/Disney's deadline has been bumped up to August 8th this year, so you still have some time to get your spec into shape for submission. There goes my July.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The winners' tales

Okay, so this year's Nicholl deadline is well in the rearview mirror by now. I didn't make it this year but it's never too early to start thinking about May 1, 2009. To which end, I recently attended a panel of past Nicholl Fellows put on by The Scriptwriters Network. The panelists had lots of great stories on their own paths to the top of Greg Beal's heap (as seen in the picture) and advice for those of us still trying to make the quarterfinals for the first time.

The panel was a mix of some recent fellowship recipients and others going back several years into the competition:

Patrick Gilfillan, 1995
T.J. Lynch, 1999
Annmarie Morais, 1999
Pamela Kay, 2002
Arthur Jolly, 2006
Scott Simonsen, 2006

Annmarie wrote the recent feature How She Move and T.J. penned the family film A Plumm Summer, which had just opened at the time of the discussion. The other panelists were in various stages of development on their own scripts and writing assignments.

As to what it took to finally crack through and win the contest, people's experiences varied. T.J. had worked in and around the industry for several years, writing scripts in his spare time. Annmarie worked for a talent agency in Canada, writing scripts in her spare time. Patrick was an attorney in D.C. who moved out here for the MFA program at UCLA. Pamela lived in Washington state, taught dance, and did stand-up comedy. Arthur cashed out of his day job and spent one year writing five (!) scripts. Indeed, perhaps the only common thread to each of their success stories is that all of the fellows wrote multiple scripts (most between five and ten) and went through multiple drafts of their winning scripts before it happened. As in the business generally, there seem to be few overnight Nicholl triumphs. Annmarie, however, did have the distinction of winning with the identical script that got her to the finals (but did not win) the previous year. Didn't change a word, just sent it back in as-is.

The other experience that seemed to be universal is that none of the fellows' winning scripts had actually yet to be produced. In part, this seemed to be a result of the kinds of scripts that the Nicholl judges select, which tend to be personal and dramatic. In Hollywood parlance, "small" films. The inevitable response from agents and producers to the fellowship winner is "I love this but I don't know what to do with it." Ultimately, the value of winning the Nicholl to a writer's career is not in selling that script (though it increases your odds exponentially). Rather, it establishes the writer as credible with others inside the industry and opens doors for subsequent scripts and assignment work. Although it can be a huge first step in a writer's career, what I took away from the discussion is that it is just the first step.

And the one universal piece of advice the fellows had was to write your passion. Beyond mere excellent screenwriting, what the Nicholl judges consistently appear to reward is the more elusive "voice." In the fellows' experience, that is more likely to emerge when the subject matter and the story is one to which the writer feels a personal connection. And even though dramas have historically outperformed other genres, comedies, thrillers, and even action scripts have all made the finals in years past. So that's all there is to it. T-minus 11 months and counting to put it together for next year's competition.