how hollywood works: TV

Showrunners: The CEOs of Television

For some TV writers, being a staff writer or even a mid-level writer-producer isn’t enough. They don’t want to just write the story; they also want to pick the cast, the wardrobe, the sets, deal with network executives, even decide what the soundtrack is. They want total creative control.

In other words, they want to be a showrunner, like Vince Gilligan of BREAKING BAD or Michelle Ashford of MASTERS OF SEX.

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Vince Gilligan

To become a showrunner, a working TV writer has to prove that he or she has the skills to run a show. The showrunner gig is never handed to anyone, even the most talented writers: it has to be earned by working your way up the television writing staff totem pole.

Showrunners Run The Company

Showrunners are the CEOs of shows, which puts them in charge of  EVERYTHING, from pre-production through post. As Kevin Plunkett, former VP of current comedy programming for ABC put it, “The showrunner is managing a $25-million company that goes from zero to $25 million dollars in eight weeks.”

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In the writers’ room, the showrunner’s primary responsibilities are hiring and organizing the writing staff, running the writer’s room, and making sure quality scripts are delivered on time. Blame falls on the showrunner if the show fails creatively, so these responsibilities need to be a top priority.

Showrunners also deal with everything else involved in production, like:

  • Working with the studio and network on the series’ development

  • Selecting and/or approving all department heads

  • Consulting with the principal cast

  • Approving locations

  • Negotiating and approving directors

  • Approving sets

Their responsibilities in post-production include things like:

  • Approving and hiring editors

  • Watching dailies

  • Approving cuts

  • Approving music

  • Working on the publicity and promotional campaigns

For a full list of showrunner responsibilities, click here for Producer’s Guild of America’s expansive list.

Creative Autonomy (?)

The showrunner calls the shots on the groundfloor. Ultimately, though, those decisions trickle up to the network heads, who must approve the television episode before it’s aired. If they feel the episode or show veers from the direction of the series as they envisioned, or sways from the network’s mandate, they’ll send the showrunner notes.

When these notes come early, there’s plenty of time to adapt. But when the notes come late, the showrunner has to scramble at the last minute to incorporate them mid-production and still hit the deadline, which can sometimes undermine the show creatively.

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Shonda Rhimes

Unless, of course, the showrunner decides he/she isn’t taking notes anymore (and has the power to get away with this without getting fired), as Shonda Rhimes (SCANDAL) admitted to doing when asked about ABC’s notes process by the New York Times:

“I had done GREY’S, I had done PRIVATE PRACTICE. What were they going to do, fire me? I wasn’t worried about what anybody else thought. This one was for me.”

Eventually, the execs at ABC stopped sending Rhimes notes.

Good Showrunners Get Overall Deals

Great showrunners who consistently deliver quality shows, financial success, or both, are usually offered an overall deal, or production overall deal, with studios.

An overall is a guarantee that the studio will pay a certain amount of money over a certain period of time. In exchange, the studios get exclusive rights to any creative material developed or produced in the duration of the deal, which they’ll in turn sell to networks.

In other words, it’s an advance against the showrunner’s success, since they have a proven track record. It’s also the best form of semi-long term job a security a TV writer can get.

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Seth MacFarlane

A showrunner’s agent negotiates the terms of an overall deal, which can range anywhere from $500,000 to eight figures and typically last 1 to 4 years. Example overall deals include BONES showrunner Hart Hanson’s 2007 overall with 20th Century Fox, which was a 3-year, eight-figure deal, and Seth MacFarlane’s impressive 2008 overall with 20th Century Fox, which was a 4-year overall; because that deal included financial benchmarks for DVD and merchandise sales, MacFarlane netted over $100 million.

When showrunners’ overall deals expire with one studio, they are  free to “shop” for a new deal at other studios — that is, if their track record is still solid and they don’t want to “re-up” their old overall deal.

One last note: a production overall deal, or a POD, is essentially the same as an overall deal. The only difference is that PODs are made with a writer’s production company, while overall deals are made with writer and/or producers.

Seth MacFarlane’s production company Fuzzy Door Productions, for example, has an overall deal with 20th Century Fox, and J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot has a POD with Warner Bros. Television that extends into 2015.

Inside the Writers’ Room

The writers’ room is, as Zack Stentz, writer-producer of FRINGE and TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, puts it, “the collective brain of a TV show.” It’s where the creative minds behind the show come together and figure out the characters and break stories. Without functioning writers’ rooms, shows wouldn’t get off the ground.

So what do writers’ rooms look like, and how are their hierarchies laid out?

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Staffed TV Writers: How They Get Hired, What Their Work Looks Like, and Why They’re Always Looking for Their Next Gig

It might be hard to believe, but there are actually writers who’ve beaten the odds and managed to land gigs where they get paid to write for television! But how did they get hired, and what do their jobs look like?

Staffing Season

First, it’s important to know that network TV writers typically only get hired during a single time period: staffing season. Staffing season starts around April/May, when showrunners read submitted scripts and interview prospective writers. Showrunners hire writers in June, after upfronts are done and primetime networks have ordered shows to-series.

Unless it’s a straight-to-series project, hiring can’t happen earlier than this. Nobody knows what shows are going to be airing!

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This is slightly different for shows on cable networks, which develop and produce shows all year round. A cable show may have a smaller pool of available writers to choose from, but they don’t have to compete at the same frenzied pace as network shows.

Any time writers aren’t busy working on shows, they’re doing everything they can to get staffed. So what are some of the ways these writers get hired?

How to Get Hired #1: Your Agent Gets You Meetings, You Crush Those Meetings

Getting an agent is obligatory in Hollywood, as most networks and showrunners only read agency submissions. Having a representative submitting your script says, “Well, at least this person believes you have talent.”

Get yourself an Ari Gold, except real and not fictional

Get yourself an Ari Gold, except real and not fictional

Like everything else, the best way to get an agent is through a referral. With a referral, someone will at least read your script, which can’t be said about the hundreds of cold queries sent every week.

Many writers today have both an agent or manager, or both. We’ll go into more detail about agents and managers in a later section.

Great material shopped around by a great agent isn’t a guarantee you’ll get staffed… but it’s the closest you’ll get. The agent’s job is to sell you and get you in the room with someone with the authority to say, “you’re hired.” The writer’s job is to make sure the material your agent shops is stellar, and to crush any meetings you take.

Lauren Morelli got her first gig on Netflix’s hit show ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK thanks to her dedicated agent and a compelling, if weird, original pilot. According to Morelli, her agent shopped her around for a year before she landed an interview with showrunner Jenji Kohan, who asked her, “Were you interfered with as a child?”

Her answer (no) didn’t dissuade Kohan from hiring Morelli for her writers’ room.

How to Get Hired #2: Working as an Assistant Then Getting Promoted

Working as an assistant on a show and then getting hired to an open position is one of the most effective ways to become a staffed writer. It goes hand in hand with getting an agent. The two strategies work in tandem, making your chances of getting staffed higher.

It’s like applying to college. You never just rely on your SAT score; you need good essays, a good GPA, and good letters of recommendation.

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Showrunners like to hire staff writers they know are right for the job, writers who understand the show, its characters, and jive well with the other writers. This makes assistants perfect staff writer candidates: they meet all these qualifications! Plus, the showrunner already has a working relationship with the assistants.

This is how COMMUNITY’s writer Tim Saccardo got staffed. In a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) last year he said,

I was hired as a writers assistant in season 2… It’s a rough job but an amazing opportunity to learn from the best and become intimately familiar with a show. You’re also part of the staff in a way and get to contribute to scripts when the situation calls for it.

After a while, I was given a script of my own to write and eventually was promoted to the writing staff. So, in a way, my writers assistant job ended up being like an extended interview/trial where the writers and producers got to see that I was good at writing the show and also wasn’t a dick that would be terrible to be in a room with all day (and sometimes all night…)

The same is true for Amy Berg, co-executive producer of EUREKA. In an interview with i09, she said she worked as an assistant to Kevin Kopelow and Heath Seifert (the writing team behind KENAN & KELL and ALL THAT) “…for a couple months before they saw fit to promote me to writer.”

You’re Staffed! Up Next: The Writers’ Room

Once June rolls around, there’s no time for staffed writers to celebrate getting hired. It’s time to get to work in the writers’ room.

DAMAGES' writers' room

DAMAGES’ writers’ room

No two writers’ rooms are alike. They’re put together by showrunners and reflect their creative and managerial approaches. This means drastic variations in who’s hired (some rooms have mostly mid to high level writers, some are filled with baby staff writers), what it physically looks like (sometimes it’s an actual room with a whiteboard, sometimes it’s not) and what the creative dynamic is like (how stories are created and how things get done).

Regardless of HOW the writers’ room is set up, there are a few things that HAVE to get done, otherwise the show never gets off the ground and everyone loses their jobs.

They are:

  • Figuring out the show’s characters and themes

  • Finding and “beating out” (i.e. breaking down) season arcs

  • Figuring out a season’s beats (the steps that get characters from point A to B to C etc., in the season arc) and choosing which episodes the important ones should happen in

  • Breaking each episode’s story and writing the scripts

  • Rewriting EVERY script and making it as close to perfect as possible before shooting starts

How the room tackles these tasks varies room to room.

On 24: LIVE ANOTHER DAY, showrunner Manny Coto described their writers’ room like this:

Basically, all the writers sit in a room and figure out verbally what the episode is going to be about in a general concept kind of way. The next step is for all the writers to start figuring out the various scenes that will go in each act. When we’ve figured that out, we move to an outline which usually runs from five to eight pages and fro[m] there one of the writers takes the outline and produces a script. That’s when the fun starts. We proceed to take that script apart, re-think it, throw most of it out and start all over again.

Graham Yost, showrunner of JUSTIFIED, said in a Reddit AMA that they break their episodes this way:

We break an episode in the writers’ room, probably in about a week or two. Then the writer takes it, turns around an outline, usually in a couple of days, gets notes, then has a week to write the first draft. Then Tim [Olyphant], Walton [Goggins], and the other actors weigh in and off we go.

Know Your Place

Staff writers, dubbed “baby writers,” are at the bottom of the writers’ room hierarchy.  They’re paid less and have less responsibility than the veteran writers.

Showrunners know this, and only expect them to contribute the best they can and do their best when they’re assigned episodes to write. As Chad Gervich says in SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, “[it] isn’t about proving you can hang with showrunners and EPs. It’s about following the flow and learning the ropes in a bizarre, brutal, often intimidating environment.”

How can staff writers stand out then?

“I came every day from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” Drew Goddard said in an interview for SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE when asked about his time as staff writer for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

In Joss [Whedon]’s ten minutes of free time every couple hours, I’d say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking for act one,’ or ‘Here’s an idea for this scene.’

“Some he’d like, some he’d say no, and sometimes he’d say ‘I can’t talk right now, I’m busy with all this other stuff.’

Whedon

Drew Goddard with Joss Whedon

This approach got Goddard 3 episode script assignments. Later he got staffed on ANGEL, ALIAS, and LOST, and signed a seven-figure overall deal with Touchstone Television in 2006.

Of course, it’s a delicate balance. Baby writers should never be overly critical of other pitches without offering constructive solutions. For example, saying, “That arc sucks and will never work” isn’t going to win you any brownie points with your showrunner, whereas “I think the arc would be better if we added X, Y and Z” might.

 Quality Control Approved Stamp Shows Excellent Product

Another way you can lose your job is by pitching any idea that pops to mind without a quality control filter; saying nothing at all, on the other hand, can get you fired, too.

Again, it’s a delicate balance.

You Survived Season One: Now It’s Time to Hustle

After surviving the show’s season, spending 10-14 hours a day for months writing and rewriting scripts, the show finally goes on hiatus and you’re on “vacation.”

Except not really, because staff writers never quite get a vacation. Like professional athletes, “off-season” is “pre-season.”

During the off-season, TV writers continue to move their careers forward by writing spec scripts, prepping for their show’s next season (if it’s renewed), and networking.

Why? Because there is no job security in television, unless you’re an established name like Damon Lindelof or Shonda Rhimes. Even then, you’re only as secure as your ability to churn out successful shows.

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The TV writer gig doesn’t last 52 weeks. It lasts for as long as you’re in that writers’ room. When 90% of shows fail in the first few seasons and 99.99% eventually get canceled (soaps like DAYS OF OUR LIVES and GENERAL HOSPITAL seem to be exceptions to this rule. Plus, for some reason, THE SIMPSONS) TV writers spend their free time competing for their next gig.

There’s no better time to hustle than the off-season. Especially since your show could easily wind up cancelled before the hiatus ends.

How Do You Write for TV?

“How did this show get on the air?” I asked my roommate while watching CSI. “I can call every ‘twist’ they’ve written.”

“Why don’t you go write for them and see if you can do better?” she said.

A few months later I moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into the TV industry. I was one among thousands — all equally clueless, wannabe TV writers. Which prompts the question: how did others make the switch from wannabe to working TV writer? What can writers do TODAY to get them started on their careers?

Damon Lindelof in his element

How do you become the next Damon Lindelof?

Well, turns out there are a LOT of things you can do to get on Hollywood’s radar and improve your chances of landing a paid TV writing gig. We’ve laid out some recurring strategies others have used, just for you.

Now, without further ado, let us count the ways you can become a working TV writer.

Submit to Contests and Fellowships

Back in 2004, Evan Daugherty thought he had it all figured out. He just graduated from NYU Film School. He had a few feature-length scripts under his belt, and a promising future in Hollywood…

Or so he thought.

“I hit brick wall after brick wall,” he told Huffington Post. “I failed miserably.” So miserably that he moved back to his parents’ basement in Dallas after a year.

Evan Daughtery

Evan Daugherty

Fast forward ten years and Daugherty is working for the upcoming TV series for ABC titled ESMERALDA. Along the way, he wrote scripts for a few tiny movies like SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN and DIVERGENT. So what happened?

He submitted to and won the Scripted Pipeline contest in 2008 with his screenplay SHRAPNEL (which was developed into the Robert De Niro/John Travolta thriller KILLING SEASON), putting him on the industry’s radar.

“Script Pipeline introduced me to a manager a few weeks after winning the contest, helping launch my career as a screenwriter.”

Winning convinced Daugherty to move back to LA. Two years later a script he’d written at NYU called SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN found itself in the center of a bidding war that wound up netting Daugherty $3.2 million.

Placing or winning a reputable writing contest is one way writers can open doors for themselves in the industry. Finalists and semifinalists typically win prizes like option or development deals, meetings with agents or industry insiders, and cash prizes.

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For example, the prize for the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition (arguably the most prestigious of the bunch) is up to $35,000. This cash coupled with the industry prestige that comes with the award can make a writer’s career.

This was the case with Terri Edda Miller: she won in 1992 for her screenplay BEDWARMER and went on to become a writer-producer for ABC’s hit series CASTLE.

More important than any cash or development prize, winning or placing in a screenwriting contest means writers can add it to their cover letter or introduction when searching for representation. Even if it’s not a “top-shelf” contest, a writer is a more compelling client when he says:

“Hi, I’m John, I recently placed as a semifinalist in Scriptapalooza with my spec, THE WAVE. Would you be interested in reading it?”

Instead of:

“Hi, I’m John, I wrote this spec my Mom loved called THE WAVE. Would you be interested in reading it?”

The actual screenplay could be exactly the same! But attaching a contest name transfers legitimacy onto the writer.

It’s like a police officer putting on his uniform — the uniform transfers legitimacy onto him, transforming him from an everyday citizen into an officer of the law.

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Notice how I said the legitimacy is MORE important than a cash or development prize? Be wary — there are a number of less-than-legitimate contests that prey on the aspirations of young writers.

These contests offer meetings with “Hollywood insiders” as prizes in exchange for the entrance fee; in reality, these insiders bring little credibility to the project.

Some of the more reputable contests include the Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Film Festival Competition, and the PAGE International Screenwriting award.

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While not contests, per se, similar avenues include submitting your script to various “lists.” The Blacklist, for example, is a platform that rates scripts and promotes well-scored scripts to its list of industry members. This includes managers, agents, and executives (Evan Daughtery’s winning script SHRAPNEL was placed on the Blacklist.)

Similarly, the Blood List comes out every Halloween and “brings attention to unproduced horror screenplays in Hollywood.”

Check out Ellie Shoja’s site and Freelance Writing’s site for more extensive lists of the different contests as well as fellowships, workshops and programs, which will be discussed below.

Earn Seats at Network Fellowships, Workshops and Programs

“By the end of the program,” Theo Travers said in an interview with Kiyong Kim about his experience in the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, “you come away with a new writing sample, a host of new contacts, and skills that will help you thrive for as long as you’re in the game of pimping yourself out as a writer.”

Most networks and studios sponsor a fellowship or program to develop writers for their shows. Fox, for example, hosts a Writers Intensive fellowship, in which 10 experienced writers are nurtured to create a strong pipeline for prospective staff writers (at the time of this writing, 9 fellows across 3 years have been staffed on 2014-2015 series). Other examples include the Disney/ABC Writing Program, the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, and NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge.

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In an interview with Afterellen, Tina Mabry said, “Fox works with us to build on both our general craft and the business of writing for television, feature films and digital content with the added goal of creating a viable resource of experienced staffing opportunities.”

The writers are also mentored by a number of writers, producers, and senior executives from the network. Programs typically run a few months (the Fox Writer’s Intensive, for instance, lasts 4 months).

The end goal is to be staffed on a show after finishing the program or fellowship. Even if a writer completes the program and isn’t staffed to a show, though, he/she still earns massive exposure by simply being part of the program.

Writers must complete a rigorous application process in order to apply for these programs. Along with their application materials, writers also submit one or two scripts — typically one original pilot script and a spec script for an existing show.

Check out Ellie Shoja’s site and Freelance Writing’s site for more extensive lists of the different contests as well as fellowships, workshops and programs.

Stand Out From the Crowd

The competition to break into Hollywood has never been fiercer, with more and more aspiring writers flooding L.A. every year. Clever writers have found alternative means to edge out their competitors in this modern Internet/social media age.

Twitter created a number of success stories in recent years. After Justin Halpern moved back in with his parents in 2009, he created a little Twitter feed called “Shit My Dad Says” to chronicle his father’s hilarious one-liners. The feed took off and led to first a book deal and then to CBS’ SH*T MY DAD SAYS, starring William Shatner. Halpern was a writer and co-executive producer on the show.

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Justin Halpern with William Shatner

SH*T MY DAD SAYS was cancelled after one season, but this failure didn’t stop Halpern from continuing his career in Hollywood. He has since gone on to be a writer-producer for TBS’ COUGAR TOWN, as well as the creator and showrunner for FOX’s now-cancelled SURVIVING JACK.

“After 18 episodes we were pulled off the schedule and canceled, but it was hard for me to be upset,” Halpern wrote in a piece for Grantland about SH*T MY DAD SAYS being cancelled.

I had just launched an entire career off a Twitter feed. It’d be like winning the lottery and getting pissed off because they only give you the money in increments of $50,000 a year.

Even though the show failed, I was in love with the job. I had spent the last 10 years trying to break into television writing while simultaneously waiting tables in Los Angeles. So even though I had far from ‘made it,’ the idea that I might never have to hear a restaurant manager tell me things like ‘Al from HOME IMPROVEMENT is very unhappy with your service,’ seemed miraculous.

Jack Moore is another hobby-turned-success story. A former Buzzfeed sports editor, Moore in his spare time created and ran a Twitter feed called Modern Seinfeld, which imagines that SEINFELD’s still on air and makes 140-character episode pitches.

modern seinfeld

It became an instant hit (even Jason Alexander is a follower!). After 6 months, Jack Moore found himself as a staff writer on Fox’s now-cancelled sitcom US & THEM.

“[Modern Seinfeld] definitely helped enhance my portfolio as I went out there,” Moore said in an interview with The Daily Beast when asked about his success,  “but it was still pretty strong reactions to scripts, just like anybody else.”

This leads to an important point: standing out from the crowd isn’t enough. That gets you attention — spec scripts and a network get you jobs.

lauren duana 11oct12

Lauren Bachellis

Lauren Bachellis is a great example of this. Bachellis’ career started promising but unremarkably: she interned on various shows, including JUDGE JUDY and HEROES, and worked as an assistant at CAA then later as NEW GIRL showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether’s assistant.

Along the way, though, she created the popular Hollywood insider blog, the Hollywood Assistants Tumblr, as well as wrote spec scripts. Bachellis then used her network to get the specs in front of Fred Savage.

“Fred ended up loving my script, so he and I decided to put our heads together and figure out a project we could sell to CBS (where he has an overall deal),” Bachellis told Co.Create.

I told him about the blog I had started a bit after all of this had happened, and that’s when it became clear: we should pitch a show based on my experiences as a Hollywood assistant.

The combination of her network and Internet fame led to Bachellis selling her comedy pilot 20-NOTHINGS to CBS, with Fred Savage attached to direct and executive produce, at the age of 23.

Work in the Industry

Chad Gervich estimates that 90% of all careers in television start like Lauren Bachellis’: at the assistant level. Why?

Because it’s one of the best ways to break into the industry.

There are two big perks to starting out in Hollywood as an intern or assistant.

1. Meet other people

The fastest way to meet new people in Hollywood is by working for and with people already ingrained in the industry. Many will be other assistants. Some will be agents, producers, other writers, and even showrunners.

2. Learn and earn experience from the ground up

Michelin-star chefs didn’t earn their star by watching the Food network — they worked the front lines, in someone else’s kitchen. The same is true in Hollywood.

Working in various aspects of the industry is an experience that can’t be replicated in an MFA program. Whether you’re working at an agency, at a casting office, or (fingers crossed) on a television show, you’re earning an education most aspiring writers will never get, no matter how much television they watch.

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There are several different types of assistant positions, each one dealing with a different part of the industry, and each one with its own benefits and downsides.

An agency assistant, for example, works at the center of the entertainment business, and serves as an information hub. Many of these assistants start in the mailroom, where they begin to build their network. Then they start working as “floaters,” filling in for assistants who’re out. Then, when a position opens up, they get hired to fill it.

“If an individual has agency experience,” Zig Gauthier, president of Red Varden Studios, says in SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, “he or she learned the basic skill set of being a good assistant: rolling calls, managing a phone log, setting meetings, etc.”

Matt Schuler, manager at Levity Entertainment Group, added,

An agent deals with everyone in town. And as an assistant, you listen to all the phone calls and learn how business is done. You hear [everything from] how a deal is done to how an agent sells a client to how projects are set up.

 

MONK's writers' room

MONK’s writers’ room

A writers’ assistant, on the other hand, works just for a show’s writing staff. Their duties vary, but their primary job is to take notes on everything that’s discussed inside the writers’ room.

“A great writers’ assistant kind of does the job of your ego,” John Rogers (co-creator of TNT’s LEVERAGE) told i09.

Writers are all id: they’re all storming out ideas, they’re all riffing off each other, they’re all puking out these random associations of facts.

A good writers’ assistant is getting all of that down, and when they do the summary notes, they often distill it down; they often prioritize based [on] what they know of the room what the real strong ideas are. A good writers’ assistant makes a world of difference. It is, possibly, behind the showrunner, the second most important person in a writers’ room.

Being a good writers’ assistant can be the difference between getting hired on as a staff writer… or going back to waiting tables.

For more details on the writers’ assistant position, click here.

Other assistants jobs include:

  • Executive assistants

  • Producers’ assistants

  • Directors’ assistants

  • Production assistants

  • Casting assistants

  • Personal assistants

Many industry staples started at the bottom and worked their way up. Damon Lindelof, co-creator of LOST, started as a writers’ assistant to Kevin Williamson (creator of DAWSON’S CREEK) on Williamson’s show WASTELAND.

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor also had humble beginnings. She started out as VERONICA MARS creator Rob Thomas’ assistant after writing him a letter.

“Once I was in that writers’ office I made friends there and I was writing samples the whole time…” she told Jen Gristanti in a podcast.

 Finally I wrote one that people liked…and people read it and so one of the writers there, Hart Hanson [creator of BONES]… recommended me to his agent.

Taylor went on to become a co-producer for ALIAS and is now a co-executive producer for GAME OF THRONES.

Network

How do writers find out about a staff opening?

They’re not logging onto their Monster.com or Job.com account. Even the lower-end positions in a writers’ room (writers’ PA, writers’ assistant, and script coordinator) rarely get listed on tracking websites. And if one does make it onto a job board, chances are the position’s already been snatched up before you’ve even attached your resume to your email.

Writers hear about openings through two avenues: their agents and their network connections.

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It’s easy to balk at the idea of networking, since the word often carries a negative connotation:

  • “Networking is sleazy”

  • “I don’t need to network… if I create good work, it’ll speak for itself”

  • “I don’t want to be fake”

However, as Chad Gervich says, networking “is a way for people of like minds and interests to find each other and work together.”

Networking is crucial at every stage of a writer’s career, whether you’re a showrunner now or just thinking about moving to Los Angeles. Every step of the way, your peers will help you advance to the next level.

The showrunners have the the final say on all hires, but they may not have time to vet every person who comes through. That’s when they reach out to their network for candidates and recommendations. If you’re at the right place at the right time, or make the right impression on someone, people remember you when they hear a staff position has opened up.

Then this happens: “If you’re looking for a new writer, I know someone who’d be amazing.”

Remember, showrunners aren’t just looking for people who write damn well. They’re also looking for people they like. Writers are stuck together in close quarters, sometimes pulling 14-hour days if they’re behind schedule. No one wants to be stuck in a room with someone they can’t stand for that long. Plus, if the writers’ personalities don’t mesh, the show suffers creatively, which could cost everyone their jobs.

So writers need to pass the “airport test” as well — would everyone get along with that person if they were all stranded in an airport together?

Clyde Phillips with John Lithgow

Clyde Phillips with John Lithgow

This is how Clyde Phillips, showrunner for the first four seasons of Showtime’s DEXTER as well as NURSE JACKIE, got his start in Hollywood. “I grew up in Dorchester, a poor part of Boston. Moved to L.A. when I was a teenager (tough to do),” he wrote in an AMA.

I was working on my masters when I met these two guys who were the kings of the TV movie world (remember TV movies?) Anyway I started reading scripts for them and doing notes. They offered me a job to be their second secretary. I had to choose between that and grad school. I chose them and they basically taught me the business.

For more tips on how to network in Hollywood, click here.

Write — A Lot

“What’s the best piece of advice you could give to an amateur screenwriter?” Reddit user Flaxom asked David Goyer (BLADE, MAN OF STEEL) during an AMA.

Write a TON. Don’t just do first drafts. Open yourself up to criticism. Keep writing — even if people initially discourage you. Chances are, your first few efforts won’t be that great… Treat writing like a job — try to write at the same time each day or days. Keep a schedule. Outline before you begin! And don’t give up during the middle of a script. Most beginning writers quit in the middle and never get through to the end. AND DON’T START REWRITING UNTIL YOU HAVE A FINISHED DRAFT!!!!

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Let’s expand on Goyer’s advice with a few key points:

1. TV Shows Fail

90% of all television shows fail. When working TV writers are contractually working on shows, yes, they’re laser-focused on one project. But if they’re on hiatus… or they don’t get staffed one season… then they’re working their own creative projects, sometimes several of them, all at various stages.

RIP FIREFLY

R.I.P. FIREFLY

With shows failing left and right at all different stages (whether it’s in the pilot script phase or during series production or after 10 aired episodes) working writers know the best way to stay employed is to be working on different projects at different stages whenever they can so that they can shop them around when the time is right.

2. Practice

Writing a lot keeps seasoned writers sharp and makes less experienced writers better.

Every writer, from TV writers to novelists to poets, can stand to be better at his or her craft, and the best way to get better is through practice.

Even Stephen King in his book ON WRITING wrote about how just after a few weeks of not writing, he could feel the difference in his ability to write. The words didn’t “connect right.” His writing muscles atrophied in a short time.

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Regular practicing keeps this from happening (maybe) 

We’ve covered many different avenues for a green, inexperienced writer to take the next step in the career, from entering contests and fellowships, to doing something unique to stand out, to working in the industry. Regardless of the route, these are the constant for a writer to make it to the next level: writing, producing, practicing.

The Kings of Television: Creatives and How They’re Packaged

While giving a speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, actor Kevin Spacey said “the King of television is the creatives.”

He argued that Hollywood needs to focus more on nurturing the creatives and spend less time fixating on networks’ data and numbers. So who are these creatives he spoke of?

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Who Are Creatives?

Creatives are all the people who contribute “creatively” to the creation of a project, and they are the driving force behind the television industry. There wouldn’t be television without them.

Peoples Choice Awards Show

Cast and crew for CBS’ THE BIG BANG THEORY

Creatives are:

  • Writers like Aaron Sorkin (THE WEST WING), Steven Bochco (HILL STREET BLUES), and Joss Whedon (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER).

  • Actors like Bryan Cranston (BREAKING BAD), Hugh Laurie (HOUSE), and Alyson Hannigan (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER).

  • Directors like Tim Van Patten (THE SOPRANOS), Lesli Linka Glatter (MAD MEN), and Jeffrey Blitz (THE OFFICE).

  • Producers like J. J. Abrams (LOST), Aaron Spelling (BEVERLY HILLS, 90210), and Chuck Lorre (BIG BANG THEORY).

Apart from creating the content, why are creatives so important? We’ll get into that; but first, a quick primer on television scheduling.

How Television Scheduling Works

Here’s the breakdown on television scheduling:

Networks “greenlight” projects they think the most people will watch.

The larger the audience, the greater the demand for advertising space during that show.

The greater the demand for ad space, the more the networks can charge for that space.

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For example, in 2013 advertisers paid $326,260 per 30-second spot during THE BIG BANG THEORY on CBS on Thursday nights, according to Adweek.

Let’s put that in perspective. These were the price tags for that the same Thursday night time slot:

  • NBC’s Sunday Night Football – $570,000

  • NBC’s THE VOICE – $264,575

  • ABC’s MODERN FAMILY – $257,435

  • ABC’s AGENTS OF SHIELD – $169,730

  • ABC’s THE GOLDBERGS – $93,200

Remember: unless a network is a co-producer on a show (e.g, share ownership with the studio), selling ad space is the ONLY way they generate revenue from the show.

Entire departments at networks called Current Programming dedicate themselves to coordinating the airing schedule, based on when audiences tune in. Networks air their most popular shows when the audience is propped in front of their television sets, and the least popular when no one’s watching.

Friday evening, for example, has been coined “the Friday night death slot” — that’s when networks air their dying, unpopular shows.

 Thursday

On the other hand, hit shows like THE VAMPIRE DIARIES and SCANDAL air on Thursdays, historically TV’s biggest night. Why Thursday? Because advertisers, hoping to entice weekend shoppers, ask networks to put their best shows on Thursdays and agree to pay more for ad space on that night.

As Gaurav Misra, VP of programming for MTV and VH1, put it in Chad Gervich’s SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, “It’s truly the tail wagging the dog.”

But networks know schedule manipulation doesn’t matter without good shows. The audience doesn’t ask, “what’s my favorite night to watch television?”

They ask, “what night is my favorite show on?”

Creatives Get Networks to Greenlight Projects

This is where the creatives come in. Agents and studios bank on creatives with a track record of success to create another hit. By putting several creatives with good track records together, they’re doing everything they can to hedge this bet (a bet that can cost the studio anywhere from $300,000 to well over a million dollars for the pilot alone.

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In turn, networks rely on the anticipated success of “packaged” projects to protect them against the inevitable losers in their schedule. A packaged project is far more likely to get the “greenlight” than a project with a host of unknowns.

For example, EXTANT was a spec script written by a relatively unknown writer named Mickey Fisher. Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin was attached to produce, which in turn brought aboard Greg Walker, executive producer of WITHOUT A TRACE and VEGAS.

The package persuaded CBS to purchase and order the show straight-to-series, which THEN led to the attachment of Halle Berry to star (plus, her signing a 2-year overall with CBS TV Studios.)

In the agency packaging side (what agency owns a percentage of the show) this was a coup for WME, which represented all of the auspices mentioned except for Halle Berry, who is repped by CAA.

Of course, while packaging the right creative elements together can protect the downside, it by no means guarantees a financial success, or even a good show.

The creatives first have to be:

  1. Right for the project

  2. Work well together

Otherwise, it’s like creating the Yankee-lineup of television: dumping money on highly-paid talent who still can’t make it to the World Series.

Usually, however, a properly packaged show is typically a win-win for everyone involved: good creatives get to work with other good creatives, agents collect packaging fees (which we will cover later), studios own good shows, and networks earn their audiences… and the advertising dollars along with them.