Inside the Writers’ Room

how hollywood works: TV

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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Below the Bottom: Writers’ PAs, Writers’ Assistants, Script Coordinators

The writers’ production assistants (PAs), writers’ assistants, and script coordinators are the grunts of the television operation. They work behind the scenes and at the ass-end of the train, hurling coal into the fire to keep everything moving.

“As a Writer’s PA, there are a lot of hats to wear,” says Erica Mountain, who worked on CBS’s CRIMINAL MINDS.

“Not only are you responsible for groceries, lunch and many coffee runs, you also have to stay on top of birthday gifts for the writers, crew gifts and all the swag for fans. That means ordering headshots, making charity scripts and continually harassing actors to sign things, which most of them dislike doing as much as you dislike asking them to do. Beyond the duties above, your main job is to print scripts, this is where the real challenge comes in because each episode has at least five script drafts that the Writer’s PA must print for the ENTIRE cast and crew.

“I truly think that the biggest challenge with this job is that every writer and assistant in the writing department is your boss. That means juggling assignments that often conflict with one another. There are many days where you’ll miss lunch or spend the entire day on your feet, lifting heavy bags and bottles and sweating like a pig to make life easier for the entire department, often all by yourself.”

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The writers’ PA is a PA solely for the writers (versus a set or office PA, who helps anyone and everyone on the production.) The writers’ PA duties include keeping the office clean, ordering lunch, stocking fridge, and filling in for writers’ assistant if they’re out. TK Quote (sub) from Erica

“The writers’ assistant’s job,” says Peter Cameron, who worked as the assistant on Fox’s TERRA NOVA and CBS’s INTELLIGENCE,

[is] to be there for all executive levels, from staff writer to showrunner, setting up camp in the writers’ room and acting as a filtration system in generating daily notes. In short, the role is to be of service, and to support… After work, duties include compiling and categorizing the room notes, ensuring all is ready for the next day.

“When I first started,” Peter says,

the greatest in-room challenge was to determine how much should be included in the daily notes. I remember ending my first couple days with 20+ pages, way too many to navigate. Ideas were being generated at an overwhelming rate, and my initial instinct was to write everything for fear of missing something crucial. Took a week to get a feel for the room, learn the flow and hive mind of it… Reading a writers’ room can be pretty daunting before you get your bearings.

The script coordinator is responsible for archiving various scripts and tracking script changes throughout drafts. Tracking script changes isn’t just about keeping writers on the same page. Imagine if the writers, the studio, the network, AND the production crew all had SLIGHTLY different versions of a script when they’re on-set, ready to shoot. It’d be a disaster.

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As the TV industry shifts to shorter and shorter seasons, often these positions get merged, and the writers’ assistant/script coordinator’s duties blend together.

In the TAPA Crew Call podcast, script coordinator Eddie Quintana said,

It’s a little bit different depending on where you go. The bigger the room, the more writers’ PAs they might have. My room, there was one script coordinator, and one PA. So the coordinator’s job was to be at the computer at all times, writing down everything the writers say, keep track of all the notes, all the story discussions, all the joke pitches.

“And the writers’ PA would facilitate the writer’s room — putting in the lunch order, picking up the lunch, going to get coffee, and on that show, preparing the hard copies of the scripts each night, preparing for the hard copy [distribution].

Regardless of differences between specific duties, some things remain the same for the grunts: PAs, assistants, and coordinators are the first to arrive and last to leave. This is their opportunity to build professional relationships with writers and learn the ins-and-outs of the room, making them front-runner candidates when staff writer positions open up.

There’s also the outside hope that a writers’ assistant will get the opportunity to write an episode for the show, since the WGA requires every 13-episode season show to have at least two episodes written by non-staff writers.

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Jason Lazarcheck worked for three seasons as a showrunner’s assistant for Lifetime’s drama series, ARMY WIVES. He was promoted to script coordinator, and when the network made a 10-episode backend order in season 6, Jason asked his showrunner if he could write one as a freelancer.

Under [showrunner] Jeff Melvoin’s guidance, I wrote the 101st episode of ARMY WIVES. He was an exceptional boss and mentor to me, but I worked hard to prepare for the opportunity. I arrived early, stayed late, helped others, and absorbed as much as I could.

The most challenging part of the writing process was the inevitable production curve balls (e.g. last minute changes to story lines due to cast availability). I wanted to make the most of the opportunity and not disappoint my mentors or the show’s audience. In the end, the episode turned out great, and I learned a ton.

The Bottom: Staff Writers, Story Editors, Executive Story Editors

Staff writer may be the entry-level position for any writers’ room, but don’t be fooled by the word “entry-level.” These spots are both coveted and scarce. Agency TV lit departments reach deep into their network to find out the moment a spot opens up, so they can slot their “baby writers” into a show.

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BREAKING BAD’s writers’ room

“There are many challenges getting young writers staffed,” says Matt Baldovsky, the Literary Coordinator at agency ICM.

First of all, we’ve found that there are less opportunities for not only lower level writers, but all levels. Writer rooms have decreased the amount of writers per show, causing them to want to staff experienced writers over baby writers.

Another challenge is simply getting noticed as a baby writer. This year we’ve seen an increase in young writers getting staffed off of blogs, Twitter feeds, stand-up, etc. This has caused a lot of writers who have traditional specs not getting noticed by showrunners, studios and networks.

 Lastly, baby writers who don’t have recommendations from other writers/showrunners can make it very difficult for someone to want to staff them.

For a more in-depth look into the hustling that’s done to become a working TV writer, click here.

Staff writers have the most to prove… and are the first to get fired during budget cuts. They participate in the room’s discussions, pitch and break stories, write and rewrite scripts, but they aren’t expected to do quite as much as more senior-level writers.

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Staff writers don’t get listed in the credits unless they wrote the episode, in which case they get a “Written By” credit. They aren’t paid as well, nor do they get “script fees” on top of their weekly salaries. The WGA minimum for a half-hour is $24,788  and a one-hour is $36,457 (if the writer completes the story and teleplay themselves).

Story editors and executive story editors sit slightly higher up on the totem pole. Technically story editors and executive story editors are “writers employed in additional capacities” to writing, per the WGA.

In actuality, though, these writers usually do the same work as staff writers; the difference is they get listed in the credits and get paid per-episode script fees.

The Middle: Co-Producers, Producers, Supervising Producers

Mid-level writers usually have a few more TV seasons under their belt, and deal with the production side of television development in addition to writing for the show. The duties for these producers vary, but can involve anything EXCEPT for the actual physical production.

This includes things like:

  • Attending production meetings

  • Casting

  • Doing director prep

  • Taking network and studio notes

  • Supervising pre-shoots

  • Scouting locations

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Supervising producers are a notch above the producers and co-producers. They are usually the third-in-command (after the showrunner and co-executive producer), and more often than not are responsible for running the writers’ room when the showrunner and co-exec producer are out. They also manage and mentor the more inexperienced members of the writing staff, e.g., the staff writers and story editors.

Top Dogs: Showrunner, Executive Producer, Co-Executive Producers

For a more in-depth look at the responsibilities of a showrunner, click here.

If the showrunner is the CEO of the company, the executive producers and co-executive producers are his or her VPs and senior VPs — but it’s important to note that a showrunner’s official credit is always “executive producer” as well.

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While garlands are often thrown at the feet of the showrunner, no showrunner does it alone. For every Terence Winter on a BOARDWALK EMPIRE there’s a Co-EP Gene Kelly, who also carries a massive weight on his shoulders.

At any point in time, the showrunner may need to be in two places at once: back in the writers’ room to approve a story direction, on set to consult with actors, approving sets and wardrobes. These are the moments when a showrunner relies on his EPs and his Co-EPs to pick up the slack.

In the showrunner’s absence, these senior writers and producers run the writers’ room, give notes, and make approvals. Basically, they keep the company moving forward.

The Outliers: Consulting Producers

Think of consulting producers as hired guns.

These are senior-level writers or producers typically with a few seasons of television under their belts. Dennis Lehane, for example, was brought onto Season 4 of BOARDWALK EMPIRE as a writer and consulting producer.

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Dennis Lehane

When they’re hired to a show, they’re invited to help in a variety of ways:

  • Break story

  • Offer their expertise in a specific subject

  • Write a script

  • Rewrite a script

Consulting producers typically only work a few days a week, and many aren’t required to come into the room at all.

To find out more about the day-to-day of working TV writers, click here.

Humble Beginnings

When we connect the dots backwards, it seems for some writers, a showrunner assignment was inevitable.

Damon Lindelof

Damon Lindelof

Damon Lindelof, co-creator and showrunner of ABC’s LOST, started on MTV’s UNDRESSED and ABC’s short lived WASTELAND before he found his way to NASH BRIDGES as a staff writer and then moved to NBC’s CROSSING JORDAN as a writer and producer.

Before Matt Weiner did MAD MEN, he started on a Fox sitcom called PARTY GIRL and CBS’s BECKER before David Chase asked him to write on HBO’s THE SOPRANOS, where he eventually became an EP for the sixth season.

But it’s worth pointing out that some other showrunners had more… eclectic beginnings.

Terence Winter

Terence Winter

For example, before Terence Winter created and ran BOARDWALK EMPIRE and was an EP for HBO’s THE SOPRANOS, he was a staff writer on the syndicated series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS and NBC’s COSBY MYSTERIES.

Before his mega-merchandise, king-of-primetime animation shows FAMILY GUY and AMERICAN DAD, Seth MacFarlane was a freelance writer working on animated shows like Disney’s JUNGLE CUBS and Nelvana’s ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE.

It’s always a climb up through a writer’s room, but the routes available to any one writer are wildly diverse.

3 comments… add one

  • Unpaid intern

    I found out that a writer’s room I thought I had earned a position in isn’t going to hire a Writer’s PA. How is that writer’s room going to function? Will the Writer’s Assistant simply be overwelmed?

    • Chris Ming

      They’ll function fine. It happens. A lot of the positions get consolidated as writers learn to do with less (e.g. Writer asst will do the job of a writer’s PA, writer asst will double-up as the script coordinator, etc.). Part of the game these days. Don’t dwell on it. If you were in the running on one show, you’ll get yourself in the running for another. Good luck!

  • Eli Leonard

    I would like to fight broke.

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