Wanna be a TV writer?
At least seven sessions at the New York Television Festival on Friday were dedicated to the art of writing for television, and advice ranged from finding your voice, developing a body of work, tell stories that aren’t set in Los Angeles or New York, avoid all-too-common flashbacks and flash-forwards as a way of opening your piece, hone your craft, understand who you are pitching, be confident and not desperate and don’t get too attached to any individual piece or job.
And the piece of advice that comes in handy for almost any career you aspire to: don’t be an asshole.
“There is no direct path in this field,” said Soo Hugh, executive producer, The Whispers and The Terror at the session titled Running the Show: TV’s Future Inside the Writer’s Room. Hugh got her start as the assistant to Joe Drake when he opened Mandate Pictures and had just produced Juno.
“It’s about getting your foot in the door, working, learning, finding a good agent, and getting that first big break. And mine was when my agent called and suggested I read the pilot of AMC’s The Killing. That show changed my life in every way.”
“Each writer who wrote a script for The Killing went on to produce that particular episode, which was huge because not every showrunner trusts their lower-level writers to produce,” she added. “I think the reason I am where I am today was because I was exposed to production on The Killing.”
Airing from 2011 to 2014, The Killing made the record books as the only show historically to be canceled twice and brought back to life. AMC, which initially opted against a third season, changed its mind after a renegotiation with Fox Television Studios and Netflix. And, when AMC canceled it again after that third season, Netflix stepped in for a final six-episode fourth season.
“A TV writer is basically a writer, a director and a producer all in one,” added Hugh. “The actors come to the writers, and not the director, with line changes. There are always line changes.”
Writers Who Work
“Generally, when things are brought to me, I always want to see a body of work…pilots, shorts, sketches, anything,” said Nick Borenstein, director, programming and content at digital entertainment studio First Look Media. “I always want to see what have they done and what is their voice is.”
“We really do look for all emerging voices for the most part, said Laura Schwartz, manager of development, New Form, which develops shows that it sells to other distributors. “But equally as important is to know who you are pitching. Know who we are, what we do and what we might be looking for. Our target audience is aged 16 to 30, so don’t give me a pitch about a woman turning 50 who is trying to live her second life. That is not going to be our target.”
The Dos and Don’ts of Pitching
“Don’t pitch me what you think I want to be pitched,” said Borenstein. “And make sure it is from your voice because it is just not interesting to me if it feels like you are just trying to sell a show.”
“This is a creative industry that requires a lot of moving parts to put together at the exact moment, so never act like you are more entitled than anyone else,” said Schwartz. “Be confident and understand what you are pitching, but never act like you are better than anyone else.”
“I think there is a tendency, especially from the creators’ side, to go into meetings and situations in an adversarial mode, like ‘I’m going to win this meeting and I’m going to force them to like my idea,’” said John Thibodeaux, writer, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “In reality, we want your idea to be great. I think it is helpful to approach those situations in that mindset.”
“You just have to believe we are all on the same team from the outset,” he added. “If you succeed, we succeed as well.”
[Images courtesy of Marc Berman]