Thursday, November 29, 2012

Agent's Hot Sheet - How to REALLY Break In To TV

 
Forget what you think you know about breaking in to TV.  The paradigm has changed. Before you waste six months working on a spec “Dexter,” read this article!

By Jim Cirile


TV or not TV? That is the question, and with all due respect to the Bard, the answer is a no-brainer. Alas, poor Yorick, the fact is that while it's as hard as ever to break into features, television has become the land of opportunity. Verily, ‘tis a great path into the biz for emerging wordsmiths. If ol’ Bill Shakespeare were alive today, I’d wager he’d be the showrunner on CSI: Stratford-on-Avon. So sally forth with us as Agent’s Hot Sheet talks to representatives working the TV side to find out the best ways to break in circa 2013. We’ll also meet three writers working on series and learn how they landed their gigs. Forsooth, it shall not be sound and fury signifying nothing!

PART ONE: THE TALENT

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

Meet Roger Grant, executive story editor on Greek. Propelled by internet sites like Ain't It Cool News and Cinescape, Grant moved to LA after graduation to pursue screenwriting. In an amazing bit of luck, Grant quickly scored an assistant gig at John Wells Productions (The West Wing, ER.) Nepotism? Nope. “I was placed there by a temp agency,” says Grant. “I had some office knowledge from my one and only job before this out of college; I actually knew how to open Word and use it.” Yep, newcomer Grant simply walked in to a position at a fiery-hot TV production company as a clerical temp! Grant admits he totally lucked into the gig, but, “It wasn’t luck that I kept it,” he says. “They’d had a few people who didn’t work out as assistants, but I know an opportunity when I see one. I knew jack when I got there, but it dawned on me real fast that this was the place where it was going down.”

Isn't that you behind those Roger Grants?
That job led directly to Grant becoming writer’s assistant on The West Wing. But despite three years in the trenches, an opportunity never came up for him to pen an episode. “My boss Deborah Cahn was so good to me. There just weren’t opportunities for the kids on the payroll. Directors and actors were getting those freelance scripts.” In the meantime, Grant had been applying for the Disney Fellowship program year after year (and striking out.) He finally nabbed his first freelance writing gig for the short-lived series Raines thanks to producers Graham Yost and Peter Noah. “Right when that show was canceled on a Friday, literally Monday I found out I got into the Disney Fellowship.” 

The Disney/ABC Fellowship Program is, of course, the Holy Grail when it comes to breaking into TV (sadly, Disney ended its feature fellowship program a few years back.) Pretty much everyone that comes out of there goes on to a successful career in the business. Despite working on a TV megahit, it was the Fellowship, not West Wing, that finally launched Grant’s career. “I was staffed within a month (after graduation,)” says Grant. “I’d heard about Greek, and I’d been in a fraternity in college, and I was like, oh my God, this could be a match made in heaven.”

UTA television agent Tim Phillips says that programs such as the Disney Fellowship are a surefire way in to network TV -- for a select few. “A lot of the networks have writers programs, some of which are diversity-oriented, some of which aren’t,” he notes. “The vast majority of the time, that job on a Warner Bros. show is going to someone out of the Warner Bros. program, the same way it is at ABC (Disney), the same way it is on a Paramount/CBS show.”


Manager A.B. Fischer from Shuman Co. elaborates, “There are all these programs that will pay for staff writers. So if you are not in one of these programs or are not diverse, it becomes exponentially harder because showrunners know, 'I could hire a staff writer who’s diverse and not have to pay for it, so I could use that money on the upper levels as opposed to spending it on the lower.'” That’s right, folks --if a showrunner hires someone out of the network’s program, the writer’s first year’s salary comes from the program, not the show’s budget. This is obviously a big incentive for them to hire from within! But that’s mostly just the networks. “Most of the cable channels don’t have any diversity money,” says Phillips. “So those staff writer jobs are going to someone the showrunner read and recommended for the job. A lot of times the cable shows have people from different backgrounds and are more out of the blue.”

While a diversity or network writing program stamp of approval will open doors, Grant advises that an upward career path is all about your attitude. “Learning from so many great people is a great opportunity (as an) up and coming writer,” he says. “It’s not an affront to your writing, It’s only going to make you better.” One last bit of advice from Grant: “You need to know how to write a good outline even before you know how to write a good script. It’s as important if not more important. Even the biggest TV writers have to turn in an outline and get it through studio and network. If you’re on a staff trying to get a story credit as a baby writer or a writer’s assistant, you’re probably going to get a story before you get a whole script. You have to be able to write a great outline.” Sorry for the bad news, all you outline haters out there!

DAHL “C” FOR CONNEX

Brady Dahl came out from Minnesota to attend the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting six years back, and a lot has happened for him since then. The amiable, talented young former house painter transformed into a TV writers assistant in a very short span of time. How? Dahl’s then-fiancée, who moved to L.A. with him, was a part-time nanny for actress Katey Sagal (Married With Children) through her cousin who used to be Sagal’s vocal coach. Dahl would occasionally sub for his wife and got to know Sagal and her husband producer Kurt Sutter (The Shield.) As Dahl’s fiancée’s grad school schedule became more demanding, Dahl stepped into the breach. “For a school year, I drove (Sagal and Sutter’s) daughter to school every day.”

Dahl chillin' in the Sons writers room
Fortunately for Dahl, Sutter took a shine to him. “He had read my stuff and he knew that I wanted to be a writer,” says Dahl, “and I think he knew that I was a good guy. (He asked if I wanted) to work in television and said he might be able to give me the writers’ assistant gig on his new show (if it got greenlit.) So I just bided my time and did all this writing and kept meeting with (my writing group) and all that. And he did get the show.” Sons of Anarchy is now in its fifth season, and Dahl is now staff writer with a handful of credited episodes, including season four's spectacular "Brick," written with Dave Erickson. But to get there, he had to pay his dues as the writers assistant first.

So just what exactly does a writers assistant do? “Be in the room at all times (with) the writers and take notes,” says Dahl.” Write down everything and try to organize it in a fashion that’s understandable. It’s like, oh yeah, here’s what we said before, and reminding them of what we’ve done.” Dahl also managed to parlay this experience into a writers assistant gig on the excellent but short-lived Defying Gravity for ABC. In season two, Dahl got his first story credit on Sons. “Without a doubt, (being the writers assistant is) a great way in,” says Fischer. “It’s a great way to learn the ins and outs of a show. You get to be in the writer’s room, which is invaluable to a baby writer to learn exactly how a show runs and operates, and how a writer’s room is run.”

Sound good? Well, work on those connex, pal. “If you don’t know anybody, you can’t just apply for a writers’ assistant job, it’s impossible,” says Fischer. “You need some sort of in.” The moral? Much though the internet and globalization has made relocating to LA less necessary, it’s safe to say that Dahl would not be where he is today had he remained in Minnesota. So the next time you wonder whether it would be beneficial to your writing career to move to Los Angeles, just remember Brady Dahl.

HOW I MET YOUR PRODUCTION ASSISTANT

“I’m one of the very few people who’s actually writing sitcoms who has a degree in writing sitcoms,” says Jamie Rhonheimer, who recently left the CBS hit How I Met Your Mother after seven seasons as Co-Executive Producer. Rhonheimer came out of Syracuse University’s Television/Radio/Film Department with a passion for 3-camera comedy. So naturally, he loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly… Hills, that is (actually, West L.A., but close enough.)  “I had a few friends from college who were also moving out here, so I had some people to live with,” says Rhonheimer. “I knew an aspiring writer named John Beck, who had moved out here the year before also to pursue sitcom writing.  So I was sort of able to learn the ropes from him, and sort of learn about the tried and true path of going from PA (production assistant) to writer’s assistant to writer, which is as much of a path as there is in sitcoms.”

Rhonheimer recently worked on Animal Practice.
Not to be confused with a writers assistant, a production assistant is basically a go-fer who works either on set or in the production office. The nifty thing is that pretty much anyone can be a PA if you’re smart and willing to work insane hours for very little money. They’re even advertised on monster.com or craigslist. Rhonheimer remembers his first PA job interview for a low-budget Family Channel game show well. “I walked in, and I’m wearing a sport coat and a shirt and tie -- way overdressed. And the guy kind of looks at my résumé and looks up at me and says, do you have a car?  And I said yes, and that was the entire interview. I got the job.” Rhonheimer parlayed that into a string of PA jobs, keeping an eye on his goal of writing sitcoms. “Even though you’re on the production side, there often is great opportunity to interact with the writers and with the writing staff. Most of the shows that I’ve worked on, if you’re a PA, at some point in your average day you’re either going to be getting lunch or dinner for the writers, or photocopying scripts, or doing something that involves the writing staff.”

After PA’ing on shows like Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, Rhonheimer segued into being a writers assistant on Brother’s Keeper and Stark Raving Mad before finally landing a story editor gig on Yes, Dear. That led to a staff writing slot on Will + Grace, followed by How I Met Your Mother, penning popular episodes like Lucky Penny and Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap. Rhonheimer notes that seeing the script changes every day and understanding how production works is vital if you want to write TV. “Anybody that I ever talk to who’s thinking about a career as a TV writer, I advise them to try and get a PA job on the kind of show that they want to write on. That’s absolutely, positively the best path that there is.”


PART 2: THE REPS

FORGET WHAT YOU THINK YOU KNOW

So there you have three tried and true paths to breaking in to TV. Are there others? You bet! But they’re largely representative-dependent. So for that let’s turn to our panel. The first thing you should know is: forget everything you’ve been told.

Mike Goldberg
Let’s take a look at the old paradigm: to break in to TV, you need some great spec episodes of popular, current shows. If one could reclaim the paper wasted on Seinfeld specs back in the ‘90s, one could likely replant the rainforest. Armed with your sample episodes, you then query TV agents and managers, submit your scripts to contests and hope that someone sparks to your writing and calls you in. Well, guess what? The spec episode may be going the way of the dodo. “The biggest thing is having a piece of original material that’s just outstanding,” says UTA’s Phillips. “Spec (episodes) used to be the way to get on the hot new comedy show of the year. Over the last few years, more and more executives and showrunners want to read something original, and the vast majority of the time don’t want to read anything that’s a spec episode.”

New Wave Entertainment manager Mike Goldberg reminds us that there are many problems with spec episodes versus original samples. “The first is that you write the sample, and the show gets cancelled. Then you wrote the sample for nothing. The second risk you run is that you write this spec episode, and the executive (you’re submitting to) has never watched the show. The third situation you can run into is that you write a spec episode of something like House and they’ve already read 4,000 spec episodes, so they don’t care anymore. And the last issue is that you just did a bad job because you thought you understood the show and you didn’t.” Goldberg recommends his clients have original pilots because they serve two purposes: “The first is, it’s a writing sample, and while it may not be picked up as a new pilot, let’s say you wrote something that’s very elevated sci-fi, it could be a good sample for getting staffed on a show like Fringe. And then, the other up side to doing an original pilot is that that pilot itself could lead to selling and becoming a show on its own.” 

A.B. Fischer
Fischer feels aspiring TV writers should have a great spec and a great original sample. “Original material, whether it’s a pilot, a play, a one-act, even a short story showcasing your original voice, is the one thing that’s going to set you apart when there are a million baby writers trying to get into the TV business. Showing that you have an original voice that stands out from the crowd makes all the difference.” Fischer cautions that some showrunners only want to read specs, “so you still need to have a great spec in your portfolio.” And the original material is crucial for consideration on any of the prestige cable series. “It’ll be harder to get a job on Dexter or Boardwalk Empire without having a great piece of original material. You really need (to) showcase your voice to get on one of those shows.” Phillips adds, “Whether it’s short story, plays -- which can be tremendously valuable -- or a DVD of shorts you made for Funny or Die, all of that serves people. If you’re coming out of the blue, and you’re not working on a show, and you haven’t been the executive producer’s assistant for three years or the network executive’s niece, original material is the quickest way to get noticed.”

Wow. A short film or a play worth more than a spec episode? Believe it. But wait -- it gets better. We all know that on the features side, it is well-nigh impossible for a “baby writer” to sell a pitch. But in TV – no problema! “We’re finding right now that television is kind of counterintuitive to film,” says Goldberg. “In film, very rarely will they buy a pitch from a young writer -- they want a script. In TV, it seems to be the opposite -- they’d much rather buy a pitch than a script.” Believe it, folks! Goldberg says this is because unlike film, network executives want to be hands-on in sculpting the script. “If there’s already a script written, it gives them a million different reasons to pass. But if it’s a pitch, and it’s a concept that they dig, and they feel that they’ve invested blood, sweat, tears, in developing it, it makes them a lot more likely to engage, and it makes them a little bit more likely to actually go to pilot.” New Wave has recently had quite a bit of luck setting up TV pitches from unknown writers. “We’re pairing our young writers up with young television producers who have set up some shows, who have sold some pilots, or preferably have an overall deal with a studio. Then we have the writer develop a pitch, like a 10 to 20-page “pitchment” as we call them, with the young producer. And then the young producer takes it to the studio, gets the studio execs involved, and if they like it, then they’ll do a deal, and then they’ll bring it to the network.”


GIMME SOME SUGAR, BABY

Obviously, one would have to attract the attention of industry reps to get in on this action. That’s where once again your connex, combined with no small amount of talent, will be critical. But it’s worthwhile to note that baby writers break in all the time. It’s not unusual for a show to staff a newbie off of an original sample only, bypassing the long slog up through the ranks so many TV writers undergo. Phillips says, “I’ve gotten people jobs over the last couple of months -- in one case, a guy who flew out (to Los Angeles) on Tuesday, got a job and was at work the following day. He had no connection to the show. He was a playwright in New York. With the right piece of material, you can get jobs out of nowhere.”

And as alluded to above, it’s even possible to score work in TV without having a single TV sample! “Says Goldberg, “We had a couple of writers just this past pitching season that we had out pitching shows that only had feature samples.” Seriously, using a feature sample for TV? “For development, they’re absolutely of value, but for staffing much less so,” says Phillips. “Every now and then, the HBOs and the Showtimes and the fancier places, we can use those. But a pilot or a play is much preferable. When people are holding something that’s 60 pages versus 120 pages, the 60-page one gets read first. That’s why the short story or the little DVD reel to go along with something -- if I like that, then I will read the bigger sample.”

***

TV or not TV? Remember, much more so than features, TV is a writer’s medium. “When you talk about the power to control what you do,” says Goldberg, “and to really be in control of your destiny as far as writing, it’s really much more TV than film that brings that.” Fischer concludes, “I think more and more people try to get into TV, because you don’t have to write a hundred and twenty page sample and sell it in order to get into it. Just my two bits.”


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