Thursday, November 29, 2012

Coverage Ink/Writers on the Storm Newsletter 12/12

December 2012


1. I Hate Contests.
2. Shorties - News, Tidbits and Disinformation for Writers
3. Kick It With Kickstarter
4. Agent's Hot Sheet: How to Really Break In To TV


How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways:
  • Losing. It makes you feel worthless as a writer. The fact that you were probably eliminated by some college student hired off Craigslist making $7 a script, who only read the first five pages, is little consolation.
  • The quality of the readers. See above.
  • The amazing disappearing entry fee. You pay your 50 bucks or whatever, and often that's the last you ever hear.
  • And when you do get feedback, it's often pretty worthless.
  • There are too many of them, and only a very few have any juice at all. The vast majority, it's, hey, you won! Congrats! Nobody cares.
  • Multiple deadlines and extensions. Just when you think you've gotten your script in under the wire, they announce an additional month.
Ho freakin' ho ho.
I'll stop there, but I think you get my drift. So now you're expecting me to say that none of these things exist in OUR contest, right? Well, sort of but not quite.

My original concept for Writers on the Storm was that it would be a nontest -- in other words, all the irritating things I just mentioned about contests, we wouldn't do. But as we quickly discovered, being truly unique was easier said than done. Readers: that was easy. We use the same tested and proven team of industry readers for the contest we use to evaluate and develop scripts for Coverage Ink. We made the mistake a few years back of augmenting with a few non-CI readers. Never again... Our readers make a fair wage and have to read the entire script. I know of some contest readers who rip through 5, 6, even 7 scripts in an hour, making serious $$$ by doing so. Yeah, not here. (Sorry, readers!)

Losing still sucks, no question, but we try to mollify the blow with education and TLC. If we can explain in the feedback why the script didn't advance, then maybe the writer won't feel so much wounded as empowered to get in there and do a little surgery. It's just a short feedback form so there's only so much we can do, but I've heard from lots of folks they really appreciated the commentary -- often it's the first time they've received constructive, professional criticism. Cool. Of course, we've screwed the pooch a few times too. A few years back I discovered we had a reader who was cutting and pasting almost exactly the same vague, meaningless three sentences onto every feedback form. That person was sacked, but not before the damage was done. She's now working for another coverage company...

As for the proliferation of contests, oy. When I started WOTS there were too damn many... now there's three times that amount. And there are still only a small handful worth your money --Tracking B, Scriptapalooza, Script Pipeline, Nicholl Fellowship, and of course Writers on the Storm. These contests have all shown consistent results and industry juice.

Now here's where we are guilty, no question: deadlines. See, for our first year I tried my noble experiment: we had ONE deadline and only one, and that was it. No extensions, no late entry period, no sliding scale entry fees -- every entry was the same low price. We let everyone know in advance that the deadline was the deadline. And we got killed. Maybe it's that writers expect there will be an extension regardless of what the company says. Maybe it's the perceived urgency of an extension propels more people to submit. Whatever the reason, we quickly realized we had to implement staggered deadlines as a matter of survival. Like everyone else. I rationalized that it's no so bad so long as you make everyone aware of it -- not "Surprise! The real deadline is 6 weeks from now. Thanks for spending the last 72 hours straight cramming to finish your script and get it in under the wire to save $5."

So now we tell everyone in advance what the early, regular, and late deadlines are. In addition, Without A Box demands a WAB-only extension period, so we tack that on at the end.

Finally, communication. I remember a contest once where I only found out I had made the top ten because I web-searched my name and found the listing on the contest website many months later. Anyway, this is an area we're trying to do better in. We try to make sure every entry gets an acknowledgement, and at the end everyone does get their feedback. Beyond that we have constant updates on our websites, our facebook page ( and right here on our blog. And if you email us at, either lovely Julie or myself will get back to you.

I still think contests suck. But we're trying to reduce the pain and swelling. Write us and let us know how we're doing!

Jim Cirile
founder, Coverage Ink
Writers on the Storm

Continue to Shorties

Shorties 12-12

WINGING IT. Man, we love sharing awesome news. In November, Writers on the Storm IV runner-up Jeremy Shipp -- whom we had previously gotten signed at UTA, and who is now working on the ABC comedy Family Tools -- set up his original animation project Nightglider. Wind Dancer Films and Brown Bag Films are teaming to produce the flying squirrel comedy, with a projected release in 2015. It will be the first animated project for both companies. To say this talented young man is on a roll is the understatement of the year! Jeremy's WWII magic-themed action/adventure script Sleight of Hand caught UTA agent Emerson Davis' eye and got him into the bigs. Since then he's worked on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and ABC's mid-season replacement Family Tools. We can't wait to see what his new contemporary action/thriller spec does when it hits the market next year. Go, Jeremy!

Yeah, they have reason to smile.
SIGNED. Yahoooo! Last year's winners of Writers on the Storm, Glenn Sanders and Brooks Elms, have also signed with UTA. The insanely gifted writing duo kicked our butts with their hilarious period comedy Wright or Wrong, a deliciously daft revisionist take on the Wright Bros. making things even more absurdly cool, they've signed with none other than red-hot agent Charlie Ferraro, who has sold six, count 'em, six specs so far this year (only WME's Mike Esola has sold more with seven.) Now they're readying a new comedy spec and getting meetings with movers and shakers. Nice! You know, it's easy to get frustrated with Hollywood. But when guys like Elms and Sanders and Shipp can break in -- cool guys with real chops -- it buoys our spirits. Occasionally, the town really can reward hard work and merit. Bravo, gentlemen! We expect nothing short of serious badassery from you.

FIRST PUT THE MASK ON YOURSELF, THEN THE CAT. Our pals at Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! have a new event coming up this January. We're going to be there and so should you! It's called SAVE THE CAT!® MAKES A SALE -- PRACTICAL LESSONS FROM WORKING SCREENWRITERS, and it's going to be Saturday, January 26, 2013 9:00 am - 5:00 pm at the Burbank Marriott. In addition to covering a massive amount of material to quickly whip your scripts into shape (we're all STC! evangelists here at Coverage Ink,) they're bringing in four working screenwriters to discuss how they  use the STC! principles: Dean De Bois (How To Train Your Dragon 2), Jeremy Garelick (The Break-Up), Caleb Wilson (Four Christmases) and Jon Davis (The Dukes of Hazzard.) These things always sell out, so reserve your slot today. And if you're wondering what the big deal is with Save the Cat!, pick up a copy at any bookseller and behold the wonders of Blake Snyder's simple, foolproof, studio-mandated method. If you do not think this is important, you are sadly mistaken. I have had more than one producer meeting where they insisted on a Save the Cat!-style beat sheet.

DON'T SHOOT THE MESSINGER. More good news: our pal (and CI client) Bob Messinger's script The C.O., about the early days of the war in Iraq, has taken Best Script honors in the ENDAS International Screenplay Competition. The annual competition, headquartered in Genova, Italy, draws thousands of entries from around the globe. According to Messinger, The C.O. is different than most war dramas not only because it realistically depicts the horrors of modern urban warfare, but also because it dares to challenge the world community's political, religious and moral motivations for waging war. “I’m more proud of this script than any other I’ve done,” says Messinger, who has written multiple drafts of the story, one of which was a semi-finalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope screenplay competition in 2006. Messinger plans to use his €1000 prize either to prepare a trailer for The C.O. or to prepare a trailer for a new project he hopes to film himself by raising money through Kickstarter. Way to go, Bob!

WRITERS ON THE STORM QUARTERFINALISTS SO FAR. As many of you know, folks who submit scripts to for analysis during the contest period are automatically entered into Writers on the Storm at no extra charge. These folks (but not those who enter via find out in advance whether or not their screenplays have made it to the quarterfinals -- scripts that score "consider with reservations" or better for script -- historically about the top 10% -- automatically advance to the quarterfinal round. But this year, just days before our regular deadline, we have only six quarterfinalists to date -- way less than 10% of the scripts submitted for coverage. What's going on? Are our readers being supreme hard-asses? (Yes.) Or have a lot of folks been holding out on submitting until their scripts are polished and shiny? (Yes.)  Hopefully those numbers will correct as we get closer to the final deadline.

In any event, here are our spectacular, odds-defying Writers on the Storm quarterfinalists so far!
  • The Theory of Everything by Tim McSmythurs
  •  My Asshole Neighbor by Andrew Currie + Robert Comiak
  • The Galaxy's Littlest Prince by Joe Borriello
  • On the Edge by Patrick Hunt
  • Wormweed by John and Jessica Walker
  • Russian Roulette by Karl Schiffman
Can you join this small but mighty group? We'll see... get your script in now at or

INDIE FEST: LIBERATED. We are pleased as punch to tell you that Coverage Ink's new short film/pilot Liberator won the Award of Excellence from Indie Fest. We're just beginning our festival run, so Liberator will be coming to a film festival or Comic-Con near you. Next up: join us Thursday 12/6 at 4:30 PM at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. Or perhaps you would prefer Medellin, Colombia? Because we're screening there Dec. 8th at the Dark Mountain Film Festival. Sadly, we will not be in attendance for that one. Many more screenings to come, including a few big ones featuring key cast members such as Lou Ferrigno, Michael Dorn (Worf, son of Mogh) and Peta Wilson (La Femme Nikita) so please "like" us on Facebook and stay in the loop. If all goes well, we'll be bringing you a major Liberator announcement next month...

SPEC-TACULARITY. Usually this is the time of year when the spec market ramps down as we cruise into the holiday season and execs begin their long vacations to the Seychelles and Betty Ford. But there's life in the spec market yet, and three specs have been set up just last week. So far this year, 62 companies have been attached to specs that have sold (some with more than one project.) It's been a great year, and the market is still hungry. When the market sucks, it affects everything. People are less willing to read, writers' quotes take the hit which means agents and managers get grumpy... it's a vicious cycle of suckitude. So here's to a terrific 2012 -- and an even better 2013.

HOLY BAT-TASTROPHE! Warner Bros. has announced that an American legend, a true visionary, has signed on to direct the Batman reboot. Who could it be? Well, if you believe the snarky industry humor site The Studio Exec, none other than Mr. Soon-Yi himself.  Allen is reported to be considering "going back to what made the franchise great in the first place" and plans to announce casting of Adam West in the role of the caped crusader. In all semi-seriousness, this would be a pretty cool choice if it were real, which it is not. But the faux news stories on are well worth your time. Check it out!


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Continue to Kick It With Kickstarter

Kick It With Kickstarter

Seems like almost everyone I know has jumped on the crowdfunding bandwagon. There's Robert from Brooklyn who raised $3,000 to fund his spectacular annual free Halloween show; Brian the makeup effects artist who's soliciting funds for his post-apocalyptic horror free-for-all; and Jessica, who played Lou Ferrigno's daughter in LIBERATOR, looking for funds to launch her new 13-episode web series. And they're just the tip of the iceberg. I have one word for it: awesome!!!!

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGogo have indeed returned the power to the creators' hands. No longer is our messed-up corporate media the be-all and end-all for whether a movie gets made, a book gets published or a band gets their music out there. Hell yeah!

But word to the wise: these sites are not instant, free, easy money. They are amazing tools to be sure, and they can sometimes yield dramatic results. Hell, we raised almost $25K in finishing funds on Kickstarter for LIBERATOR. But the process is, frankly, a monumental pain in the ass. So if you're planning on crowdfunding to raise money for your project, go for it, but keep a few things in mind...

Our Kickstarter Liberator campaign main page.
The PBS model for rewards doesn't work. Sure, Public Broadcasting can give away a free light-up key chain with your $250 contribution. But on the crowdfunding sites that is not going to fly. Contributors expect something cool, unique and valuable in exchange for chipping in. A free DVD is fine with a $25 contribution, but for $100 you'd better give out a T-shirt, a cameo appearance, an original screen-used prop and a 45-minutes of Shiatsu from your second AD. Okay, maybe that's a bit over the top, but know this well: the better your rewards, the more likely it is that people will invest.

30 days doesn't cut it. Kickstarter recommends a 30-day campaign. They feel that people make snap decisions and thus a ticking clock works in your favor. I say: bull. It takes time to build momentum and followers.  As well, people are either going to contribute right now if they like your project; or they're going to watch and wait, and jump in at the end if they have to. Either way you've got 'em. Elect a 60-day campaign and use that time to spread the word and pimp the hell out of your project.

Plan on 30% of your intake going out the window. Yeah, this one really bites, but it's true: it costs money to print T-shirts, DVDs, stickers, and mail all that crap out. Kickstarter's take is about 10%. (Note that if you do not hit your goal, with Kickstarter you don't get a dime. With IndieGogo, you can collect whatever has been contributed, but for a higher fee than if you hit your goal -- around 14%.) In other words, if you need 10 grand, you'd best ask for 13.

Oh, did I mention that these funds are also considered taxable income?

There is no "Kickstarter community." Kickstarter says you need to create the most appealing sizzle reel you can in order to appeal to the Kickstarter community. While the first part is very true, this statement makes you think that there is a large group of individuals, perhaps bored at their 9 to 5s, who browse crowdfunding sites much like they do and eBay, looking for cool new projects to invest in. Yeah, not so much. I mean, there are a few, and they did indeed come in at the end and help us with LIBERATOR. But probably best not to expect this massive groundswell of support from people you don't know.

"Gray State" won big with their killer, FX-laden trailer and by appealing to activist groups.
YOU have to do all the work. This is the messed-up secret no one wants to divulge, but here it is. None of these sites do jack to help you, other than simply giving you space on their server. It's up to you to create the campaign and broadcast it. That means relentlessly hounding your friends (they love that) for contributions, tweeting, Facebooking, trying to get publicity however you can, and providing constant updates for contributors and potential investors. This, by the way, is inordinately time-consuming.

Social media is key. We hired a social media consultant because we had zero Twitter presence, and everyone says Twitter is the key to a successful campaign. So in the space of less than 3 weeks, Erika built us up from zero to over 500 Twitter followers. And some of them really became invested in the project, spreading the word for us. It really did start to snowball. But Erika spent a LOT of hours getting to know each of those people so that they became part of the family. If you have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers to start, you've got a leg up. If not, you'd best hire someone to help you, because otherwise you will not hit your goal. Which, by the way, means another chunk of dough off the top of your take.

Most of the money you raise will likely come from your friends and family, by the way. So why do we need these sites then? You don't, really. You can build your own fund-raising website if you are so inclined. Or just have a big potluck and make a nice speech and pass the hat.

Stack the deck in your favor. Browse through any crowd-funding site and you will see great campaigns, shitty ones and everything in between. Study the great ones, obviously. Check out their sizzle reels, how they present the material. Your stuff had better look slick and pro. Check out Gray State, above, for a great example.

Did I mention, by the way, how much time it takes to put together a slick, professional presentation for crowdfunding purposes? If you're starting to get the impression that crowdfunding is anything but easy, you're beginning to get my point.

One other thing: a LOT of projects out there have no name actors attached. This is because most of us assume we can't afford "real" actors. This is nonsense. You may not be able to afford Brad Pitt, but you may well be able to get a few folks who mean something to genre fans, like we did with LIBERATOR. Hell, you're raising money online anyway. Add in an extra 10 grand for talent. There is a big difference between how a project with no names is perceived versus one that has some. And getting them is easy. Make your list, then contact their agents and make an offer. Some may laugh in your face, but others may be interested. At that point it's up to your script to seal the deal. Make sure it rocks.

Now go kick(start) some ass!

Jim C.

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Continue to Agent's Hot Sheet: How to Really Break In to TV

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!



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!


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.


“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 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.”



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.”


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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