Thursday, June 24, 2010

Breaking In & Moving Up: Writing For Television Panel

So last night I attended an entertainment panel put on by the University of Michigan (seemed a tad random to me, but then again I don't know much about the school). The panel had a lot of interesting things to say so I thought I'd share on here. I tried my best to transcribe with accuracy, and paraphrased a bit where necessary...overall, I think it is pretty authentic. Enjoy!

Scott Rosenbaum - Executive Producer of "V" and "Chuck"
Bill Prady - Executive Producer of "The Big Bang Theory"
Dennis Kim - Senior Literary Agent at Rothman Brecher Agency
Brad Holeman - Director Creative Affairs at Fox21
Alessia Costantini - Staff Writer on "Scrubs"

Do you recommend screenwriting courses?

Scott: Screenwriting courses are a good way to learn the format, but I myself never took many. Maybe like 2 during college. My best recommendation is that you read as many scripts as you can. I had an agent friend who would send me scripts which helped me in the learning process a lot.

Bill: The most important thing is that first and foremost you have a good story to tell and are a good storyteller. If those things aren't in place then classes probably aren't going to be able to help you.

Brad: Read material and watch movies to figure out what does and doesn't work. This is how I learned. I watch television everyday.

Alessia: I actually like classes for structure and it is a great way to meet other writers. Also if you are the kind of person who needs to be under deadlines, classes are definitely helpful.

Bill: In every writer's room the slang will be different. Executive Producers and writers will make up words. For example, a clam is what we will call an over-used/bad joke.

Alessia: Yeah, we use "clam" as well. We actually have a clam stuffed animal that we'll throw at people!

Scott: You need to have an innate talent for storytelling, but you don't have to know how to wield that ability right away. Sometimes you need a mentor or someone to cultivate adn teach you how to use your talent. This is what a class might be good for.

Bill: If the writing is good, then format isn't so much of an issue.

Scott: How we work in our writer's room is to first figure out what the character's arc is going to be and then we work backwards to find just the right story to bring this out.

Bill: The process of telling stories is to be able to draw from our own experiences. So you need to have life experiences to be able to write. Entertainmetn is an artistic endeavor and people often get lost in the process, forgetting to focus on the story.

Scott: I had to read over 400 scripts to staff "V". He's what I look for. I don't expect everyone to be good at everything. But you have to have a voice and that should should in the material you write. And if your particular voice is what I'm needing on the show, I'll hire you. On "The Shield", each writer kind of had a character that they could relate to emotionally and psychologically. So its so important that you have a voice and viewpoint that is different than the other writers in the room. Always ask yourself - why are we writing this episode? And from there the theme will emerge. If the script has a unique voice, it will stand out.

Can you describe the hierarchy in the writer's room?

Dennis: Well you have your Executive Producer on top, from there down it goes Co-Exec Producer --> Supervising Producer --> Producer --> Co-Producer --> Story Editor --> Staff Writer --> Writer's Assistants. Staff writers make WGA scale, about 3500/week. Story Editors make about 5000/week. And above Story Editor you can negotiate feeds. It differs between cable and network TV. With Staff writers, writing a script is included in the weekly fee, but for Story Editors and above you get additional compensation for writing a script.

How has the television business changed over the years?

Brad: Cable. It was a struggle to bring writers over because it wasn't sexy to work in cable. But there is a lot of freedom with cable that you don't get with network television. You can show and do anything you want in cable. Which is great because writers can really have the opportunity to show their voice.

How do you take/get feedback and hone your craft?

Scott: Every showrunner is different, and its rare to find someone who wants to be a teacher. I was lucky to have one. But watching and reading can show you what's getting people jobs. The more you read good writing, the more it bleeds off onto you.

Bill: To succeed in telelvision you need to be able to explain why a scene worked or didn't work. Because at some point someone will ask you to do that. If you can't, you will get replaced. Execs are always terrified of losing money so you gotta know something is gonna work. Always watch television with a critical eye.

Can you describe the types of writing samples that come to you?

Bill: There are two kinds of writing samples: specs of shows already on the air and original material. Somebody wrote a spec of a show as if it got to the 30th season and the concept was really original and interesting to read because it was different. Good writing is effortless to read. If you have writing that people aren't finishing, that's a problem!

Can you describe teh politics of a writer's room?

Alessia: I learned a lot as a writer's assistant. To be successful you have to LISTEN. Don't think about your pitch while someone else is talking, listen to them. It will make you better in the long run.

Bill: There is a hierarchy--especially with who can say "this isn't working." The Executive Producer is one of those people and he has a few people he can trust that are allowed to speak up as well. If you aren't one of those guys, just wait patiently and be prepared to help when someone brings up the problem. If you are a low level staff writer than you better not bring it up unless you have a completely fabulous fix for the issue. Writers rooms are raw and very personal. You require beyond thick skin to work there. People think your job is glamorous, but really, it's not. You are stuck in a room for hours upon hours that smells of Indian take out with people who haven't showered in days. So you gotta love it.

Scott: My rule of thumb is that you should never say you don't like an idea or that something isn't working if you don't have a solution. Television writing is a collaborative effort and so you need to help fix the problem. Say "here's what I want to change to ____, and here's why." It's hard being in a writer's room because there are always going to be people who are smarter than you and you want your joke or line to make it into the episode. Some people aren't good at speaking up in the moment, so go home and write your ideas down so you can be prepared--if that's you. But just make sure you are always bringing new ideas to the table.

Bill: Yeah, you really have to understand why things work or don't work. I recommend watching something that doesn't work and then coming up with a fix. This is actually great practice. How much more compelling would Titanic have been if she wasn't already turned off to her fiance before boarding the Titanic?" Something like that. Just know how to fix problems.

Alessia: I was so scared to speak up my first couple weeks as a staff writer. I started going home and writing down my ideas so I'd know just what to say when I got to work and wouldn't feel choked up!

Any last words of advice?

Scott: There are some good DVD commentaries from EP's and why they made the creative choices that they did, I recommend watching those.

Also, know that you can't control a lot in Hollywood. But you can control how hard you work. Be the hardest working person in the room and it will pay off. Work your ass off.

Bill: Spend less time being jealous of others' success, it will kill you everyday. There is always gonna be someone that you think doesn't deserve the job they have (that you would do the job so much better), but it doesn't do you any good dwelling on it. Also, keep in mind that there are three stages: Writing, Not Writing, and Pretending to Write. We all pretend to advance our careers, by saying things like "I'm not gonna write til I install the latest version of Final Draft" (Pretending to Write). So just recognize the difference between those states of being and if you find yourself pretending to write, just stop. Choose to NOT write and watch TV. This is better for you in the long run.

Brad: Always be a student. The worst writers are those who want to skip everything and aren't hard working at the bottom. Find mentors to watch.

Alessia: TV writing is collaborative--so many different types of people that are better than you and smarter and funnier. If you just like your own material, then you won't be successful in this business. The whole process is exhilarating and its cool when someone pitches a better joke for your episode. This has to be something you enjoy and can live with. Also, just be yourself. There is a reason you were chosen for that writing team. Don't try to be anyone but you.