The rumors are true:
Television writing is where the MONEY IS.
For writers, television is the land of yogurt of honey. Or if you don’t like yogurt—just the honey. Seriously—no creative folk make more money than top-tier TV writers. What’s that you say? Leonardo DiCaprio got paid $20-million to appear in Shutter Island? Yeah, well, Larry David got paid $250-million for 1/3 of the DVD rights for Seinfeld.
Writing TV is where it’s at if you love writing, play well with others, can produce quickly—and want to get paid.
The problem is—everyone else knows this, too.
As well as the paychecks, the world of television offers writers something more. Unlike movies, where the directors and producers ultimately call the shots and get all the credit, in TV the writers are top bosses. Executive Producer on Lost? JJ Abrams. Deadwood? David Milch. Chuck? Josh Schwartz. So what did all these Exec Producers do? Raise the money? Oversee the creative team? Sleep with the CEO of Sony?
Nope. They’re writers.
In TV-land, writers have more power than directors, and literally steer their show through seasons as the head-writers of a writing STAFF. We call these top-tier writers SHOWRUNNERS, and that’s their job—they RUN the SHOW. Other than network execs, they report to no one but themselves.
So—how do you get there? How does a new writer steer his or her career toward these soaring plateaus?
Five years ago, I’d have given you a different answer. For years, it all started with two steps:
• STEP 1 – Write two or more SPEC scripts for your favorite, current television
• STEP 2 – Find someone who WRITES on one of those shows—and give them
After that, the lucky writers would be noticed for their talent, and spend years as a staff writer on one of these shows. When enough man-hours had been spent writing-by-committee, you’d be given written-by credit on your own episode, and eventually build up the credits necessary to make you a legitimate TV writer. THEN you could return to the networks with your own concept for a series, and PITCH it to them in the hopes that YOU will be hired on as the head writer of your very own show.
Many people STILL make their path through this process—and if that’s you, I ain’t knocking it. It’s a good path—a proven path. And if you can hit all those bars, you’re headed down the right road. Some writers also begin as WRITING ASSISTANTS, and work alongside staff writers until they are eventually bumped-up to writers themselves. That works too.
But with the advent of cable television and the MANY CHANNELS that must now fill up programming time, the process has changed. The doors are now open for writers OF ALL BACKGROUNDS to jump right to the finish line, and PITCH their own TV series without ever having worked as a staff writer on a show.
In fact—this process in encouraged. “New blood” is all the rage in TV programming, and studios are more and more likely to give new-ish writers a chance. Now, does that mean that just anyone can walk in off the street and pitch The Wire? No. Of course not. You need to have already proven yourself in film writing or some other area of the entertainment world, and you must have WRITING SAMPLES that prove you’re no hack. These days, the process goes like this:
• STEP 1 – Write at least (2) original TV pilots OR screenplays OR stage plays
that are fresh, brilliant, and totally unique. Gone are the days of
writing SPECS—these days, creative execs want to see what’s
DIFFERENT about your writing, not how well you mimic someone
• STEP 2 – Develop a PITCH for a new TV series. A pitch is an idea with a
fresh HOOK that can be delivered VERBALLY in 10-15 minutes. If
you’re shaking your head in confusion, go watch the The Player.
Your new show idea should be written FOR OUR TIMES, and be
SPECIFIC in it’s intended audience.
• STEP 3 – If you don’t have an agent or a manager, contact anyone you
know in television and let them know you have a pitch about X,
and ask them if they can connect you with a development exec or
production company. If you don’t know anyone working in
television, network over the internet, attend group-pitching
events, and go to film festivals. Just like SHIT—networking
• STEP 4 – Once you’ve made a connection with producers, ask them if they’d
like to hear your pitch. If they say NO—ask them if they’d be
willing to read your writing samples. When approached
respectfully, you’ll be surprised by how often production
companies are willing to forgo their own solicitation policies, and
will agree to read a script.
• STEP 5 – When someone has said "YES, we’d love to hear your PITCH"—
prepare for the meeting. PITCH your idea to anyone who will
listen to it. Really—anyone. In preparation for the exec, pitch to
your mom, pitch to Uncle Billy—pitch to the guy next to you on the
elevator. Each time you practice your pitch, it will improve—and
who knows? Maybe Uncle Billy served in the Navy with the
President of Universal.
• STEP 6 – PITCH YOUR SHOW! Make sure your pitch is short and DRAMATIC.
Restrict your pitch to discussion of the show, its characters, and
its episode arc—your job is NOT to play businessman, and you
should NEVER suggest the marketing possibilities or projected
earnings for your series. Avoid phrases like:
• "This is the best police show you’ve ever heard!"
• "This show is a PERFECT FIT for your company."
• "Based on the earnings of similar shows, you will make a FORTUNE
on this idea."
• "I promise you, deep down, this show will be a success."
No, no, no—and NO.
Each of these phrases make you look like an amateur, primarily because they are telling the producer how to do HIS job. No one knows if your show is a match for their company better than the producers who WORK THERE. Likewise, they know better than you (or like to think they do) how well-matched your show is to the market place.
Your job is to convince them of all these things by focusing on the STORY and CHARACTERS of your show idea. Make them BELIEVE it is a marketable, well-matched, totally profitable, one-of-a-kind idea by how well you describe your concept in the room.
After that, it’s out of your hands. If you get a YES—wonderful news! You move into the development process. If you get a NO—cut your losses, and start squirreling out a new company that you can pitch to.
But WAIT a minute! Are they really gonna let someone who’s never written for TV run their very own show?
Well—no. You may not need to spend years as a staff writer to sell a pitch for an original series, but based on your experience (or lack of experience) it’s likely that a proven SHOWRUNNER will be hired on as Executive Producer and head writer. A new writer who’s created his or her own show may be contractually relegated to a STAFF WRITER or ASSOCIATE PRODUCER position, and receive a fraction of the pay received by the showrunner.
Unfair? Yeah, maybe. But like so many things in the film and TV industry, you need to see your first pilot-sale as a big step forward to greener pastures ahead. If you sell a pilot, you’ve already beaten the odds. If you can sell one AGAIN, studio execs might get the idea that you really know something, and put you in charge of your own series.
So fight on, writers! There’s no one at the top of the food chain who didn’t start by taking classes, reading articles about the ‘biz, and dreaming about their unlikely successes. But they stayed at it, developed their skills, grew their contacts—and now look at them! Putting those movie star paychecks to SHAME...