I had to get the 'Supernatural' guys in here somewhere. Can you spot them?
I write books and I write teleplays, and as I blog quite a bit about the novel side of writing, I thought it was time I delved into the script side of writing.
Well, actually that is a little bit of a lie. I asked a friend, who is an expert on the subject, if they would like to write a guest blog and they agreed.
Let me introduce Win Shields. I first met Win in February at the DFW Writers Convention. He is an amazing man with an amazing background. His career as a staff writer for Universal Studios has enabled him to work on every show imaginable including eighties favorites Charles in Charge and Murder She Wrote. He has also worked alongside some of televisions greatest actors such as Bill Cosby, Martin Sheen, Jack Klugman and Walter Matthau.
A producer and director of classic plays for television, Win now runs his own production company in Texas.
Enough said. Over to you, Win. Tell us how to write for Television.
Staff writing for television is a specialty craft that is not widely promoted. The main reason is because it is so lucrative a job, and one that is so hard to get, that there is little or no need to promote it.
Back in the 50s, Steve Allen said “In order to be a staff writer for television, you have to be either an Irish Catholic or an Eastern European Jew and you must live in Los Angeles or New York City.” That certainly sounds as if the industry was bigoted; however, there was a different reason for it.
Staff writing is a high paying job, so many people want to do it. It is also very demanding. Producers are very reluctant to hire anyone unless they are sure the person can and will do the job. The only way to be sure is to either know the writer extremely well or have them recommended by someone whose judgment is trusted. Going “door to door” with a resume or portfolio will do no good. If a writer is creative enough to do the job, they are capable of writing an imaginative resume. As for the portfolio, the questions that come up are:
- Did this person really write this?
- How long did it take the person to write this?
- How many people read this and suggested changes to this person?
A staff writer must be able to put out a complete show every week. While there are usually five writers on a staff, each writer must carry his/her own weight.
In the 50s most producers in the US were Irish Catholics or Eastern European Jews. They were not bigoted; however, writers who were members of these ethnic groups would see these producers at least once a week, often going to other events where they would see and be seen by these producers. When I started writing in the 70s, I found the secret to success was still to be in the right place at the right time.
While it is currently true that to get a job writing for a major production in the US, one must live in Los Angeles or New York City, there are people who have been working for the last couple of years to change that. It is my opinion they will succeed within the next year or so. This will give people who are interested in doing this kind of work sufficient time to get into a position to get the jobs.
Have you ever heard someone say “I wrote an episode for a TV series and when the episode came on, it was nothing like the script I sold them.” This is usually followed with “I’ll never write for them again.” Let me comment on the second statement first. If you want to make it as a writer for television, you need to adapt the philosophy that the only reason you would not write for a particular group again would be if their check bounced. People who write for television write for the money. If you want to write for any other purpose - television is not for you. As for the first statement. The people who changed the screenplay (don’t call it a script) are staff writers.
There are really way too many regulations and rules for writing for television for anyone but a full time professional to know and those regulations and rules (called net specs) change all the time. For instance, when I was writing for Universal Studios, one of the rules was if the show is going to be on ABC, you can’t mention Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell or Pizza Hut, because ABC belonged to Disney, and Disney had an exclusive contract with Coca Cola and those fast food chains belonged to Pepsi. Nowadays, many of those things are not true.
When a new staff writer is hired, they are assigned to a team, usually consisting of five writers. If you are one of those new writers be prepared for the team to give little or no weight to anything you say. It is best during your “apprentice” years to just keep your mouth shut and listen and learn. It doesn’t mean you won’t get to write. You’ll get to write a lot, but be prepared for anything you write to be “voted down.” The other four will give you suggestions but it will be up to you to figure out how to employ those suggestions. The first year or two will be frustrating but you will learn a lot. By the third year, there will be someone new in your group and it will amaze you that anyone could be as young and dumb as that person, even though they will be just as you were two years before.
As I said, there are people who are working to create work using the major studio staff writer system to provide product for the many growing cable channels. Once they start hiring, they will be looking for people who are creative, trained and have an established relationship with people who have credibility in judging talent and skills. Anyone interested in being a staff writer should start preparing now.
One of the problems is know how to get into the right position. Woody Allen said “Those who can’t write, teach and those who can’t teach, coach.” It is certainly true. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to take your money to teach/coach you to being a screenwriter. The problem is once they’ve taught/coached you, you’re on your own, which means you’re no closer to your goal then before you put out all that money.
Here’s a little known (or at least little thought about) secret. Those who could really help you don’t need your money. I’m not saying you should not pay to belong to a writers’ organization, writers’ workshop, or to attend writers’ conventions. These are very important ways to network and to meet those who can help you. Consider though, that those who teach at these workshops and conventions are rarely, if ever, paid for their teaching. That’s because these people, who can really help you, don’t do it for the money. They do it because they are creative people who want to help other creative people realize their dream.
You can find Win at Win Shields Productions.
Are you a screen writer? Do you work for a studio or television company? What are your experiences?
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