Be prepared.  This is a longer post than I usually write.  I got carried away. Apologies. Maybe because it’s back to school time that these first few paragraphs may seem like a classroom lesson, but if you keep reading I promise it gets better.  I suggest you pack a lunch or read it in sections; stretch first we’ll be awhile.  Okay, ready?  Ahem… Stories give a narrative account of events either real or imagined. Those events involve characters. The characters the audience relates to are the heroes we root for. We want them to win. We are invested in their character arc as they journey from one place to another, learning something, transforming internally and improving their lot in life along the way. It is understood in most stories that after trial and tribulation the main character chalks up a win. This is similar to the way Americans believe in success. That if you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you don’t give up, you will eventually get what you want. It’s America’s Promise which can be summed in the equation

Talent + Hard Work = Success.

In screenwriting, heroes’ arcs go up because of good behavior and after several losses they end winning what is most important to their journey. In a negative character arc, the anti-hero’s journey is the result of bad behavior and choices that hurt others and eventually themselves because they end losing either their life or what is most important to their journey.

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I had a meeting this past week for staffing. Yes, yes good for me in the general sense, but after over a decade I’m still staff level so what the fuck happened to my career? But I digress. My manager informed me she was going to NYC for upfronts again. Really? Is it May already? I had forgotten all about upfronts. A reminder for anyone else who has forgotten, television upfronts are the yearly to-do networks make showcasing their new and returning fall programming to advertisers hoping to get them to throw their commercial bucks their way. It’s a crap shoot, after all who knows how the fickle television audience will commit their viewing time. Back in the day – say 2010, this was the biggest fucking deal. There were gala events with top billed actors and balloons and champagne to woo the buyers. Pilots were picked up to series with an eight to ten episode commitment. Writers rooms were opened and the frenzy to get staffed was chaotic and electric.

Not so much now. Oh, there is still chaos and frenzy, but the electricity has given over to apathy. After all, network and basic cable viewership has been in a steady decline since DVR, VOD and streaming options have increased. An argument can even be made that devices have made the TV itself as an appliance obsolete (gasp!)

See, when network TV was the only game in town programs were “appointment viewing.” Audiences scheduled their activities on the coach for the Thursday night NBC line-up of Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace and Law & Order and the TGIF family sitcom juggernaut on ABC.  This may explain why Will & Grace is coming back and why the TGIF line-up was similarly updated (Fuller House and Girl Meets World.  Really? Yes, really.)

Pay cable’s frequent multiple repeats, changed the game. The Sopranos? – Fageddaboudit. That’s appointment viewing in the millennium – watch once, then tune in three hours later and five more times during the week in case you missed something. The habit passed on to basic cable with Sunday nights on AMC. Mad Men was written into appointment books, and don’t lie, I know it’s not just me.

Networks couldn’t keep up. Pay cable and web streaming don’t really do the advertiser thing. In today’s terms, the binge is the thing. I admit guilt but no shame in watching eight hours of Orange is the New Black on my iPad while flying and changing planes then capping it off with another three hours of Game of Thrones on my phone. On. My. Phone. Thank you, HBO Go.

Okay, Gayle, what does that have to do with upfronts for the emerging screenwriter, you ask? Well, advertisers are spending their money differently on TV, to include streaming and watching across multiple devices. So that means networks are ordering fewer episodes per season. The original twelve order with a back nine at mid-season is a dinosaur. Fewer episodes means fewer writers. Fewer writers means less money to hire down the list. That means the staff writer is an after thought. Not good for us.

As emerging writers in television we must be aware of how drastically the game has changed. We can no longer rely on our representation to get meetings with show runners unless a) our representation represents the showrunner or b) we are the contact to the showrunner. Most staff writers are people they already know. That’s part of the package.

I know, I hadn’t expected this to turn so dark, but that is our reality. Emerging TV writers – network, network, network. The more people who know who you are and what you do, the better chance to get the meeting in today’s year-round TV cycle.

It is a Golden Age of Television. That means more opportunities, but those opportunities are not coming to us, we must create our own. Network and basic cable upfronts are a very nice week of parties and enthusiasm for those involved, but for those of us still seeking a way into the room they really do not matter. Not a lick. Write a great pilot. And a back-up great pilot. Then get it to someone who knows a showrunner-level writer. That is the best (and unfortunately may be the only) way to score that staff writer job.

 

I started this blog to help emerging screen and TV writers survive the day job, general meetings and life shit that happens on the way to success.  So you’re a writing a TV pilot, I assume you know what to do.  If not, there are a gazillion analysts to help writers write.  Here is one I highly recommend – Michael Tucker and his Lessons From The Screenplay on You Tube are definitely worth a subscription and a donation via Patreon.

 

My little friend Dave–  is a producer on a network television series. Dave is smart and confident and has earned every break he ever got on his own – with some assistance from the nimble telephone skills of a well-connected agent, but he’s an outstanding writer who is fantastic in the room.    Now he’s in escrow on his first house –  in the Hollywood Hills, and just bought a new BMW.  All well deserved.  Not to mention his most recent girlfriend was a television actress on a long-running cable series that ended a few seasons ago.  Dave— is living the life and I couldn’t be happier for him.  No, truly.  No shade, not hate, just happiness that someone who put in the work, got something back. That is the ideal TV writing relationship.  You give a little, you get a lot.  You and your beloved walking hand in hand down the garden path.  All is love.  When it’s good, it’s Jess and Nick in a cooler on New Girl.  Oh, but when it’s bad… Carrie cheats on Aidan then doesn’t marry him when he takes her back.  WTF Sex & the City?

A bad relationship involves more than the simple act of lying.  It’s Game of Thrones-style abuse, treachery and betrayal to the core of your marrow.   And a good cry doesn’t wash the pain away.

Television writing is my bad relationship.  For my little friend Dave– he watched some episodes, read some scripts and liked what he saw.  He took it out a few times and discovered it liked him back.  So began their romance.  One meeting led to another. Then meeting the show runner for a staff position which is sort of like meeting the parents.  Can this person sit down to dinner with us every week?  If the answer is yes, sweet– you’re in. If not, then it’s time to break up.  After a few tries, you find the right show, or make the right connection.  And someone pops the question:  Will you write for us?  The ring of the telephone call from your agent with the offer is better than a diamond.

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Crystal Fish is the script supervisor for my next short film. She is a lovely, intelligent, highly focused young woman with a strange obsession. I mean that literally. For her Thanksgiving holiday Crystal has forsaken family obligations of pumpkin pie and unboxing winter clothes. Instead she is binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things  on a continuous loop.

Netflix has officially overtaken HBO as my go-to channel. Yes, it is a strange new world when the home of Game of Thrones, Veep and John Oliver is no longer the first button I push when I can’t sleep at three o’clock in the morning, but there it is. The reason is Crystal’s humbling little show called Stranger Things. I have written about the joys of binge watching and how easy it is these days over all devices, but this. I bow to the clever writing. I quiver at the way the underlying adult psychodrama captivates me while I’m watching a story starring children. Stranger Things is about the search for a missing 12-year-old boy who disappears under the watchful eye of a government research facility in a small Midwestern town. The boy’s family and friends team up to find him and discover mysterious and supernatural freaky happenings at the government facility. This nostalgic series set in the 1980s uses child protagonists as stand-ins for the grown up target audience whose own adolescence was during that era.

The cast is stellar from newcomers like Millie Bobby Brown as an escapee from the facility with Carrie-like telekinetic powers to 1980s OG Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s mother. thThe spookiness reminds me of The X-files while the pre-teen adventure/mystery is not unlike The Goonies. What a combination. This is not your teenager’s binge. The science fiction show is all grown up and ready to rumble. Each episode layers in the idea of fear and trust and government shenanigans (sound familiar) and pulls you deeper into the strange conspiracy and its literal monster. It’s not scary like a horror, but grounded in a realism that makes sense in our changing and uncertain world of unknown dangers.  The web is abuzz with all kinds of theories and prognostications for season 2.  Emerging writers please note: when forty-something fanboys and girls actually cut their workout time in half to argue with strangers online over whether a badass preteen bald girl with telekinetic powers will destroy your fictional town in  Indiana, you know you have a hit.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016. I had come home at about 8 pm and when I walked in the door I found at least two dozen dead fruit flies on the floor below my front window. The window was open, but there is no hole in the screen. So where did the flies come from and why are they dead?  It was seriously some American Horror Story A+ level freaky shit.  I was so focused on that I forgot to even turn the television on.  After I triple bleached and disinfected my home, I took a nuclear grade Silkwood shower to bleach and disinfect myself.  Finally, I had calmed down enough to settle into the last moments of prime time.  Turning on the TV I saw one of my new favorite actors, Rami Malek from Mr. Robot making an acceptance speech and I realized this is the Emmys, and it was almost over.  Oops.  I missed it.  Then I thought, “What else is on?”  As a viewer, fair enough, but as an emerging television writer, to not care about the TV industry’s big do is so wrong, right?

TV by the numbers cites the viewership for the 68th annual prime time Emmy Awards at 11.3 million.  Down from last year’s 11.7 million and a far cry from 2013’s 17.6 million (I think host  Neil Patrick Harris had a lot to do with that one).  So I am not the only viewer with my finger on the remote.  The reasons are way too obvi – #1 Football.  Who cares about rich celebrities and talented creative types in fancy dress when the Packers are playing the Vikings?  #2 It’s the Emmys.  The night where the TV academy salutes its brightest shiny objects while the rest of us stretch out on the sofa contemplating returning to our underpaid, overworked jobs.  It has no value for a viewer not invested in the nominees.  Sure, we love Julia Louis-Dreyfus and are happy to see her win (again) for HBO’s fabulous and funny VEEP but she is not really the President and cannot really improve our lot in life with a witty and heartfelt acceptance speech.  The “celebrities, they have families just like us” trope doesn’t cut it when you have to fight with the unemployment office for your check.

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tv-627876_1280Welcome to the digital revolution. Yeah, I know we have been in the digital revolution for some time. Cable and satellite TV have been overthrown by the likes of Roku and AppleTV. Only half of the people I know still have a land line telephone. You know you’re old when your child refuses to believe telephones use to have wires that plugged into the wall. “That’s what those plugs are for, baby.” But the major gut busting change is streaming movies and television shows on all of your devices: TV, computer, tablet, mobile… Think of it. No longer do we have to rush home for appointment viewing. We can watch the latest Game of Thrones episode in line at the DMV. In America, our forefathers and mothers fought world wars and domestic terror for the right to vote for our elected representatives, to marry the person of our choice, and to skip commercials. No, I’m not crying, I just have something in my eye. Read More →

happy-1085352_1920Lili Loofbourow’s review of the HBO comedy Vice Principals in The Week brings up a point emerging screenwriters need to think about.  Assholes.  Anti-heroes are commonly without valor.  The skilled writer/actor/director combo is able to give this branded a-hole enough rope to re-brand and bring the audience around.  Think Walter White, Dexter Morgan or Tony Soprano.  Even if your character dies at the end, the audience tuned in each week for the next installment of motherfuckery. For a comedy there’s less death, but more public shaming like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.  We secretly admire Sue Sylvester’s fearless cruelty in Glee, but she can’t be the lead.  No, for a lead to be an asshole it’s definitively a 10 in degree of difficulty. So should it be attempted by someone new to the game?

A-holes are anti-heroes, but all anti-heroes are not a-holes.  We watch characters who are awful people because they are interesting.  The anti-hero is someone who has a huge learning curve from rotten to saved by love or rotten to dead.  Interesting story and good acting will sell that every time.  A character with no redeeming moral or social value has nowhere to go.

With its casual racism, misogyny, and mean-spiritedness I would normally not give Vice Principals the time of day.  But the polarizing effect of these two major fucking douchebags makes me think there is a big takeaway for writers.  The premise is two high school vice principals are put out when neither of them is promoted to the job of principal in favor of a thoroughly qualified outsider.  Nice enough, right?  But when you throw in the specifics: They are in South Carolina and the outsider from Pennsylvania (Philadelphia); they are men and she is a woman; they are white and she is black; they are er– educated enough and she has a doctorate.  Enough for  comedy gold, but in the first few episodes these writers take the easy swings with offensive and insulting stereotypes… and whiff.

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I say luck is when an opportunity comes along and you’re prepared for it.

Denzel Washingtondenzel
My beloved Denzel has it right.  Luck is being ready when the door opens.  So what’s the problem?  Get ready.

St. Patrick’s Day. A day not of preparedness, but of slacking off.  Ah, Saint Patrick, the patron saint of the pub crawl. Bless.  He is honored, not only for his work with the Irish (he’s really big over there) but with the lucky.  The many who don’t need to find a four-leaf clover to have magic happen in their lives.  How does an emerging screenwriter without two nickels to rub together manage to get lucky and have their work read, get a meeting or find a job?  Put the beer down and let’s figure out this luck thing.

 

But Gayle, how can I be lucky?  Great question, little leprechaun.  The answer is you don’t have to be lucky.  You just have to be ready.  After you have written the script.  And rewritten it.  And received notes.  And done another rewrite.  Then let it sit for a while before you did the polish.  Whew, now you think the script is ready to send?  The next step is to make a list of places you want to send it to.  Simple.  Features are bought year round.  Target producers, agents, managers, talent, financiers, anyone and everyone you can think of who may be interested in reading your work.  You have the passion, you have the drive — if you can’t do it, no one can.  Start with a list.  Step 1:  Screenplay.  Step 2: List.  That’s enough for now.

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Ah, Spring.  Warm weather, blooming flowers, shooting TV pilots – it’s meeting season.  For emerging screenwriters, the first step to getting staffed in any pilot season means having a series of generals.

A “general” is a general meeting, also called a “meet and greet.”  They happen as a way for a writer to meet someone who is in a position to support their work somewhere down the line either at the studio, network or production company level.  You need to meet as many industry people as you can to get your name out there.  The more current and development executives willing to give a shout for you the better chance of getting read up the ladder.  That’s a good thing as long as your palms don’t sweat, your tongue doesn’t tie and you can hide your irritation that you are not meeting with Vince Gilligan.

I think it’s written somewhere, probably on a bench on Hollywood Blvd., the main rule to follow in meetings: don’t sound desperate.  That’s a note I received during last year’s staffing season.  “Dial down the desperation,” was the exact feedback.  Whatever — go scratch. Not in the ten plus years of generals had I ever gotten that note. Never. My chronic frustration can come off angry at still being a caterpillar and not the butterfly I see myself as.  This was mentioned in one of my Diversity Program meeting prep sessions.  And a former agent of mine said I came across as “entitled.” Fair enough, I’ll cop to that.  Still– ouch.  But desperate just ain’t my scene, man.

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