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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Chad Gervich is a TV producer with a blog and now a book, SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, on how to break into TV. He's on a virtual author's tour of the blogosphere, so I threw him my dozen questions. He'll be answering them over the next few days here.

Crafty: What do development execs know that they wish aspiring screenwriters knew?

Gervich: I can only speak for writers and execs in the world of television, but I’m guessing there’s a film version of this answer as well, so movie folks—infer as you will.

I think many TV development execs wish more newbie writers had an understanding and appreciation of the medium. This is not at all to say that MOST writers don’t have an understanding or appreciation of the medium, but I can’t tell you how many wannabe TV writers I meet who haven’t the first clue about the industry they want to work in. This inexcusable a lack of understanding or appreciation often manifests itself in two ways.

ONE: Writers who don’t understand how television works differently from film. I don’t mean business-wise; I mean creatively. TV series tell their stories much differently than movies, novels, short stories, or plays… but I somehow still find myself meeting writers who don’t understand this.

For example: I once met with a writer who said, “I have a great idea for a TV show, but it’s only 30 episodes. It can’t be longer and it can’t be shorter… it’s exactly 30 episodes.” Well, unfortunately, this writer may have had a brilliant idea… but TV series (at least in America) don’t work on a finite number of episodes. Sure, other countries have produced successful telenovelas, but the form hasn’t taken off in the U.S., and here, successful TV series are designed to run into perpetuity.

There’s nothing wrong, creatively, with dreaming up telenovelas and limited series—and I am NOT saying this to discourage people from thinking outside the box—but I often hear young writers pitch ideas that don’t seem to illustrate a competent understanding of how TV stories work. The ideas themselves may be perfectly fine—outstanding, even—but they’re not TV ideas. They’re novel ideas or short stories or web ideas or SOMETHING… but not TV.

TWO: This is actually the bigger—and more common—offense, but you wouldn’t believe the number of writers I meet who simply don’t seem to respect the medium of television itself. I’ll ask writers what their favorite shows are, and they’ll say: “I don’t really watch TV. So much of it is bad. That’s why I want to do this show: to do something smart for once…”

Well, first of all—why would a writer expect a producer or exec to do business with someone who just spat upon the very industry they love and make their living in?! And second of all—why would that producer/exec want to work with a TV writer who has actually said they don’t watch or like television?! A law firm would never hire a wannabe lawyer who claims to have no respect for the law—or even an interest in studying it… so why is television any different?! (And again—this isn’t to say there’s not a lot of bad television… or that execs and producers aren’t hungry for writers who want to break rules… it’s just saying that producers and execs want people who are excited and passionate about the medium of TV.)

I’ve also met with writers—and to be fair, as a writer, I know I’ve been guilty of this—who are pitching, say, a cop drama, and I’ll ask: “Is it kind of like ‘NCIS?’” Or, “So, it’s like ‘CSI: Miami’ meets ‘Leverage?’” And they’ll say, “Huh—I’ve never seen those shows.” Or they’ll be pitching a reality dating show and I’ll say, “I like it—it’s like ‘Parental Control.’” And they’ll say—“Hm. I’ll have to check that out.” This is maddening… as a writer/producer, especially one trying to work in a particular genre, it’s your responsibility to know the landscape and the marketplace. You wouldn’t try selling a new kind of vacuum cleaner or baking pan without knowing what vacuums or baking pans are already out there… and TV is no different.

So to sum up: what execs know that they wish more writers knew… is how to articulate and verbalize an understanding or appreciation of TV itself.

Crafty: Do development execs expect queries by internet, or still by snail mail? Do people send in physical scripts, or will a PDF do?

Gervich: To be honest, I don’t know many development execs that accept unsolicited submissions at all. Most submissions come through agents, managers, lawyers, other executives, or friends. Having said this—submissions themselves come in all forms, regardless of who they come from. Some agents email PDF’s; others send hard copies. I’m not sure it really matters which… and in fact, different execs probably have different preferences. My old showrunner used to read all his scripts on email. Others like the feel of paper. Still others don’t want the hassle of having to print from an email.

If you’re submitting to someone, I think the smartest route is to simply ask which they prefer.

Crafty: Do queries ever work? If not, how do you get someone to read a script? Hang around the bar at the Ivy in tight pants? Get a job as a pool boy in Laurel Canyon? Work as a TSA inspector at LAX and slip a script into every bag as it goes past?

Gervich: I don’t think, in today’s world of television, that queries are effective. Most execs only read or accept scripts from people they know… usually agents, managers, lawyers, execs, or friends. This is why, if you don’t have representation, the best way to get your script into hands of producers or execs is to get out there and meet them yourself. Expand your network of industry friends and contacts! And the best way to do this?...

GET A JOB IN THE INDUSTRY.

If you want to be a TV writer, the job you’re aiming for is to be a writers’ assistant on a TV show, where you’re interacting closely with writers and showrunners, forging relationships that will not only help you get a bona fide writing job, but will get your material read by the appropriate people.

Writers’ assistant jobs, unfortunately, are few and far between… and usually go only to showrunners’ friends or co-workers. So your job is to get your foot in the door however you can… as an intern, a runner, a P.A., an assistant.

Most people in Hollywood will say the best starting place for a newbie is at an agency, working as an agent’s assistant… even if you don’t want to be an agent. (In fact, many executives and producers won’t even hire assistants who don’t already have agency experience.) Working at an agency is like grad school for Hollywood… you’ll learn the ins and outs of the business, the players, the players’ assistants and phone numbers, who’s buying, who’s selling, who’s hot and who’s not… and you’ll learn it all faster than you’ve learned anything before. You’ll also meet everyone in town… execs, agents, writers, and—most importantly—assistants, the gatekeepers to Hollywood’s bigwigs. Once you have your network up and running, you’ll have access to huge amounts of valuable information… not only important industry updates, but jobs and job openings… so you can keep your eye—and your friends’ eyes—peeled for that next step, whether it’s a job as a PA or an assistant to a studio exec.

And—of course—you’ll be bolstering your network of people who can read or pass along your material. Maybe not today, but next week, or next month, or next year. Each person you meet is a potential reader and ally… and agencies are a great place to begin meeting them.

For a great blog post about working at an agency, check out this recent post from Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer. (She also has some great info in her “Inside the Agency” section.)

Here’s another post, from “Script Notes,” my blog at “Writer’s Digest” magazine, that lists some wonderful job-hunting websites and resources.

To be continued...

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