Breaking Into the Box gave writers in LA unbelievable access to a who's-who of TV powerhouses. When people like Shawn Ryan, Damon Lindelof, and Ellen Sandler (not to mention all the studio and agency folk) devote their time and energy to something like this, you know the $150 price tag is a jaw-dropping bargain.
And I'm talking access, as in panelists mingling with attendees. I honestly didn't expect anything of the sort. At most events I've been to, industry luminaries are ushered in and out with minimal audience contact. After one panel, I was in a clutch of people chatting with Shawn Ryan about the biz. Jan Oxenberg and Alexa Junge stood in a crowded hallway fielding questions. In the next room, at a snack table stacked with cookies and plastic coffee cups, the effusive Chris Brancato held forth to a growing crowd.
Attendees were instructed not to foist any material onto the speakers, and to my knowledge everyone behaved like adults. That's why I was stunned to hear several panelists soliciting contact from attendees: "Email me Monday ... remind me that we met here, okay?"
Aside from some great insider anecdotes, I heard very few things that I hadn't already gleaned from other sources. But it's vital to hear these industry- and craft-related basics reinforced by people working in the field. The Writers Guild Foundation is to be commended for this shindig, and I hope they can do it again.
If my round-up this week was of any interest to you, I can't urge you strongly enough to buy the seminar on DVD when it's released. You'll get to hear these people in their own words and have a better sense of the personalities, many of which are quite memorable. Last night at the Terry Rossio/Ted Elliott panel, I got confirmation from WG Foundation Head Angela Wales Kirgo that DVDs are indeed forthcoming.
Here are some further notes and anecdotes:
- The impressive Chris Brancato moderated two panels with utmost efficiency (okay, he was late to the first one, but he more than made up for it). Lots of people gave of their time and knowledge, but Brancato's double-duty was notable. Fast-thinking and focused like a laser, he's genuinely excited and passionate about giving new writers as much info without sugar-coating any of the realities they face. He talks craft and biz with equal ease. You quickly got the sense that most of these panelists were doling out things they wish they'd known when starting out. Everyone was very generous in their regard to us newbies. In a town where you often wonder if you'll ever break in, this was encouraging.
- You've heard it from Jane Espenson (you are reading Jane, aren't you?) and it was drilled home by agents, execs and writers: you need to write an original pilot! More and more agents and showrunners want to read them. While you're at it, polish off that one-act play or short story because these are also getting people jobs on writing staffs. Existing specs haven't fallen by the wayside so you still want a couple of top-notch samples in your arsenal. But there's now a greater opportunity to show people your own voice. Don't worry so much about market wisdom here. Go ahead and create the show you want to watch. Make it loud, dark, splashy -- the more the better. If you find yourself thinking, "Hell, they'd never produce a show like this," that might just be the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd.
- Should you write a bible for your original pilot? That's up in the air because, as Shawn Ryan points out, not everybody's interested in them, even when a pilot's picked up. You at least want to include some cursory outlines for a few episodes. Chances are slim that your original pilot will ever be anything beyond a (hopefully) stand-out writing sample, but it might not be a bad idea to show that you can think ahead under those circumstances.
- Are you good in a room? Are you someone people like to spend lots of time with? Do you have a good story to break the ice with strangers, even if it's total bullshit? Like any writer, I can isolate myself for days without realizing it. I've been forcing myself to get out and meet people -- anybody -- just to feel less nervous about meetings. Along the way, I've made some interesting friends, including several at this seminar. Now all I need is a good bullshit story to whip out in a showrunner meeting -- that, and a pocket mirror to make sure I don't have food in my teeth.
- The traditional half-hour sitcom is dead. Will it make the cyclical comeback people have been predicting? I want to believe comedy can resurface, but with the industry demanding smash ratings before the opening teaser has gone to commercial, I'm not sure how that's gonna happen. I'm willing to bet the answer to the dead comedy dilemma will come from someone young and new to the biz, someone with an off-the-wall take that goes against insider wisdom.
- Here's the kinda geek I am. I asked Shawn Ryan why The Shield never filmed at the Bradbury Building, a famous film location here in LA (Harrison Ford chases Rutger Hauer -- and vice versa -- through it in Blade Runner). Since this restored architectural wonder is now home to LAPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, it would've been great seeing Forest Whitaker's dogged investigator prowling that cinematic environment last season. Ryan agreed but said they didn't even bother asking. Apparently the show is not a favorite among LA police, and they receive little to no assistance from the squad. The animosity is so high that The Shield has been careful to never once make use of the acronym LAPD. I was fairly stunned when Ryan pointed that out. How could I watch the entire run of this phenomenal cop show and not notice it?