Here's the third of four recaps from Breaking Into the Box: Kick-Starting Your Career in Television, an all-day seminar sponsored last weekend by the Writers Guild Foundation.
Very important disclaimer: these aren't verbatim quotes but rather paraphrases from some hastily-scribbled notes. If you want the real deal, the Foundation taped the event and will soon offer the seminar on DVD. Check their website in the future for details.
My thoughts about the seminar will follow on Friday.
PANEL: GETTING YOUR BREAK
Panelists: John Bauman (Gersh Agency), Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single, A Different World), Bill Chais (Shark), Joe Cohen (CAA), Ellen Sandler (Everybody Loves Raymond), moderator Chris Brancato
BRANCATO: At one point, I was living outside of LA, watching TV and wondering: how does it work? Unless you were born connected, how do you get in? There are guardians and filters of the business, people inundated with requests to read scripts. Each year, there are 45,000 spec scripts entering the Hollywood market, and thousands of TV pilots. It's a huge threshing machine. How do you get past it? Here's one story. Sopranos writer Terry Winter once had no connections. He was from the east coast, but when he came here he had a lawyer friend in Century City with some extra office space. Terry created a fake literary agency to represent himself. Made up stationary with the law firm's address, had a secretary to answer the phone with this fake name, and he sent out hundreds of scripts. Only half a dozen out of several hundred called back. This led to Terry getting staffed on a short-lived sitcom, but he was in. So how you get in? By any means necessary.
SANDLER: There's the myth of the big break. I started out as a playwright and director in NYC, doing off-Broadway shows for no money. If we had a working toilet in the theater, we were lucky. It was there that I met Rhea Perlman who was cast in one of my plays. That's how I met Danny DeVito, who was in another play and he'd come down and have dinner with her on breaks. Later in LA, my play was staged again. By this time Danny was doing Taxi and he brought some producers in to see Rhea's performance. James Brooks was in the audience and during the intermission he offered me a writing job. So, was that my big break? Or was it back in NYC, doing theater for no money? Was it when I cast Rhea in my show? There's no one big break, just a series of steady breaks. You have to be in the right place at the right time, but you must also bring craft to the game.
COHEN: I'm most interested in new material, and I urge you to be more yourself than anybody else can be. I want your strengths, so focus on your voice, the things most pressing to you. Writing spec scripts tells you absolutely nothing about what the staff jobs are like. These are wildly divergent rooms of people with one specific goal: breaking down a series season. Sometimes you have to both captain and poet laureate. You have extremes in one package. You have to be tough, hard-working, open and generous and able to roll with the punches. You must have something in your writing voice that's you, something someone could spot as "you" and maybe ask you about.
BRANCATO: You don't have to be perfect but you have to contribute something strongly: dialogue or structure or breaking a story or maybe you're the silent type who delivers a perfect script we can shoot. These are some of the dynamics in building a staff.
CHAIS: I was getting burned out as a public defender. I had a half-assed NYPD Blue spec script, and got hired as legal consultant on another show, then quickly staffed. One bit of advice: have an interesting story in your first meeting, even if it's total bullshit. It's my experience that 10 percent of writers are amazing, 10 percent stink, and the other 80 percent are somewhere in the middle. Be nice, be funny, kiss ass without being obvious about it. Find your voice. Existing show specs are still useful to show you can mimic something that already exists. Max out those first 3 pages because you're in a big stack of scripts that has to be read by somebody.
BRANCATO: Write your original pilot as an R-rated thing that couldn't be on TV. Make it dark, make it stand out. I had a lot of friends into drugs and dying of overdoses. I wrote an original pilot about this called Dope that got me some dark gritty buzz.
BOWSER: I ditched plans for law school and worked my contacts to become a writers assistant on A Different World. I helped develop some of the core college characters and joined the staff on the second season. I sacrificed in those early years and worked for some shitty pay, getting sandwiches and coffee while racking up tons of debt.
BRANCATO: I came to LA at 29 and felt late in the game, like a loser. You have to have a roof over your head while you try to break in. These assistant jobs are a great way to marry those two needs. I never thought about "voice" early on. I just needed a paycheck. I figured out my own voice after having done it for a long time. Think about the themes and things in the world that interest you. Are you funny, acerbic, sentimental, dark? Discovery of one's voice doesn't happen on the page. It comes from your life.
BAUMAN: You have to find other people who are passionate about your work. I'd rather hear a recommendation from your mother than from you. It's very hard if you're the one trying to get an agent to read your work.
BRANCATO: There's no conspiracy to keep you out. But there are too many scripts and not that many are good. I have to read 200 scripts in the next five weeks -- that's more than a full-time job. That's why you need recommendations.
BAUMAN: It's very much a relationship business. The hardest thing about all this is staying positive and believing in yourself because it's up and down all the time.
COHEN: If you're crafty, you'll be approaching any contact no matter how tenuous. Be cool and succinct enough to say: this means a lot to me, just give me 5 minutes and tell me what you think. You'll get turned down a million times, but you might get one person who'll look at it. When I got started, I built a lot of friendships that are now networks. It's not about age, it's about surprise and being crafty. I advise writers to ask themselves: am I in the right pursuit with regards to TV versus film writing? I like to grind people down to their core and see where they're at, what they do.
BRANCATO: What are the pros and cons of managers? Especially for beginning writers?
SANDLER: I never had one but if somebody likes your work and can help you get a job, that's OK.
COHEN: It's how you value your money. If a manager can be truthful with you and it's worth that 10 percent, go for it. I'll work with anybody as long as we're in lockstep.
CHAIS: I never had one but it's better to be paying 25 percent of something than 10 percent of nothing.
BOWSER: I'd rather spend my money on shoes.
BAUMAN: I've had good experiences and bad ones. If you're going for TV, make sure your manager knows the biz.
BRANCATO: Be careful and be sure they're earning their money. I'm comfortable game-planning and strategizing about the biz, so I've never needed one. I'm amazed at how often new writers don't understand how this biz operates. Be your own manager to some degree. Read the trades. Learn the players. Don't let the trades become depressing. When I started out, instead of Variety on the masthead, I used to see What You're Not Doing. With regards to the possibility of a writers' strike, there's script stockpiling going on and it's unconscionable. This should not be happening. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the strike issue. Personally, I think writers are well-compensated because they'd do it for free anyway. The biz is changing. This is another good reason to stay on top of things like the Internet.
SANDLER: Don't put so much weight on finding representation. Focus on how to make yourself visible. Use the Internet. Make something happen on a very small level.