READER QUESTION: I've won some writing contests… NOW WHAT?

Today, Script Notes tackles its first question from a reader, but—in true Hollywood fashion, where nothing happens quite like it should—today’s question comes not from the reader herself, but from writer-producer Jane Espenson (Battlestar Galactica, Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with Jane’s blog, Jane Espenson.com, CHECK IT OUT.  Jane does an outstanding job of talking about writing for television, and she’s wonderful about responding to readers’ questions.

Last night, Jane asked my opinion about this question from “Betsy” in Los Angeles…

“Dear Jane,

I have a burning question that I’d really like to hear your answer to.  I’ve spent this past year working diligently on building my spec portfolio, and now feel ready to take the next step of getting my work out there and read.  Trouble is, I’ve gotten conflicting advice on what the best way to go about that is.

I’ve had some success with contests like Scriptapalooza and Austin Film Festival, which I understand means my contact info will be provided to agents and producers in the form of a book.  All well and good, but I’m not one to go around waiting for someone else to possibly initiate contact.  Control freak feeling the need to be pro-active and all.  And lately I’ve been hearing that one should start out by contacting production companies rather than agents, which is the exact opposite of what I’ve heard up to now.

So which is it, oh Goddess of Industry Wisdom????”

Well, Betsy, here are my thoughts…

First of all, congrats on all the great success with Scriptapalooza and the other contests; these are great feathers in your cap and proof that you are A) talented, and B) on the right path.  Having said that…

I have to be honest: in the world of television, I’ve never heard of these contests actually helping anyone get a job or get their foot in the door.  This isn’t to diminish your accomplishments—those contests aren’t easy to win—I just don’t know of any showrunners, executives, or agents who have ever looked to those competitions to find new writers.  Again—this doesn’t diminish the value of winning… and your wins will make great talking points as you meet writers, execs, and agents… but I wouldn’t put many eggs in the contest-as-career-starter basket.  In other words, let them be great bragging points and beautiful additions to your resume… but in the mean time, do exactly what you are doing: trying to make contact with agents and execs.

As to whom you should try and contact first, agents or production companies… they’re both right.  And wrong.  Here’s the truth…

It’s an unfortunate fallacy in Hollywood that agents are out searching for talented, undiscovered writers who they then take and get jobs on TV shows.  THIS ALMOST NEVER HAPPENS.  (And while I’m sure you could find plenty of exceptions, I’ve personally never seen it happen.)  

“Breaking a baby,” or getting a first-time writer her big break, often takes years of hard work… and since low-level writers don’t make much money—or earn their agents much commission—agents don’t usually focus on finding unknown writers and getting them work.  Rather, they try and find writers who are already working and make their careers better. 

(Many agents sign aspiring writers who are already working as writers assistants on TV shows.  While there are countless ways of breaking into Hollywood, the most tried-and-true path is to get a job as a writers assistant, supporting the writing staff of an up-and-running TV show.  Writers assistants take notes in the writers room, research stories, and do anything they can to make the writers’ lives easier.  As a result, when hiring season rolls around each spring, many shows simply fill lower-level positions by promoting their writers assistant.)

So, if agents won’t just “discover” and sign you… how do you get a job?  It’s a chicken-and-egg question, to be sure, but here’s where production companies come in.  As an aspiring writer knocking on Hollywood’s door, you need to be meeting the people who are actually hiring writers for TV shows… and this tends to be showrunners (head writers/executive producers), non-writing producers, and production company executives.  It’s also good to meet network and studio execs.

But here’s the thing, and this is important… your job isn’t just to “contact” them.  Most writers, showrunners, producers, and execs will never read your unsolicited submission or return your cold call.  They have incredibly busy schedules and when they take a meeting or read a script, it’s usually with someone they already have a relationship with… or someone who’s been recommended by someone they have a relationship with, like a trusted agent or manager.

Your job is to form relationships with TV writers, showrunners, and executives.  You’re not just contacting them; you’re starting and nurturing a relationship… and this often takes months or years.

This is because when showrunners and producers hire writers for their show, they hire people based A) on talent, and B) on personality.  This sounds arbitrary and unfair, but there’s actually good reason behind it.  As a TV writer, you’ll often be spending over 10 hours a day locked in a tiny room with the same people for nine or ten months of the year.  So showrunners want to know they can stand to sit across from you all that time… which is why they often hire people they already know, trust, and like (i.e., their writers assistant).

Thus, having your spec portfolio in order accomplishes only half the battle.  Now you have to win the other half… which is getting out there and forming real relationships with people who can read your stuff and help you.  It’s a lot like dating, and here are some ways you can do it…

•  GET A JOB IN THE INDUSTRY.  There’s no better way to meet people than to put yourself in a position where you’re working and interacting with them on a regular basis.  You may have to start at the bottom—as a production assistant or runner—but if you’re smart, personable, and attentive, you’ll move up quickly.  If you want to be a TV writer, aim for the writers assistant (which you won’t get right away… you’ll have to work your way up from production assistant).

•  GO TO NETWORKING PARTIES.  The industry is full of mixers and events designed to help people meet one another.  At the end of this post, I’ll put some links to good networking organizations.

•  TAKE PEOPLE TO LUNCH OR DRINKS.  Never underestimate the value of buying somebody lunch or drinks… especially assistants, who rarely get treated to anything.  So when you meet someone and have a few minutes to strike up a rapport… invite them for lunch or a beer.  You don’t have to go a fancy restaurant (personally, I’m partial to In ‘N’ Out); you just have to treat somebody to lunch and be interested in them… there’s no better way to officially begin a relationship.

•  FOLLOW UP.  When you meet someone new or take them out, follow up in the next day or so with a short, friendly email.  This not only furthers the relationship, it starts a communication online.

•  DON’T AIM FOR THE TOP… AIM FOR THE BOTTOM.  Many people make the mistake of thinking they should reach out to and network with the people at the top of the food chain.  This is backwards-thinking.  First of all, most people at the top don’t have time for you; they’re dealing
with the David Kelleys and Aaron Sorkins of the world.  But the people at the bottom… the assistants and low-level execs… they’re the ones who are hungry to meet new people, network, and impress their bosses by bringing in talented, undiscovered writers… like yourself.  In other words, the VP’s and Presidents of companies don’t need to find you; but the assistants and low-level execs do need to find you… because it’s by finding you, and proving they have an eye for talent, that they get promoted.

•  DON’T ASK SOMEONE TO READ YOUR MATERIAL TOO SOON.  Wait until you have a legitimate rapport with someone (an exec, writer, or assistant), then ask them to take a look at your writing.  Asking too soon is a huge turn-off, as it often feels like you’re not interested in a relationship, you’re just interested in using them to get somewhere in your career.  There’s no real benchmark for knowing when you’ve reached the point in your relationship to “pop the question,” but part of navigating Hollywood is learning how to gauge people and your relationship with them.

•  KEEP WRITING.  Just because your spec portfolio is “in order” doesn’t mean you can stop writing.  A writer’s job, whether she’s getting paid or not, is to ALWAYS BE WRITING.  Always be churning out new material, rewriting old material, thinking of new stories.  As a TV writer, you should never stop writing TV specs or pilots.  After all, the specs you have today may very well be outdated in a few months.  But I always think it’s helpful to write in other genres, too… write a short story; publish a poem; put up a blog or write newspaper articles.  Ultimately, a writers’ portfolio is never finished… it’s a constantly evolving body of work.  The day you stop writing is the day you stop becoming a writer.

Anyway, I hope this helps, and please hire me when you ignore all this advice, sell your own show, and become a huge showrunner next year.

In the mean time, here are some active links to good networking organizations– just click on each organization…

The Junior Hollywood Radio & Television Society

Women in Film

NextGenFemmes

Connecting Reality

Talk to you soon…

Chad

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3 thoughts on “READER QUESTION: I've won some writing contests… NOW WHAT?

  1. Beckylooo

    Apologies for the slightly off topic comment but Jane doesn’t have comments on her blog and I’m trying to spread that word that the WGA considers taking the ABC/Disney fellowship scabbing. I’m in touch with the guild, waiting for an answer on whether or not I can give them another script should I move past the semi-finalist phase. It was made clear to me that it could very well be a problem. Folks who are trying to break in via this program should be well aware that, if the strike’s still on, they’ll be shooting themselves in the foot.

  2. C. J. Prouty

    Well put Chad. You’re advice is clear and concise with a hint of cold water splashed in the face of truth. Translated: the truth hurts. I’ve been in LA about 7 years. Came here with Spielbergian Sparkles in my eyes to attend the USC Cinema-TV (Now "Digital Arts") production program. I managed to learn a bunch of great skills from Oscar winners and win an Emmy for my thesis film and get hired to direct an independent comedy (dream come true) that may or may not get distribution and desperately try to get an agent…only to be told by the big agencies: Read the "Mail Room" because your uber-green; come back when you’ve written a script that is produced and airing on TV. Wow! Talk about cold water in the face. So, I hung my head and headed out into the unpaid waters of Hollywood as a set PA and worked my way up to Assistant Set Decorator ($75/day) to Assistant Editor ($200/day) to Script Coordinator ($20/hour plus script fees when I sell one). It’s been a rocky road, but I got somewhere. Like you said, I climbed the production ladder slowly but surely. Persistence is the key, and all those sayings apply. Be pationate, find support from loved ones and friends, and keep writing.

    Thanks,

    C. J. Prouty

    p.s. Shameless plug: check out my film’s website @ http://www.neversaymacbeth.com (What? If I don’t promote it, who will?)

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