I'm pleased to introduce a special guest today... TV executive and producer Jennifer Grisanti.
As a Current Exec at Spelling Television for over ten years, Jen has worked with some of the best writers, showrunners, producers and execs in Hollywood... people like Medium creator Glen Gordon Caron, NCIS producer Steve Binder, Numbers producer Ken Sanzel, and countless more writers and execs at every network and studio in Hollywood. She's also helped maintain numerous hit shows such as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, Charmed, Medium, Numbers, NCIS,
The 4400 and Girlfriends. In addition, she has served as a mentor in the CBS Diversity Program, which seeks out and nurtures young writers and directors.
Jen has a reputation as being one of the smartest execs in town. In fact-- and Jen probably doesn't even remember this-- Jen was in one of the first big meetings I ever had. I was a baby writer interviewing to write on the final season of Beverly Hills 90210, and I met with Jen and showrunner John Eisendrath. Unfortunately, they didn't hire me. (The show probably would've lasted longer if they had. KIDDING, JEN!) But it was the beginning of a relationship that allows me to introduce her to all of you today.
And there's even better news: Jen has recently launched Jen Grisanti Consultancy, a consulting firm designed to help talented young writers, producers, and directors break into the industry (www.jengrisanticonsultancy.com). Jen works with writers of all levels, helping to shape their material, hone their pitches, and focus their careers. In other words... she's like having your own personal TV exec.
Today, Jen's here to talk about how she works with writers as an executive... as well as her new company and what it can do for you...
Jen... as a long-time TV executive, a huge part of your job was finding, acquiring, and shepherding new shows and show ideas. In television, unlike in movies, most new shows are bought as pitches and concepts, not fully-written scripts. When you’re in a pitch meeting, listening to a pitch for a new project, what do you—as an executive—need to hear to make you want to buy that show? What do you need to hear in the architecture of the show itself, and what does the writer need to bring to the project?
JEN: As a Current Programs Executive, my feeling is that in the pitch meeting what needs to be heard is something unique and different. Television has gotten to such a strong place in the past few years. The audience has higher expectations because of shows like Mad Men, Damages, Dexter, etc. It is about coming in with something that has an edge and something that it is easy to see where the future stories will come from.
What are the biggest mistakes you tend to see from first-time pilot-writers? In other words, for all the writers out there who may be taking a stab at writing their first pilot, what should they be extra-vigilant about making sure they don’t do?
As a Current Programs Executive, I’d say that the biggest mistake first-time pilot writers make is not having the pilot fully convey what the series will be. It is so important that at the end of that first hour, the viewer wants to come back and knows what they’re coming back to see. My feeling is that character is so important in the pilot phase. Your characters add so much to why the audience will return. Another mistake I think first time pilot writers make is trying to put too much into the pilot.
One of the things that make new TV shows and pilot truly distinct is the “voice,” or point of view, of the writer. And the shows we like best seem to have their own incredibly strong, unique voices… like Desperate Housewives, Weeds, or Everybody Loves Raymond. Yet while we all seem to know what “voice” is… it’s often one of the toughest things for a writer to find and develop within himself. What advice would you give an aspiring TV writer to help him find his own voice? Any tips or exercises?
I would suggest that the writer go out to a coffee place/restaurant and sit and listen to the conversations of the people around them. They should write down what they hear to get a stronger sense of how people talk and what sounds natural.
As far as a “voice” it is about not being afraid to use your own life experiences. I tell writers that when they are going through extremely painful circumstances or humiliating circumstances or joyful circumstances, they need to write it down. Often what they are experiencing in that moment is a universal feeling that others will connect with. Another exercise with regards to “voice” could be to think of all their friends, what differentiates them from their other friends, what characteristics make them unique, etc. I also ask writers to think of a life identifying moment that happened and made them feel like they have something to say. It could be their parents divorce, a time when they were abandoned in some way as a child, an awakening, a death of a family member, etc. It is usually something that happens that gives them something to draw from in their writing. It helps them to become more familiar with what their own “voice” is.
Developing a hit show takes huge amounts of trust, respect, and collaboration from writers, producers, and executives. As a current exec, you gave notes to writers and producers working on shows already on the air. But sometimes writers and execs disagree on a note. How do you navigate situations where you and a writer disagree on something in a script or project? What advice would you give budding writers on how to deal with notes they disagree with?
My approach towards giving notes is to have a discussion about the note. My advice to writers with regards to notes is to hear the note first. Often writers when they are new to the note giving process they are too busy defending the note that they don’t hear it. If they take the time to listen, it helps the process. With regards to disagreeing on a note, I think with conversation this can be solved. I am not the type of executive who insisted that my writers take my notes. I simply say I am offering a suggestion from my years of experience of how I view it from reading it and I tell them if you understand what I am saying and you can see a way to solve it, take the note. Since I did take this approach, my notes were often made. I trust the writer to know what is best for the script. The writer should know that executives are not out to change their voice or put their mark on the writer’s material, they are there to make sure that the vision of the writer is clearly communicated on the page or to help guide them to a solution that might help their story to transfer better to the audience.
When it comes to writing pilots, one of the biggest controversies is whether or not baby writers—writers who haven’t yet been staffed—should write spec pilots, pilots that haven’t first been pitched and sold to a studio or network. Some people say studios and networks rarely buy spec pilots, especially from babies, and writing a spec pilot is a waste of time… and a stamp of naiveté. Others say networks and studios have opened up to buying spec pilots, and it’s now totally viable for a newbie to write and sell a pilot. What do you think? Should an aspiring TV writer try their hand at writing and selling their own pilot?
It is much harder for a baby writer to get a pilot sold. However, it is possible. I don’t think it’s wrong for a baby writer to write an original hour. I think it is wise for a new writer to have a spec pilot. So, if the pilot doesn’t sell, the writer still has an original script to send out. Some showrunners will only ready original material. As far as developing a pilot at the baby level, a writer should know that if they do choose to develop at this level, someone will be brought in to run the show and often their vision of the show will be taken over by this new person. If they staff and wait until they are
a Producer/Supervising Producer level, then they have a greater chance of developing a pilot in which they could run it and have a greater chance of the finished product being their own. So, it’s all a choice. If the baby writer has a very strong idea and doesn’t matter handing it over, it is a great experience to go through as far as growing as a writer.
The WGA strike is about to enter its fourth—and, hopefully, final—month. Every day, there’s new speculation about how the strike will revamp the TV landscape and development process. Whether it does or not—and to what extent—remains to be seen. As someone who’s been working in TV for many years, how do you think the strike—and its fallout—will change the paths and opportunities for aspiring TV writers trying to break in?
I believe that the strike will have a major impact on television and the way that business is being done and on the number of opportunities that will be available for new writers. I think because the studios have had a chance to see how well reality shows which cost a lot less can perform that there will be fewer pilots picked up and fewer jobs available. Personally, I think for aspiring writers that the key is to have a wide range of material. I also think that writers should be educating themselves with new media opportunities. Since many feel that the business is changing so rapidly, it is important that the writer be open to change and be aware of what material is the best to have to get them work.
Talk to me about Jen Grisanti Consultancy. What do you do, how do you do it, and who are you aiming to help?
I help develop the careers of writers and directors. I utilize my 11 years of experience as a television executive at top studios with incredible mentors and I bring my knowledge to writers and directors to help them get their material where it needs to be to get them work, representation, etc. This includes script consultation, writer coaching sessions, career consultation, representation consultation, etc. My aim is to elevate their scripts and reels so that the writer and director will have confidence going in to meetings knowing that their material is in the best shape possible.