"But I'm trying to be realistic about my life, and I just thought if I don't see real progress in three years I would have to re-evaluate what I am doing in Los Angeles. But then I realized I don't even know what 'real progress' would look like. I certainly don't expect to be staffed on a show in just three years. And really it seems that two years or twenty, you don't really get closer to getting staffed, you are either staffed or not. Kind of like being pregnant - there is no halfway. "But then I think, well there is no halfway to being pregnant, but your chances go up by having sex, right? So, metaphorically speaking, what is 'having sex' to a writer? Is it networking and being a great assistant? Is it improving your craft to the point that someone has to take notice? And obviously the question 'when do you give up on a dream?' is loaded and different for each person. (I mean, no one wants to give up on a dream, but you can have other dreams, too - like a steady job and health insurance in a city you like, for instance.)
Today’s reader question comes from E. Daniels, who addresses an issue which, I think, plagues almost every writer in Hollywood, myself included. E Daniels, take it away…
"There are certainly a number of factors involved in getting discovered or 'making it' (fate, talent, luck, hard work, etc.) How long does the average writer take to get staffed? Already that sounds like a question without any one answer.
"Okay, I'll stop with the rambling and boil it down to this: in the interest of making an informed decision (and part of being informed is knowing that it is so wildly different for everyone) what are common goalposts of progress for a writer and how longish might it take to get paid to write for TV?"
Well, first of all, E. Daniels—I think you’re right… the answer is different for everyone. I have friends who got staffed after being an assistant for only a couple years. I also have a friend who spent—literally—NINE YEARS slaving away as a writers assistant and P.A. before finally getting staffed… and this summer—only two years after his first staff job—he sold his first pilot! Then, of course, there’s the story of Caroline Williams, a UCLA grad student who wrote a spec pilot with the sole dream of getting staffed on NBC's The Office… and she not only immediately staffed on The Office, she sold the pilot to ABC, got it made (Miss Guided, which premiered—and was canceled—earlier this year), and just sold ABC another project, Made Over, with a put pilot commitment.
I also have friends who followed the right path and staffed on a TV show… but that show was then canceled, or they were fired, and they never worked again. Some were even high-level writers: producers, co-EP’s, etc. The fact they didn’t work again doesn’t necessarily mean they were bad writers, it just means the road is NEVER easy. Sure, once you get that first staff job (or more accurately, the second), you’re “in,” but you still have to fight and claw to keep working and moving up the ladder. Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, for instance, had had a fairly successful career in TV (writing and producing shows like The Golden Girls and Five Mrs. Buchanans), but had been out of work for over three years when he finally wrote Desperate Housewives.
(Also, for what it’s worth—some of those friends who never staffed again went on to write other things: video games, screenplays, grants, books, magazine articles, etc. And who knows… they may—and probably will—staff some time in the future.)
Anyway, all of this is to say: YOU ARE RIGHT. The path is different for each person.
Having said that, you’re ALSO right—there are certain goalposts that tend to mark the most common paths. Here’s how the ladder often works, with each step usually taking AT LEAST a year… and usually more…
1) Intern or runner
2) Production Assistant (PA)
3) Writers’ PA
4) Writers Assistant
So, that’s usually about a four-year path… assuming there are no bumps or setbacks along the way… and there are ALWAYS bumps along the way. Shows get cancelled mid-season. Assistants don’t get promoted. Bosses hire friends. Budgets limit who showrunners can hire.
However, I think there are other goalposts to follow as well… and these aren’t necessarily chronological goalposts. But as you move forward in your career, even if you’re not advancing “up” the ladder, you should be…
1) Writing more (you should be constantly turning out product: new specs, screenplays, and plays… whatever you need to get noticed)
2) Getting feedback from writer friends and bosses, learning how to incorporate that feedback, and then seeing your work noticeably improve (I know it sounds elementary, but you should be seeing your writing GETTING BETTER)
3) Reading more (try to read all the pilots produced each year, on both cable and broadcast networks; this is tough, believe me, but reading not only keeps you informed about what networks are producing, it HELPS YOU BECOME A BETTER
4) Meeting more writers and showrunners (literally, as you advance, you should see your Rolodex of writer and producer friends growing… not just because you’re meeting more high-level writers, but because friends who are low-level/aspiring writers get promoted)
5) Meeting more execs and agents (and again, the ones you know should be moving up the ladder, expanding your Rolodex of high-level players)
6) Getting things produced, published, etc. (As you improve as a writer… and expand your list of contacts… you have more opportunities to get things published or produced. Maybe not on TV… but you can stage plays or sketches, publish stories or scripts, write/produce video games and web content, etc. I used to have a teacher who said “Work begets work,” and he’s right: showrunners and execs like hiring people who are busy and productive… and the more aggressive you are about getting your work out into the world, the higher your chances of having it seen by someone.)
So, E. Daniels, I think both sets of “goalposts” are important. I know people who have been writers assistants for YEARS and wonder why they can’t get staffed… even though they never bother writing specs or reading pilots or going to networking functions.
I also know PA’s who spent every free moment reading scripts, writing stories, and begging their bosses to read their work… and they leapt past their competitors to staff earlier than most people.
Your job is to be moving forward on both fronts, accomplishing both sets of goalposts. You may not progress equally on both fronts at all times… and that’s okay. As long as you can feel yourself progressing.
Anyway, I hope that helps… and please know that you are not alone in this boat. In fact, I’m not sure most writers EVER reach a place where they feel they’ve totally “arrived.” If they did, I think they’d stop writing. I think most great writers—and maybe artists in all mediums—are driven not by a need to “succeed,” but by a need to “be heard”… and the day they feel secure in “being heard” is the day they lose their hunger to create.
So not only should you be doing thi
s because you love the hunt, not the kill, but you should prepare yourself for a lifetime of uncertainty, insecurity, and self-doubt. Which sounds dark and depressing, I know… but those aren’t just the qualities that come with the territory of being a writer… they’re what MAKE us writers. We write BECAUSE we’re uncertain, insecure, and doubtful. It’s a vicious circle: we write to make those things go away, but those are also the very things that MAKE US WRITE.
On that happy note, E. Daniels, look at the bright side… you’re asking the same questions—and having the same concerns—as EVERY WRITER IN HOLLYWOOD, from the top of the food chain to the bottom. So while it seems like you’re wondering if you’ll ever arrive, in one of the most important ways… you already have.