[07/13/09 - 12:01 AM]
LaTV Fest Addendum: Staffing Or Bust
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

With the broadcast networks having just laid out their fall schedules, one group of people who were anxiously watching the news were the many television writers out there. The staffing process began months ago with writers prepping their newest spec or original scripts, having their meetings with network and studio executives as well as (if they can get them) showrunners. However, it all boils down to this time when it's no longer a question of which show will get ordered to series (or be granted another season) but which shows have openings on their writing staffs and how to obtain that open writing position? What are the do's and don't's of staffing and, seriously, does it all just come down to luck? Our Jim Halterman talked to four television writers to gauge their experience with staffing and what they think can at least help a writer get closer to the brass ring.

Don't think a TV spec is your only way in. In the case of Bridget Bedard, a writer can stumble into television when least expected. "I started out wanting to be a director," Bedard said, "and then samples of my features went out a lot and people became more interested in the writing." Bedard's manager read the "Mad Men" pilot and thought it was something she could write and put her up for it with her directing samples. The result � Bedard was staffed on the first season of the Emmy-lauded AMC series. "I give Matt Weiner a lot of credit because I didn't have a TV spec or anything like that."

Being a "baby writer," Derek Santos Olson found the best route to being hired for his first staff job was by landing a spot in the coveted Disney/ABC Television Writing Fellowship. 'It's just the best program out there as far as breaking in baby writers. You're writing all these scripts anyway so it was a no-brainer." While in the program, fellows are not only working on spec scripts but they also meet with television executives and showrunners whom they might have a hard time meeting otherwise. For those shows that end up hiring of writers out of the program, there's a very important incentive especially in these budget conscious times � the salary for that writer comes from the studio instead of from the show's budget." Santos Olson was hired as a staff writer on "The Unusuals" and even though ABC chose not to give the show a second season, he knows the experience was invaluable. "I learned a ton from all the other writers and that experience of working on a cop show. Not only did it help me improve as a writer but now it helps me to get meetings so overall it was a great experience."

Like Bedard, Gary Lennon said a feature film that he wrote and directed was instrumental in landing him work even when that film wasn't labeled a success. "I had written this independent film called '.45' (starring Milla Jovovich) that went straight to video," Lennon explained, "but Shawn Ryan, the creator of 'The Shield,' saw it through his agent and asked me if I was interested in doing 'The Shield.' So that came out of a project where other people said '.45' didn't have a life but it, in fact, did it's job and served as a calling card to get me my job on 'The Shield.'"

Do cultivate relationships. Lennon landed his first staff job in television based on a relationship he has had for years and said that instance is proof that you never know when a relationship will come open doors you thought were closed. "There are so many people in the business. You need relationships. I knew Bobby Moresco and Paul Haggis and Bobby had directed my play 'Blackout' years ago. I was fortunate enough to actually receive a phone call from Bobby to see if I'd want to staff on "The Black Donnellys" since it was about the neighborhood that we had both grown up in - Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan."

There are times when a relationship can be a "double edged sword," when a writer's sibling holds a prominent position in the television business. Elizabeth Davis is the sister of Christina Davis, who happens to be the Senior Vice President of Drama Development at CBS. While initially it would seem that that would give her a leg up in the staffing game, Davis (the writer) said that producers who are aware of the relationship may think, "if we hire her, we'll think that she'll be like the mole for CBS. On some shows I'll never be 100% sure why I didn't get. It's weird especially when those showrunners get a show on CBS, it can be tricky." However, Davis said having a sister who is a veteran in the business is more than helpful. "At the end of the day, she gives me advice that is not colored by anything. Honest and straight to the point." Ironically, Davis spent this past season working on "Castle," which happens to be on the ABC network.

Bedard doesn't totally discount networking but overall, "I think it's a little overrated. If you have the work to back it up, then it's important. If you meet someone and they want to read something of yours and you don't really have anything, then it's kind of a futile exercise. So, I think a healthy amount of networking is good but I don't think that's what's going to get you the job, to be honest."

Do get your foot in the door... anywhere you can. Back when she was just beginning to embark on a writing career, Davis landed a job as the assistant to a TV lit agent at ICM. After going through an entire development season, however, she realized staying in that breakneck world would end up hurting her writing ambitions as opposed to helping. "I think with those jobs if you don't want to be an agent, if it's not in your belly, then you have to get out of there or it will kill your spirit." Through a connection with a writing client at the agency, she landed a job as assistant to non-writing producer Paul Stupin, who she affectionately called her mentor. "There was something valuable about working for a non-writing producer," Davis recalled, "because he would give me notes in a way that was different than when I worked with other writers." Davis said that getting that first staff job is "like moving a mountain." However, her journey was helped by working for a busy TV producer. "Work for someone where you'll potentially get an opportunity. Sometimes a writers' assistant or a script coordinator... somewhere where you are in the thick of things and you can sort of prove that you might warrant an opportunity."

Don't be shy. Lennon remembered that back in the days when he didn't have any contacts in the film or television business, he took it upon himself to make sure he got noticed. "I didn't know anyone at all," he remembered, "and I blindly sent a piece of material to a couple of executives. Because the piece had some relevance and a voice, they called me." Davis concurred that every writer needs to remember that being shy is the last thing you can be because when thinking about the competition after the same staff jobs, "there's someone else who is doing all those [aggressive] things and if you're the person who's like 'Well, if it's meant to be... ' then your chances are already less."

Don't fight the future. Once you land that coveted writing spot, should you rest on your laurels and just take a breather? Maybe for a second but things can change on a dime in Hollywood. Of her experience, Bedard said, "I think you always have to be thinking ahead because things do fall apart all the time but I try to at least enjoy and spend some of the time in the present enjoying it." For Santos Olson, his advice is grounded in knowing that a show (and a job on that show) can get the ax as quickly as they get the green light. "Save as much money as you can," he advised.

Don't give up... even when you've struck out. As budgets are cut, writing staffs have shrunk and production orders are lessened, landing that staff job is as difficult as ever. What does the writer do when he/she has written a great script, had all the right meetings for the right shows but, for one reason or another, doesn't get staffed? "You just have to decide if you have the stomach for the business," Bedard advised. "I've been up for shows I thought I was going to get and then I have no idea why I didn't so you can think something is a slam dunk but who knows what is going on behind the curtain... you have to be able to tolerate a lot of rejection and not take it personally."

In the end, does it come down to luck? Santos Olson said that at the lower level staff writing spots, luck is definitely a part of landing a coveted spot. "As a baby writer, you go on your meetings and the entire writing staff is already in place and a lot of it comes down to the luck of will the showrunner think I'll fit in with the people that are already in place."

"Luck is when hard work and opportunity meet at the same time," offered Lennon. "Luck doesn't just happen just out of nowhere but I think luck happens when someone is prepared, when someone has planted the seeds and basically at the right time and the right moment things happen. For example, I wrote a script that my agents told me not to write and I was compelled to write this film about a bookie and it sat on my desk for many years and then finally a very big showrunner � Greg Berlanti � bought it years later and that is luck. Preparation and opportunity meeting at the same time."

Where are they now? And now that writers are getting hired and shows the final pieces of the writing staff puzzle are being put into place, where do the writers stand in terms of being staffed at the time this article was posted? Bedard continues her job on the new Ray Romano TNT drama "Men of a Certain Age," Davis is locked in for another year on staff at ABC's "Castle," and Santos Olson is staffed on "Friday Night Lights." Lennon is awaiting word on his A&E drama pilot that he's executive producing with "Saving Grace's" Nancy Miller as well as shopping around another drama with actress Maria Bello attached.

  [july 2009]  

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