Daniel Thomsen, a television writer who has worked on staff at Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Melrose Place, explains just what goes into the "staffing season" for television writers.
Here is what it means to be a TV writer: You are paid to work in conditions that vastly accelerate the degradation of your body while brainstorming fantasy lives for the select group of your co-workers who work in conditions designed to make their already-exceptional bodies look better than yours ever did or will.
It's a psychologically fraught occupation for this and other reasons. But mostly this one.
Still, people flock to the profession. Each year we welcome new writers to our ranks and indoctrinate them into a rigid system of dieting and aspirational styling that will stunt their emotional development for years to come. Baby writers just beginning the journey of staring at dailies of shirtless Paul Wesley and pants-less Leighton Meister can typically get by with the organic meal-replacement bars available at Whole Foods.
But by the time the average writer has ascended into the producing ranks, the road has been littered with far too many Starbucks cups and CPK boxes with his or her name scribbled hastily on the side. The fiction that the writer can ever be as physically appealing as his or her thespian counterparts begins to feel hopelessly out of reach.
For those unhappily-bloated hyphenates, this year's fad diet is something called "The 4-Hour Body." I know several devotees, including a showrunner who dropped twenty pounds from the first draft of his pilot script to the day of his greenlit table read. This is either a remarkable example of discipline and determination, or a stunning illustration of how many empty calories are required to write a pilot script.
To be clear, I have no idea what the "four hour" aspect of the diet refers to. The three people I asked who are actually on the diet don't know, either. They just ramble on about not eating fruit, gorging yourself on junk food once a week, and challenging your friends to motivational weight-loss battles via Twitter. Master all that stuff and apparently the "four hour" business never even comes into play.
An oddball little diet, yeah? But it gave me a great idea for a title!
What is staffing season?
It's the most nerve-wracking time of year for TV writers seeking staff jobs.
Yes, owing to the ever-expanding slate of scripted cable series, there are a scattering of jobs available throughout the year. But you didn't get any of those jobs, did you? And now all of your eggs are in one basket, aren't they? The basket of new and returning network series that will be seeking writers for an extremely limited period of time between now and the end of May.
Look, here's the good news: Chances are you're in this business for the right reason. Unlike a lot of people, you love television. You know there's a given amount of crap out there, but you still get excited about all the new ideas. You're cheering for the showrunners you respect to get a shot at creating their big, fat hits. You don't mind reading 25 or 30 scripts at breakneck speed because you have fun commiserating with friends and agents about it all.
What's going to succeed? What's a trainwreck? I'm sorry, who did you say is writing "Wonder Woman"?
So why's it so nerve wracking?
Because you don't have the luxury of separating your enjoyment of television's artistry from the stark reality that this is your goddamn paycheck for the year. And maybe the next year or two after that.
This is showbiz, where there are a lot more writers than there are job opportunities, and where no one owes you a single ounce of career stability - unless you have at some point worked for Charlie Sheen or Conan O'Brien, and then according to the comment section of Deadline Hollywood, you are always entitled to be taken care of by the studios or the stars themselves whenever trade winds blow the wrong direction.
What's that? You're not in one of those two magic kingdoms? Sorry, friend. You're fucked.
Victimhood is a deeply ingrained trait in all writers, owing to our complicated childhood circumstances, our aforementioned body dysmorphias, our culturally-reinforced entitlements, etc. Here are some great tips to ensure you shoulder the right amount of personal responsibility for staffing season: Your sample script isn't good enough.
This is something you'll undoubtedly hear a lot of, either from your agent or from your inner monologue. You will almost never hear this from executives because they, unlike us, were raised to be polite. If you have an inkling that your primary sample isn't absolutely killer, you need a better one.
No one gets hired in this town without a killer script - unless you're Someone Important's (brother/cousin/personal trainer). And if you're Someone Important's (aunt/underage escort/yogi), I really hope you're not reading John August's blog right now. I hope you're poolside at the Standard, commemorating every moment of your life with a Chambord lemon drop in each hand. Because, remember: With great power comes great responsibility.
But that's them. Back to you:
Your sample script is not good enough.
We aren't always the best judges of our own material, but in this business, we have to be.
A few years ago I wrote a spec pilot about a pro video gamer called "Invincible." To this day, it's one of my favorite things I've ever written. The script got me a bunch of meetings, but ultimately it didn't land me any gigs. After six months, I had to admit it wasn't good enough, and that spurred me to write my next spec pilot, "Physical Graffiti." The new script got me my first staff job less than a month after I finished it. Moral of the story: Don't get too precious when your career's on the line.
While we're at it: your sample script isn't in the right genre. I read the Georgetown pilot script for ABC a few days ago and loved it. I impulsively fired off an email to my agent and told him so. He wrote me back with this: "Which sample of yours do you think they'd read for it?" My agent was right. We could send them my spec pilot about genetically-mutated super criminals, but I wouldn't blame them for not divining the relevance.
Oh, and your sample script should've been finished a month ago. Scripts need time to filter through the system. They don't get read by showrunners before they've been read by agents and about five thousand layers of studio and network executives.
Your meeting chops need work.
Writer meetings are weird. We didn't learn about how they're supposed to go while we were in college, and they're usually given by other writers, which means they're a lot more passive aggressive than they'd be if they were given by trained HR reps.
It's all on you, the dude who's probably terrible at selling, to make the best, most specific argument possible that you deserve a spot on the writing staff. Emphasize what's in your background that informs the types of stories you'll be telling. Emphasize how much of a genius you are without coming off like a dick.
On a similar note, don't criticize the show - the creator has probably taken a shine to it.
And here is the single most important bit of meeting advice I can give you from my own vault of experience: If you're meeting on "Supernatural," do not bring up the topic of slash fan fiction involving Sam and Dean Winchester. No one's heart warms to that particular tangent.
Your "brand" needs work.
Network television is a business that functions more efficiently by way of rampant pigeon-holing. This is not evil. This is reality. And it extends to writers.
Hey, there's a new crime drama on CBS this year! Do you have a strong, procedural sample script? Does your background give you any additional expertise? Are your existing credits in a similar genre? The easier it is to fit you into a particular "box," the easier it'll be to find a job.
I share this insight with you as someone who jumped from a show about killer robots to "Melrose Place," had to explain that jump in every single meeting I took last staffing season, and didn't get a single job offer before the calendar flipped to June. Talk to your agent about this. Make sure you're seeing yourself the way everyone else is seeing you.
You don't know enough people.
Yes, it's your agent's responsibility to get you meetings. But, really, it's a shared responsibility. Hollywood is a tight-knit community where business and social circles overlap like crazy.
I put in five years of personal networking as a PA, writers' assistant, script coordinator and showrunner's assistant before I knew enough people to get an agent or a job. And I still find that, even after having worked on staff for three seasons and having sold two pilots, the single greatest predictor of whether or not I'll succeed in staffing season is how many of my friends get their pilots on the schedule.
Not because anyone ever has or will hire me as a favor, but because in a community of writers, the people who will know my capabilities the best are invariably going to be the people I'm closest to.
So I'm not going to get a job?
You can totally get a job, even in this market. Dozens of writers are going to get offers in the coming weeks at every level - veterans, newbies, people who work every year, people who struggle to work once every few years.
I've been in LA since 2002 and every single year, the refrain is always the same: "Ugh, this is the worst year ever, no one's getting work." I absolutely believe people have been repeating those words since the days we were all fighting over gigs on radio dramas.
Snagging a staff job requires these things: hard work, self awareness, a killer script, a logical connection between your brand and a show that makes it on the schedule, and a fair bit of fortunate timing.
Remember that staffing is a war of attrition. You might deserve a gig this year, but if that gig falls through due to circumstances out of your control - tough shit. Stay focused on the circumstances you can control and prepare for whatever's next - development season, cable staffing, Subway sandwich artistry, etc.
Because, congratulations: You're a writer, and the reason you're good at it is because your life kinda sucks.
But I'm bitter! Very bitter!
Yeah, duh. So am I. So are people who've had multiple shows on the air. Everyone's bitter. We work in an industry where throngs of people pay dues for years and many of them never hit pay dirt. Where you'll routinely see friends (and frenemies) become millionaires while you languish in your North Hollywood apartment, wondering how the hell you ended up with a size-38 waist. (Hint: It was all that Americone Dream.)
But here's the thing: As long as the work is still fun, as long as you keep falling in love with your own ideas and other people seem to like them too, you owe it to yourself to keep at it. Enthusiasm is the antidote to bitterness.
In the spirit of self-help tomes, I feel like I need to leave on some sort of optimistic note. So here it is: Television writing is an asinine way to make a living and staffing season is its most hellish artifact. But if you can find a way to embrace the chaos, you're only four hours away from having the career of your dreams!