Monday, June 29, 2009

Dan Callahan Interview

Check out the Bitter Script Reader's great interview with College screenwriter Dan Callahan!

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Essays for the fellowships & workshops

Deadline Check:

NBC Writers On the Verge - June 30
ABC/Disney - July 1
WB Writer's Workshop - July 25

A lot of people have been asking what they should write in their essays. I have never been accepted into one of these things, but I think the most important thing is to be unique. You need to stand out from a pile of over 1,400 essays. Writing "I loved watching TV growing up" is not going to do it. Be specific. Let the readers get to know you, and understand what's interesting and different about your point of view. Remember that all the programs except WB are diversity programs. It doesn't mean that you'll be disqualified for being a white Jewish guy from the east coast who moved here after film school - but it does mean that you need to show how you're different from all the other white Jewish guys from the east coast who moved here after film school.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

WriteGirl needs your help.

Today's my birthday, so I'm asking for a present. For the past two years, I've been volunteering with a wonderful organization called WriteGirl. It's a community of women in Los Angeles who give their time to share the joy of writing with teenage girls. 100% of our girls go to college, despite the fact that many of them never even considered it as an option. They never thought they had potential. They never thought they had anything to say.

When I was a kid, I was always supported by my parents and teachers. My first grade teacher Mrs. Zawierucha gave us printouts with pictures of Clifford the Big Red Dog and big spaces underneath (with those little dotted lines in the middle) for us to write stories about him. At six, I told everyone I would be an author when I grew up.

In eighth grade, Mrs. Rook encouraged me to apply to write for NeXt, the teen section of the Buffalo News - and I became a published journalist at age 15. In ninth grade, Mrs. Ilhlefeld printed out copies of one of my review of the sappy teen movie Here on Earth and passed them out to my entire class. In eleventh, Mr. Starr told me he liked my thoughts on Kate & Leopold, and he made a transparency of my essay about Of Mice and Men to use as an example. My theatre teacher Mr. McCadden told me that the one act play I had written and directed "really worked," and the tall, gruff man who was prone to throwing chairs across the stage did not just give out compliments to anyone. In college, writing professor Paul Cody read my personal essays and while chainsmoking his way across campus, told me I should have my first book by 25.

Anyway, the point is - our WriteGirls rarely have the kind of support I've had. As teachers get laid off, class sizes get bigger, and electives like Creative Writing, Journalism and Theatre (if they ever existed at all) get cut. Students aren't given the attention they need, and they're not always encouraged to pursue writing. So that's where WriteGirl comes in. At our monthly genre workshops, girls are inspired by special guests - and each week they meet one-on-one with mentors to practice their craft and talk about college and their futures.

Like every nonprofit, WriteGirl has been hit hard by the economy; people just aren't giving they way they used to. But even just a few dollars can really help. Here's what you can do:

Sign up with and many online retailers will give WriteGirl a portion of what you're already spending when you shop online. On the left of the page will be two drop-down menus asking for your state and cause. You can either choose CA and Youth/Children and find WriteGirl (on p. 51) or type WriteGirl into the keyword search. Click "select this cause" and then after filling in some information you can download the iGive toolbar. Then just shop! Retailers include Apple, Gap, Barnes & Noble, 1-800-Pet-Meds and more.

Sign up with Ralph's Community Contribution Program, and a portion of what you spend at Ralph's will be donated to WriteGirl. Click here, register with Ralph's and enter your Ralph's Rewards number. After saving your changes, enter WriteGirl as your organization. That's it.

You can also donate online on the WriteGirl website, or send a check payable to Community Partners FBO WriteGirl to:

411 S Main St
Suite 422B
Los Angeles, CA 90013

You might also find out if your employer has an an employee matching program to increase your donation. Or if they might be able to donate something else (for example, a studio might want to donate a space for us to hold our Bold Ink Awards - and it's a great marketing opportunity for any shows or movies coming out). Even donating items like notebooks for the girls can be a big help.

Thanks in advance.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The upside of unemployment

Today I got a call about a job, interviewed and found out I didn't get it in about an 8-hour span. This shit moves fast.

You know that saying,"it's easier to find a job when you have a job"? Not in Hollywood - or at least not if you're trying to work on a show. Sure, it might help to stay connected to your coworkers, remind people you're looking so they can forward you things, and pay your rent. But honestly, I think that people who aren't committed to anything have a leg up in the job search. They can go in for interviews anytime without having to get time off or find a temp (I have had several calls asking for same-day interviews) and they can start immediately, which is really attractive to employers. For some reason, many TV shows don't know what positions they're going to fill (or, at least, don't get around to filling them) until it's become a pressing problem.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

51/50 by Kristen McGuiness

Check out, the very cool book/blog from Kristen McGuiness. She posts chapters from the book she's written, which chronicles her real-life experiment of going on 51 dates in 50 weeks. (Yowza!)

I'm always interested in hearing about new ways writers are using the internet...feel free to share anything cool you've found!

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Royal Pains

Anybody see ROYAL PAINS on USA? It's part of my (by no means exhaustive) summer TV preview on Twirlit. I think it's pretty fun, and a new spin on a medical show. Mark Feurstein is adorable, and Paulo Costanzo is hilarious. Catch it Thursdays @ 10 on USA - or watch it online.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

WB Writer's Workshop tips

An email from the WB Writer's Workshop has been going around Hollywood with the following tips:

Things to remember as you go and recruit:
1. There is NO golden ticket into the program- referrals should not call, send emails, or love grams- they will not help.
2. This is not a minority program- we welcome everyone from all backgrounds to apply.
3. Resumes are required to submit but they are divorced from their scripts during the first round of qualifications- you get into this program based on your writing skills.
4. They are welcome to submit as many specs as they are willing to pay for.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Including "Previously On" in your spec

Josephine writes: Do you have any advice on writing specs for TV shows with long storylines? I'm writing a Grey's Anatomy spec and a lot of their storylines overlap into several episodes. Do I write a "Previously On" montage? Or should I just hint at previous storylines in my dialogue?

That's a very good question. You'll probably hear differing opinions on this, but the heads of the ABC/Disney Fellowship recommended that you include a page at the beginning of your script (that's not part of the script itself) that quickly lays out what's going on with the plots & characters. I would imagine it would be as simple as:

Previously on Grey's Anatomy:
Izzie and Meredith are secretly dating
The Chief died in a mysterious accident
Bailey finally sought help for videogame addiction
Karev and McDreamy broke off their engagement

(I haven't watched in a couple seasons, but I imagine that's what's happening.)

So, no - don't write a montage (I think it would be pretty cheesy/clunky), and don't go out of your way to make the dialogue informative (I don't think it'll sound natural). Give us a little guide and then write the way you would write for someone who knows what's going on.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

A friendly reminder

If you've got a question, please peruse through previous entries by clicking on the appropriate category label on the right side of this page (Job Search, Inside the Agency, etc.) before emailing me or posting your question in a comment. I don't want to discourage you from asking questions - ask away! - but I tend to see a lot of the same ones over and over.


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Writing your first spec

Ted writes: I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how to write your first TV spec script?

1. Pick a show to spec based on the following criteria:

A. It will produce new episodes in the fall (or summer, if it's one of those)
B. It has been on for at least one but ideally two or three seasons, and doesn't seem in danger of cancellation
C. Most people are familiar with it but not sick of it
D. It demonstrates your strengths as a writer
E. It is tonally similar to a few shows on TV, and could be used as a staffing sample for these shows

2. Watch every episode of the show so you get a sense of the characters' voices, the structure, the tone and the kinds of stories explored.

3. Listen to any DVD commentary from creators, writers and producers.

4. Break down an episode as you watch it a second time, paying attention to the A, B and C-plots, where they fall, when they come together, etc. Identify what's happening as well as the function of why it's happening: the "this is not what we thought it was" moment, the "this is where what we learned in the B-plot can be applied to the A-plot" moment, etc.

5. Try to get your hands on any real scripts from the show so you can see how many acts there are, scenes and pages per act there should be, how many jokes there are per page - and also, the description and dialogue.

6. Choose a theme for your spec.

7. Write a detailed outline of everything that will happen in your spec before you start writing a single scene. Break it down by plots/storylines.

8. Write.

9. Proofread.

10. Ask some people you trust to read and give you notes.

11. Revise, revise, revise. Do your character voices sound authentic? Are your act breaks interesting turns? Can you track how all the characters are feeling? Are your jokes funny? What scenes can you tighten? What description can you improve?

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Querying managers?

After I explained why I don't recommend querying agencies, Maria asked: What about querying managers?

Beyond the fact that your letter may never get past an assistant who has no interest in helping you, I actually think you might have better luck querying managers. Why? Agents are looking for material that is polished and ready to be sold. Sure, many agents will give notes and such - but this isn't the primary function of an agent; an agent's primary function is to know the marketplace, have relationships with all the buyers and be able to sell their clients' work (or otherwise get them a job). And it's rare that someone sending a query letter is going to be at that stage. Some people have this sense that agents are only interested in the sale and not long-term career planning, which I don't think is true...good agents will take all of this stuff into consideration. But developing material and making it better isn't usually an agent's focus.

Managers, on the other hand, are more likely to sign writers who need a little work. They recognize talent and help these writers develop their material before it is ready to be taken out and sold (or used as a sample to get staffed or get a writing assignment). Managers generally have shorter client lists than agents, and spend more time on each client. Many managers also produce, which is why they might take an extra interest in the material itself.

I have heard agents say things like, "Well, if he has some talent, we can take him to one of the managers we like and tell the manager to come back to us when it's ready." Managers and agents are often allies in this way. Managers will bring us clients they think are ready to sign with an agency, and we bring them writers we think aren't quite there yet, but have potential.

Still, I maintain that cultivating personal relationships will always be more effective than querying - and like an agency, a management company is going to be more focused on its current clients or writers with a lot of heat than signing people off queries. But if you're intent on papering the town, you'd be silly to target just agents and not managers.

I hope they don't hate me for this...but management companies Circle of Confusion and Benderspink both accept queries.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pilot vs. Feature?

Matt writes: How do you know when an idea you have will work better as a feature or as a pilot? As far as writing original pilots go: is it more realistic that agents will treat them as writing samples or shows that could actually be made? I know the idea is to of course write your pilot as if this could be aired on television, but do agents look at it like that? Because from what I understood, agents represent people...And about how long does it take you to finish a spec show or original spec, on average?

I think the difference is that a pilot is a machine for cranking out stories and conflicts every episode for an unlimited amount of episodes. You have to have a setup that could ideally go on and on forever (or at least til 100, when you can make a syndication deal, retire and do nothing but swim in your Scrooge McDuck pool of gold coins). A feature is a story with an end. A character's world shifts, s/he goes on a journey, learns something, and then can go on with their life with the new knowledge gained. The end. With a pilot, the end is just the beginning. The journey never ends, the problem is never solved. There are new vampires for Buffy to slay every week. There are new misadventures in divorce for Gary and Allison. There is another project for Vinnie Chase to do. There is a new medical case for Greg House, and a new international conflict for Jed Bartlett. So - is your idea a finite thing, a journey that ends, or a machine for cranking out episode after episode?

As for the agents - I think both. I think any agent is going to try to sell whatever material they have from you...but usually a first step for baby writers is getting staffed, not selling a pilot. You should always write your pilot with the passion and hope that it's going to get on the air someday, but accept the reality that it's probably going to function more as a writing sample.

Writing time: My first draft of my feature took me about 3 months, while working full time - and that was the fatest I think I wrote anything (although right now I have 23 days until the first fellowship deadline, and I'm only in the outline stage of my John August says professional writers should be able to write a first draft of a feature in six weeks - but obviously when you have a dayjob it takes a little longer. My pilots I wrote over a longer period of time, but it's because I kept stopping to write other things. I think when you're in the beginning stages it's going to take you longer...the more you do it (and the more you realize you should have a very detailed outline before you write a single scene), the faster you'll get. From what I've heard, real TV writers often only have a week to crank out a script after the story and outline have been approved.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

More job interview tips

Check out my post on Twirlit!

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Blogs to check out

Advice from a personal assistant:
It's mostly tips about gifts, social media, technology, creativity and productivity.

Script shadow:
This one features thoughtful critiques of the scripts floating around Hollywood. Yesterday there was also a great interview with writer Mike Million.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

More on job interviews, and the search

Sasha asked in a comment a long time ago (sorry - I'm better at answering emails than comments):

What's normal dress for a Hollywood interview? Do you send a thank-you after? Are the questions about the job directly, or are they more about your personality?

It really varies. I'm actually job hunting myself right now. Some of you might remember me talking about the "year at the agency" that is standard. Mine was up in February, and sadly I'm still looking. Feb. was sort of a lull period in looking for writer's asst/EP asst/showrunner asst/writer's PA jobs, since most current shows already had people, and it was too early for any of the new shows for fall '09 to be staffing up. I had a couple of interviews, but nothing panned out. Now I'm finding more opportunities at least to interview...but there is just SO much competition. Many of my close friends are looking for these same jobs - and twice I've run into people I know at the interviews because they were interviewing for the same thing!

Another obstacle: Why would people hire me when they can hire someone who has 4 years showrunner assistant experience? Agency experience is great, but it's more the usual path for someone who wants to work in development, or produce. When it comes to the writer-focused asst jobs that I'm looking for, some people are impressed by agency experience (one showrunner told me he was sure his desk wouldn't be as intense as an agency one), and some people aren't because they'd rather have someone who really knows the inner workings of how to put a television show on the air. Anyway, it's a numbers thing. A spaghetti thing. If I throw enough of it against the wall, something's gotta stick, right? I don't know. Maybe I'm not the person to be giving advice since I'm still hunting...but if someone learns something, great. That's the whole point of this blog.

(And maybe this is shameless...but if you read this blog and think I'm cool and know of any writer's asst/showrunner asst/EP asst/writer's PA jobs, please let me know!)

As for the dress - at an agency, you'll want to wear a suit. Management companies...not sure...usually a little more casual, I think (feel free to comment if you know otherwise). Everywhere else is business casual. At networks and studios you probably still want to wear dress pants and a nice shirt (for girls, dresses and skirts are often safest since they can be considered dressy, or casual). At most production companies, people wear jeans...though I know of a couple exceptions, so you might want to do dress pants for the interview. And if you're working directly on a show, definitely jeans.

The questions will be about both you and the job. Some people might ask you about specific things like Excel or multi-line phone systems or your ability to write coverage, while other people will assume you are capable of the job (especially if you already have some assistant experience) and just want to get to know you as a person. A personality match is important to many execs/agents/writers/etc., since they're going to be dealing with you all day, every day. Be prepared to talk about shows you like, your career path so far, what you hope to do eventually, etc. It's also good to do a little research on the person and the show, and read any scripts you can so you can talk about those as well.

As for sending a thank you: yes, definitely!

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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Grad school? UCLA Extension?

Q: What do you think about grad school? I'm taking some online classes through UCLA Extension, do you think this is worth it? I want to work in TV Development/Producing, start out at an agency or production company. But my logic with grad school is at least if I never get a job, I can teach with an MA. What do you think?

Ahhhh so many questions! :) I think the most important thing to remember is that there is no one path that will lead you to be a successful writer, or a successful anything in Hollywood. Some people go to grad school. some don't. Some people work as assistants. Some don't. Some have important relatives. Some don't. You have to do what makes sense for you, and try to position yourself in the best way possible so that you can achieve what you want. At this stage, focus on learning as much as you can about the industry and your craft.

UCLA Extension - I've never done it, so I can't really speak to whether it's worth it (feel free to comment if you can). I've heard mixed things. It really depends on your professor, and your classmates. I don't feel like I need it, because A)I have a small writers group, B) I majored in scriptwriting in college so I've already had those kinds of classes, and C) I don't need a deadline; I'm motivated to write by my poverty and my lack of wanting to be an assistant for the rest of my life. But if the classes help you with motivation, or notes, or whatever - go for it. (And actually, if you've never taken a screenwriting class, I'm inclined to tell you to do it.) But is it 100% necessary? Nah. I'm also a little wary of online classes - so it's just notes via email? I feel like an in-person discussion would be so much more useful. Also...I think you know this, but in case others don't - UCLA Extension is not grad school. You're not working toward a degree or anything. Then again, a screenwriting degree doesn't really qualify you to do anything except say you have a screenwriting degree. I would know.

Sidenote - Since you're interested in development/producing, writing isn't mandatory. Still, I think writing and learning about writing is going to be really valuable for you. I wish every exec and producer had to do it. Lots of screenwriting majors go on to be development execs or producers.

Grad school - if you have a spare $100,000, sure, go to grad school (and now I'm talking about the actual degree kind from UCLA, USC, NYU, whatever). Sometimes I think I would have more fun being an English teacher than being an assistant. But how will you transition to being a writer or exec/producer in Hollywood? For writers, how will you get your scripts inside to the right people? I'm not saying you can't, but it's something to think about. Also, I'm wary of your "what if I never find a job" attitude. It's a valid fear, and it is REALLY tough to find a job in Hollywood right now (more on that later), but it's never been easy. If you want to work in Hollywood, you have to be determined - and refuse to accept defeat. I honestly think that if you want something badly enough, you make it happen. This is why I haven't eaten a carbohydrate in eleven days. I think it's a good mantra - but then again, my blood sugar could be dangerously low.

The other thing I think you should think about is that two years of grad school makes you two years older. It takes several years to work your way up and get your stuff read, and all that. If you want to work in development, you have to be an assistant in development. And you may have to work at an agency first, as you already seem to know (yay!). I think you might as well try it now. It only gets harder as you get older. Certainly, people find themselves working as assistants after meandering elsewhere (I am one of the youngest assistants at the agency), but I am happy I came here right after college so I could get started. I refuse to be a 35 year-old assistant.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Advice for foreign screenwriters outside the United States

Brian writes: I'm a screenwriting student from Scotland, and really want to try my luck in Hollywood. Things are a little more complicated for me coming from the UK (what with travel, Visas etc)... I was wondering - Do you have any more general advice you could give me to think about over the next few months? Any particular companies or contacts you would suggest I target? What kind of materials should you send to studios/agencies in order to convince them you're up to the job?

The visa thing is definitely tough - make sure you do some extensive research about all that before you jet over here. All Hollywood entry-level jobs are very low-paying, and there is an insane amount of competition from people just as eager as yourself. From my understanding, very few companies will be willing to sponsor your visa (feel free to comment if you have other experience). My general advice is the usual: read and watch as much as you can, meet as many people as you can, check out blogs, events, panels, screenwriting classes, etc. Write!

I wonder, also - are there any opportunities you can find closer to home? Production companies, studios, agencies? (I know there are some of these in London at least.) The BBC? Films shooting in town that are hiring locals? It couldn't hurt to have any of these things on your resume - and I'm sure many of the higher-ups you'd work with would have connections over here.

Also, I wonder if there is anything you can you can do to become a published writer in another way. Write a book, become a journalist, etc.? I know it's not easy - but if the whole visa thing is an problem for you getting a job here, maybe you should try the straight Be-a-Writer path instead of the work-your-way-up-from-the-inside path that I usually recommend. Getting published could certainly make it easier to make people read your scripts, methinks.

David writes: I just have a question about how to sell a tv pilot/pitch idea. I've heard from someone that generally new writers don't write a pilot script, but instead write a 5 page treatment and summary of the first 13 episodes of a series. However, I've also heard from other people that new writers should just write pilot scripts and not worry about writing a treatment. For submitting unsolicited material to agencies and managers, what would you recommend doing?

You know how I feel about unsolicited material, right? :)

You have to write the whole script so that people know you can write. Yes, agents and managers want to represent people who have ideas that sell, but they represent writers, not ideas. They are interested in you as a writer - your voice, your style, etc. How will they know you can write if all they read is the idea? At this point I think you're wise to focus on finding representation, not selling your material (just yet). Find a rep who is passionate about you as a writer. They'll worry about the selling.

The 13 episode thing sounds crazy to me. Yes, you should have ideas about the direction of your series, and you should work hard to lay the foundation for many future conflicts and episodes... but at this stage, you just need the pilot. If it's bought, and then shot, and then actually picked up to series (we're already talking about a tiny tiny percentage of pilot ideas here), then the writing staff will work together to break the stories for the season.

FYI, when you actually contact the agents and/or managers - you want to send a letter with a brief summary and pitch - not the whole script, or treatment, or anything else. You are writing to them to find out if they're interested in the idea and want you to send the actual material.

Some visa insight from Adam: I'm actually in my job because the first person they wanted couldn't get approved by the government for a visa. The show was willing to sponsor it, but the government isn't really approving visas right now for low level jobs, primarily because of the fact there are so many American's who don't have jobs. I think that situation changes if your job is higher up the chain, but you'll be hard pressed to find an assistant level job approved for a visa in the past year.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Producers struggle to stay productive

For anyone interested in the feature world, here's a very interesting panel interview in the LA Times:

"When Universal greenlit Duplicity and State of Play, it also was greenlighting Fast & Furious. They didn't know that one wasn't going to work, that one was going to overperform and another was going to underperform. They didn't know that. No one can read the future. But producers are the greatest optimists in the world. I mean, that's who we really are. We are the people that find some material and actually imagine that it could be a movie. What are the odds of that? And then not only do we imagine it can be a movie, we imagine it could be a hit, and maybe even win an award. We are the ones with the machetes going through the Amazon jungle to the places we've never been before." - Gary Lucchesi, Lakeshore

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Monday, June 1, 2009

Watch GREEK tonight!

My friend Adam co-wrote tonight's episode of GREEK, and it's his first episode of produced television. Check it out tonight on ABC Family at 8 pm.

Congrats Adam!

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