Monday, December 21, 2009

What to do with your specs, and the job market

Sasha writes: How many TV specs should I have? And what should I do with them when I'm done? On the one hand, I think I need more time to learn how to write a good TV script, but on the other, I don't really know what I'll do with all those scripts when I'm done.
Patrick writes: I'm not sure what to do with my spec once it's completed. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on the next step. Is there an address I can mail it to? Or is there some sort of middle man I need to go through first?

Dan writes: A writer writes a couple of spec scripts, an original pilot and a feature. And the writer is from out of town. What next? Does the writer approach an agent in L.A.? How should that be done?

Please read this post on spec scripts first, and this post about the "next step" after finishing a pilot.
Patrick - you do not "mail" specs anywhere. Eventually you'll probably want to send them to a fellowship or workshop like ABC or WB (links at right), or possibly an agent or manager you've made a connection with. (They're the "middle men" you'll need to get your work read by producers and executives.) Step one, though, should be asking some trusted friends, professors, etc. to read your script. A first draft is not ready to be entered in a contest or sent to an agent or manager.

There is no hard and fast rule about how many specs to have. I recommend writing a spec before tackling a pilot for the education of it, but since specs A) are really only needed for the ABC and WB programs, B) will become obsolete quickly and C) do not show off your personal voice as much as pilots, I would move to writing pilots at some point (unless, like Sasha said, you feel like you want to keep writing specs for practice and improvement). If you've got a great spec idea, go for it. Same with pilots. I think it's important always to be writing something you're passionate about. And if someone loves your pilot, they're not going to hate you for not having a spec. Good writing is good writing.

Lots of people find themselves in the situation of not knowing what to do with their scripts. This is why I recommend moving to LA and getting a job in the industry so you can start meeting the kinds of people who might want to read your scripts and possibly help you get representation. You can try writing query letters to agents and managers (from anywhere), but I don't think you're going to have a ton of luck. Read my thoughts on that:

A query about querying
About querying, again
Querying managers?

If you refuse to move to LA, your options are pretty much limited to querying and entering fellowships/workshops/contests. I'm not saying people never achieve success this way, but know that you're limiting your potential for success, and that all the thousands of aspiring writers in LA have an advantage over you.

Another way to end up staffed on a show (or to get the chance to write a freelance episode) is to be a writer's assistant or showrunner assistant. These jobs are extremely competitive and often involve being a PA or agent's assistant first, but they are time-tested paths to TV writing. I know a few people who have gotten to write episodes of produced television this way. These assistants also have the invaluable benefits of being in a writer's room and learning how it all works, and befriending experienced writers who can offer advice and possibly refer them to agents and managers.

Sasha also writes: I've put off moving to LA because of what I hear re: the horrible job market. Are you seeing a turn around? How's it going in terms of assistant jobs out there? I know I'd probably need to do a couple internships before landing anything regardless, but I'd like at least the hope of a job after the first few months.

Unemployment in California is above 12%, and it's probably worse in Hollywood. I do think I've seen a bit of an improvement in the last six months. I see job postings all the time, and I know that some companies have lifted their hiring freezes. But there still aren't a lot of people getting promoted, which means there aren't a lot of assistants moving up the ladder and offering up their positions to new people. Still, think about all the shows that are in production. They all need people to work on them. But does that mean you'll be able to get a job? Maybe, maybe not. It is EXTREMELY competitive. It has always been difficult. Read this post for more about this. My best advice is to save a few thousand dollars before coming out here, and to be prepared to get a non-industry job if you have to. And yes, getting an internship is usually the first step, since that will help you make the connections.

Here's the thing: there is no set path that equals success. You need to write something great and get someone important to read it (and like it). But that could (and probably will) take years, and everybody has a different story of how they did it. Uncertainty is something you just have to get used to if you want to pursue a career in Hollywood.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Favorite Movies of 2009

12. Precious
I loved that Clarisse ("Precious") experienced so much hardship but refused to be a whiny victim. I was so prepared for the heaviness of this movie that I was pleasantly surprised by all the moments of lightness ("my favorite color is fluorescent beige..."). Don't get me wrong - it is an intense movie - but the acting is fantastic. I loved that the big moments were saved for last, and loved Mariah Carey's understated performance.

11. The Blind Side and The Proposal

What can I say? 2009 was the year of Sandra Bullock. Neither of these movies ignited any passionate fires inside of me, but I left both theaters smiling.

10. Up
Pixar movies are just plain fun, which I think we sometimes take for granted. They're also incredibly touching - and clever. The dogs? Kevin? Hilarious.

9. Inglourious Basterds
This movie had the best villain I've seen in a LONG time, played by Christoph Waltz. The perfect example of a bad guy who thinks he's the good guy in his own story.

8. Away We Go
Some of the supporting characters were a bit too kooky for me, but I loved watching the adorable central couple (John Krasinski and Mya Rudolph) in their search for a perfect family. Extra points for depicting a pregnant woman in a way besides morning sickness. Also, Chris Messina absolutely blew me away.

7. Public Enemies
I think this movie got a bad rap - but I really liked it! John Dillinger was a such an interesting character that I had to keep watching.

6. Up in the Air
I didn't love it as much as I loved Juno, but this was a touching and entertaining movie. You kind of forget you're watching George Clooney, and that's pretty hard to do.

5. Julie & Julia
From blog to blockbuster! The real-life story makes me happy, and I thought the parallel journeys of these interesting women was fun and original. To quote Modern Family: "They could cast Meryl Streep as Batman and it'd be the right choice."

4. The Hangover
Hands down, this is the movie that made me laugh the most this year. The investigation element added a fun new element to an otherwise simple comedy, and each member of the cast was perfect. My favorite line: "I keep forgetting about the Tiger."

3. An Education
This film really blew me away. The story is incredibly simple, but it's told in a rich and compelling way and I was completely thrown by the twist. Carey Mulligan absolutely deserves all the buzz she's getting for playing a teenager who may not be as mature as she thinks, and Peter Saarsgard is powerful and enigmatic. The film balances comedic and serious moments as it maneuvers through endless shades of gray.

2. 500 Days of Summer
I love anything that subverts a genre and messes with expectations. It's a romantic comedy...that isn't exactly a romantic comedy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is irresistible, the characters are incredibly well-drawn, and the nontraditional ending somehow still leaves you feeling satisfied. Plus, the music is fantastic - and there's an adorable dance number!

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox
I've always loved Wes Anderson, but even if you're not a huge fan of his tragic comedies and quirky retro aesthetic, I think you'll still be impressed by the cleverness of and whimsy of this Roald Dahl adaptation. It's a fun adventure that's thoughftul, touching, and downright funny. My favorite detail: using the word "cuss" in place of "f---." Example: "What a clustercuss!"

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Thursday, December 17, 2009


Sorry I haven't been updating so much. You guys don't seem to be as quizzical as you used to! Feel free to send in any burning questions.

I've actually spent the last couple days in the writer's office of an upcoming network drama. I'm just filling in for a writers' PA who went home early for winter break, but it's been very cool. The writers are all so nice! They've all introduced themselves and asked me my name. And remembered it! I like writers.

(But the food! My god, the food. If I ever work on a show full-time I will gain 100 pounds.)

You might be interested in this interview with Josh Olson, whom you might remember from his famous diatribe, "I Will Not Read Your F---ing Script." A lot of us are pretty far away from adapting or rewriting the work of others, but I think he makes a lot of good points about the stories we choose, and how different people will respond to different things. It's always important to think about what your story is ABOUT on a deeper level. Trust? Fear? Identity? Commitment? Power?

Another interesting news item is that cancelled show The Beautiful Life will get a second chance on the internet. I always like seeing how the internet can affect the industry in new ways.

Coming soon...some thoughts on my favorite movies and TV episodes of the year. What are you guys reflecting on?

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Friday, December 11, 2009

2009 Black List

The 2009 Black List is here!

UPDATE: And now, for the full roster from Nikki Finke. I've got a lot of reading to do... But I already know I love #17, BOOKSMART! Probably my favorite script I've read this year.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blogging tips - and your internet presence

By now I bet most of you have read the John August vs. Scriptshadow debate. I won't say too much about it since I think it's been exhaustively debated, but I did think this response from Craig Mazin was thoughtful.

I think there is another lesson to be taken from all this, though: be careful about what you put on the internet. It's incredibly easy to blog and Twitter and everything - and it's also incredibly easy for people to find whatever you've put out into the world.

We all know that you shouldn't post a million pictures of yourself smoking pot on Facebook and keep them public for potential employers to find - but it gets more complicated than that. I try not to badmouth people or things on here, partially because I don't really think I am successful enough to have the authority to do so, but also because of the Google effect. Let's say I get a meeting with a showrunner or something, and she types my name into Google, and this blog pops up. If she finds a post in which I totally bashed some pilot she did, she's probably not going to have a very good impression of me. Sure, not everybody will Google you - but some people will, and I think it's important to be aware of what comes up when people search for your name. So before you write that post about how much some show sucked, ask yourself if it's really necessary. I'm not saying we shouldn't all have our own critical opinions, but talking film over coffee with a friend is different than broadcasting your views on the internet. Is it going to help you at all? Sure, we can learn a lot from bad movies and TV shows - but we can also learn a lot from great ones. Personally, I like to focus on Things I Love.

There's also the issue of anonymity, which came up as people revealed Carson's real name. In the beginning of this blog I stayed partially anonymous, not revealing my company or my last name, obviously to keep my job but also because I didn't want the company associated with the blog if they didn't like it. I always thought very carefully about what I was writing - no company secrets, no name dropping, no badmouthing.

Some people do choose to blog completely anonymously, but I'm not sure that's the best way to go. First off, your identity may be revealed at some point, by no fault of your own. And second, if you're going to put so much time and energy into a blog, don't you want to get credit for it? Don't you want people to find it and be impressed with you? Sure, you could always post an email address and have people get to the real you that way. But I think that if you're going to blog, blog thoughtfully - and proudly put your name on it.

I have gotten a few queries about how to have a successful blog. Here's my take on that:

1. Have a clear focus. Very few people can write about a ton of different topics (or just chronicle their lives) and be compelling. If you pick a specific topic, then you'll be more likely to attract readers because they'll know exactly what they're getting. Make sure you're adding something to the internet that isn't already there. What is special about your blog that is going to make people want to come back? What information are you providing?

2. Blog often. If you blog less than once a week, people will generally stop bothering to visit. On the flip side, a million posts a day get very exhausting and annoying.

3. Have an attractive layout and don't clutter up your blog with ads. Maybe I'm hypersensitive about this, but if the font is too small or the ads are too big or I don't like your color scheme, I don't want to read your blog. (And if you're wondering if you can make decent money from ads: probably not, unless you can drive more than a thousand visitors to your site each day. I could probably work harder to monetize, but if your sole blogging purpose is to make money, I doubt you'll be successful.)

4. Get more successful blogs to link you. I pretty much owe everything to Jane Espsenson.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Aspiring Producers

Justin writes: I'm an aspiring producer. Do you know where I can find writers who'd be willing to work on spec for a couple ideas I have?

Here's the problem...I don't know if I can really advise any aspiring writers to work on spec for aspiring producers, unless they are close friends and really want to give it a shot. Why? No manager, agent, producer or executive is going to see a script that has an attached producer with no experience or credits as a good thing.

(Also, you may want to be aware that all writers have plenty of ideas of their own that they want to work on.)

I know you may want to jump into you producing career, but I'm not sure this is the best way to do it. Usually the way to start producing is to become an assistant at a production company and get promoted. This often involves being an assistant at an agency first, or perhaps being a PA or receptionist at the production company and working your way up (I have friends who have done both).

The other path would be to start producing things independently, if you know how and can somehow raise money. You might look into film schools - The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC is definitely recognized in Hollywood, and many of its alums have been very successful.

Maybe you could start with a short. And to actually answer your question, maybe try the TV Writers Yahoo Group.

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