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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Iain alexander said...

You have an advantage if you are different from everyone else. Why do you need to be in LA when you can set your series in Detroit?

Nicole Leigh said...

I've been living in LA since the summer and still can't get an assistant job or even a receptionist job. I get the UTA job list, am a member of, and apply every day. I'm becoming quite disenchanted with this industry.

Sasha said...

Thanks for answering my questions, Amanda! I'm glad to hear you've seen more job postings lately. For a while, it seemed like slow-moving but still certain suicide to move out there even with $5K and an internship. BUT I've spent a couple years devoting myself to writing, and by summer I'll have exhausted what I can do here--if the specific opportunities I've applied for don't pan out, I'll have to leave for LA by summer, fear or not--what's the alternative?

Though I do say fear because--yeah, Nicole, your situ is exactly what I'm afraid of. What can a person do when the money runs out? For what it's worth, anyway, I admire you for moving to LA...and hey--you've got a better shot of "making it" than any of us non-LAers do at the moment. So as rough as you're having it, you're ahead of this straggler at least :)

Stephanie Bourbon: Writer, artist, actress, creative consultant said...

I like what you wrote, but I have to disagree a little about the assistant path, while it can work, it can also work against you. I have several friends that have been writer's assistants for years and years and years and years and years and never get a chance. I also have showrunner friends that say they would never hire an assistant to be a writer. It is like everything else in Hollywood, it can help you, but it can work against you.

I think moving to L.A. is important because you can go to as many networking events, workshops and seminars and meet tons of great people this way.

The thing about specs is that they have to be current and I often see people holding onto specs that are out of date because they "love it".

To Nicole, you have only been here a few months, don't feel disenchanted. It takes time. Every day in this industry is a ride, and usually for the worse, but do NOT give up. Maybe your break won't be the assistant route.

I have worked in the industry since I was 5, started as an actress and then went into animation and now I write as well. I can't afford to take an assistant job and have in the past and it hasn't helped me, but I have had luck with networking, agents and other avenues.

It will happen, but it doesn't happen overnight. Being a writer in Hollywood is a marathon, not a sprint. :0)

Little Miss Nomad said...

you need specs for the Nickelodeon too. essentially, if you're really passionate to being a writer, you have to just constantly be writing, writing, writing.

JRK said...

Another angle - though might be a stretch for most is tapping into the UK market - BBC accepts sitcom/tv scripts - but of course you have know a bit about life across the pond to write about it.

Dan Williams said...

Thanks for answering my question. I think you're right about moving to LA and joining groups of one kind or another. When I was teaching English As A Second Language in Mexico City, I could tell the talented students from the others. Talent just stands out. So I imagine that if a writer writes a great spec, etc, the others in the group will spot it and give encouragement. At the least, they will identify strengths which the writer can then build on.

So I've got to move to L.A., eh? Guelph isn't the center of the entertainment universe? Who knew?

Thanks again for you help!

J.D. said...

JRK -- I assume you're talking about the BBC Writersroom ? If that's the case, I'm sorry to say they don't accept submissions from abroad anymore (not even Europe).