Friday, January 7, 2011

Interview with Karen Kirkland, Executive Director of the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship

“It’s amazing to me how few television writers actually know about this fellowship, especially because it’s a paid program!” says Karen Kirkland, Executive Director of the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship. Karen’s looking to spread the word, so I sat down with her to chat about what she’s looking for, what sitcoms writers should spec, what happens during the fellowship, and what previous fellows have gone on to do.

Do you think writers decide not to enter the program because they think “Oh, it’s Nickelodeon, and I don’t want to write kids’ stuff”?

It’s unfortunate, but I think a lot of writers don’t enter the program because they believe there’s a big difference in writing for Nick as opposed to writing for more “adult” network shows. If you’re a fan of our programming, you’ll notice it’s pure entertainment for kids, but there’s also a wink every now and then for the adult or older sibling who’s watching along. Keep in mind the stories are written by adults, but the one thing we do not do is dumb anything down for kids.

In order to submit to the program, you do NOT have to submit a spec script for a Nickelodeon show, it doesn’t even need to be kid-friendly. We accept spec scripts based on any ½-hour comedy out there currently on-air and in production on primetime network or cable.

Great story-telling is great story-telling. The content might be a little bit different, but I don’t think it precludes one from then going on and pursuing a career outside of Nickelodeon – if that’s what they so chose.

Bottom line – it’s about the work. The writers who have come through the program and have been staffed on Nickelodeon shows are doing well and are very happy – as are the writers who have come through the program, been staffed on our shows and have since moved on to primetime network shows.

Nickelodeon has been able to put kids first in almost everything we do. Having stories that are kid-relatable, stories that are funny and stories that originate from character – that’s what it’s all about.

How is writing for a Nickelodeon show different than writing for more adult shows?

In my opinion, it’s not really all that different. I think from a story perspective, making sure you understand the tone of the show, having a solid grasp of the character’s voices, having a unique story to tell and injecting the script with a huge dose of funny – it’s all the same.

I would say, however, that writing for our animated shows has proven to be a challenge to some of the writers that come through the program. For any writer who writes short stories, they know it’s not easy to clearly and concisely convey an action-packed story in 11 minutes.

I want to work with a writer that can give me a fresh perspective on the show they're writing for. However I still want the tone of the show to remain intact and I still want the character voices to be accurate, but I’d want to get a sense of the writer’s voice, in terms of his or her point-of-view on a specific topic. That’s not an easy thing to do whether you’re writing for Nickelodeon or primetime network.

Do the fellows generally stay at Nick or move onto other kinds of shows?

Our 2009-2010 Writing Fellows “graduated” in October of 2010 and two of them got staff writing jobs. One got staffed on Fanboy and Chum Chum and the other got staffed on The Penguins of Madagascar. The third fellow is writing freelance on a new show for Nick.

When it comes to writers who have graduated from the program, some of them get staffed here at Nick and some of them don’t. Some of them get staffed here first and stay for a few years, then move on to other staff writing gigs once production has ended on the show they were writing for.

As a result of being in the fellowship, the majority of the writers who have come through the program have received multiple produced credits on Nickelodeon shows. However, our main objective is not only to get them produced credits, but also to get them staff writing jobs.

In the last six years, we’ve been successful at staffing the majority of our writers on Nickelodeon shows. In addition to those that are still writing for Nick (Jonathan Butler, Gabe Garza, Jessica Gao, May Chan, Ron Holsey, Ivory Floyd, Kerri Grant, Stacie Craig), others who have come through the fellowship are currently writing on or have written on shows like Modern Family, The Cleveland Show, Mr. Sunshine, Sesame Street, Everybody Hates Chris, My Boys, Arrested Development, and Aliens in America to name a few.

But for the writers who don’t get staffed, I don’t abandon them either. For instance, there was one writer this last cycle that didn’t get staffed, so I put her on a six-week script schedule and she started writing a Community spec. She completed that spec and now she’s on a new six-week script schedule for Modern Family. My door remains open... Even for the finalists who make it to speed interviews but don’t get chosen as Fellows, they know they can always pick up the phone and call – or come in for a Script Review.

What are some rookie mistakes you see writers make?

But it’s my opinion that in order to succeed in this business as a writer – you’re going to have to develop a thick skin. I know it can be tough at times because there are some execs out there who are frustrated writers themselves and they want you to take their notes, and commit entirely to their thought process.

Within the confines of the Writing Fellowship - a writer needs to be able to come to the table with the understanding that this is going to be a collaborative process. We’re going to have a conversation about structure, tone and dialogue and we’re also going to talk about what my “take away” is as a reader, as an audience member. I’m diving into your story with an open mind. What am I feeling? Is this what you’re trying to convey? What are the character motivations here? What kind of story are you really trying to tell? I think those questions are important ones. Also, on the flip side of that, a writer shouldn’t just agree with everything I’m saying. You can’t. You have to be committed to and stand-up for your creative vision. And I think that’s the fine line. The writers may not be as savvy coming into the program, but once they leave, they know exactly what that fine line is and how to navigate it. They understand the difference between not fighting for everything, but picking and choosing their battles and fighting for enough.

What are you looking for in the applications?

I don’t look at applications or bios and resumes until the very, very, very end of the application/submission process - which is usually about an hour before I’m about to get on the phone and do a phone interview with a writer. And the reason is that I want the work to speak for itself. When the scripts come in, we will tear off the cover page so we don’t know if you’re from California, Utah or New Jersey. We don’t know if you’re male or female.

Our selection process is very rigorous! There are three ‘rounds’ of reading. During round-one, all of the scripts are read by professional readers who are experienced at doing coverage and who understand the sensibilities of the fellowship. They understand precisely the qualities that make for a good script. Scripts that make it through the first-round are then moved into the second-round. The second-round scripts are read in-house by the coordinators and managers within Network, in both development and current series (both live action and animation). The third-round of reading is done by the Directors, EICs and VPs within development and current series, again both live action and animation.

After the scripts have gone through the several rounds of reading, I then read the scripts that have come through the sifter. At that point I may or may not "pass" on a few more. The writers of the remaining scripts become the semi-finalists. Keep in mind that at this point, we still haven’t even looked at the application, the bio or the resume for the writer. We don’t know anything about the writer other than his or her writing ability. All semi-finalists have a phone interview with me and it’s usually during this time I’ll take a look at the bio, resume and application so I can start to get a feel for who they are, what their passions are, etc. I’m intrigued by people and I want to find out what motivates writers and what drives them to create. During the hour-long phone interview is when I ask for a second spec (hint, hint). If the writer doesn't have a second spec – they’re immediately disqualified. It's my belief that if you're a writer - you're constantly writing, and if you're a television writer - you should have more than one television spec. Once I read your second spec, you're then called in for an in-person interview. If all goes well during the in-person interview - you're then a finalist and moved into speed interviews. Speed interviews are a super intense series of interviews (with show creators, head writers, line producers and network executives) that take place over the course of a few days. Eleven interviews over a course of 4 days to be exact…

Would you read half hour pilots, or just specs?

Just specs. For submission to the fellowship you must submit a ½-hour spec script based on ANY comedic television series currently on-air and in production on primetime network or cable. Any ½-hour spec. It does NOT need to be for a Nickelodeon show, nor does it need to be kid-friendly. Keep in mind that we don’t accept pilots, original material or feature-length scripts.

A writer’s best bet is to write a spec script for 30 Rock, Modern Family, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, How I Met Your Mother - just to name a few.

The script will mainly be judged on story, humor, dialogue, character development, structure and originality.

Do you think being good in a room is just as important as your writing?

I think so – but being “good” in a room is only relevant to the writer’s room you’re in. Every room is different. We’re looking for strong writers with great personalities. A writer that has a creative point-of-view, a writer we’d want to spend an entire year with, a writer that we’d feel comfortable sending into one of our writer’s rooms, someone who can hold his or her own. A writer that is able to pitch out jokes and break story. You have to know when not to be annoying. And for most writers who have never been in a room, it’s a little bit intimidating. But each of our productions have great creative teams that will help you along the way.

Did some of your previous applicants of fellows lack room experience but impress you anyway?

Yes. The majority of writers who become writing fellows don’t have any “professional” experience to speak of. In addition, to be considered for the program, you can’t have had any network or cable produced television credits. The program is here in part to help writers gain room experience.

So people shouldn’t be worried that they might not be ready for this?

No! I want writers to exercise their creative visions and realize their dreams. You are ready – right now!

Does diversity play a big part in choosing your fellows?
Yes it does! Writers sometimes think they shouldn’t apply because they’re not “diverse” – but “diversity” is inclusive of everyone. What does that mean? It means that we’re giving everybody a fair share and equal opportunity. That’s really important.

What is it that really impresses you in the scripts that are submitted? Is it a fresh unique point of view, a writing style, etc?

It’s a combination of all of that. I love it when I can read a 30 Rock spec where the writer has not only given me a fresh perspective on the show in terms of the story idea and the premise, but that I can still feel the tone of the show, the character voices have remained intact, but the writer’s voice - in terms of his or her perspective, is also coming through in that script. That’s a really difficult thing to do. And of course, your script has to make me laugh out loud! It has to be funny. The dialogue needs to be witty. Your story, the arcs and your characters all need to be multi-layered. I can always tell when a writer’s had fun writing their script because I have fun reading it.

So do you think it’s a bad idea for writers to spec shows they don’t love?

I think yes and no. For entrance into competitions such as this one - to showcase your best work - yes, I think it’s best that you stick with a show that you absolutely love. Pick a show that you find humorous and a show that you can relate to. But on the other hand, once you get into the program, it’s not always going to be that easy. We’ve had writers in the past who were assigned to write specs for shows that they were not necessarily big fans of. But what if you get hired on a show you don’t like? The showrunner doesn’t care whether or not you like the show - they care whether or not you can deliver a good script. For programs like this, yes, write something that you love, but be prepared that you may not always be able to do that.

So what happens when the fellows are actually in the program?

The Fellows begin in October every year, and they come into the office every day from 10am to 5pm.

We feel that one of the most beneficial tools a television writer can have is the working knowledge of the creative process of getting notes from an executive and learning how to incorporate those notes into their scripts. To that end, we assign the Fellow to an Executive in Charge of a show (an EIC). The Fellow will spend a week researching that show and coming up with 3 story ideas. The Fellow will then pitch his/her story ideas to the exec. The exec will choose one of them, give the writer some notes and then the writer will have two days to write a premise based on that story idea. Once the premise is complete – we’ll then put the Fellow on a six week writing schedule. During this time, they’ll have two weeks to write an outline, and turn it into the EIC. We schedule yet another notes meeting and the writer will either need to revise the outline, or move on and write the first draft. They’ll have a week to write the first draft, followed by a notes meeting, then two days to write a second draft, then a notes meeting… They’ll continue on this path all the way through to the final draft. Each fellow does this for both a live-action show and an animated show.

In addition, during the first few months the writers are inundated with meetings with everyone at the Studio, from executives, to show creators, to head writers, to line producers and even folks in our post-production department. These are elongated one-hour meetings, and the writer must come to the meeting prepared with at least 10 questions for the person they’re meeting with. The fellow is then free to network and nurture relationships, which is something we encourage.

Interspersed with their writing and their meetings are in-house workshops on how to break story to how to write for comedy to how to succeed in Hollywood - and that’s over the course of 4 or 5 months. Then we send them to UCB, where they take improv classes. Then we send them off to the Robert McKee “Story” weekend.

By March or April, they are ultimately placed on a show – where they get experience in the writer’s room – which is so incredibly valuable. Within the first few weeks of being on the show, the fellow is usually pitching out story ideas and/or they’ve been assigned another script to write (this one getting produced). Ultimately, the fellow stays on that show until their fellowship is over in October, and hopefully – like many of our past writers, will then segue onto the show as a staff writer.

Has the program changed at all over the past few years?

I think the program has grown by leaps and bounds! There are now distinct systems in place that help to ensure we’re staffing as many writers as possible within a given year. When I first began at Nickelodeon six years ago, the program was not very well-known within the industry at-large. I was amazed by how few writers, executives and agents knew about the program. Especially because it was such an amazing opportunity for writers to get paid while doing what they love to do – write! Unlike before, now many of the writers that graduate from the program are either being staffed on our shows, or they are leaving well-equipped to get staff writing jobs elsewhere within the industry.

The way in which we recruit writers has changed as well. We now take a very active approach in discovering new writing talent. We spend hours & days at film festivals exposing writers to our How to Tell a Story workshop and giving Script Reviews. I travel a lot throughout the year to various colleges around the Country spreading the word about the program and encouraging graduating students to apply.

Just this year we finally have a presence on Facebook and on Twitter. We’re attempting to take advantage of as many social media outlets as possible. We’ll most likely be starting a blog soon.

I would say that now after many years of marketing the program and after many staffing success stories – we’ve begun to nurture relationships within the industry as a whole and folks are starting to take notice.

What feedback have you gotten from the showrunners and show creators about the program?

I think I’m really lucky (and so are the Writing Fellows) because I oversee (and they are a part of) a program that the Network and the other Producers here at the Studio absolutely love. A huge amount of value is placed on the program and the Network is completely committed to helping us place the most talented writers into the program and ultimately onto our shows. I think of this program as a talent pool, and when an exec or a production is in need of a writer, they know exactly where to go!

I think part of what makes this program so successful and why we’re able to staff so many writers on our shows is that we’ve gotten complete buy-in down the line - from our exec team to our show creators, to our line producers and from the other writers on each of our shows.

Anything else people should know if they’re thinking of applying?

Have multiple 1/2-hour television specs written - assuming you want to write for television.

Beware of typos - they are not your friend!

Do your research - it's not enough to watch a couple of episodes. Watch them all - multiple times!

Before you write your spec, do yourself a favor - write a 1/2-page premise first, then an outline, then (and only then) should you write your first draft.

Have a unique premise, a well told story, a clear A, B and C story, clearly defined character motivations, scenes that move the story forward, and a solid structure.

The Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship is definitely a fun program to be in, but it’s also a very tough program – a boot camp of sorts. The program is geared toward writers who are seriously committed to their craft, to becoming better writers, to learning more about the business and to being open to the process. The writers that are in this program work really hard to be successful.

The deadline to apply for this year's program is February 28. For more information, check out the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship official websitefollow them on Twitter and find them on Facebook.

Bookmark and Share


Unknown said...

I enjoyed this...thanks:)

Greg M said...

This is a great, great interview, Amanda, filled with useful information.

Don't know if I'm going to have time in between prepping "Lords of Perth" for the agent submission and "7 Days" rehearsals to write a new spec, but if I do, I now know where it's going.

Jen C said...

This is an awesome interview, Amanda! The best information I've seen on any of the fellowships. I will definitely aim to have my spec ready to submit to Nickelodeon next month (yes, I wait until the last second)!


Dan Williams said...

Nice interview!

It seems like Karen and Nick are doing a fantastic job with their Fellowship Program. This is the best program that I've ever heard of and if anybody could get in I'd say go for it all the way!

Karen's passion for the program shines through and through!

Unknown said...

Thanks Amanda! I'll polish off the scec soon.

Brett said...

Just wanted to say that I love your blog! Keep up the awesome work! Also, you should seriously consider compiling your entries into a book for aspiring writers-- it would definitely be better than anything else out there! Best wishes!

Paul A Newman said...

Nice interview. I've heard good things about the Nick fellowship. Any idea what other fellowships are out there? I know Disney has one and I think WB. Any more?

Amanda said...

Paul - there are several. Check out the links on the right hand side of my blog under Fellowships/Contests!

kiyong said...

everyone should definitely apply. i got in this year and it's amazing! said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brian Cohen said...

Thank you for sharing this interview, Amanda! I'm considering applying to the fellowship this year and this post was wonderfully informative, even though it was posted a couple years ago. Thank you!

Robert elbert said...

I just came across your blog and really appreciate the information. I’m planning to apply to this year’s program, but I wonder: When Karen says that she asks semi-finalists for a second spec script because she believes writers are constantly writing, do you know if it has to be a spec? What if you’re “constantly writing,” but you’ve been working on your own pilots? Just curious. Maybe I can ask her via Facebook or Twitter. Thanks!