Is “enter a writer’s program” one of your New Year’s resolutions? If it wasn’t, maybe it should be. It goes without saying that if you want to be a writer you need to write and committing to complete a spec pilot and/or a spec of an existing show is a great way to do just that. Whether you are accepted into the programs or not, writing good spec material is NEVER a waste of time.
These programs are very competitive – in fact I was told a few years ago that it’s easier to get into Harvard than it is to get into the Warner Bros. Writer’s Workshop. The good news, however, is more and more of these opportunities seem to be springing up every year. Click here for a comprehensive list of available programs and make sure to check the requirements for submissions, as each one tends to be slightly different.
So what are some of the factors that decide who makes the cut and who doesn’t? According to Rebecca Windsor, Manager of the Television Workshop for Warner, the number one thing they look for are unique and interesting voices. “We can teach structure, but we can’t teach character and tone”
Showing off your voice can be especially challenging when writing a spec of an existing show, which is one of the requirements for Warner Bros. as well as many of the other programs. According to Rebecca, “It’s extra hard because the writers have to capture that voice as well as bring something of themselves to it.” It also makes perfect sense, since many of these programs are designed to help participants get ready for their first job on the writing staff of a series, so it’s critical they see you can write in someone else’s voice. You need to bring something of yourself to the spec, while at the same time make sure it reads just like any other episode of the series you choose in terms of elements like humor, pacing, and tone. Rebecca suggested, “It’s not about taking it in a new direction, but be surprising and interesting in some way.”
Be careful about the show you select as your spec submission. Typically the writing programs will either have a list of approved shows or ask you to choose a show that’s been on the air for at least two years. Double check to be sure the script you write is an acceptable episode for the program (or programs) of your choice. While there are websites and chat boards telling you to strategize which show to choose, Rebecca warns against trying to second guess what to write based on how many submissions will be of that same show. “Don’t write one you think they want to read, write the show you feel you can shine in”
Common sense would also dictate you choose a show typical for the network or studio affiliated with that particular writer’s program. You might have the most amazing spec of “Peaky Blinders,” but is it the best choice for the Disney/ABC program, for instance? When the competition is so tight for so few slots, why make it more challenging for executives to see how you fit in with their brand?
Some programs require you to submit a spec of an existing show and an original spec all at the same time. For Warner Bros., the spec of an existing show is required for round one; it’s only a small select group of people who are invited to submit an original pilot in round two. As challenging as round one was, having your original spec stand out in a group of equally talented writers is even harder. You have to ask yourself, “Is it fresh, interesting, or surprising?” Executives recognize the added difficulty of writing an original pilot on your own without a network or studio to help you develop the idea and generally both writing samples carry equal weight in deciding who moves forward in the program. “It’s rare that a writer hits both of them out of the park,” Rebecca added.
Jen Goyne Blake, the Senior Manager of the Sundance Episodic Story lab, agrees with Rebecca that it’s all about finding writers with a strong voice. “First and foremost we look at voice and character. Is it an interesting POV into a world we haven’t seen before?” They also take into consideration if the audience will want to spend more than a couple of hours with the characters. In other words, does your original idea have the legs to be an ongoing, sustainable series? In a series, “Usually the main character is deciding between two equally bad options.”
Unlike many writing programs, the Sundance Episodic Story Lab doesn’t require a spec of an existing show. In fact, it only requires the first five pages of your original pilot, as well as a synopsis, a short essay and a few other requirements (noted here). At first Jen was worried that might not be enough to judge the quality of a pilot but after their first year she realized, “It’s amazing how much you can tell.” Is the opening exciting, something we haven’t seen before? Does it open with interesting character dynamics? Most importantly, does the reader know what the show is about?
For Jen, it’s not so much about the script being perfect. Writers coming to the Story Lab should realize where their script’s flaws are and come looking for specific help. What the writer does have to know is where the series goes beyond the pilot. The scripts that really resonate with Jen are the ones that, “Oscillate between 2 insurmountable options, both in comedy and drama.”
Sorry comedy writers, both Rebecca and Jen agree your job is a little tougher than it is for your drama brethren. “Drama is a bit more forgiving,” Rebecca points out. If the drama writer hasn’t completely nailed the plot, but the characters are strong that’s something they can work with. Comedy, on the other hand, better be funny to all those reading it and elicit at least a chuckle or two in the first five pages. “Comedy is harder, it’s much more subjective,” Jen agreed.
The growing popularity of more serious half hour comedies like “Atlanta” is a trend writers need to be mindful of. It’s fine to submit a spec of a show with more serious subject matter as your comedy sample, but be sure your original absolutely fits with the brand of the network or studio. For Warner Bros., who tend towards the more traditional comedies like “The Middle,” “Big Bang Theory,” and “2 Broke Girls” it’s going to be very hard for executives to feel confident you can write on the staff for the type of shows they make if your original doesn’t feel like a show they’d make.
In addition to your sample scripts, nearly all writing programs require an essay in some form or another about your background, why you want to be a writer and what unique perspective you would bring to the writers’ room. This exercise in self-branding can seem pretty daunting; that’s why writer and teacher Tawnya Bhattacharya offers a Fellowship Bio & Essay Workshop through her company, Script Anatomy. Each year around this time, instructor Hollie Overton, an alumna of both Warner Bros. Writers Workshop and the PGA Diversity Program, walks writers through the process of creating successful bios and essays. According to Tawnya, “Hollie deconstructs successful fellowship essays and analyzes why they work, as well as reviewing ones that don’t work and how the writer could have made it better. She offers helpful tips of what to do and what not to do when putting together your materials, and helps the writers articulate the symbiotic relationship between their life story and their brand.”
“Most of us aren’t super interesting. Meaning, most of us weren’t raised in a cult or former CIA ops. That’s really helpful in landing a job,” Tawnya joked, but advised writers to dig deep to find what in their background gives them a unique perspective and voice that will make them stand out in a way that’s useful in a writers room. The essay isn’t simply a resume; it’s as much of a sample of your ability to tell a story as your script. Rather than trying to tell your whole life story, Tawnya recommends writers focus on a pivotal time in your life. Was there a moment where your life, much like your characters’ in your pilot, took a turn that changed you forever? Those personal stories are compelling.
Jen also pointed out that for Sundance, the essay should point out your personal connection to your script. The “why me” of it emphasizes your passion for the script, and how it makes you the best person to tell the story, is critical. It doesn’t mean your script has to be autobiographical, but there should be some emotional connection, whether the story is true or not, tying you to the script.
In most cases, the essay isn’t as important as your scripts, but it can make the difference between getting in or not. In some programs, if there is a tie between two writers the essay will be the tiebreaker. Where it really comes in handy, however, is in the inevitable interview process. Rebecca pointed out, “For those who make it to the final round for interviews, those are HUGELY important, because as a TV writer, you need to be both good on the page and in the room.” Having put the time into writing a thoughtful essay will give you talking points to bring up in the interview that will make you an engaging, interesting person they want to work with.
Separate from the essay is a bio, which again should be, “fun and entertaining, not just a laundry list,” according to Tawnya. Be sure to include any experience you’ve had in the entertainment business, whether you wrote, directed and produced your own web series or worked as a PA. Both essay and bio are writing samples and should be taken as seriously as your scripts.
General guidelines to follow include if you want to be a comedy writer, make your essay and bio funny. If you want to write dramas, find a dramatic element. However, Tawnya cautioned, “Don’t be too dark without balancing it out with some light as well.”
The investment in the workshop will give you a bio that clarifies what your brand is, something you’ll use those throughout your career. Whether going for staffing or general meetings, you’ll already have your “humble brag” at the ready. Rebecca pointed out being able to identify and articulate what you bring to the room is going to be critical to your ongoing success. “It’s such a key element of TV writing not just for the Workshop, but if they are meeting with a showrunner for a job, they need to make a good impression right away. There is no time for them to “warm up” to someone.”
Jen’s advice, which seems applicable whether you’re talking about your interview for a writer’s program, a job, or a pitch, is to, “Practice, practice, practice.”
Be sure to check all the programs you’re interested in, as deadlines vary. Sundance, for instance, is coming up very soon and HBO is only open to submissions for a few days in March.
Sit down, get to it, and make 2017 the year you move forward in your writing career!