Welcome to “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I answer questions from writers about making the work of writing happen, tackling craft, business, and personal questions along the way. (Have a question you’d like answered? Check the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today I’m addressing a question about finding a showrunner:
“I have a solid idea for a TV series, but I need help to execute it. Where do I go to ‘meet up’ with a showrunner who'd be open to helping a somewhat ‘newish’ writer?”
This is an intriguing question, though I’m not sure it’s the right question to be asking. Whenever you have an idea for a writing project, I see it as your role to develop and execute it, rather than looking for someone else to do that work for you.
As a newer writer, this means studying and reading TV pilots, taking classes, reading books on TV writing, and developing your concept as fully as you can on your own, before then pitching your concept to production companies, streaming services, or even showrunners. Along the way, you’ll also want to be developing and building relationships into a network of colleagues and industry professionals who might help you along the way, and vice versa.
The other thing to understand is that most showrunners are writers themselves, and in all likelihood, are developing their own shows. This means finding a showrunner who’s free — or willing — to take on your project is, well, tricky.
Since I’m not a television writer myself, I reached out to three TV writers and instructors for their input on first developing an idea and then getting to the stage of finding a showrunner.
Kevin Townsley, a TV writer most recently staffed on Good Times at Netflix and the Director of Development at Script Anatomy, which offers TV writing courses, says the primary focus for every writer is to “write an amazing, finished pilot script that’s up to industry standards — something someone can say yes or no to.”
From there, the path to connecting to a showrunner can vary, but can include “taking your work to production companies, networks, studios, enlisting others to help you, entering fellowships and contests to establish your credibility,” and more. The key thing to recognize is that “a showrunner is at the top of the food chain — they’re all busy, all working on their own projects, and don’t have time for other projects. Imagine how many friends they already have and assistants they might staff too.” This means, do the work first, then pitch. Kevin suggests “taking classes and learning everything you need to know about how to execute a good script,” rather than looking for someone else to help you do it.
William Rabkin, author of Writing the Pilot and Writing the Pilot: Creating the Series and instructor at Script University, has a similar take. He says, “If you're just starting out as a tennis player, Serena Williams is not going to stop by your court to give you serving tips. If you're looking for your first job as a line cook, Danny Meyer is not going to meet with you to discuss your plans for opening a chain of restaurants. . . . I don't want to come across as rude — too late, I'm sure! — but when you're talking about getting a showrunner to help ‘execute’ your idea, you're essentially talking about asking one of the top people in the profession to put aside their own obligations and desires in order to help you accomplish the most basic part of the job. ‘Executing’ the idea — that is, writing the script — is what this entire profession is all about. . . . What you need can be done by so many good writing teachers or consultants — although I would make sure to find one who has actual (and if possible, current) professional experience.”
With execution, Neil Landau, author of the recently released book, The TV Showrunner's Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an on Demand World (2nd edition) and the Director of Screenwriting at the University of Georgia, suggests turning to these five questions to develop your series:
1. Why this idea?
2. Why you?
3. Why now?
4. Does it have global appeal?
5. Is there underlying source material?
In today’s current television market, these are the questions to answer before developing a concept, along with being clear about the simplest of things: “What’s your show about?”
Landau says, “if you can’t answer these questions, you’re not the best writer to sell this show.” If you can answer them with emphatic, firm responses, then you’ll want to develop your pilot script, along with all the components likely to be requested in the pitching process.
As for the pathway to a showrunner, Landau had similar recommendations as Townsley and Rabkin, commenting that the job is to get your script to “be just bulletproof, A++ in quality, and that could take a long time to get to that point.” He adds, “One mistake emerging writers make is they send out material too soon before it's ready, and they don't make a good impression. Remember also the odds, even if it is an A++ script you've been through a gazillion rewrites on, and you've gotten notes on, the odds of selling the pilot are still extremely slim.” It’s a long shot.
He also comments, however, “What's not a long shot is making a good impression. ‘I love this writer's voice. I love their sensibility. I love the music of their language. I love their approach to character.’ That might get you a meeting to talk about what else you're interested in doing, and then you get your foot in the door.”
Once you’ve got a “kick-ass pilot,” Landau recommends focusing on finding a manager or pursuing fellowships or contests to have the script “anointed” by someone who will recommend it up the food chain. He also emphasizes the importance of having a portfolio of work, so when you’re asked to “show us something else,” you’re ready to go.
Bottom line? “Finding a showrunner” means doing the work to develop your concept as fully as you can on your own, seeking representation and attention for the work, and packaging your project as completely as you can before pitching it for consideration for development — and a showrunner.
That’s a Wrap
While it might seem like the pathway from idea to execution is finding a showrunner to help you, it’s your job as the writer to do. Taking TV writing courses, reading TV writing books, working with mentors or consultants, fully developing and executing on your concept, and then seeking representation is the natural path to take to eventually getting to work with a showrunner.
Thank you for submitting your question, and until next time, happy writing!
TV Writing Courses & Books
Here are several courses, books, and resources from the writers I interviewed for this article.
Note: Some of these links are referral links (marked with an asterisk*), which means I earn a commission for any purchases made.
· Kevin Townsley, Director of Development at Script Anatomy, which offers ongoing and frequent TV Writing courses, including a TV Fellowship Bootcamp and their Televisionary course, which is their introductory course for TV writers.
· Kevin Townsley highly recommends Kam Miller’s book, on Amazon*, The Hero Succeeds:The Character-Driven Guide to Writing Your TV Pilot as being an excellent book designed to help you get results with TV writing.
· William Rabkin’s upcoming class at Script University, Write Your Drama Pilot in Six Weeks, sessions starting April 21 and May 19.
· Neil Landau’s book on Amazon*, The TV Showrunner's Roadmap: Creating Great Television in an on Demand World, recently released 2nd edition. Or use coupon code ADC22 and save 30% off list price buying direct from Routledge.
· Neil Landau also mentioned Shonda Rhimes and Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclasses*
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month. And reach out to me on Twitter to share your thoughts: @JennaAvery.