Susan Kouguell is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and chairperson of the screenplay and post-production consulting company Su-City Pictures East She is the author of The Savvy Screenwriter: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself ). Follow Susan on Twitter: @SKouguell
I had the pleasure to speak with Maria about her writing career and her new animated children’s show, Elena of Avalor, which recently premiered on the Disney Channel.
Full disclosure: I was the associate producer of Maria’s first independent feature film Rum and Coke, which she wrote and directed.
Maria Escobedo is a native New Yorker with a BFA in film from New York’s School of Visual Arts. She studied screenwriting at NYU, playwriting at The Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and earned a TV Writing Fellowship from ABC/Disney. Maria’s writing credits include ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and HULU’s Emmy-nominated Original Series East Los High. Maria has written original movies for Lifetime, Disney Channel, and developed an original TV pilot for Nickelodeon. She has also written for many animated children’s shows, including Dora the Explorer; Go, Diego, Go on Nick Jr.; Shapes for Peach Blossom Media, Nina’s World for NBC’s Sprout Network, Special Agent Oso on Disney Jr., and the new Latina Disney princess, Elena of Avalor on Disney Channel. Maria is very proud to have worked for two of the most influential women in television: Shonda Rhimes and Dora the Explorer!
On the feature side, Citadel Entertainment optioned Maria’s very first screenplay. She later wrote and directed the indie film, Rum And Coke, which garnered critical and popular attention at international film festivals and is available on DVD and streaming. Maria served as Co-Chair of the Latino Writers Committee at the WGA West for 5 years, and is currently an adjunct writing professor at USC School of Cinematic Arts.
I asked Maria to talk about her writing journey.
Escobedo: When I made my film Rum and Coke I got a lot of attention. We did a huge festival circuit and I got a DVD and streaming deal. People who saw it said it was very character-driven and that I should think about writing for television because it was the place that nurtured characters. That's what made me think about TV. Being in New York -- which is different now because there's more TV going on now in New York -- but 11 years ago TV just wasn't what you thought about. Either you went into advertising or you made an independent film. That's what my husband (Charles Gherardi) and I did. The first script got optioned and the second one was Rum and Coke.
I wrote a couple of spec scripts for live action, including a Law & Order SVU and a Boston Legal, which got me the Disney Fellowship.
I received the Disney Fellowship about 10 years ago and that led to a writing gig at Grey's Anatomy; that's how I started my romance with Disney and NBC when I got into the fellowship. A friend of mine who was working at Dora the Explorer at Nickelodeon said they had some positions there so that's how it started to happen. Because of the WGA strike I started working in animation because it's a different union.
Kouguell:What made you decide to move to Los Angeles?
Escobedo: When I got the Disney Fellowship the decision was to move to Los Angeles for the year and then return to New York and then we ended up staying because there was work here.
Kouguell:How did you get involved with Elena of Avalor?
Escobedo: I'm a freelance writer this season on the show. I was a freelance writer on a lot of animation shows; many times these shows don't have a staff of writers. They’ll have the head writer and the show’s creator and then the rest of the writers are freelance. Elena of Avalor actually did have a small staff and when I had gone in for the interview they had already filled their room but they asked me to write one of their freelance episodes and that's what I did.
What I love about the Elena character is that she's older, she's already 17. The episodes are half hour; many Disney Junior shows are 11 minutes each. There's a lot of humor in this show, more so than in some of the younger shows. Elena has her faults, she's not perfect and yes, she's wonderful, loving, and is always thinking of others, but there's a sense of reality to it and that's what I love about her. There's adventure in what she tries to do but it has that heart that makes great Disney.
Kouguell:Tell me about your experience working in the various writers’ rooms.
Escobedo: It's both exhilarating and intimidating. You bond with the other writers, sharing stories. Everyone in the room adding their own point of view makes it so much more of a collaborative effort. You're able to talk about the story and the script. The characters are real; you go home thinking about the characters and the story. Features are so much slower to make than in television where you have the time to really develop the characters in the stories. But in TV there's a deadline to get the show done in a short amount of time.
Grey's Anatomy was the first time I was in a writers room. Coming from the feature world I just always sat in front of the computer and wrote by myself or with my husband/partner. I actually loved it and I fell in love with TV.
My experience in children’s animation has been that you're pitching your episode and you get some feedback from the group, which is always good, but you're pretty much on your own to write it. You go back and forth with the head writer, and then the network is giving you notes – and that's similar to live action.
There are smaller writers rooms or there's no writers room at all; you're just getting together every so often to pitch what your next story is and work it out, and then go back and write.
Nina's World was an interesting writers room because I was really writing from my bedroom and Skyping with the other writers. Most were in Toronto, Canada and there were few here in Los Angeles. Most of the time we did it from our homes. It was different because we were pitching our own episodes -- we really weren't writing them together.
Kouguell: As a Latina woman in the industry, what changes have you seen?
Escobedo: Since I've been in Los Angeles for 11 years it feels like there have been a lot of positive changes. I was chair of the Latino writers committee at the Writers Guild. Probably in the last two years or so I've seen a lot more Latinos in general coming into the WGA and a good amount of women. There's a little bit more attention being paid to diversity and the Guild itself is paying attention to it; they're saying that the writers’ rooms are not as diverse as they should be. They’re making sure that that the writers in their rooms are more reflective of the country and what our country looks like.
Kouguell:Your advice to writers looking to break into television?
Escobedo: You need writing samples. My advice is, know yourself, know your brand, know what you're good at and what you think reflects you, but diversify it a little bit. If you love, for example, superhero stuff write a superheroes spec but then also write something that's character-driven that doesn't rely only on action. Make sure your voice is there. There is so much on network TV, streaming and cable.
East Los High, which is a HULU show, has a huge online/Transmedia component and fan base. Grey's Anatomy had that too; it was ahead of its time for many reasons. Another way of breaking into TV is by being a writer/researcher for the online world where the show has a whole other life! Of course being a writer's assistant is an excellent way of breaking in especially because as a writers assistant you are in the writers room the whole time!
Check out all of Susan's Upcoming Classes!
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting: Give your Script a Solid Foundation - Starts August 25th
The Fundamentals of Screenwriting, Accelerated
Writing the Family Feature Film
Writing the Family Feature, Accelerated
Writing the Documentary
Writing the Documentary, Accelerated
Writing the Animated Feature - Starts August 11th
Advanced Film Rewriting
World Building: Crafting Screenplays Readers Can Step Into