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Originally published in 2011
Today's question comes from … well … lots of people. Over the past few weeks, I've received several questions which all seem to relate to the same topic: how to submit your scripts to various TV shows.
So let's start with Anna, who asks …
I have been trying to submit my scripts without an agent, and I'm finding it's very difficult. Most places require that a submission be made by an agent, production company, or entertainment attorney. What do you recommend?
Well, the truth is, Anna, it's not just "very difficult" to submit to your scripts to TV shows without an agent … it's downright impossible.
And not just because you need an agent, but because ...
TV shows don't accept submissions from outside writers.
Most TV shows — from sitcoms and dramas like Raising Hope or Hawaii Five-Oh to sketch, talk, and variety shows like The Colbert Report or The Tonight Show — are written by staffs, groups of (usually) five to 10 writers hired to architect the season and write every episode ... so they're not actively looking for new scripts, writers, or story ideas.
… Which leads me to a question from Jim, a loyal reader who'd e-mailed me a few weeks ago with a similar question. When I responded, he asked:
Are you saying shows NEVER buy spec scripts in "singles" for a season? That every single show is written by staff? What about simply running out of ideas? Is that why so many shows seem to look alike and soon get tired? Will they buy a single episode spec as long as no major tenet of the overall plot line for the season isn't violated?
Sadly, Jim … YES — that is exactly what I'm saying … and no, they won't buy a single episode spec. Ever.
And sure — that may be part of the reason why "so many shows seem to look alike" and "get tired." But there are other reasons for that, too …
Networks are often hesitant to try new types of shows, so they stick to what's familiar: shows about marriage, family, groups of single friends living in a city, etc. (Last year, there were about 6,748 different pilot scripts about groups of male friends at different points in their lives.) And while it's not usually a show's topic that makes it interesting — it's how its storytellers look at that topic — fresh takes on familiar areas, like Modern Family, don't come along all that often. And when they do, they often fail, even if they're wonderful (case in point: Arrested Development).
Even when a brave new show does make it to TV, it's up against an army of forces threatening to warp or dilute its vision. As I said in my post, "I Can Write Better Than the Crap on TV (… Can't I?)," writers aren't unaware when their show is struggling. Ignorant viewers love bitching about a show's writing as if the writers don't know what the problem is; but I promise you … the writers know. They're trying to write great stuff … but they're battling many influences out of their control: budget, time crunches, network notes, etc. A TV writer's job, after all, isn't to write and produce the best stories they can; it's to write and produce the best stories they can … in the allotted amount of time, for a certain amount of money, with a particular cast, while catering to the network and studio's wants. (You can read more about this HERE.)
And lastly … yes — the world of professional TV writers is, ultimately, a fairly small pool … so even when shows hire new writers, or new shows put together a staff, they're hiring from the same well of writers that's been circulating for years. This isn't to say those writers aren't talented. Far from it … I find that most TV writers, especially the veterans, are A) incredibly passionate and talented, and B) absolute experts on structure, character, joke-writing, etc. But even the freshest voices can become un-fresh, and the true geniuses — the Larry Gelbarts and the David Chases and the Louis C.K.'s and the Joss Whedons — only come along once in a blue moon.
Even when you have a genius writer, putting together a staff is like putting together any other type of team. You don’t just hire the best people; you hire the best people that work well together. Sometimes, a showrunner hires brilliantly talented writers who don't gel as a group. I've known writers who bounced from show to show to show, never quite fitting in, gaining a reputation as being "good, not great," "just okay" or "hacky," until … one day … they land somewhere where they're a perfect fit — and suddenly they blossom. Likewise, I've known brilliant writers who have landed on a series where their voice is stifled … or "noted" to death … or simply wrong for the particular show. It doesn't mean the writer (or writers) isn't great; it just means the situation isn't great.
But also to your point, Jim ...
Thirty or 40 years ago, TV shows would often hire freelance writers or accept outside scripts.
No more. Each show's staff does almost all of the writing every season.
Having said that, the WGA, the Writers Guild of America (the labor union governing professional screenwriters), in an effort to inject new blood into the writing world, does require TV shows that have been on-air for at least a year to farm out 2-3 freelance episodes per season to writers who aren't on staff.
Most of the time -- and by "most" I mean "pretty much all of" -- these freelance scripts are given to either:
- The show's writers assistant
- The assistant to the show's showrunner or executive producer
- A personal writer-friend of the showrunner, often someone who's already an established professional writer
... Which is another reason why, as I repeat loudly on this blog, it's essential — if you want to be a TV writer — to be in Los Angeles, networking and building your base of contacts.
Now, TV shows and showrunners do accept script submissions when they're hiring new writers, but there are some important things to know about this:
1) Network TV shows only hire writers once a year: during staffing season … which lasts from April/May through June. Showrunners, producers, networks, and execs begin reading scripts and meeting with writers in March and April, then hire new staff members just after the May Upfronts. (You can read more about Upfronts HERE.) Cable shows don't necessarily follow the exact same annual schedule, but they usually still hire only once a year.
2) Most shows only accept scripts through an agent or manager. Aside from providing some level of legal protection, agents and managers provide showrunners and readers with a filter. Networks, studios, shows, and producers receive thousands of submissions a year, more scripts than they could ever possibly read. So execs and producers must prioritize, accepting only scripts they believe have a realistic shot of being valuable. And those tend to be scripts from reliable sources, professional colleagues whose tastes they know and trust. In other words: agents and managers. (To learn more about how producers or execs prioritize submissions, click HERE.)
3) You can't submit a spec of a show to that same show. In other words, you (or your agent/manager) can't send your CSI spec to CSI. They won't read it … and you shouldn't want them to. This is partly for legal reasons, in case someone submits a script with a storyline similar to something the show's staff is already writing. Showrunners aren't in the business of stealing ideas, but every once in awhile, a naïve young writer believes their idea has been stolen. While this is almost never the case, the ensuing legal headaches can be costly, time-consuming, and distracting … so it's better to avoid it altogether. (You can learn more about protecting your work in my post, "The Truth About Protecting Your Work.")
But this also helps the writer. After all, no one knows -- or thinks they know -- the tone, voice, and structure of a show better than the writers making it every week. So no matter how great you believe your Cougar Town spec to be, the bar is infinitely higher if you send it to Cougar Town itself. Plus, the Cougar Town writers sit in a room all day dreaming up — and often rejecting — every possible Cougar Town story. So the notion that you've thought up a brand new, never-before-thought-of Cougar Town story is slim … and it's even slimmer that you've executed better than they would've.
Thus, agents submit specs of other shows to series their clients want to write on. For instance, a CSI spec might go to Law & Order: SVU or Criminal Minds. How I Met Your Mother could read The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men. This allows showrunners to see how you'd tell narratively or thematically similar stories, without trying to use the same characters and structures.
4) Right now, sample specs seem to be out of fashion. Traditionally, TV writers looking to get staffed have needed specs (sample episodes of airing shows, like True Blood or Royal Pains) and original material (pilots, screenplays, stage plays, etc.). Lately, however, execs and showrunners have been less inclined to read specs, leaning more toward original pilots. Eventually, the pendulum may swing back the other way (a few years ago, for example, execs and showrunners refused to read pilots, wanting only specs!), but right now, you're best armed with a great pilot script.
5) A show must be hiring at your level in order to hire you. When shows hire new writers each staffing season, they don't always hire "staff writers," the lowest rung on the ladder. Some shows are looking for upper levels … others need a story editor or producer … others want a part-time consulting producer. So getting hired doesn't just mean being the best writer … it means being the best writer at the level they're hiring.
And finally …
6)Showrunners tend to promote their assistants or hire friends. Like with freelance scripts, showrunners frequently hire new writers by bumping up their assistants or writers assistants, trusted colleagues who already know the team, its processes, its shorthand (and who have already invested hours of hard work into the show). When they don't promote their assistants, they hire friends and former co-workers, people they already feel comfortable with and believe will mesh well with the team.
So what would I recommend, Anna?
As I preach constantly on this blog, I'd recommend moving to Los Angeles (if you're not already here), and getting a job in the industry. You'll probably begin as some kind of assistant -- a P.A., an administrative assistant, an agency mailroom worker, etc. -- but you'll be in the mix, meeting other young writers, assistants, execs, producers, agents, etc. Only when you're meeting and building relationships with these people will your career take off. (All the while, of course, you'll be writing new material and getting better, better, better.) No agents will sign you ... and no showrunners will read you ... simply because you send them your script -- no matter how brilliant it may be. They'll read it because they know you personally, or know someone who knows you personally, moving your script to the top of their stack.
Here are some other blog posts to help you out:
- How Do I Get an Agent? - Part One
- How Do I Get an Agent? - Part Two
- More of Your Agent Questions... Answered!
- Does Having an Agent Allow You to Live Outside L.A.?
- Getting Your First Job in Hollywood
- How to Break In If You're Not in L.A.
- Do All Screenwriters Have to Live in L.A.?
Anyway, I hope this helps, Anna, Jim, and everyone else!
If you have more questions, please post them below, Tweet me @chadgervich.
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