"Why do people hate thinking of screenwriting as a profession like any other?"
There have been great responses and theories, and I'll continue responding over the coming weeks. But today, I want to begin by addressing a question from Billie, who writes...
Chad, you have a book I’d love to purchase, but can you tell me why anyone who has no connections and no plans to move to Los Angeles should buy it? Why should we invest in any books or anything else connected to learning this craft if our scripts have zilch chances of being read?
This is an interesting and fair question, Billie, so here you go…
First of all, I'd think you’d want to invest in books and resources "connected to learning the craft" because you're doing this—first and foremost—not to get read or sell a script, but because you LOVE WRITING. You BURN to tell stories. You feel like an empty, incomplete person if you can't put your deepest, darkest thoughts on paper and turn them into hilarious sketches, searing dialogues, heart-wrenching plots.
If you're only doing this because you're looking for a slam dunk, or a graceful career, I can tell you right now: YOU WILL NEVER SUCCEED.
This is not an industry, or a career, where work can be half-assed. Your writing must not only be better than anything producers, agents, or executives have ever read… you also must have the business savvy to get your material to the right people.
So if you're serious about that, I would think any book or resource that makes you a better writer or a stronger businessperson is a worthy investment.
I'll also say this… living outside L.A. doesn't mean you can't get your script produced. You can raise money and shoot a film independently. If that's not possible—or desirable—perform your scripts as readings. Take a job with a local commercial production company. Write plays and put them on stage. Shoot shorts and put them on the Internet. Start a sketch comedy troupe. None of these methods may be fast-tracks to Hollywood… they may never get you to Hollywood… but they will bring you joy, satisfy you creatively, and make you a much, much stronger writer.
Of course, if you hunger for more than "creative satisfaction," if you truly want a career… then you'll follow the professional paths that lead there.
If moving to L.A. is not in the cards, I published an entire post last month about professional paths outside of Los Angeles: getting a gig at a TV affiliate, working for a film festival, taking a job with your state film commission, etc.
If none of these paths interest you (or other professional paths available to you)… well, then, quite frankly—
You're not interested in a career.
(And there's nothing wrong with that. I've known wonderfully talented writers, hobbyists, who write simply to please themselves or their friends and family. This doesn't make them less of a writer… but they understand they don't have the desire to do what's required to succeed professionally, so they write for something just as valuable—happiness.)
Speaking specifically about my book—and why you should or shouldn't buy it…
Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer's Guide to the TV Business is a professional handbook aimed at people who are serious about starting a TV-writing career... and believe the best way to break into an industry is to learn how that industry works.
(While "textbook" may not have been the word I'd used when writing Small Screen, Big Picture, that's what it's become. It's being used in TV classes at USC, the WGA Showrunners Program, CBS and NBC's writer training programs, and NATPE's Diversity Writing Fellowship.)
In other words, this book is geared toward people who are serious enough about breaking in to say, "I intend to make this my life's work, my career… and in order to do that, I need to understand how this industry works—and how that knowledge can help me get started."
You don't have to live in L.A. to want to understand these things.
Maybe you're planning your move to L.A. Maybe you're flirting with the idea of a TV career and you want to understand more before you commit. Maybe you're already working as a writer's assistant in L.A., or as a local TV news producer in Toledo, or as a Newark ad writer hoping to switch careers… and you want to strategize your next step.
This book will give you the info you need.
However—the book doesn't lie to you. It's not going to tell you that you can break in by entering a contest from the wilds of Maine. Because if you're serious about breaking in, you're not trying to do it by entering contests from the wilds of Maine.
You may not be ready to move to L.A., but you're thinking critically and making professional choices. You're trying to get a gig at the local CBS affiliate… or working for the Montana Film Office… or writing for a local production company that makes commercials and museum shorts and industrials… or soliciting donations to produce your own movie.
Now… does not living in L.A. drastically reduce your odds of success?... YES.
Does it reduce them so much it's not worth trying?... That depends.
Are you willing to try any of the suggestions I listed about breaking in from outside Los Angeles? Are there other local professional avenues you're willing to try? Or is your only recourse contests and websites?
If your choice is to ignore professional paths and instead rely only on contests and websites, then YOU ARE NOT HEADED TOWARD SUCCESS.
In other words… if you choose not to treat this like a professional career, YOU WILL NOT HAVE A PROFESSIONAL CAREER.
So if that's you… you probably don't need my book.
If, however, you choose to take this career seriously… as seriously as you would take a career change (or leap) into any profession—insurance, clothing, restaurant management, software development, construction—then Small Screen, Big Picture will help you.
Lastly (but not leastly)—Small Screen, Big Picture is (I hope) a fun read for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes machinations of TV: how shows are conceived, pitched, and developed… how networks strategize and program their schedules… how financing affects shows' creatively… how writers break stories… what makes shows succeed or fail… etc.
It is—hopefully—interesting information if you're simply fascinated with Hollywood; it's indispensable information if you're trying to break in.
Anyway, I hope that helps, Billie—and encourages you to keep reading, learning, absorbing information… whether you buy my book or not!
Moving on to today's email, which comes from Jason, who writes…
I don't quite think I get the whole "producer" thing. Why are there so many variations of Producers? Producer, co-producer, consulting producer, line producer, executive producer, co-executive producer, and so on. Are these all just titles with different pay scales, or are they actually different jobs? And if so, what exactly does each do?
Well, Jason, as you probably know, television shows are written by staffs, and these staffs are organized as a hierarchy, a ladder from high-level writers to low-level writers. Each rung on the ladder has a job title, or credit, based on the writer's level of experience. Here's the hierarchy of titles, from top to bottom:
- Executive Producer
- Co-Executive Producer
- Supervising Producer
- Executive Story Editor
- Story Editor
- Staff Writer
As you can see, many of these writers actually have producer titles… so the first answer to your question is:
Many producers you see listed on TV are simply… writers!
Now, on one hand, all the writers on a TV staff do the same job, whether they're upper-level or lower-level writers: they all service the show creator's vision by pitching ideas, beating out stories, writing scripts, punching up dialogue, etc.
Upper-level writers usually shoulder a bit more work than lower-levels; they often spend more time on set, involved in casting, supervising younger writers, etc. They earn their title not only by having more experience, but by carrying a larger workload. (Staff writers, on the other hand, many not even get to write their own scripts.) Upper-levels also get paid more, although the WGA doesn't assign salary minimums to specific levels; each writer's agent negotiates his fee when he starts a job.
Now, a couple important distinctions…
The series' showrunner is almost always credited as an Executive Producer, as is the actual creator of the show. If the creator is an experienced TV producer, she may also be the showrunner—but not always. (Also—if it's a first-time or relatively inexperienced creator, she may only be credited as a Co-Executive Producer or Supervising Producer.) However, the showrunner and creator aren't necessarily the only Executive Producers (so it's sometimes tough to identify the showrunner in a long list of EP's), but you can usually be sure that one of the EP's is the showrunner.
A showrunner also has a "Number Two," a high-level writer who acts as his right-hand man, and receives an EP or Co-EP title. The Number Two "runs the room" when the showrunner's on set, or dealing with actors, or meeting with wardrobe, or scouting a location. Or, if the showrunner likes to spend more time in the room, the Number Two picks up the slack in other areas… covering shoots, dealing with props, overseeing casting, etc.
One title you mentioned, Jason, that isn't on the staff hierarchy, is "Consulting Producer." Consulting Producers are often upper-levels who work on a show in some part-time capacity, usually coming in only 2-3 days a week, or only for punch-ups, or to help the staff brainstorm jokes on shoot nights, etc.
Having said all this, these exact same producer titles are often given to other people as well. For instance…
LINE PRODUCERS – Experienced line producers, who oversee a show's physical production (sets, costumes, props, P.A.'s, locations, lighting, etc.), often receive some kind of producer credit. Sometimes it's as low as co-producer; but highly successful line producers—like Grey's Anatomy's Rob Corn—receive EP titles.
DIRECTORS – When a prominent director directs a pilot, giving it a unique visual style or helping to develop the world and its characters, he often negotiates a producer credit on the entire series… even if he doesn't direct a single other episode! Bryan Singer has directed only two episodes of FOX's House, including the pilot, but receives an EP credit on the whole series.
Other shows have a "house director," a director who directs all—or most—of the episodes and sometimes even supervises guest directors. Todd Holland directed the pilot of Malcolm in the Middle, giving it its signature visual style, and then became the house director, receiving a Co-Executive Producer title on the series. James Burrows has received an EP title on many of the shows he's directed, including Will & Grace and Cheers.
NON-WRITING PRODUCERS – "Non-writing" producers are experienced creatives who help the showrunner and/or creator steer the creative vision of the show. Often, they're the head of the production company producing the show. On ABC's Grey's Anatomy, two of the EP's are Mark Gordon—head of The Mark Gordon Company, which developed and produces the show and has an overall deal with ABC Studios—and Betsy Beers, who runs creator Shonda Rhimes' company, Shondaland. Sometimes producer credits even go to lower production company executives; when I worked at the Littlefield Company, our VP of development, Sally DeSipio, received a producer credit on our first comedy series, the WB's Do Over.
TALENT – As we discussed last week, sometimes a show's stars receive a producer credit. They may have been involved in the show's development… or they may have received the credit as part of a renegotiation for making the show a hit. In fact, sometimes a star's managers receive a producer credit… simply because their client has a job on the show!
MANAGERS – Writers' managers also sometimes receive a producer credit. This may seem parasitic, with writers' representatives taking a producer credit without really "producing" anything, but most managers earn their keep. Many work closely with their clients, developing ideas, crafting stories, honing pitches, functioning as a non-writing producer from the show's inception and evolution through production of the actual series. (FYI—when managers receive a producer credit on clients' shows, they also usually receive a producing fee… and, therefore, don't charge the client commission!)
There ya go, Jason. If you—or anyone else—has questions and comments, please post them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.