Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s not show friends, it’s show business.” People in Hollywood like to say it a lot.
But, like most things people in Hollywood like to say, it’s cute and clever yet not really something that should be accepted at face value. Sure, there’s a certain amount of truth to the old adage – the industry is a business, obviously – but there’s also another side to this particular coin, and it’s relevant to your career as a television writer.
“It’s not show friends, it’s show business” stresses the importance of placing business-related concerns before everything else. Further, it implies that our close personal relationships (both inside and outside the industry) are some kind of professional liability – a weakness, if you will, or a lapse in judgment waiting to happen at any given moment. It’s like someone’s trying to convince us that nurturing friendships and striving to remain loyal to them will automatically distract us from what’s really important: getting jobs, closing deals, and making money.
For example: you may find yourself being told that you should accept this job offer (on a TV series that doesn’t exactly fill you with enthusiasm) instead of that offer (where you’d be working with a longtime buddy) because the former is a better strategic career move in the long run, and the latter’s just, y’know…having fun with your friend. Or, should you make it to showrunner level one day, you'll inevitably be urged to cast this actor (whose performance you don’t really care for) over that actor (with whom you’ve been friends for years) because the first one’s better for business…besides, isn’t your friendship just clouding your decision-making process, anyway?
But here’s my take on all this: contrary to conventional wisdom, long-term survival in this business is about friends (remember, this is the same industry that also constantly tells us, “It’s not who you are, it’s who you know”). Friends hire each other. Friends recommend each other to producers, networks, and studios looking to fill their writing staffs. Friends also remind us, when we’re busy chasing after a staff position on a certain TV show, that the showrunner has a horrible reputation for treating their writers like crap, and you’d do well to steer clear and maintain your sanity.
You might have an agent, you might have a manager, and that's great. Those people are essential in helping you get work (and steer clear of staffing pitfalls). But there’s nothing quite like being able to pick up the phone and call someone who has no financial incentive to help you climb your personal career ladder…they simply want to help you out with some good advice or sing your praises to the right person at the right time because they’re your friend.
Once you’ve gotten your first couple of TV writing jobs under your belt, you’ll find that the environment on staff is very much like any other workplace in many respects, including this one: there’ll always be some coworkers you click with, and some you don’t. Chemistry is a very real thing, and it can’t always be predicted or manufactured. And unfortunately, you might find yourself working on a staff where, for whatever reason, you’re unable to make a real connection with any of the other writers. Frankly, I think those cases are pretty rare, but they can happen. And if they do, life on such a show can become a bit of a grind; all you can do is show up every day, give it your best, and go home. But if you’re fortunate enough to find one or two (or more!) coworkers with whom you truly connect, my advice is to protect and grow those relationships as best you can, because one day they might be the only thing standing between you and a long stretch of unemployment.
To be clear, I’m in no way suggesting that anyone pursue friendships purely for the sake of gaining future career advantages. I’m not talking about befriending your fellow writers simply because they might be useful one day. That’d make you nothing more than an opportunist, and to be honest, most people will see right through you if that’s your primary agenda. Instead, what I’m talking about here is investing in those people whom you truly like and respect – and who, in return, like and respect you.
Because writing is mostly a solitary endeavor, many writers have conditioned themselves to romanticize the solitude and “alone time” that’s required to crank out the pages. Some are even more comfortable working solo (especially if your background is in writing plays, novels, or feature screenplays as opposed to the collaborative process of television) and find “schmoozing” to be a socially-awkward challenge. But just like we have to push away from the keyboard from time to time and pitch ideas in the writers’ room – or pitch ourselves in job interviews with showrunners and network/studio executives – there will always be times when we have to step outside our comfort zone and become more interactive. It just comes with the territory.
This doesn’t mean you have to hit all the hot Hollywood parties (I sure as hell don’t) and strategically befriend other writers in hopes that they’ll help open doors for you when you need them to; that’s a poor use of your time and your mental, physical, and karmic energy. It simply means that your writer friends will be a critical part of helping you navigate the ups and downs of this highly-competitive business, so hang onto them for dear life when you find them. There’s no good reason to go it alone.
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