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Screenwriting Help E-Mail (Previous)

Updated every Monday, one selected e-mail will be posted and answered here each week. With many years of experience in the film and television business, I look forward to providing answers to your questions about screenwriting or the entertainment industry in general.  Please send your e-mailed questions to: Script Advisor.  You may also wish to visit our Screenwriting Help E-Mails - The Archives.

This week's question: 

I think I have a great script for television, but I know how everybody says how difficult it is to break into TV.  Can you advise?

Dennis  from San Diego, California

This week's Answer: 

Breaking Into (or out of) Television

I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dennis.  I broke into my TV just the other day and I found it quite easy.  (I was curious about how all those little people got in there and put on such amazingly diverse shows.  Curiously, I didn’t find any tiny actors with tiny SAG and AFTRA cards.  But it was quite an experience, seeing what it looks like when you take off the back of a television, which the sticker advises strongly not to do.  But I figured those stickers are written by the same person who writes the “don’t remove” mattress and “dry clean only” tags.  So I went ahead with my original plan.  The repair bill was high enough for me to just buy another television set (come to think of it, I’m not sure why I didn’t), but now at least I can say truthfully I’ve been inside television.

Actually, I have dabbled in television here and there (but not everywhere) and have found it a hard nut to crack (or a cracked place filled with a lot of nuts).  I say this not to discourage you but to prepare you (for discouragement).  I’m not saying that you can’t break in (figuratively and not literally).  Security is pretty tight at the studios and they’d nab you in a millisecond.  Unless you posed as a security guard, yourself.  Now that might just work.  Just stroll in, wearing a security guard uniform, nodding nonchalantly to any other security guards you meet.  There’ll probably be one at the main gate, which you’ll probably need to use unless there are alternative entrances (but I think those are watched by Navy SEALS with machine guns and wild dogs, so you might want to stick with the main one).  Either way, you’re most likely going to need to cross some threshold or another, so you want to be fully prepared.   (I told you I’m here to prepare you.)  Just look bored to tears as if you’ve been there a thousand times, slump your shoulders, and walk without an ounce of spring in your step.  Keep your head down as much as possible.  I recommend watching the last scene of Midnight Express at least twelve times the night before your crash CBS, FOX, NBC, or any other prominent studio.  If necessary, record and play through a secreted earpiece the soundtrack from that excitingly dramatic film sequence where the American kid, wearing a guard’s uniform, sneaks out of the Turkish prison.  That should get you in.  (And, if not, when you’re caught immediately by a quick-witted, on-the-ball security guard – the kind you should have probably imitated in the first place – you’ll be in all the papers and on television as the fool who tried to break into a studio.  Some producer will catch the story, decide to turn it into a sitcom (“My Friend, The Security Guard.”  Can’t you already hear the laugh track?!  Hysterical!), and you’ll have your big break in TV, after all!  (That is, a different kind of “break in.”)

Truth be told (which I try to do as I struggle to walk in the footsteps of George Washington, William Tell, and all those other famous folk in history and myth who were crammed down our craws when we were caught lying.  No wonder I have periodic urges to grab an axe and attempt to fell cherry trees while listening to the soundtrack of The Lone Ranger.), it does often seem to take a great deal of effort and stamina to convince a television producer to produce your script.  My experience of the television industry is that it is very guarded (and I’m not referring to just those guys in uniforms at the main gate) and very cliquish.  You have to have a proven track record to have a producer choose and depend on you to bring off a successful show; and to bring off (write, head-write, story edit, produce, etc.) a successful show, you need a track record. (Does the phrase, “Catch-22,” come to mind here?)  So, what’s the answer?  Get some track shoes.  Good ones.  Tough ones.

The usual path for a creator/writer of an original show consists of the following:  The writer, finally deciding that nobody is going to buy his television sci-fi six-week episodic dramedy, A Funny Thing About Earthquakes, breaks down and writes a spec script for a television show he likes (or, at least, doesn’t get nauseous after or while watching it).  The writer hounds agents until one takes pity on him and reads his script.  The agent decides he likes it (or at least doesn’t get nauseous after or while reading it), and sends it to a television producer who is looking for new writers for his wonderful show (that is about to be cancelled unless it gets some new writers) because he’s fired several or all of the writers who wrote for it before they were fired (and now have to return to writing more spec scripts for other shows that might hire and fire them).  The producer and the agent fight over the writer’s salary, leaving enough for the writer to buy a house and get into debt, and, lo and behold, the writer has a writing job on the producer’s show.  And that’s only the beginning of the trek to selling an original television show.  Don’t forget about that track record.  Each show of the writer has to be pretty much a winner (I think that means all the families with the last name, “Neilson,” have to like it.), the writer thereby gaining more prestige and power (and a better parking space) as he may become a head writer on one show, then a producer, then an executive producer (That’s where the big money is, in case you wanted to know where the big money was.  And I think executive producers get to come in later than everybody else.  And they get to yell and demand that their Evian be chilled.  It’s a good life.) until, finally, the coup de grace:  his very own show.  Congratulations, writer-turned-big-TV-guy.  You’ve made it to the top.  Now you can go to the swankiest restaurants and Hollywood parties and feel like you’re one of the elite.  Although, don’t expect anyone to actually recognize you.  I mean, after all, you’re not Jennifer Lopez.

Don’t let my jaded and obviously envious and resentful (so what if, time and time again, my ideas have been paid a very heavy “homage” to by those in the aforementioned industry who just happened to have read a script I just happened to write, while they happened to not give me any credit nor any money for those ideas) view of the television industry dissuade you, Dennis, and other writers out there who are attracted to that beautiful wasteland often referred to as “TV,” from going forward with your aspirations to be a television writer.  I’m not saying that it can’t be done.  Be the exception; write those scripts, and do it.  Break in into TV Land (then call me because I have some really great television show ideas and I can’t find my security guard uniform anywhere.)


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