Small Screen, Big Ideas
Creative Screenwriting’s associate editor, Danny Munso, examines why television may provide greater opportunities for writers…
Chris Connelly, the American journalist famous for simultaneously having his hands in the worlds of film, music, sport and news, is someone I would consider an expert in popular culture. During an interview last year, he was asked to identify the defining film of the ‘aughts’ – the 2000′s. He cycled through a number of viable candidates, including The Dark Knight, Brokeback Mountain and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But his final answer was a surprising one: The Sopranos.
For those with even a basic knowledge of entertainment, your first thought was likely identical to mine: “Wait, that’s a TV show”. Now give it a few more minutes; suddenly the idea not only seems plausible, but logical. More than any other decade, the past 10 years of screenwriting have been dominated by television, not film. That is not a slight on the films released in this era, many of which are brilliant and groundbreaking in their own right. But when measured up, the reality is this: a lot of the best writing right now exists on television, not in the movie theatre.
So if you are an aspiring screenwriter, why should you choose to write television instead of film? Well, your reasons would likely be similar to why some of the most exciting writers working today are telling their stories on the small screen.
All great writing begins with a great story, and it’s the shape you want that story to take that will decide whether you go the film or television route. Take, for example, Lost, the ABC show that was created by Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams but run by Lindelof and partner Carlton Cuse. If you have seen the show, or were simply caught in the buzz around it, you know that the best word to describe it would be epic. It’s a story that unfolded slowly—sometimes too slowly—over six seasons. The simple log line, where a group of strangers crash on a mysterious island, could easily be translated into a film. But that was not the story Lindelof and Cuse wanted to tell. This wasn’t about a plane crash or a Lord of the Flies type tale of survival. This was about spirituality, loyalty, meaning and many other things too numerous to list here. There is simply no way Lost could have been anything but a television show.
The same goes for The Sopranos. We’ve seen the mob story as a film series before, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Perhaps in the mid-70s, Sopranos creator David Chase would have had his show be a movie series rather than small-screen. But going to HBO gave him the creative control he needed to tell his sprawling story over as many seasons as he desired. Perhaps the interesting thing to consider is, if it were made today, would Coppola make the Godfather trilogy a TV show? The fact that this is even a legitimate question shows how the balance of power has shifted in a short period of time.
Here is the area where television has much more to offer a screenwriter. The famous saying goes: ‘In TV, the writer is the king’. This is not to say there aren’t screenwriters who exert their control over many feature films. But the reality of the business is simply that film is a director’s medium, and television a writer’s.
There have been writers who have had to fight for total control of their projects even in television. The most famous example of this was the decision made by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to demand that they not only write, but direct every episode of the show they had just sold to the BBC, a show called The Office. Gervais and Merchant were not in a position of strength; neither of them had ever written a television show in their life and, in fact, were coming from a background in radio. But they made this demand because they did not want their names on something where they did not have complete control.
To them, the risk was worth it. And this is why television can be invaluable to a storyteller. You are able to tell the stories you want with minimal impediment, a luxury that is simply not afforded to all writers. Yes, the BBC were able to make the somewhat risky investment and let Gervais and Merchant run the show, partially because they had so little money invested in the project, but, had they not made that demand, it’s hard to know where the show would have ended up. As it stands, it’s one of, if not the most influential comedy of all time.
As of this writing, Matthew Weiner, the creator behind the most critically-lauded series still running—AMC’s Mad Men—had just finished a contract dispute with the network about further seasons. Sure, money was an issue, as it always is. But the other big issue? Control. Rumours flew about AMC asking Weiner to not only cut out minutes from the show’s run-time, but also cast members. What happened in the negotiations? Weiner unanimously won, as TV writers often do.
This column always likes to cover ways to break into the business because, after all, what many screenwriters are missing is simply an opportunity. We can debate all day about whether it is harder to break into film or television, and either argument wouldn’t be wrong or right. But what cannot be denied is there are more opportunities for writers in TV.
Most television shows staff multiple writers, ranging from a select few to a staff of 10 or more for some American dramas. Because of the nature of TV production, there need to be multiple writers on certain shows. The sheer number of these positions available in both American and British markets is a positive thing for screenwriters.
So what’s the easiest way to get one of these spots? There are generally two avenues to take. Neither is easy, but the pay-off for both can be lucrative.
First, you can simply write a pilot or a spec and get it out there to reps. It was once expected of prospective TV writers to not write original material, only specs of current shows on the air. The past few years, however, have seen a return to the creation of original material via pilots, and agents now look for what unique voice you can bring to a TV show via your original writing.
Whether you write a spec or a pilot, the goal is the same: create an original piece of work that will capture the attention of both prospective agents and show-runners of current programmes. The best way to write either type of script is to watch and analyse these shows: write their beats out on a sheet of paper, see where their act breaks come in and chart the development of each character in a particular episode. These exercises may seem tedious, but you will be amazed at the depth and understanding this brings to a simple hour of television.
The second option is to get a job on a show, particularly as a writer’s assistant. The job description is almost dream-like; you are in the writer’s room every day, taking notes on what they are saying, even giving your input. A year or two into this job almost always leads to you being able to write your own episode, or getting staffed on another project.
Here’s the catch: these jobs are almost impossible to obtain.
There is usually only one assistant per show and, even though each network has a plethora of programmes, we’re still talking about 10 jobs per network at the most, and not all of them open up after each completed season. Yes, it’s a long shot. Yes, it’s naïve to think you can send in an application and the position will magically be filled. But these jobs are worth knowing about and fighting for. Do your research and homework. Find out who you need to know to better position yourself to get that gig. These jobs amount to something of a golden ticket. Isn’t that worth the effort? This is the rare case when writing your own material and trying to find an agent to take you on may be the easier of the two roads to take.
Though the road may be long, it is worth remembering that, both in opportunity and creativity, there is no avenue available to a screenwriter that is better than television. We are all currently living in the golden age of TV; it would be foolish for aspiring writers not to take advantage of it. •
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Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 22 (May/June 2011)