Writing in a racially charged America

If you follow race issues, you may know the entertainment industry has a weensy little problem with diversity. You may also know the people in this photo (from left): Jelanimg_8925i Cobb of the New Yorker; Robin Thede, former head writer for “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”; Jane Tillman Irving, CBS radio news; Jo Miller, showrunner/head writer for “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”; David Simon, THE David Simon; and moderator Jamal Joseph, filmmaker and director.

Last night they gathered at the invitation of my union, the Writers Guild of America East, to discuss writing in a racially charged America. You know how you go to a non-mandatory weeknight work event because you think you might learn something and also because you had something small to do with its conception (I’m part of the guild’s diversity effort) and also because you RSVP’d—but then it turns out to be amazing and you’re SO GLAD you went? Yeah. I’ll link to the video when it’s up, but meantime, here are some takeaways that might be of interest to writer friends, no matter your medium:

• David Simon says we should all of us be watching “Atlanta” on FX, and everybody on the panel agreed. So: gospel.

• It’s important to bring stories about slavery and mass incarceration to film and TV. But audience fatigue surrounding these weighty issues is real. Give us middle-class problems too. Give us funny. Give us mundane.

• What kind of responsibility does a writer have to effect change? Opinions differed, but in TV, said David Simon, “I’m not writing to change a law. I’m writing to tell a story.” His responsibility is to the people he’s depicting, and to telling their stories accurately and honestly.

• How do you write about race if you’re, say, white? In news, it’s simple, says Jane Tillman Irving; if it happens, you write it. In entertainment—not so simple. “Full Frontal” does plenty on race, but Jo Miller notes they’re aware of where a “white Canadian lady” like Samantha Bee can and can’t tread. David Simon says, “If you’re writing outside your own experience, then you better get it right.” (PSA: if your show deals with race, hire a diverse writing staff.)

• That said, writers who write about race get to write about other things. Even though he’s known as “the #BlackLivesMatter guy,” Jelani Cobb lived in and wrote his dissertation on Russia—so don’t be a fool and jump on him when he tweets about it. Because he will take you down.

• Police shootings aren’t just a race problem but a systemic one. If you look at the statistics, “there are a shit ton of white people who get shot by cops,” says Jelani Cobb. We need to tell that story in the media to make Americans understand it’s in all of our best interests to address this.

• Also: Robin Thede is super funny, and super smart, and owns super fabulous shoes, and she should get her own show. My two yen.

Thanks to Jenna Bond, Dana Weissman-Scali, Jason Gordon and everyone at WGA East who worked so hard on putting this together. We write on.#WGAEwritingrace WGAE

 

Before September meant pitch season

It’s pitch season again, and I’m sweating and crying over producer notes. Here’s what I was doing 15 years and a lifetime ago:

My 9/11 happened mostly on 9/12. I was at the time a Tokyo correspondent for TIME magazine. When the planes hit, I was at a fancy restaurant in Roppongi. I was there to interview the Kano sisters, two women who had parlayed their beauty and bra sizes into a business empire. I arrived at my apartment in Minami Aoyama, flipped on NHK, and saw images that made no sense.

After a frantic night spent on the phone with my family, in particular with my sister, whose husband worked near the towers and whom she could not reach for hours, I headed off for a long-scheduled interview. It was with Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator. The interview was a big get; his press aide told me he would never have granted it but for the opening of his Ghibli Museum. I stood in the train-station pastry shop, scarfing down breakfast, shaking with fatigue and shock—and realized I’d forgotten my notes.

After a tour of the museum, Hayao Miyazaki and I sat down at an outdoor patio. And I drew a complete and total blank. I forgot everything about the dozen movies of his I’d watched and re-watched in preparation, everything I wanted to know about his method and inspiration. His press aide had already told me to keep the interview on his work and not on the huge, horrible thing that had just happened on the other side of the world. But on that day, how could anyone anywhere talk about anything else? I mumbled some questions. Miyazaki grunted some responses. Then he got up and left.

I’m pretty sure that in my almost 20 years as a journalist, that was the only time someone walked out on me during an interview. The press aide tapped his fingers nervously. The birds chirped. The sun shone. I thought about the people in those towers, the ones who jumped, and I tried not to cry. And then, Miyazaki came back. He had smoked a cigarette, someone had talked him down, and he returned to my awful interview in something like a good mood. Afterward, he even gave me a tour of Studio Ghibli itself, which his press aide giggled was like winning a lottery.

As an American living overseas on September 11, 2001, I felt img_8834utterly helpless. As a foreign correspondent in the opposite of a war zone, I felt utterly useless. While my colleagues in New York were risking life and limb to report the massacre of thousands, I was interviewing pre-Kardashians and a foul-tempered film director. I suppose you could say something like we need to read about art and pop culture even in dark times, maybe especially so. And maybe Hayao Miyazaki needed that tobacco time-out because he too was sleepless and traumatized. But I hope his press aide met Totoro in a dark alley and hasn’t giggled since.

 

How do you come up with an idea for a cable TV drama?

No, I’m asking.

Can you tell me? Because my next paycheck depends upon it.

First let me dispense with the bummer news: my network pilot did not get picked up. AGAIN.

This one hurt. They all hurt, but this one spun me around a bit. Last year, I kinda knew my network pilot wouldn’t fly. Though the characters and the world sprung from my very soul, I never quite got the pilot story to work.

This year’s try didn’t originate from inside my head. It was inspired by a real person’s life story. So it was more like an adoption. She didn’t look like me at first, but this baby became very much my own.

After much MUCH nurturing and care, she grew up powerful. Smart. She knew who she was, and she told her story well. I’m not the only writer who feels possibly delusional when she says her story works, so I’m relying not just on my questionable self-judgment but on others’ when I tell you: when there’s talk of casting, you get your hopes up.

So I waited by the phone, frantic and then frantic-er, as my network picked up one drama pilot and another and another. After its final pickup on a Friday night in February, the phone rang. If it was a go, on the call would be all my agents and my producers and my studio and my network. But no. Just my manager.

Facebook reminded me (thanks, Facebook!) that I posted the same news exactly a year ago. Which makes me wonder: why does it feel like such a gut-punch? Why am I not more prepared? I know the cycle by now, and its brutal punctuality. I know the odds. (If you’re curious, this article describes the process of the network pilot from pitch to pickup pretty accurately.)

I’ve been in this bizarro line of work for, what, five years now. This is my fifth script deal, my fourth sold pilot, third to network, one of those produced. None have made it to air. And each time one pilot dies, I feel like surely I will, too.

So before I bury this latest, please allow me a brief eulogy. My heroine was a lawyer, a veteran, a Latina and a mom. She pulled herself up from a violent past into a rarefied world of power and politics, on a mission to right old wrongs. How I wanted to see her come alive. Rest in peace, dead pilot. I loved you with all my heart.

And now: onto cable.

Got any ideas? Tweet them at me: @lisacullen. (I’m kidding. I dearly hope you’ll write your own ideas. But I’ll take your condolences, esp in the form of chocolate.)

The hardest part about writing a network TV pilot…

Maybe the part I sweat the hardest in writing a network drama pilot is the story. By story I mean the pilot story, or the A story—the main *thing* that happens in the first episode. You know: the Chinese dude in “Blindspot”; the murdered friend in “Limitless”; the rookie test in “Quantico.” Even though it typically ends in one episode, and you probably don’t even remember your favorite show’s, the pilot story matters. It requires “scale, scope and resonance,” as my producers like to say. It’s through the story you learn about the world and the characters, the tone and the pace. It matters a lot.

In the network pilot process, the very first step after selling the pitch is something called a story document, in which you detail what happens in the pilot story. Only after it’s accepted do you get to write the outline, and only after that the script.

Last year, I never nailed the story. I’d pitched and sold the world and the characters—but my pilot story never quite worked. Not for lack of trying. Holy oceans of sweat, did I try. The network finally let me go to outline in the new year, and my final script is dated January 28. But my baby had no shot.

This year, I once again pitched and sold a world and its characters to the network. I had diligently researched and prepared a pilot story—but when I pitched it to my producers, I saw that it didn’t work. Mother of Buddha. Here I was again, with a beautiful hero and great hook and cool set-up—and no story.

One night, deep in a sweaty funk, I was clicking around on Facebook. I don’t post much there anymore, but I do look. I look at the lovely families and your clever jokes and your sharp observations. And I read the links. This one was posted by my friend, a particularly smart and talented friend, who linked to an article in a publication I admire but wouldn’t think to pick up except in a doctor’s waiting room. It was a crazy, twisty, fascinating story. It had scale, scope and resonance.

I pitched a story inspired by that one to my producers, studio and network. They agreed. They approved the story doc, then the outline, and yesterday, the network sent me to script. That script will include a character named after my friend. If pigs once again take flight and this thing actually gets made, I will thank that friend in person. But for now, thank you, all of you, for being my friends, and for sharing your crazy, twisty, fascinating stories.

I sold a network pilot pitch. Here’s what happens next

Here’s what I posted on Facebook:

Pitching TV pilots is a bizarro living, not least because it’s weirdly solitary. I think alone; I write alone; and when I pitch, the couch is lined with producers and execs, but it’s just me who’s speaking (and sweating). Another lonely thing is that I’m often the only not-a-white-dude I see making the rounds.

But this year, in the network waiting room, the pitch before mine was by the hostess of a cooking show, and the one after by a female Olympic athlete. When I went to the restroom to do my science-says-confidence-boosting Wonder Woman pose, this (below) was the sign on the door. I stepped into the pitch room and looked around at my producers, studio and network execs, most of them women. And I pitched my show, starring a strong, smart woman of color from an immigrant family.

And they bought it. So here we go again. Fourth pilot’s the charm, right???‪#‎ItWasNeverADress‬

IMG_6593

If you’d like to know about the process—wait. I should say my process, not the process, because I don’t know how it works for other people, or how much they sweat, if at all, on the pitch-room couch. Anyway, if you want to know about my lead-up to pitching a network pilot, and how much I sweat, I wrote about it last year in the New York Times.

Here’s what a pilot sale does NOT mean: that your pilot will air, let alone get made. No. Those odds remain loooong. What it does mean is that the studio will pay you to write the pilot script, which will then be considered by the network for production.

So here’s what happens after you sell a pilot pitch.

First, you cry with relief. I got the news while the guy from the car-rental place was driving me to the United terminal. I was heading home to New Jersey after pitching this year’s network try. It had not gone well. At least, that was my take. No one had bought in the room. Two of the networks had already passed. It came down to one final network, the one for which we’d thought the pitch best suited. And that network said yes.

After my producers told me, I got on the plane back to New Jersey. And as the plane took off, I started to think about the next step: the story area.

At least that’s what my network calls the first document due in the pilot-writing process. It’s basically a concise description of the story of your pilot, written out in five or six pages of prose. Like, okay, let’s take “Blind Spot,” the new drama from NBC. The story area or whatever that network calls this document would probably be about the case: how the FBI dude uses the duffel-bag chick’s tattoos to track down that Chinese guy who’s going to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Of course the bigger arc of the show is Jane Doe’s identity and what the fuck the tattoos are all about. But the A story of the pilot is that Chinese dude.

So it’s a tricky document, at least for me. You may not even remember the A story of your favorite network drama pilots. Can you recite the very first case Alicia tried in the very first episode of “The Good Wife”? Or Olivia Pope’s first client in “Scandal”? No, right? What you remember are the characters and their relationships, the world. That’s what drew you back for Episode 2. But the thing you don’t realize as you’re watching is that the A story, the case, is a vehicle to introduce the character to you. You knew from how Alicia and Olivia handled their cases that they were strong, smart, yet compassionate women. The story did that.

Another tricky thing is that everybody, and I mean everybody, has to approve. Your producers, your studio, your network—everybody signs off on this thing before you can even move on to the outline. Which is a whole ‘nother level of doozy.

Anyway. So that’s where I am. I feel a little bit like those climbers at the beginning of “Everest,” without the impending-death part. It’s exciting. It’s daunting. It’s a shitload of work, and I better get cracking.

What it’s like when the network doesn’t pick up your pilot

My network drama pilot died last month.

It was 11:30 p.m. We had just finished watching “The King and I,” the Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr original. My husband is playing one of the clarinet parts in the Lincoln Center production (currently in previews!), and so I’d found us a DVD copy in the library. The King had just died, his beringed hand flopping limp and lifeless as Mrs. Anna clasped it to her cheek. I wiped a tear; the credits rolled; I checked my email. And there it was, from my manager: “I don’t have good news.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

When you’re a writer, failure comes in many forms. For the author, there’s the courtly agony of the publisher’s rejection letter. For the journalist, there’s the maddening sting of opening up the paper to see the editor bumped your time-pegged article. I’ve experienced both, and man, they blow.

But the death of a network TV pilot feels like something else entirely. This is my fourth go-round, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The death feels sudden and violent, like lunging for the finish line of the marathon only to eat asphalt.

Maybe it feels this way because there’s no afterlife for a network pilot. Unlike book manuscripts or articles, it can’t simply be shopped elsewhere. That’s because you don’t own it; the studio does. Sure, you hear once in a blue moon about unproduced scripts dusted off seasons later for resurrection—but you know not to hang your hopes on that. The network moves on, and so must you.

Its public nature heightens the sense of failure, I think. Crowds of spectators watch on Deadline Hollywood as you collapse bleeding before the finish line, tweeting or emailing their condolences.

But mostly I think it feels like sudden death because, unlike cable or movies, there’s a strict timetable that forces you to go, go, go, right until the bitter end. Here was what my fall looked like:

September: pitch. (This is the 20-minute presentation made to network executives. Here’s the article I wrote in The New York Times about flop-sweating through that process.)

October: story area. (This is the six-page document that describes the central story of your pilot episode.)

November–December: outline. (This is the 20-page document that describes your pilot episode in prose, beat by sweaty beat.)

January: script. (This is the 60-page script.)

On the one hand, this timetable can be a good thing; there’s no such thing as development hell in network TV, because a yea-or-nay decision must be made on a cold, hard deadline.

On the other, there’s a reason most of us prefer to watch marathons from the depths of the couch. If forced to run anything close to 26 miles, we’d require an occasional break to double over and throw up.

There’s no such break when you’re writing the network TV pilot. Each stage of the process has its own deadline and requires voluminous research, multiple drafts, and official approval by producers, studio and network. It’s non-stop work. Let me show you how much. In the folder on my computer desktop that contains all of the files related to this one project, these are the sub-folders and the numbers of documents they contain:

Research: 33

Pitch: 37

Potential future storylines: 48

Story area: 11

Outline: 71 (!!!)

Notes calls: 28

Script drafts: 11

Let’s take a moment here and say what is perhaps needless to say, although I tell myself all the time anyway: this is not work-work. This is not coal-mining, or E.R.-nursing, or public-school teaching. I know. It’s just writing. It’s just a story.

Mine was about an undocumented immigrant: strong, brave, scared, determined. He found himself in an impossible situation not of his own making, but whose outcome would determine the survival of his loved ones. He moved between two worlds—the money- and power-driven one of the law firm where he worked as a fixer, and the dark, lawless one in which he operated. He was my hero.

Over the previous five months, I’d spent more time with him and the other characters than anybody else in my life save my husband and kids. I knew my characters’ backgrounds, their relationships, their dreams and desires. I knew what they wanted and how they’d get it. I knew how they’d dress. I knew how they’d smell. I heard their voices in my sleep.

So I took a beat. I took a beat to mourn these lives that would never be. I took a beat to say good-bye. I let it go. Because the network moves on, and so, I know, must I.

For me, right now it’s on to another drama pilot I sold last fall, this one to a cable network. Its story and characters have battled for my brain-space with its broadcast brethren, and now has full ownership. But not for long. Before I know it, it’ll be July 4—the start of network TV pitch season for fall 2016.

Questions? Comments? Please tweet me @lisacullen.

My diary of network TV pitch season

This appeared in the New York Times on November 16, 2014. I can’t believe they let me say “belch.” And “colon.”

My piece on the horror and humiliations of TV pitch season because, I don't know, material

My piece on the horror and humiliations of TV pitch season because, I don’t know, material

Hatching a Pilot

One Writer’s Diary for Television Pitch Season

You with your feet up, remote in one hand and beverage in the other, being all judge-y about this fall’s new network dramas and sitcoms. Just take a moment, will you, and think of us writers gutting ourselves trying to create them. Think of us lumbering from lot to Hollywood lot, fingernails in our teeth and oil in our bowels, pitching what we hope you’ll be criticizing next fall.

The Big Four — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — have recently wrapped two months of listening to about 350 series pitches each. (I know what you’re thinking: Someone out there has to sit through five or six television pitch meetings a day, and there is no Nobel Prize in that category.) Each broadcast network will buy up to 60 pitches. Hallelujah for those lucky pitchers, who will then write their scripts for the pilots. At year’s end, each network will pick a dozen or so to produce. Those pilots will shoot in the spring. Next May in New York, in the ad-buying extravaganza called the upfronts, the networks will announce the precious few that will become full series.

I am a journalist and author who stumbled into writing pilots. I had an idea for a drama, called “The Ordained,” about a former priest trying to stop an assassination. I pitched it to networks. None bought it, so I wrote a script on spec.

In 2012, the script sold to CBS, which produced it. This is unusual. As Deadline Hollywood noted, by way of saying pigs are flying, I had no TV credits and live in New Jersey.

Then the 2013 fall lineup was announced — and my pilot wasn’t on it. After I stopped rocking in a dark corner, I told my clarinetist husband that we should buy a house. New beginnings, I told him. Besides, now that I had one produced pilot, surely the deals would be rolling in. We bought the house. The following pitch season, I didn’t sell anything at all. We sold the house. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Why would any would-be show creator suffer the agony of pitching to networks, when everyone knows cable is where it’s at these days? Because money (still way more than cable). Because audience (ditto). Because creating a hit show for broadcast television — maybe one that even the critics like — still makes you an American hero.

So here I am again. This is my diary of the 2014 network TV pitch season.

June 10 The very start of pitch season is like dating; producers need writers for their projects, and writers need ideas. Producers have ideas, but more important, they have rights: to books, to foreign TV series, to whole entire lives. This is not as awesome as it sounds. I can’t make the colossal mistake I did last fall of believing that projects originating with producers are inherently better, and that I will be able to sell them. They aren’t. And I didn’t.

And now I’m desperate for a sale. Last week, I spent 10 minutes in the cereal aisle, choosing between Kellogg’s and the nasty store brand. Let’s face it: My family’s primary source of income is a total crapshoot. And in a crapshoot, it’s better to fail with an idea of my own. For my dignity or whatever.

June 17 Topics I want to write about:

■ Race.

■ Religion.

■ The immigrant experience.

■ Death.

Ideas for the topics I want to write about:

June 18 My night stand is bananas. Ten books, from mysteries to memoirs to sci-fi.

Each of these could make a fantastic screenplay — because movies end.

But network TV? In success, they go on for 23 episodes. And that’s just the first season. So my goal is to do what I tell my children not to do: tell a story that goes on and on and on.

June 23 I hereby pledge to do my bit for mankind by not pitching anything involving the following words: covert government agency, feisty young blogger, outrageously bad mom, misfit genius, rehab, superhero, anybody who used to be dead.

June 30 Something about an undocumented immigrant. All those children, scrambling desperately across our borders, running from gangs and guns and hunger. And the country’s response? Build higher walls! That could have been me. I didn’t grow up here, either. I just happened to have an American parent. But am I really that different?

Something about that.

July 9 It’s decided. I am pitching my immigrant idea.

This is what a TV pitch looks like: 20 minutes of me, talking, in a room, in front of decision-making people. No PowerPoint. No storyboards. Just me.

Those 20 minutes will decide my career trajectory — am I a one-pilot wonder? — as well as my family’s financial well-being. I have a month to come up with a pitch.

Aug. 8 I have a pitch. Now, the next step: use my pitch to snag an 800-pound-gorilla producer.

At this point in pitch season, producers aren’t flirting; they’re proposing. Producers want fully formed pitches with solid writers to present to networks. A writer wants the backing of a producer for credibility. But first I must win one over.

My first pitch is by phone to a producer in Los Angeles who has run some of the top-rated, longtime series on network TV. Twenty minutes later, there’s a silence. “Well,” she says. “That was … well told.”

I have a feeling this means no?

Aug. 9 It’s a Hollywood truism that when it’s good news, everyone gets on the phone; when it’s bad news, it’s just your manager.

The phone rings. It’s my manager.

He explains: The producer declined, the political story line in my pitch was too close to that of a current hit show. I went online and watched it. Holy mother of Buddha, I pitched the same damn story.

“We could try other producers,” my manager says. “Or we could come up with an alt.”

An alternative. Now. Only weeks before the networks open their doors to start hearing pitches. An alt to the plot I’d sweated out this past month. An alt to characters I’d fallen in love with and for whom I’d invented entire lives.

I want to hit myself really hard in the face.

I say, “I’ll come up with an alt.”

Aug. 10 My little one learned to swim today, or so I hear. This is the second day of our long-planned family holiday down the Jersey shore. My siblings and their families are here, some from Japan. My sister found a fabulous house that fits all 22 of us, right on the beach.

Then I remember an article I read earlier this year about an undocumented immigrant with legal troubles. Huh.

They took a photo of us. This is how I write: in the playroom, with kids in my lap (NOT REALLY)

They took a photo of us. This is how I write: in the playroom, with kids in my lap (NOT REALLY)

Aug. 15 For a time the pitch felt Frankenstein-y, two distinct shows stitched together. Ugly. Clumsy. It kept opening its gross mouth, shrieking, “Raaargggh!”

But somehow, it starts to fuse. I drop the political story line and replace it with a high-stakes investigation. I kill characters, add new ones, bring some back. I send a draft to my manager. He gives me notes. I send another draft.

This — dare I say it? — is starting to feel like a show.

I pitch this new version for the first time to a top producer. It goes well. Even I can hear through my usual foghorn of pessimism that it goes well. I have answers to his questions, even ones I hadn’t prepared. (“The procedural element necessarily, sometimes helpfully, gives us a framework,” I say, from my colon.) Afterward, the producer says things like “awfully smart” and “timely” and “the stakes feel real and personal.”

Raaargggh!

Aug. 19 A letter from the screenwriters’ union: If I don’t meet the guild-required minimum income by Sept. 30, my family’s insurance will run out. Meaning if I don’t sell this pitch, we will lose our health coverage.

No pressure.

Sept. 2 With some producer interest, I need my other partner, a studio. Each network has a sister studio from whom they buy most of their pilots. Along with a producer, having a studio on board can be crucial in selling a pitch to a network.

I pitched to the drama development executives at CBS Studios today. They want it!

Sept. 4 By now I’ve pitched this new version seven times to producers. Some got it and want in. Others, not. A comment from the latter: “Does it have to be about an immigrant?”

One final producer pitch today, this time to a pod of four movie-writing superstars whose combined box office I can’t even. What they want with my pitch, I have no idea.

But they do! Now with producers and a studio on board, the next obstacle is also the last: the network pitch.

Sept. 22 On the flight to Los Angeles, I jam in my earphones and click: sports, sports, Lord help me, more sports. Movie! “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Mistake. Soon I’m a hot mess of tears, ugly-crying into a dinner napkin. Without a word, the flight attendant slips me a wad of tissues.

Sept. 23 My meeting is delayed. I pace my hotel room all day, waiting, prepping. I watch a TED talk on YouTube by a social scientist named Amy Cuddy. Her research shows that doing a “power pose” before an important meeting can trick your brain into confidence. So off and on today I stand at the window in my underwear, doing the Wonder Woman. You’re welcome, Burbank.

Sept. 24 The pitch is at noon.

We congregate on the studio lot, in a lobby large enough to hold several sweaty writers and their entourages. My team consists of four producers and two studio execs. I see a famous actor among one of the other groups. I do the New York thing and pretend not to recognize him.

It’s time.

We arrange ourselves on the sofa facing the four network execs. Oh, no: The seating is low. How can I do the Wonder Woman if I’m crouched like Gollum? What’s more, the base of my throat feels tight. I’m 94 percent sure that when I next open my mouth, I will belch.

Then 10 pairs of eyes turn toward me.

I open my mouth. I do not belch. I pitch. It’s an out-of-body experience, but somehow I’m also totally there. I talk about this world of my creation, its characters, their stories. I keep my eyes locked on one of the execs, who registers dramatic facial expressions — surprise! delight! fear! — that pull me back from the edge of terror.

Twenty-three minutes later, I finish. We wait.

Silence. Then, the boss speaks. “We love it,” she says. “We’d love to do it.”

I don’t remember the rest. People said words, and then other people said words. Only after we returned to the lobby could I ask, “So what just happened?”

“What just happened,” my studio exec says, “is you sold a pitch.”

 

Why New York needs more TV writers’ rooms

What I wrote today in the Albany Times-Union.

A writers’ room of N.Y.’s own

By Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Commentary

Published 5:29 pm, Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Right around now, I should be starting my job as a staff writer on a new TV series. That is, if I had a job.

Staffing, as it’s called, is the bread and butter of TV writers, and June is when shows set to debut in the fall open their rooms. Working on staff in a writers’ room means steady paychecks and interesting work. If the show’s a hit, your job might last longer than a season—plus you enjoy the cachet and thrill of contributing to a story consumed by millions.

Or so I hear.

I am a TV writer who has never staffed. The reason: staffing jobs are in L.A. And I am not.

Instead I feed my family writing TV pilots, which is cool when you sell them, and even cooler when they’re produced, as my drama pilot was by CBS last spring. But the following fall, when I failed to sell a single pitch to network, I would have given a nonessential organ for regular work.

The dearth of TV writer jobs in New York might seem puzzling, considering the boom in TV shoots. A record 15 out of 87 network pilots used New York as its set this spring, according to Variety. Non-network shows are swarming here too. Marvel Entertainment committed to shooting 60 episodes of its four Netflix superhero series in New York City.

The boom is fueled by a 30 percent tax credit introduced in 2004. The Empire State Film Production Credit has resulted in a job surge among many skilled workers in New York, from cameramen to actors, location scouts to production assistants, gaffers to assistant directors.

But not writers. Out of the $420 million tax break, exactly none is allocated to us.

So even as more shows shoot here, they don’t staff here. Only a handful of network TV dramas, including CBS’s “Blue Bloods” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” have New York writers’ rooms. Late-night shows including “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” provide some coveted comedy jobs; daytime dramas, or soaps, no longer do. The Writers Guild of America East (of which I am a member) estimates that about 8 percent of TV writers work in New York.

Studios and networks remain resistant to staffing in New York. The argument I hear most frequently from executives, producers and agents is the lack of talent.

By “talent,” they mean not just the ability to write, but to write for TV. To work in a room, break a story, handle a network note. These are learned skills, and nothing a driven writer without TV experience can’t acquire. The problem is that for those of us unwilling or unable to move out West, those opportunities to learn are almost nonexistent.

That absence of opportunity hits women and minorities hardest. Most of us lack the social connections and educational pedigree to launch a career in TV writing, a field in which those advantages have historically meant the difference between open and shut doors. The annual Hollywood diversity report from the Bunche Center at UCLA remains a reliably depressing — if no longer shocking — read.

Hollywood has long failed to ease its diversity problem. It’s New York’s turn. A bill currently before the State Senate and Assembly in Albany seeks to to carve out $3.5 million of the current $420 million production tax credit as an incentive to hire women and minority TV writers. It doesn’t sound like much, and in fact it isn’t. But it may spur more studios to at least consider locating its writers’ room here, and to hire a more diverse staff—writers who look and sound like New York, and like America.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is a TV writer, author, and a former staff writer for Time magazine.

 

 

Why everyone in the world should start a book group

Since my novel published this summer, I’ve gotten to visit with some book groups as a guest. There has been wine. Lots of wine.

The other day I Skyped with a book group in Dubai (wine for them, tragic morning tea for me). The local ones I’ve gotten to attend in person: a sushi-and-wine gabfest where the drunks discussed everything but my book (just kidding…I had a hoot, ladies!); a potluck notably lacking in wine but not in debate over the role of religion in marriage (correlation might equal causation, I’m thinking); a group that baked a Paula Deen casserole in honor of a joke in my book (only a stick of butter in the recipe…you’re welcome).

All of which made me pine for my own book group of 10 women and two decades. Of course, we hadn’t read a book together in nearly that long because we deteriorated fairly quickly from reading and drinking to just drinking. And we’re scattered around the country now. But our bond remains fierce.

Book Group

This is my book group a year ago.

Because we formed at that vivid, chaotic start of adulthood, Book Group always represented something more to me than the name implied. We still call ourselves that, or BG, when we’re hurried, but never Book Club, which sounds like you could just sign up, and once we formed we were ferociously exclusive.

Book Group was margaritas and poetry. Book Group was fifth-floor walk-ups and boys in rock bands. Book Group was alcohol-impaired charades in a cabin in Vermont, fire-impaired barbecuing in the Hamptons.

Then our jobs became careers and the boys we dated became men. Our weekend road trips turned into destination weddings. The photos we shared were not of each other but of our babies, then our children.

Still, in my mind, we will always be young. We will always be free. And we will always be 10.

Even though, now, we are nine.

We gathered last week for the funeral. Our Jackie was at 45 the oldest of us, but also by far the fittest. Just a year ago she told me she’d joined an underwater hockey league, whatever the hell that was. She taught naked yoga and triathloned through Austria and piloted a small plane. That last is less about fitness than fearlessness. She lived like she wasn’t afraid to die.

Jackie laughing

She had this laugh.

She also lived like she wasn’t afraid to get old. We met when I hired her as a reporter for a free weekly newspaper in Manhattan. I was 23 and its editor-in-chief, which tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the operation. Jackie was a terrible reporter. She had no idea how to gather news, although “news” was a generous name for our police blotters and Community Board rundowns. Her prose was flowery, poetic, stream-of-consciousness. I had to rewrite every last word.

But she was smart. And cool. And she had this laugh. It exploded out of her like fireworks. I invited her to meet my friends for this thing we were starting, this thing we were calling Book Group. When it works, there’s something hugely satisfying about bringing a new friend into an existing clique. When it doesn’t work, you feel like a schmuck. This time I was a proud yenta.

While the rest of us got serious about our careers and our men, Jackie stayed peripatetic. She remained the only one of us never to marry. She worked for a nonprofit, then an Internet startup, then a matchmaking company. She traveled, she sailed, she painted. Instead of starting a family, she collected them. Her triathlon-training family. Her writing family. Us.

A little over a year ago, she felt a lump in her lady parts. Melanoma, the doctors said. One in a million, the doctors said. “I always knew I was special,” she said, then erupted with that laugh. Skin cancer—where the sun don’t even shine.

Jackie in gray dressBy then our Book Group met once a year, on an elaborately planned trip that necessitated plane travel for at least some of us. We gathered in San Francisco, where Jackie then lived. We rented a row house in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We ate in Mission restaurants. And we watched Jackie read an essay she wrote in a packed art gallery as part of Lit Crawl, six-feet tall in her heels, resplendent in a tight, gray dress.

She treated her illness in the way we expected but dreaded, eschewing Western medicine for a holistic, natural course. In our rented house, we watched over takeout from Bacon Bacon as she juiced wheatgrass and pea shoots. She gave me a sip. It tasted like dirt.

A few months earlier, Jackie had met the love of her life, a carpenter and avid sailor with a name I plan to use one day in a novel or script. She moved back East to an achingly perfect little town in Massachusetts and into the house he was renovating for her. She signed up for a memoir-writing class. She created yet more families of neighbors, yogis and sailing enthusiasts.

Jackie at cafeBy then she had consented to a medical treatment that left her both drawn and swollen. Or maybe that was the cancer, rampaging unchecked through her organs. It was then all her families drew around her, via a dedicated group on Facebook, where we posted updates, photos, encouragement. Scrolling back through the posts, as I’ve done countless times, I can see our hope building merrily until the day we are jolted by her own acceptance of the coming end. After that, shock and denial (“if anyone can beat the odds…!”). Then, a slow fade to sorrow.

You don’t want a death of a loved one to be about you. But of course in the end it is. What did that person mean to me? What will my life be like without her? David Sedaris wrote this in an essay in the New Yorker about his late sister:

How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.

Jackie didn’t quit us, of course. She would have liked nothing better than to stay, to keep sailing and reading and laughing. To remain one of our 10, to remain among the rest of her families. As she will, always, in our hearts.Funeral lei

Writing the TV pilot, step 1: the idea

Ah, September. The crisp in the air, the apples on the trees…the panic in my gut as I try to sell another pilot pitch.

In 2012, I sold a pilot I’d written on spec. (Here’s how that craziness happened.) It got produced. (Read about that insanity here, here and here.)

And because that happened, this pitch process is very different from the last.

After we learned in May that my pilot wasn’t picked up for fall series, I allowed myself a few days (weeks) of disappointment (despair). Then I picked myself up (wallowed in tears), dusted myself off (wallowed some more), and prepared for what’s next (lay awake nights in wretched fear).

Coming up with the idea is tricky (diabolically difficult). It’s one thing to come up with a magazine story, something I did for many years. In journalism, for the most part it’s one and done: you publish your groundbreaking investigation (crappy trendicle), and then it’s on to the next.

It’s a whole ‘nother bag of chips to invent a brand new TV drama with a potential audience—and budget—of millions.

But: pssst. I learned a TV-land secret this summer: when you get a pilot produced, you don’t have to chase after own ideas for the next one. The ideas come to you! No lie!

Because of aforementioned experience, and because of the blind script deal I have with a studio this year, production companies—sometimes called pods, which makes me think of aliens—approached me with ideas. By ideas, I mean just that: an interesting character in the news, a nonfiction book the producers have optioned, a format to a foreign TV series.

If you’re a writer, you’ll agree: how freaking awesome is that?!

Well.

You still have to meet the producers, read their treatments, read the books, pitch your version, get your version rejected, meet with another pod with an idea that doesn’t quite fit, and again, and again, until summer wanes and your churning gut tells you to bleep or get off the pot.

Pitching can be heartbreak. You marry yourself so thoroughly to an idea that rejection feels like a thousand stabs in a necessary organ. If you were being dramatic about it.

Pitching can also be about dominance. You come up with an idea which may or may not suck, but it doesn’t matter because you’re an 800-lb. gorilla and you’re going to swagger in there and make them buy it. I’m not there yet.

For me, pitching is about evolution. You meet an idea, but you keep your mind open to change. You talk to your producers about it. You listen to their feedback. You think some more. A weird take on the idea comes to you in the middle of the night. You tell your producers about it. They say hmm. You discuss some more. You draft a pitch document, then you draft another, then another, then another, then another.

And finally it’s time for the studio pitch. Ready or not.