On occasion I receive emails that go something like this:
“Hi! I’m an aspiring TV writer. I have this idea for a TV show. Can you help me?”
Maybe this is you. And maybe in desperation you’ve Googled yourself here—to the site of a New Jersey mom with just one TV credit, for a produced network pilot that never aired—because help is so damn hard to find.
I know, right?
The only help I can offer is to tell you my own getting-started-in-TV story. This is not a how-to. At no point while you’re reading this will you look up, stare directly into camera and whisper, “I’ve got it.” Because I don’t have the answers. As far as I know, there ARE no answers. Writing TV pilots is a crazy hard living, and I can only tell you how it came to be mine. I’ll also talk about how I found representation, which is usually the second question after, “Now what?”
I’ll pose the following as Qs and As, not because I’m in the habit of interviewing myself in the third person but because I think it might break things up for your eyeballs. In case you don’t get to the end, here’s a promo: please follow me on Twitter @lisacullen and/or “like” my writer page on Facebook. I post about TV writing and books and generally writer-related stuff. Oh, and if you have questions or comments, please tweet them at me so all seven of my followers can share too. UPDATE: I added a part about how to pitch a reality show. Spoiler alert: I don’t know how to pitch a reality show.
Q. How did you get your start writing TV pilots?
A. It all began with an article I wrote. It was a feature story about pastors’ wives in TIME magazine, where I worked as a staff writer. I was fascinated by the women I interviewed, and knew I wasn’t done writing about them. One day I was driving to work and I had a thought: This would make an awesome TV drama.
I had not a clue how to make that happen.
I called my book agent. I had already pitched her the idea as my second non-fiction book (my first was about fun funerals), so when I called babbling something banana-pants about a TV show, she sighed.
But then she called her friend, a TV agent at one of the top four Hollywood talent agencies. He called me. I told him about my idea (in retrospect, my first TV pitch). He said, “Great! Get me a treatment.”
I said, “What’s a treatment?”
Q. So what happened to that idea?
A. It’s a long and ugly story. Suffice it to say I learned an important lesson that you should, too: nobody owns an idea. Also? Register your treatments and anything else you write with the Writers Guild of America (East or West). Immediately and always.
By the time it all shook out, I had quit my job. It wasn’t that I decided to just wing it in a new career as a TV writer. No. I’m not as brave as that. It was honestly out of fear. I could hang on by my fingernails to my dream job as a newsweekly journalist for maybe another few years—but then what? Would my job even exist? I’d be that much older, with no new skills. So I volunteered for a severance package.
Q. Good gravy. Is that what I have to do—quit my job? But I have a family!
A. I have a family too! I’m not telling you what to do! It was a really stressful time!
Let me make clear: that severance package was unusually generous, with many months of full pay, health coverage for over a year, and a new-career training allowance of, no joke, like thousands of dollars. You didn’t get the cash if you didn’t do the training, so naturally I took every damn script-writing class and seminar and workshop I could find. Also I bought and read every damn script-writing manual I could find. Last but definitely not least, I read scripts. I read so, so many scripts—particularly TV pilots.
That’s about when I wrote my first script: an original spec pilot. That’s a fake first episode of a fake TV series. Mine was on that idea about pastors and their wives—the script I should have written myself before taking the idea out.
Q. Oh. I couldn’t do that. I have a kick-ass idea for a show, but I couldn’t write it or anything.
A. Listen. This is important. When you say that, a part of you is hoping someone like me will shout, “Egads! That IS a kick-ass idea! I will totally do the insanely hard work of breaking the story, writing it on spec, and then selling it to a network for scads of money, of which I will absolutely give you at least half because the original one-line idea came from inside your head!”
No. I won’t say that. No one will say that.*
That doesn’t mean your idea isn’t kick-ass. It means YOU have to do the insanely hard work of writing your original spec pilot yourself.
*That said, there are exceptions. Some people have life stories so fascinating that producers or studios will buy your life rights, and hire someone like me to write a script based upon it. If this is you, I still urge you to try another medium first. Write a memoir. Get a reporter to write about you for the local paper. Prior coverage and/or publication will give your story more credibility and exposure, which could in turn lead to a script. Good luck!
Q. But the how-to-become-a-TV-writer books say I should start out by writing specs of existing shows.
A. Right. I read those books, too. I think it’s great practice for understanding structure and format and stuff. It was for me.
The thing is, I was crap at it. I don’t know about yours, but my specs of existing shows were horrible.
And here’s something you should know: my reps never sent a single one out. It’s possible they never read them. They only ever sent out my original stuff to producers, networks and studios. My originals were how I got every meeting I’ve ever had, including staffing meetings.
Q: Staffing! Let’s talk about that. So you did try to staff on a TV show?
A: I did! And I failed! No one hired me! It might have been in part because I live in New Jersey and refused to move to L.A., but we’ll come back to that.
Okay, so: staffing. That’s the normal way to make a living as a TV writer. “Staffing” is what TV land calls hiring for existing or new shows. Staffing season occurs in the late spring, right about when new shows get picked up for series. This is because new shows are the ones with wide-open jobs. As a brand new writer, that’s where you’re most likely to get a shot.
Here’s what happened on my one and only staffing season. In the spring of 2010, on the advice of my agents, I went to L.A. to take meetings (btw, “meetings” is Hollywood-speak for interviews). On their advice, I went for a month. It was the worst. I had to take my little ones, and because I had zero money had to crash with dear friends and even friends of friends. These friends were beyond lovely. I mean, can you imagine? But I was a wreck.
At first, I had no meetings. None. Two weeks of insomnia and childcare and lurking in someone else’s space. Then, I got a meeting. Then ten. Then twenty. Then thirty.
Some were with producers. Some were with networks. Some were with showrunners staffing their green-lit shows. In one, I walked in and the famous actor headlining the show was sitting right there on the couch. (I know!)
And here’s the shocking part: nobody laughed me out of the room. Nobody curled their lip at my complete and total lack of TV-writing experience. I told them about stories I’d covered as a journalist. About my book on modern funerals and all the nutty things you can do with your cremains. About growing up in Japan. About my life in New Jersey. There was one day when, I kid you not, three execs in a row wrapped up our meetings the same way: “It’s so refreshing to meet someone from outside the Hollywood bubble!”
Now it was hiring time. And my agents told me two things: 1) I had a real shot at these jobs. 2) I’d have to move to L.A.
The latter meant I could either a) uproot my family and move them cross country so I could take a swing at a high-risk, high-reward career, or b) commute.
Q. Which did you choose??
A. Neither. I flew home to New Jersey.
Welp, I thought, that’s it, then. My TV-writing career is over before it began. I’d be lying if I said my heart wasn’t
a little a lot crushed.
Q. So give it to me straight. Do I have to move to L.A.?
A. Absolutely every successful person in the business will tell you yes. If you want a shot at a traditional TV-writing career, you move to L.A. Why? Same reason robbers steal from banks.
But I can’t tell you what to do, man. I can only tell you my story.
So let’s get the violins back out again for that very sad time when I returned from staffing season with no job and no foreseeable future in this 100% L.A.–based business. What I didn’t know then was that two of the meetings I had taken during my staffing-season stint would change everything for me. The first of those was with the guy who became my manager.
Q. Wait. Why a manager? Didn’t you have an agent? And what’s a manager versus an agent?
I did and do have an agent, too. Some writers just have one or the other. They’re both important. An agent has access to his agency’s network of properties and other clients, and can wield its influence on your behalf. This is of particular gain when negotiating deals. A manager is more hands-on. I hired a manager because, as a Kermit-green newbie, I felt I needed the hands-on.
Having a manager changed everything for me because now I had someone who acted more like a partner than someone I was trying to woo. He returned my calls. More than that: he called me. He read my bad specs. He gave me notes. He answered my stupid questions. And I had—still have—many, many stupid questions. (Side note: many agents, including my current agent, do all this, too.)
Q: So how do I get a TV agent? Or a manager?
Dude, I don’t know the answer to that. I can only tell you how I got mine: introduction by book agent (TV agent), and introduction by TV agent (manager). And I don’t mean to pass myself off as Cinderella; by then I’d already published my first book, and plus I was a longtime journalist at a famous publication. But I guess my point is that it can happen lots of different ways…you don’t have to have come up the traditional route or be related to George Lucas or whatnot. I still think there should be some clear, executable way, like an online application or something. The best advice I’ve seen from more smarter people than me is to write a killer spec, and representation will come. Here’s just one real-life example of that. Here’s the screenwriter Brian Koppelman on how to get an agent.
Q. What about TV writing workshops or fellowships?
Oh, perfect—that leads me right back to my second career-changing meeting during staffing season, which had been with Warner Bros. It was what they call a general meeting—basically a meet-and-greet, a hope-to-work-together-one-day meeting. The exec I met with ran the legendary Warner Bros. Writers Workshop.
Have you heard of this workshop, or others like it? This one prepares the best and the brightest for a career in TV with a six-month, once-a-week tutorial. If you’re serious about a career in TV writing, you should totally apply. I would have, too. But I didn’t, because it takes place—you guessed it—in L.A.
Instead, the studio offered me a blind script deal.
Q. What’s a blind script deal?
A. I know, that’s what I said. In TV, a blind script deal is when a studio gives you money to develop a pilot. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it met the Writers’ Guild minimum, which meant health insurance for my family. Moreover, it taught me how to develop: how to come up with ideas; pitch; outline; write drafts; take and execute studio notes.
The pilot I wrote in that deal rightfully resides in the studio’s dungeons and will forevermore. But by the time the next broadcast pitch season came about, I had another idea. I went out and pitched it to major broadcast networks.
And I didn’t sell it.
Once again I dragged home to New Jersey, wearing a big fat F for failure. On the urging of my book agent, I wrote “Pastors’ Wives” as a novel. My book agent sold it to Plume/Penguin in 2012. Then I had time on my hands. So my manager told me to write up the failed TV pitch as a spec. At worst, we could use it as a sample. So I wrote it. He sent it out. It sold in 2012 to CBS.
This is the Deadline Hollywood article about my pilot getting picked up for production in 2013. Here’s my post about casting the pilot. Here’s a post about location scouting. Here’s one about pre-production. Here’s one about what it’s like to shoot a TV pilot in New York City in freeze-your-ass-off March. This one’s about post-production. It was a wild experience.
And this is one I wrote about what it’s like when you find out the network didn’t pick up your pilot for series. That was a profoundly lousy experience.
Q. What are you doing now?
A. I pitched and sold another network drama in fall 2015, my fifth pilot-script deal. I’ve turned it in and am waiting for judgment, which means I am rocking in a dark corner and crying. I am also waiting to hear on the cable drama I pitched and sold in 2014. Here’s my diary about the 2014 network TV pitch season in the New York Times. Please follow me on Twitter @lisacullen and/or “like” my writer page on Facebook for updates. And like I said up top, if you have questions or comments, please tweet them at me. I promise you I’ll see them because I have like no followers.
Q. I have an idea for a reality show—
A. Stop right there, bub. I’ve never pitched a reality show. I don’t know how to pitch a reality show. Here are some links that might help you: this, from the TV Writers Vault; this, from the blog Good in a Room; this, from Producing Unscripted. I do not have the inside track; you would have found the same links had you Googled. Good luck!
Q. You know…it all just sounds way too hard. I think I’ll give up. The world doesn’t need my stories.
A. And that, my friend, is where you’re wrong. This is why we do what we do. The world does need our stories. You can Google a thousand writers who said that way better than me, but my point is this: don’t wait for someone else to write that amazing show that touches on everything you care about. Don’t wait for someone else to dream up your characters or nail your plot or capture your life.
Don’t give up. Write your own story. xoxo Lisa