TV Writers: How To Navigate Staffing Season

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

By Kelly Jo Brick

Television staffing has become a year round opportunity for writers, but how does a new writer maneuver his or her way through the process of getting hired on a show?

The Writers Guild Foundation brought together a group of TV writers including:

Elias Benavidez  (BEYOND)

Niceole Levy  (SHADES OF BLUE, THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA)

Joe Lawson  (THIS IS US, JANE THE VIRGIN)

Shernold Edwards (HAND OF GOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW)

Moises Zamora (AMERICAN CRIME)

And moderator Brandon Easton (MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER) to share their own struggles with breaking in, writing the scripts that got them hired, what to expect when meeting with executives and showrunners and how the staffing landscape has been changing.

GETTING STAFFED IF YOU DON’T HAVE REPRESENTATION.

  • Apply for the television fellowships. Those programs can get you meetings and help put you up for a show before you ever have representation.
  • Talk to everyone you possibly can in the industry, but don’t be annoying. If an executive or other writer offers to stay in touch, believe it.
  • Representation sometimes does find you. Take workshops like UCLA classes. Referrals are often what lead to getting someone to rep you. Agents generally come in after you have a job.
  • Always keep writing. That’s what’s going to get you in the room.

SHOULD YOU WRITE SPECS OF CURRENT SHOWS?

  • Writing a spec will help you build a muscle that you will need. Good writing is good writing and that will help you no matter what.
  • Some execs won’t submit a writer who doesn’t have a spec in their portfolio. Have at least one that you love, to show you can write in the voice of someone else, because that’s the job.
  • Original voice is very important. Have an original pilot and a spec. It has you prepared for whichever an executive or showrunner will want.
  • Reading and writing specs are a good way to train you mind to look beyond the pilot.

HOW MUCH DOES IT MATTER TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW?

  • Write what you are passionate about. If it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to them.
  • Think about how you want to market yourself.
  • Have something you want to say, channel your experiences and feelings into your characters and story.
  • Agents and managers have a passion barometer. They can tell if you care about what you’re working on. When you put your whole being into a script, people can tell.

STAFFING IS ALL YEAR LONG. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED THE HIRING ENVIRONMENT FOR NEWER WRITERS?

  • There aren’t a lot of network, 20 plus episode a season jobs anymore.
  • Shows are top heavy, but there are a few lower level positions.
  • Executives change jobs all the time. They also share with other people when they meet a writer they like, so if that one job doesn’t hit, still keep that relationship going. You never know where it can lead.
  • Part of getting a lower level staff job is building a fan club of people who want to help you succeed. There’s nothing that will endear you more to someone than genuine enthusiasm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN MEETINGS WITH EXECUTIVES AND SHOWRUNNERS.

  • Know your personal story and be ready to share it. Also be able to tell them what shows you’re watching.
  • Do your research on who you’re meeting with, but don’t get too personal.
  • Be able to talk about what you like from their pilots, what you’re excited to write about and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Just be passionate about what you love about the show.
  • Try to find a personal connection to a character in the showrunner’s script. That can build conversation.
  • Know what they read of yours so you’re prepared to answer any questions they have about it.
  • Sometimes people will ask what you don’t like about a show. Prep a positive way to talk about it.
  • Some executives bait you into crapping on other shows. Don’t do it.

TIPS ON SURVIVING UNTIL YOU GET THAT FIRST JOB.

  • If you’re worried about money, you can’t write. It’s too scary. Do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself alive and comfortable. If you have to, sacrifice sleep or other things, but keep writing.
  • Build a routine around your day job to make sure you’re still leaving time for writing and networking.
  • Don’t get tunnel vision. If you don’t live life, you won’t have anything to write about. Do other things.
  • Be prepared for a lot of uncertainty. Am I going to get the agent? Am I going to get the manager? Am I going to get this job? Am I going to keep this job? What if the show gets cancelled? It never ends. You have to find a way to manage it.
  • You have to ask for stuff, because nobody will offer to introduce you to his or her agent. You have that one shot you can ask. They’ll either say yes or no. You can’t be afraid to ask.

WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS FOR A FIRST TIMER IN THE ROOM?

  • If you can say one thing of value before lunch and one in the afternoon, that’s good. Don’t force stuff out of your mouth because you want to be heard.
  • Read the room. See, hear, listen. See what the room needs. If everyone talks, you don’t need to. Build that skill of understanding for what the room does and doesn’t need.
  • Watch who is successful at pitching in the room and model their behavior.
  • It’s not your job to challenge the boss. Do whatever you can do to add to your showrunner’s idea.
  • Remember, just because you’re not talking, doesn’t mean you’re not working.

The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With SUPERNATURAL’S Davy Perez, Part 2

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

Persistence and positive attitude were major influences in the development of Davy Perez’s career in entertainment. Born and raised in East LA, Davy became involved with a sketch group and worked as a background actor before following his creative passions as a writer. Acceptance into multiple writing programs helped lead the way to him becoming a staff writer for the highly acclaimed TV show AMERICAN CRIME. He now writes for the CW series, SUPERNATURAL.

HOW DID YOU GET THE WRITING JOB ON AMERICAN CRIME?

One of the executives I met with who had a producing deal was Michael McDonald. I went in to his office for a general meeting and he was in pilot production of AMERICAN CRIME. We talked about the script and talked about my own upbringing and when I was a teenager and getting into trouble. They had a character on the show that was going to go through this arc. He was kind of like; you’re very close to the character in a lot of ways. He was also tickled by the fact that we knew each other, you used to get coffee and now you’re here and that’s fantastic. He said, “You should meet John Ridley, I think he’d really like your story.”

I met John and that’s how I got staffed on AMERICAN CRIME. For that to be the first show that I got to work on was a huge blessing, because we were trying to be socially conscious, and also the level of work that I was surrounded by, the people I was surrounded by, from the cast to the crew to writing. I was very humbled and am still humbled to be able to say this was the company I was part of. That job wasn’t just a job, it was the beginning of my career.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR FIRST TIME STAFF WRITERS?

No one is looking at you to solve problems. No one is looking at you to point out the big hole in the season. No one is looking at you to pitch the perfect twist for the ultimate finale episode. They have so many levels above you that have been doing that and are being paid to figure those things out.

They have you there for a reason. What they want from you is your life experience and your willingness to contribute and a little bit of humility and positive energy. Someone to hang out with and has interesting contributions and can also let go when their contributions don’t work.

HOW DID YOU GET REPRESENTATION?

I got a manager through a friend. Stefano Agosto, who is now at AMC as an executive, was an assistant at Universal Cable Productions when I was an assistant. We were both dreaming of bigger and better things. We just bonded. At the time I was working for Noah Hawley. I had material and I had gotten into the Latino Writers Workshop and had met with a few managers. They read me, and either they were gun-shy or I just didn’t like them enough to sell myself. It just wasn’t working. He called me up and said, “Hey, a manager came to a meeting with my boss and asked me if I had been tracking any good writers. I said yeah, and I want to give him your script because I really like it.” I said yes, absolutely. That was totally cool with me.

I made a big writer faux pas. I didn’t have much material to back it up with. So I met with Steve Smith at Stagecoach Entertainment. He was like, you don’t have much material, but this was really good. He had some thoughts on where it could go and how to make it better. He gave me some notes. We talked about how I came up. Ultimately I had, and still have, the goal that I want to be a showrunner someday. I want to tell stories that aren’t being told and I want to hire people that don’t get hired. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

He liked the attitude, loved the personality. The one sample was cool. The other stuff he read and was like you can’t really use it because it was comedy. What I did was I took his notes and I turned a rewrite around, I think we met on a Tuesday and by Friday I had a rewrite. He was like, wow, you work really quickly. He read it over the weekend and on Monday he was like, “This is really good. You took my notes and added things I didn’t see, so we want to sign you.”

ADVICE ON TAKING STAFFING AND GENERAL MEETINGS.

Try to find something to talk about and bond over other than the reason why you’re there, but then never forget why you’re there. When I got staffed on AMERICAN CRIME, I met with John the week he won the Oscar for 12 YEARS A SLAVE. I was in the lobby and I kept saying, “Don’t talk about the Oscar. Don’t talk about the Oscar,” because the conversation will become tell me about what’s been the last year of your life and I will not get to talk about myself.

So I went in the room, I think I said something like congratulations on all your recent success. He said thank you. Then on his bookcase was a Raymond Chandler novel and I had just finished reading The Big Sleep. I said, “Oh, Raymond Chandler, I love Raymond Chandler. I just finished reading The Big Sleep.” He goes, “That’s my favorite book. I read it eight times.” Then we started talking about The Long Goodbye, which I had never read. So that was like fifteen minutes of just Raymond Chandler talk. Then he segued into tell me about yourself.

At that point I had read the script and so I was telling my life story, but I was touching on moments that I knew he could mine for this character, Tony. I went in there knowing that I’m going to pitch myself as the guy who can write Tony the character, but I’m not going to say that, I’m going to embody it. This character in the script, he gets arrested for getting into some juvenile delinquency and so I said, well I grew up in East LA and I’ve been in trouble with the law, but nothing serious, I was just kind of a delinquent. I wasn’t lying and I wasn’t putting on a show. I was being honest about a specific element of my life that applies to the story that he was trying to tell. I always have the attitude of what can I do for the showrunner, because it’s his or her vision. What can I do to bring it to life?

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION ASPIRING WRITERS ASK YOU? HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THEM?

How do I get an agent/first writing job? The answer to that is complicated, because there is no one absolute method that works. That being said, there is one absolute method that will get you there eventually: hone your craft. Getting a job, and getting and agent or manager will happen if your work is undeniable. We can all always do better work. So anyone who believes they don’t have any further to grow and are ready “as is” are already selling themselves short. You may be at a level that is hirable, so that means it’s only a matter of time until that happens. If it doesn’t happen soon, then get better. Get so good that people will fight to represent and hire you. Then you are in the driver’s seat. The other side to working on your own material is to make lots of friends at all levels in the industry. The intern you supervise might someday be the next Shonda Rhimes or Vince Gilligan, why not get in on the ground floor? I’m not saying to live your life trying to use people, quite the opposite. Live your life trying to do good for others and eventually that good will you’ve shown in life will come around in some way.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

Don’t give up. If this job were easy, everyone would do it. The hardest part is staying committed to the craft. Many people start out willing to fail, to chase their dream and damn all else in pursuit of it. Accept that you will fail a fair amount of times, but above that, be willing to succeed. Be willing to do the hard work, to get past the tough times, to embrace success and what it will bring you. Chase success and enjoy the process of getting there. The journey towards your goals is what makes up the bulk of your life. It should be satisfying to you right now, at whatever stage you are at. Because once you get that first writing job, that’s only the beginning of a whole new set of struggles you will have to navigate. That’s when the work really starts.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With SUPERNATURAL’S Davy Perez, Part 1

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence, hard work and not giving up.

Persistence and positive attitude were major influences in the development of Davy Perez’s career in entertainment.

Born and raised in East LA, and without much support for his writing and creative interests, Davy found himself getting into trouble, being kicked out of four different high schools because of his rambunctious and rebellious behavior.

Participation in a sketch group led to him studying acting where he eventually began to write sketch comedy before he turned his focus to writing drama. His first job was as a staff writer for the highly acclaimed TV show AMERICAN CRIME and he now writes for the CW series, SUPERNATURAL.

WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I would write as young as about ten or twelve. I would write silly little short stories. At 13, I started writing poetry, as I became a teenager with angst. As a musician, I would write song lyrics. I kinda call that passive writing. I wasn’t really engaging it the way a writer consciously has something to say. It was just things coming out of me that I needed to almost like exorcise my own emotions and inner demons.

I started acting in high school in school plays. After high school I was in a sketch comedy group and someone said that I should pursue this. I didn’t want to go to college. I was always an artistic kind of individual. In East LA, nobody, at that time, tells you that you can have a career as an artist if you train and study. Nobody says, you’re good at writing. You should go hone that. They tell you to get your high school diploma, go to college, become a teacher, doctor, lawyer or engineer. Those are all good livings to have. If you’re an artistic person, there isn’t quite the support system in the neighborhoods that I grew up in. Which I imagine is probably true for a lot of inner city kids.

Somewhere inside of me, that always rubbed me as wrong that I wasn’t getting support for the things I wanted to do, so I had to find a way to do them on my own.

WHAT STEPS DID YOU TAKE TO GET YOUR CREATIVE CAREER STARTED?

That’s where I linked up. That sketch group I was with was actually guys who were four or five years older than me. They thought I was funny and so they would use me for little things here and there. One of them told me there were acting schools I could go to. I went to the Stella Adler Academy. I was there for about a year and a half. From there I learned about the Playhouse West, which is a repertory school that at the time, James Franco was there. Scott Caan was there. It was like this cool place where all these known, name guys were coming out of. Jeff Goldblum was a teacher there. Funny enough, Mark Pellegrino was a teacher there, who is now on our show. I was part of that acting program for about four or five years.

At the advanced levels they start to have you write your own scenes. It was the first time where now me, as a creative person, was engaging writing with a mind for I need to tell a story. I need to have a scene. All the work I learned as an actor I still use as far as character arc, character spine, driving force behind moments and stuff like that.

I would say that the acting training has greatly influence not only my writing, but I’m also trying to be a multi-hyphenate and direct and that comes super handy.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST OVERALL JOB IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY?

I was a background extra. I did that for years because I just wanted to be on set and part of the industry. After a while I realized this isn’t a good path if I really wanted to be an actor. They don’t pluck a background person very often and you don’t move up.

What I did like is just being on set and watching the crews work. I would watch the director and DP have conversations about how they would approach a scene. Very often I was told to stand back and go back to holding.

Eventually I became a PA. Then I was meant to be on set. I really worked my way up through production and got to a point where I almost had a career as a production coordinator or production manager. That ultimately wasn’t where my heart was and so I decided to take a step back from that and find a way to work in a creative office.

I was lucky enough, I applied to a program at ABC called the Production Associates Program. I don’t know if it exists anymore. It used to be that they get like ten recent college graduates and they put them through different departments. Someone would go to finance and someone would go to backlot. The year I applied, was the first year they were going to have someone do the creative office stuff. I met a lot of really great people and a lot of the executives and I had some support, but I didn’t get in.

The woman who did get in, got hired full-time four months after the process. They called me up and said, “You were our number two. You were our alternate. Do you want to do the program still?”

That was my first real television job in the creative field. From that moment, I can definitely point a finger to that was how I was able to break onto this side of things and eventually make my way to be in a writing office.

WHAT’S SOME OF THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED WHILE STARTING OUT?

This goes for not just the career, but for pitching. Specifically someone gave me this advice for when trying to sell a piece of property and also selling yourself and I took it and applied it to everything else. His name is Rob Aft. He’s a marketing guy. He helped connect different people in the film world.

He said, “People love to work with their friends”. Everyone loves to hire their friend. They know that person. They trust that person. When you go into a room, make a friend. Make as many friends as you can. It may not be about the thing you that have in your lap that you’re trying to sell. It may not be about that immediate thing, but if it is, great. If it works out, great, but if they pass or if they’re not ready or if you’re not ready, make that friend. It absolutely was how I got the job on AMERICAN CRIME, because of how I carried myself.

I would make friends with everyone and be friendly and always have a positive outlook, a positive attitude. Absolutely having that open and positive kind of energy to me is key to how I’ve been able to get where I am.

Coming Soon: Davy Perez shares how he got his first writing job and offers insights on taking meetings, finding representation and pursuing your writing goals.


Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.