LB: Should I Contact Agents Even Though I’m Starting Graduate School?

Building-Relationships-e1349448015688

Glad You Asked Dept. 3/14/14

This just in from M.R.,

Hello, I am a screenwriter who recently registered a TV pilot spec script with the WGA. I was wondering is prudent for me to pitch and to send is TV pilot script to screenwriters, agents, and managers, if I am attending graduate school in fall?
Does being a full-time grad or college student, limits networking, for example, to pitch, to correspond, and to meet with screenwriters, agents, and managers until he finished college?
Thank you for your time, and have a nice day
M.R.

Thanks for writing, M.R. I love it when people send in questions I actually have answers for. So here’s my take:

Dear M.R.,

I was in grad school at the University of Iowa when I wrote my one and only spec TV script. I already had an agent who was doing a great job selling my fiction to various science fiction, fantasy, and, um, man’s magazines, so I shot the spec off to him.

That agent sent the script to a friend at the then alive and kicking William Morris Agency. Her name was Sylvia Hirsch and she was beyond doubt the go-to agent for newbies back in the day. Sylvia called me and said she liked it enough to want to talk further, which meant face-to-face in her Beverly Hills office, so I got on a plane and made my way to that very place.

Sylvia and I had a short meeting during which she said that based on what she’d read, “I can sell you as easily as any of my other clients” and she hoped she would get the chance to do so. She made it clear that particular chance depended on me living in the L.A. area so that I could have meetings like the one we were having with any producers or executives who were interested in me because, she told me, “This is a very personal business. It’s all about friends and contacts and communicating a sense that you and anyone who might hire you belong together.”

This was more than enough for me to think, “Fuck grad school.” I went back to Iowa just long enough to quit my new part-time job at McDonald’s, gather up my meager belongings, and fly back to L.A. I was so eager to take advantage of the interest Sylvia had shown that it never even occurred to me to tell the University what I was doing. I’ve always assumed that I got a lot of “incompletes” that semester, which I’m pretty sure have long since turned into “F”s.

OTOH, six weeks after I’d moved into my new apartment in Studio City, California I had a deal to write my first paid, WGA sanctioned screenplay. At MGM, which in the late ’60s was still, you know, FUCKING M FUCKING G FUCKING M.

Although the biz has changed a great deal in the last 40+ years, it’s still intensely personal and everyone I know who has succeeded big has dived in wholeheartedly, all-or-nothing. Even now, it’s almost impossible to sell material or get writing assignments without meeting face to face with those who can buy your material or hire you. (I’m hedging by saying “almost impossible” only because even though I haven’t met him or her yet  there’s always someone to screw up anything we think is absolute.)

Bottom line: My advice is if you think you and our talent are up to it, then definitely get in touch with everyone you can. But if you’re thinking of doing the pro thing while staying in school and finishing your degree, don’t waste everyone’s time, including yours. Wait till you finish (and have your potential fallback employment position) safely secured, and then send our your material and take your shot.

Oh, and I wouldn’t advise sending pitches or scripts to screenwriters. Just agents and managers…and producers too. Working writers don’t want to ready other people’s work. There’s way too much potential liability involved in that. And in my experience most of them wouldn’t help you anyway because if you’re good enough to score in the biz, then you’re a not a discovery, you’re a rival.

Good luck, dood,

LB

While I’m at it,here’s another, related question, from the selfsame M.R.:

What can a screenwriter do to establish good working relationships with agents, managers, and producers?

To which I reply:

Short and sweet, the way to establish good working relationships is to do good work. Write brilliantly and quickly and be relatively easy to get along with during the process. I say “relatively” because I can’t make myself encourage any writer to compromise his/her creative principles. But I can encourage you all to stay open to suggestions that can prove helpful. And to work out a way of saying no when you need it in such a way that you screw up your relationship.

Hmm, this aspect of showbiz is sounding just like real-life, isn’t it? How to disagree without destroying our friendships…well, hell, if I knew the secret to that I’d still be hanging with a lot of people I really miss. (Because sometimes intimacy is more important than principles, or being right. But that’s an issue for another day…)

Meanwhile, if you have any questions, remember: I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: What’s the story on TV series production schedules?

CM_Prep_Day_7_-_Production_Meeting

Glad You Asked Dept. 3/3/14

Today’s question is from Keiti P, who gets right to the practical nitty gritty of television production. Whatever happened to idealism? Kidding, kidding, never mind. Anyway:

Hi Larry,

I’ve always wanted to know more about the actual production of TV shows. How do they work out the shooting schedules? It seems crazy debilitating to me to shoot a whole season at once, but at the same time I can appreciate the desire to have everything in the can and ready to air.

Is that how they do it, the whole season shot at once and then the episodes released later? Or do they break it up into smaller groups of episodes, take a rest, then get back to work, that kind of thing?

Loved all your shows!

Wow, now this is a woman a TV writer-producer can appreciate. Using the L word about what counts to me – my work. To show how much this means to me, here’s my obviously amazingly wise and well-informed answer:

Dear Keiti P,

I’ve never worked on a half-hour sitcom, so I’ll throw that one out to any readers who have. (In other words, funny folks, your comments at the bottom of this page are most welcome.) But after putting out hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours of one-hour TV I feel fairly confident that I can fill you in on how they work.

Until the mid-1990s or so, shows were staffed in May. The producers and writers went to work as soon as their deals were made. Not all that much later – mid-to-end of June, with maybe two or three scripts “banked,” as in network approved and ready to go, the shows started shooting.

Back then each shoot of an hour-long show took 7 working days, during which the next show was being prepped. (Or, all too often, being written while being prepped. Yep, I’m talking simultaneously.) On most series, this schedule was immutable. No deviation allowed. No going over on days, although we were allowed to work very long days and go into overtime if we were using a location or set that we wouldn’t be able to go back to. No stopping to give a script that extra something. No more than 3 or 4 takes on any shot. No retakes if we looked at the dailies and thought that some of yesterday’s work sucked.

Time meant money, and that meant speed. It was grueling, almost hellish. Writers mostly worked 7 day weeks, which at least gave us a chance to save our money because we had no time to spend it on anything fun. Inevitably, we did fall behind from time to time and fail to shoot a necessary scene. When that happened the usual solution was to write some voiceover dialog that could be inserted to cover our failure. Sometimes this totally changed the storyline, which may explain some of the weird plots you saw back in those days.

Under that schedule, shows with 12 or 13 episode orders finished production in December. Shows with longer orders kept on rolling through March. I worked on one series where we were cancelled after the third episode aired but had to keep going at the usual pace because the European buy was huge and we had to deliver the remaining episodes across the pond. And as I think about, it I can recall 3 or 4 times over the course of my career when we were so late, so bogged down, that literally the final print wasn’t ready until less than half an hour before airtime.

But that was then and this is now. Now, not every show is slated to go on-air in the Fall. There are Spring seasons and Summer seasons too. And half-seasons.  A series can start in the Fall, take a break between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and finish up after that, regardless of how many episodes the muckymucks have called for.

This means that instead of coming together in May, staffs can be assembled at just about any time, with shooting starting about 6 weeks afterward. And those half-season breaks are commonly used to fix scripts, reshoot some stuff that is so blatantly bad that even the network suits are embarrassed by it, and, of course, to accommodate the needs of stars (many of whom now are credited as producers, which means that their complaints have to be considered on a quasi-legal basis as well as a personal, pragmatic one), who are demanding more and more personal time to keep from burning out creatively and physically.

This sounds like a significant improvement, doesn’t it? But in the world television no positive goes without its negative balance. On network shows, the suits meddle more than ever before, which translates into even more rewriting than ever before, which in turn translates into shows that are more watered down than before (less adventurous in concept/production “challenges” dropped/dialog bled into drivel, that kind of thing). It also means that writers are still working 7 day weeks because there are even more masters to please.

The good news is that cable networks usually exercise less oversight than broadcast networks, especially the cable nets that are new to scripted (or “overtly” scripted) productions, so the edginess/ambition quotient can actually amp up. Don’t worry, though. There’s a downside to that too: Cable shows have smaller budgets, which means smaller paychecks than those for broadcast – often as much as 50% less.

Well, Keiti, that’s about it. If you were thinking of television shows as efficient production machines with lots of lead time and stockpiles of perfected scripts, you’re probably a bit disappointed right now. But look at it this way: All of us who make, or used to make, your favorite shows, are way disappointed as well. (But still hopeful cuz…idealists, you know?)

LYMI,

LB

That’s it for now, gang. If you have any questions, remember: I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LB: What Was It Like to Work with Lynda Carter & Loni Anderson?

 Glad You Asked Dept. 2/24/14

Lynda_Carter2Today’s question is about two of network television’s hottest, um, babes. If I can say “babes.” (Oh well, my wife Gwen the Beautiful undoubtedly will set me straight after she reads this.)

Where were we? Oh, right. Today’s question is about two of the most popular female stars in TV – in the ’70s, that is. Lynda Carter, AKA Wonder Woman, and Loni Anderson, AKA Jennifer Marlowe.

Loni-Anderson

What’s that? Who was Jennifer Marlowe? Why just the hot secretary in the classic sitcom WKRP IN CINCINATTI, that’s who. And of course you know who Wonder Woman was because Wonder Woman, right?

Now that that’s settled, here’s the question, from Lew R:

Hey Larry,

How were Lynda Carter  and Lonnie Anderson to work with when you did “Partners in Crime?.” These two very beautiful women, were they divas or professionals? Personally, I thought Carter was sexier.

Thanks in advance.

Hey, dood’s got self-editing down, that’s for sure. Gotta admire a man who gets right to the sexy point. So here’s my answer, which is just a bit more meandering:

Dear Lew R,

PARTNERS IN CRIME was a short-lived show that lasted half a season back in 1984. I was brought in as part of a whole new staff that replaced the legendary creator of that show, Leonard Stern, and the writers he had amassed. It wasn’t an easy gig for many reasons, not least of which was that Stern, who also produced GET SMART and McMILLAN & WIFE, was one of my writing and producing idols.

For reasons of the kind known only to network execs, the NBC brass hated the light-hearted tone of the show they had ordered based on the excellent pilot I’d seen. All I did know was that the new staff that I was part of was charged with making the show “more realistic and believable.”

Believable, really? How the hell do you make a show about the adventures of the two ex-wives of a dead private detective – one a concert cello player  (Loni) and the other a “starving ex-socialite” (Lynda) – realistic and believable.

As writers and producers we did our best to slip as much of Stern’s visiion past the execs as we could. But getting the network’s ideas past Lynda and Loni proved just as difficult. They were big, highly paid stars who’d signed onto the show because they loved the laughs. That didn’t want it to be more serious, they wanted it to be funnier.

All things considered, the ladies were relatively easy to work with. Lynda had an air of graciousness about her and treated people with respect, even those of us caged up in the L.A. office. (The show was shot entirely on location in San Francisco.) Loni was more of a complainer. She was married to the biggest star in Hollywood at the time, Burt Reynolds, and was happy to let us know Burt’s opinion of each script – which was always that it wasn’t very good.

The relationship between the two stars was more complex. Loni was always trying to prove that she was the bigger star and kept demanding more perks, but anything she got Lynda’s agent made sure she got too. So the stakes kept rising.

I spent most of my short time on the show sitting at my keyboard and groaning about how impossible it was to please any of our masters, and was a very happy camper when my agent called and said he was ready to get me out of this gig because he’d gotten me another one.

The new job was running CBS’s new MIKE HAMMER series starring Stacy Keach, who has been a friend ever since. No complaining with Stacy. No rivalries either. He was calm and secure – because he had his very own personal writer-producer ensconced in his trailer, revising anything in the day’s pages that didn’t pass muster. (That writer-producer, the great Ed Scharlach, is still my buddy…and still working his butt off in TV.)

Yep, boys and girls, all was well on the set of MIKE HAMMER – but one little off-set situation did kinda derail things. During a hiatus, Stacy was arrested coming into England from France and ended up serving six months in Reading Gaol for supposed drug trafficking. Which ended up making the hiatus about a year and a half longer.

And you thought being a showrunner was a honeymoon, right?

LB

More, much more, from the deep, dark recesses of my memory about Lynda, Loni, and a few other ladies more discerning (ulp, in this context that means “older”) will appear in Herbie J Pilato’s upcoming book, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR: TELEVISION’S ICONIC WOMEN FROM THE 50s, 60s and 70s, coming out soon.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions, remember: I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!