It isn’t easy becoming a TV writer, and guess what? It isn’t easy to stay one either. The following post by a distinguished “old pro” is among the best advice I’ve ever heard or read for anyone thinking of going into – or already in – showbiz.
Especially, yeah, writers:
One Phone Call
by Mark Evanier
Early in 2011, I posted this piece of what I still think is sound advice. And hey, if you have a past posting here you think is worthy of a reprise, please drop me a line and tell me. In the meantime, here’s what I wrote about the awesome, life-changing power of One Phone Call…
If you have a steady job, you may want to skip this. It’s directed to many friends, acquaintances and total strangers who never have jobs that are all that steady: Writers, artists, actors and various other freelancers who think it’s a big deal if they get something that pays them for six months or a year…or who even subsist on a string of one-shot gigs.
It’s been a rough couple of years and no one’s forecasting a huge change in this one. Our unemployment level is impossible to chart but (obviously) way too high. I can’t remember a time of so many calls and e-mails that include the phrase, “Please, if you hear of anything…” The answer, alas, is that I rarely hear of anything.
So what can we tell these folks? The first thing to remember is that there are two kinds of problems in this world. You might be unfortunate enough to have both kinds at once but you should never forget that there are two kinds — the ones that can be largely solved by One Phone Call and the ones that can’t. “I don’t have a job” can be solved with One Phone Call. Someone calls up and hires you. That happens all the time…admittedly, not as often or as perfectly timed as you would like but it certainly happens and if it’s the right One Phone Call, the problem disappears in its entirety. Gone. Evaporated. A distant memory. Congrats.
The other kind of problem is the kind that can’t be solved by One Phone Call. Being very ill would probably be the most obvious example but it can also be a relationship problem that isn’t going to get better and we can all imagine plenty of other situations. I have a friend who has severe Fibromyalgia. No One Phone Call is going to make that go away.
People keep plunging themselves into depression and despair because they mistake the first kind of problem for the second kind. Neither is fun and I’m not suggesting the second kind is necessarily hopeless. I know plenty of folks who’ve recovered from pretty severe disasters. I just think it’s valuable to distinguish between them and to not overdramatize the former into the latter. I don’t know how many times a friend has called on Monday, wailing about unemployment and speaking in the bleakest, most depressing terms. And then on Tuesday, they get that One Phone Call.
It doesn’t always happen that neatly. But it does happen.
When it doesn’t happen, that may be because of simple numbers. It’s sometimes the case that the talent pool is too large for the marketplace. Back in the eighties in the animation business, there was a period when there were 25 cartoon series in production in Los Angeles, many of them Monday-Friday shows that required 65 episodes to fill out a season. That meant a great demand for scripts and a lot of people who hadn’t been animation writers before suddenly became animation writers. Dozens of ’em.
Then only two or three years later, there was a downswing in production and the business was down to (I think) 16 series, mostly Saturday-only shows that produced but 13 episodes a year. I may have the precise numbers wrong but it was something like a 70% drop in the quantity of scripts that were needed.
Last week I started writing about the TVWriter™ contests and my various thoughts/ideas about ways to improve the experience for entrants but didn’t get past the subject of the mechanics of the judging. Life has a way of doing that to me – bogging my ideas down in the morass of pragmatics – but it’s time now to pick myself up out of the swamp and run some things past you, the TVWriter™ readers and writers.
Many entrants have asked if they can get feedback on their entries. It’s a good question, and in general I think that feedback on writing is helpful as all hell, but my answer, as it relates to what most people think of as “feedback” (a critique of the work in question) is the running line in an old, unfunny sex joke, “Hell no. Tried it once and didn’t like it.” (Hmm, I think that’s the punchline too.)
Both the People’s Pilot and the Spec Scriptacular offered my personal feedback at extra cost for several years, but it just didn’t work for me. For one thing, writing the feedback was hard. It took a lot of time and even more thought to distill my impressions into a coherent email message, much more time than it was worth to me financially. For another thing, many recipients were never satisfied.
I don’t mean that I was inundated with complaints (although, yes, there were a few), but I was almost drowned by replies by writers who seemed to see my email as the opening of a long conversation about their work, and while I love writers as a breed more than just about any other kind of human, I’m not really a big conversationalist. Dammit, Jim, I’m a storyteller, not a listener! And I’m sorry, but I’m too busy for lengthy correspondence with anyone but my closest friends.
And yet…I would like to do something to make entering the PP and SS more educational than competitive, and, yes, it’s very competitive. (As I’ve said elsewhere, many scripts that won only a few years ago wouldn’t even make it into the Finals this time because there are so many more high quality scripts than before but only a limited number of placings available. We’re at a point now where, using a 1.00 to 10.00 point scale, it takes higher than an 8.0 to be a Semi-Finalist.)
So Team TVWriter has been discussing a couple of ways to give entrants a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses without my brain having to burn out in the process. One idea is to create a form similar to those used in the coverage written by professional readers. You know, with various categories – originality, plot, characterization, dialog, format, that kind of thing. And check off whether those elements were done brilliantly, just okay, meh, or sucky. Or whatever words/values we decide to use.
Another approach would be to send out the overall 1 to 10 score to each entrant after the Winner announcements are made. Yet another would be to combine both of the ideas I’ve just mentioned. And of course we’re discussing whether we should charge extra for these services and the time it takes to perform them, and it so, how much. (Well, mostly it’s a matter of “how much” because the time thing, in with our current volume of entries – about 200 per contest – will really add up.)
Team TVWriter is also diddling around with a whole other kind of interesting idea. This site and I are always being asked, “How do I protect my work?” as in, “How do I keep some asshat SOB from stealing what I wrote?” The official – and correct – answer is, “Register your work so you know you have evidence of when you created it and of exactly what it is that you created.” In fact, I believe in registration so much that for a long time we had our own registration site, which I eventually sold because I was looking for someone who could make it even more useful than it already was. Unfortunately, the buyer ended up closing it instead, a big loss to all concerned, especially the TV and film writing community.
Given all this, I can’t help but think that entering the PP or the SS could also be a way for a writer to protect his or her I.P. (AKA intellectual property, AKA “work.”) Whenever you upload a file containing your teleplay or screenplay, our system automatically date-and-time-stamps it. Currently, we delete all entries from previous contests whenever we begin a new contest period, and we don’t and can’t guarantee their survival within our system. But if we were to, say, keep those files secured on our server where they couldn’t be altered, with proper backup drives in place, and keep them for a span of years we would have the equivalent of the usual online registration system, with your contest receipt as your “registration number.”
I can’t promise that this is going to happen, but we’re looking into the possibility of doing it for those who specifically ask for, and pay for, such a service. It may take awhile to iron it out. Because most of that “while” probably will be spent with lawyers so we can do it right.
Increasing the Number of Entries
Last but not least of TVWriter™’s concerns is giving more people a chance for validation and a step up on their careers by increasing our number of entries. In the 12 years that we’ve been doing this (well, 12 for the People’s Pilot and 10 for the Spec Scriptacular), we’ve done very little advertising, aiming the contests at what we think of as the discerning group of writers who frequent TVWriter™. But although we have very good-sized visitor base, the percentage who actually enter the PP and/or the SS is pretty low.
One idea we’re working on is to stagger the two contests instead of holding them together. Open the PP in, say, January, and close it in January, and then open the SS in December and close it in June. that seems easier on the budget for those who want to enter both contests, and also easier on the judges’ bleary eyes. We haven’t made our decision about this yet and look forward to your input.
In general, your opinions/needs/desires are very important to me, so what all this boils down to is:
We Can Always Use Some Help
Because I’m not telling you all this just as a storyteller. This is one of the times when I’m definitely trying to start a conversation. I’d love to get your reactions and suggestions to everything I’ve posted here, via the comments section below or by email. I promise to take the time to read/listen so all of us here can make the People’s Pilot, the Spec Scriptacular, and TVWriter™ into everything new writers need it to be.
EDITED TO ADD: Wait! I forgot something. One change we’re definitely going forward with is that starting with the 2012 Winners we’ll be posting as many of the winning scripts as we can get permission for online. As of this writing, 9 of the 12 2012 Winners have cleared it with us. Stay tuned for the scripts’ arrival here next week.
Turns out that I’m just as busy with the People’s Pilot and Spec Scriptacular contests now that the Winners have been announced as I was when we were judging. Maybe a big more because I’m setting up the various Mentorship Sessions that are among the prizes (and then will have to get on the phone with the Winners and yak away), making sure that the co-sponsors who supply prized do in fact supply those prizes, and working out the delivery of the prize money so graciously donated by Manner Movie Ltd. of Hong Kong.
As a result of being so immersed in the two contests, my mind is racing with thoughts about them. Thoughts I want to share.
We get a lot of inquiries along the line of, “Who are the judges?” and “What are the judging standards?” so here are the currently definitive answers (subject to change at any time, of course, because I keep trying to find ways to do things better).
The judges are drawn from a pool of showbiz professionals, mostly TV professionals, and a few critics as well. By “pool,” I mean “friends.” Talented and idealistic men and women who believe in the future of entertainment and whose thoughts and feelings I trust.
I cannot, however, divulge the identities of the specific judges this time around (other than to say I was one), or of the members of the pool (I’m one of those too, of course). The reason I can’t do this is that in order to cajole/coerce my friends into taking the time and effort (oh, the time!) it takes to do the job right I’ve had to guarantee them anonymity.
No judge wants/deserves to be out there in the open where angry losers can bug them personally or post about them or otherwise make their lives miserable. And no judge wants to be contacted by the winners either. They aren’t in the business of finding and helping new writers. They’re busy as hell and don’t have the time. I, however, am in that business. I accept the grief that can go with it…and, hell, I love doing whatever I can for the winners.
The judges’ standards, however, are a whole other thing that we probably should have published long ago. Sorry for the (ulp) 15 year delay. Here they are now:
The People’s Pilot
Scripts are read and given a score of from 1.00 to 10.00 points. There is no list of specific elements that have to be included, or excluded either. It’s a matter of each judge reading each entry and it based on his/her overall reaction to the material, ala “Wow, this would really be a great pilot for a great series [or not].” Experience and knowledge of the buying and audience markets (two very different things) are a big part of this reaction, which we believe duplicates as closely as possible the way professional buyers – which most of the judges are or have been – regard submissions.
As the years of holding the PP have rolled by, however, certain judging patterns have emerged.
No one gets a 10. A script that knocks out everyone who’s read it, that is at the level of a pro at his/her peak, gets in the 9s, and scripts in the 9s are the ones that usually take the first three places. In the case of a comedy, a script that has us laughing continuously and wishing to God that we’d written it is a script in the 9s. In the case of drama, a script that has us on the edge of our seats, caring for the characters almost as much as we care for ourselves and making us wish we’d written that one too is a script in the 9s.
A script that is head and shoulders above everything else in terms of the values of its genre, which shows a thorough understanding of the creative and practical aspects of TV writing, and moves the judges to great appreciation of its artistry usually scores in the 8s. (A typical problem with PP scripts scoring in the 8s is that the basic premise of the series is one that the judges just can’t get behind, or can’t imagine development execs believing in.
A script that is professional through and through but could benefit from a rewrite because it’s just not feeling special enough usually scores in the 7s.
A script that scores in the 6s usually is one that shows that the writer is talented and knows what s/he is doing but one with which the judges disagree in terms of structure and character choices. It’s one that wasn’t as fascinating as it could have been, along the lines of a good first draft. Okay but not finished. (A typical problem with PP scripts in the 6s is that while the writing is good, the script doesn’t come together as a whole. We call this the “You can’t have a great script without great writing but you too often see great writing still not creating a great script” Syndrome.”)
A script below 6 is one that has serious flaws in terms of premise, story, and characterization. The lower you go, the more serious the flaws, with the addition of other problems: Formatting problems that make the script difficult – sometimes impossible – to read; writing that is, frankly, inadequate, with unclear stage directions, dull/unrealistic/stereotypical dialog. The sort of thing that doesn’t instill confidence in readers/judges/audiences.
The Spec Scriptacular
Just as in the PP, Spec Scriptacular scripts are given a score of from 1.00 to 10.00 points. There is no list of specific elements that have to be included, or excluded either. For series specs, it’s a matter of each judge reading each entry and it based on his/her overall reaction to the material, ala “Wow, this really nails the show. It’s the best episode the series could possibly have [or not].” For TV movies/screenplays/specials, it’s all about the excitement the read the generates, ala, “Holy crap, I’d love to see this, and so would millions of others [or not].”
Again, experience and knowledge of the buying and audience markets are a big part of this reaction, so SS scripts are getting the same kind of read they would in the industry.
Over time, patterns similar to those in the PP have evolved in the SS as follows:
No one gets a 10. A script that knocks out everyone who’s read it, that is at the level of a pro at his/her peak and makes everyone who reads it wish they’d written it, gets in the 9s. Sometimes the very high 9s, but not even Shakespeare’s latest episode of MACBETH would get a 10. (Hmm, I could be wrong there.)
A script that is head and shoulders above everything else in terms of the values of its genre, which shows a thorough understanding of the creative and practical aspects of TV writing and, if its a series spec, of the style and substance of the show it’s intended to be part of, or that just plain makes the judges want to watch that show, usually scores in the 8s.
A script that is professional through and through but could benefit from a rewrite because it’s just not hitting everything strongly enough usually scores in the 7s.
A script that scores in the 6s usually is one that shows that the writer is talented and knows what s/he is doing but one with which the judges disagree in terms of a lot of its story and character choices. It’s one that doesn’t realize its potential but feels like a good first draft.
A script that scores in the 5s or less is one that’s got some good ideas and clever and/or meaningful moments but simply isn’t at a professional level yet in terms of style, substance, and presentation (think format). It’s not a case of this or that being wrong, or of choices that could’ve been better but of a need for the script to be elevated all-round. For the writer to learn more about the craft of storytelling, especially structure and, unfortunately, the correct use of language. In other words, the writing needs, simply to be “better.”
Uh-oh, I’ve only just begun but already have run out of time and space (which makes me wish even more than ever that I was The Doctor on DOCTOR WHO). Let me take a breath.
COMING NEXT WEEK: Ideas about making the contests a better experience for everyone who enters. I’m talking pricing, prizes, due dates, feedback, and, who knows, maybe even some kind of manuscript registration element. And wouldn’t it be cool if not only the judges but our visitors could read the Winners?
I got the above email yesterday and really was amazed that the WGAw has actually been holding a contest – for members only – for four years. It took me completely by surprise.
To be sure, this email isn’t exactly using the word “contest,” but let’s be real here. “[W]riters selected as honorees have found the experience beneficial to their writing careers” is another way of saying, “Winning (or being among those whose work got a gold star) has been good for the winners,” is it not?
Unfortunately, this Not-A-Contest won’t help non-WGAers. But there are alternatives. Including a certain PEOPLE’S PILOT and its sister contest, the SPEC SCRIPTACULAR, which have been going since 2000 and 2002 respectively. I really hope you’ll check ’em out.