Writing for Television — Lessons Learned at GAPF

Another thought-provoking session from last weekend’s Great American Pitchfest was entitled “Your Career in TV – The View from Both Sides.” The session was essentially a conversation between former Disney executive Kathie Fong Yoneda and Emmy-nominated writer Ellen Sandler.

The session was full of wise advice from both sides of the fence. Here are some highlights:

  • Succeeding in Hollywood, whether in film or television, is part magic, but it’s mostly hard work. Something lucky has to happen to you at some point, but when it does, you need to be ready for it, or that lucky break won’t get you anywhere. Take the time to network, perfect your scripts, learn your craft, and eventually, you’ll get there.
  • People are looking for you. But they can only find you if you put yourself out there. Join a writing group, go to conferences, go to screenwriting events,  volunteer at festivals, submit to contests, and always have your pitch ready to go. The industry can’t find you if you don’t help them out a bit.
  • Your odds of finding success in television (and film) go up dramatically the more you write. Being a prolific writer is key.
  • You need to be willing to network and to play the game. A good sense of politics is key. For the most part, this simply means being nice to everyone and not asking for favors before you’ve earned the right.
  • When writing a spec script, don’t make the show better. Make it fresh, certainly. But don’t go changing things or trying to make it something other than it is. Leave all current relationships just as they are. Your spec script should be able to slip into the series as an episodic piece without really being noticed. This shows that you can take on the voice of the show and support its vision. Trying to mold it to your own vision is taken as an insult and won’t get you anywhere. In a pilot, go crazy.
  • A good friend is better than an agent. You can get a job without an agent if you have a friend in the right place. So make friends with fellow writers and help each other out whenever possible. We are each other’s best resource.
  • You need to be someone that other people like to be around. Writing for television means endless hours in a small room with the same group of people day after day. If you can’t make friends and play nice, no one is going to want you in their writer’s room. This doesn’t mean changing your personality to fit in – it means being gracious, accepting criticism, being respectful, and serving the show above your own ego.
  • You must be a team player. In television, it’s all about the team. It’s not about highlighting your own writing or fighting with your fellow writer’s to get your ideas in. It’s about highlighting the show and supporting the showrunner’s vision of the show.
  • Give. Don’t just take. This is key to networking and to working in tv generally. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not who you know that matters in this industry. It’s who knows you back. Put your emphasis on building real relationships with people you genuinely like, not kissing ass, and sooner or later you and your friends will be the ones that other people are trying to suck up to.

4 thoughts on “Writing for Television — Lessons Learned at GAPF

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  1. Hmmm… Let’s see, in no particular order, I performed magic, blatantly flirted, and didn’t care what others thought, simply because I have earned the right. As opposed to the left, which I’ve also earned. To those who felt slighted in any way, I apologize insincerely. 😉

    You forgot Comedy is a Serious Business, AND don’t take life too seriously, because you’ll never get out of it alive….

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