Breaking into TV: The Independent Film Route

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by Fin Wheeler

The latest golden age of television has network, cable and streaming executives and producers scrambling to discover their next colossal hit.

Purely original works are hit or miss. Too many expensive misses in a row and a producer is done. Sometimes it only takes one spectacular turkey. With stakes this high, they look for ways to balance the risks.

Movie studios have always seen the value of the franchise, the reboot, the adaptation, and the remake. Television producers have followed suit. But audiences weren’t entirely sated by this slate. The one constant in human evolution has been storytelling. Each new generation likes to feel they have ownership and authorship of a fresh new crop of stories.

How do producers feed this insatiable need of their audience for tasty new morsels?

Where Producers Look for Show Creators

While there are ample up-and-coming scriptwriters waving around pilots, what producer has time to read them all and sort that one grain of wheat from the chaff? Even if they do find a pilot that has potential, what are the chances that the writer will be able to work within the system and make the endless required changes?

Note: If you’re not familiar with the long development process of pilots, I recommend UCLA Writers’ Program’s handbook on writing for TV. Each chapter covers a different aspect. One of the last chapters is the diary of a guy who had one of his pilots optioned and spent nearly a year continually rewriting it. It gives a good idea of how a professional television writer is expected to behave and perform.

Back to the producers and their search for suitable creators of original content.

Option 1: The Rising Staff Writer

One school of thought says you work with a seasoned writer. One who started as a writers’ assistant and worked their way up the TV writing ranks over a decade or so.

Sure, such a writer probably hasn’t developed their own characters or their own concepts for the past decade because they’ve been working all hours on various series, but they do know what’s expected of them, and they have a history of reliable delivery.

In the business of television, understanding the importance of advertisers, standards, and deadlines is integral.

Option 2: The Successful Playwright

The other school of thought says the way to find talent is go outside the industry and find new voices. Rookies break the rules and stretch convention in ways the audience longs to see (but they also resort to tired stereotypes, clichés, and conventions). The other obvious problem is that hot new young writers are almost always entirely ignorant of how things really get done.

Producers simply don’t have time to deal with this level of ignorance (nor should they be expected to).

In any field you have to do your background research. If you want to be a paid professional, you have to have the skill set to warrant that paycheck.

Option 3: The Indie Filmmaker

Television producers have found a way to avoid of avoiding the more-ignorant new writers: indie films.

A screenwriter who’s had a modest hit with an independent film has proved they know how to work constructively within the development paradigm. They’ve also proved there’s an audience. The press and public are interested to see what this writer will create next.

Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture and her subsequent HBO series Girls are an example of this.

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The young filmmaker/actor impressed with a polished feature made on a minuscule budget. Yes, the $65,000 budget would have likely been much, much more if not for all the favors she pulled by having a famous artist, Laurie Simmons, for a mother. And yes, it probably also helped that many of her friends (and co-stars) are also kids of famous folks. But being a progeny of fame only opens a door; it doesn’t guarantee you get to walk through it.

Whether Dunham’s style and content are to your taste or not, she is talented, without which she’d have no currency.

Tiny Furniture premiered at South by Southwest on April 15, 2010 where it won Best Narrative Feature. The interest and hype from this and other festival screenings secured Dunham a deal with distributor IFC Films. From a limited theatrical release in November 2010, Tiny Furniture did $391,674 in box office.

While not a massive amount. it did prove that Dunham could balance creativity and cost. She successfully navigated development hell. And she created an award-winning feature. Critics and the public felt Dunham had tapped into the essence of her generation. They trusted her depictions and were interested to see what she’d do next.

As we all know, Lena Dunham went on to develop Girls for HBO, with Judd Apatow as Executive Producer.

Earlier this year HBO renewed the show for a fifth season. Dunham has said she intends the sixth to be the final season.

Finding Success in Independent Film

So how can we fellow early-career script and screenwriters get in on this, given that most of us don’t have famous kin we can plague for favors?

Dunham didn’t just have great craft skills, she was wise enough to work with veterans and astute enough to watch and listen. One of the worst things newbies can do is underestimate their level of ignorance.

If the screenwriter and the director on a project are both untested, it makes sense that you have veterans in every other role. The producers, the DP, the production designer, the sound, lighting, and editing; all need to really know what they’re doing. They can prevent most of your rookie mistakes and they have the experience and skills to correct the others.

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As screenwriters with few or no credits, we are only too willing (and desperate) to jump at any opportunity. We worry that if we take the time to weigh the pros and cons of a project, some other writer will snap up the gig before us. So we jump blindly at each and every project.

But pitching endlessly for gigs and the vague promises of a credit is physically, emotionally, and creatively draining. It’s the fast path to burn out and bitterness.

Lena Dunham believed in her unique vision and her voice enough to focus on one project and see it through to fruition. No doubt there were many other glittering prospects held out along the road, but she didn’t get distracted by all those projects. She bet on herself, and it paid excellent dividends. Look to the Duplass brothers for another prime example of this.

Having no long-term goals or plan, just endlessly chasing one pitch then the next, can add excitement to your life. You’re friends and family can find it easier to be interested and supportive of your writing if you give them regular, varied updates, but a more strategic and considered (albeit unexciting) long-term approach to your screenwriting is far more likely to produce rewards.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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