PRIMETIME: G’Day! TV Questions and Answers From Down Under…

One of the most fun parts of writing this blog has been receiving messages and emails from all over the world.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve gotten many questions from Australia, often asking how to break into Australian TV… or how to break into American TV from Australia.

So first of all—thank you to Ed, Mat, Warren, and all our other Australian readers who have sent in questions and comments.

Underbelly Film Victoria TV series

The popular Australian TV series, "Underbelly," funded by Film Victoria.

Secondly—I’ve never been to Australia, sadly (although if someone would like to fly me out, I’d come in a heartbeat!)… so I figured rather than try to answer questions I know nothing about, I’d turn to someone who does.

That person is my friend Charlie Carman, a Script Consultant/Creative Executive who currently works as the Manager of Script Development for Film Victoria, a state-funded organization designed to support Victoria’s arts in TV, film, and digital media.

Charlie knows much more about the clockworks of Australian television than I do, so I caught up with her to get some answers to readers’ questions.  A huge thanks to her for taking the time to do this, and here’s what she had to say…

ME:  In America, TV shows are written by staffs… and the best way to break in and excel in television is to land a staff job (usually beginning as a writers assistant) and work your way up.  Is this the same in Australia?  What’s the career path for most TV writers?

CHARLIE: In Australia, the role of Script Assistant, Script Co-ordinator, Script Editor and Script Producer tend to be in-house, but the writers are almost always freelance, so we don’t really have ‘staff writers’ in the same way.

Generally, people start as Script Assistants or Script Co-ordinators and then work their way up to a position as Writers. They are usually writing episodes in their own time from the very beginning though – either spec episodes or drafts of their own ideas for shows. There is nothing that beats just writing for building up your craft skills, and interweaving A, B and C stories, building to ad breaks and end of episode cliff-hangers etc., all requires a lot of craft.

If they are interested/capable (as it can be quite a different skill set than writing itself) they can then move up the ranks to a Script Editor position and then a Script Producer job.

At the early career stage, it’s also worth remembering that it’s possible to do (unpaid) work experience or (paid) internships on TV productions where you can shadow a writer/Script Editor or Story Producer. This can involve being part of the story plotting meetings, the table reads with actors and even sitting in on the edit, which can give you a great overview of the whole process.

More rare, but also possible, is to get a broadcaster to develop your own TV series concept. Then you will get the opportunity to go straight into writing episodes, although they will generally still want to team you with a more experienced TV writer as the Script Editor/Story Producer.

Warren is an aspiring TV writer in Australia.  He’s already written a spec pilot… as well as several episodes, character profiles, log lines, etc… and he’d like to get it seen by a producer, agent, or executive who could shepherd it along.  What advice would you give someone in Warren’s shoes?  Is a spec pilot—and multiple episodes—sellable?  Is it possible for an inexperienced newbie to sell a project?

I’d suggest to Warren that he create a top-notch pitch document or concept document (generally no more than 1-2 pages) from his materials. That’s usually the first thing that any producer, agent or commissioning editor wants to see, and they’re unlikely to want to read all the other materials until they’ve established that the basic concept is something they’re interested in.

Broadcasters have been quite clear that they would prefer writers and producers to come to them early on to establish if the idea itself has potential, rather than fully developing the project in isolation and then bringing it to the table, with a bible, scripts etc., where things seem to be already set in stone. A show has more of a chance of being commissioned if the broadcaster can have input into the idea from the start and be part of any shaping that needs to happen to make it work for their audience.

Having said that, all the work that Warren’s done certainly isn’t a waste of time. A lot of concept documents suffer from being a little undercooked, but having a really clear idea of your characters, a possible series throughline, and any ‘rules of the world’ or style considerations established, can help to make the concept really sing and stand out from the crowd.

As an aside, Film Victoria (where I work) does offer funding for writers/producers to work on TV concept documents if they have initial interest from a broadcaster. We also offer co-funding for TV drama scripts so we will invest alongside the broadcaster to allow for proper writing and script editing fees to be paid. Details are on our website here: http://film.vic.gov.au/www/html/63-script-fiction.asp

Do aspiring Australian TV writers need literary agents… and how would they go about getting an agent in Australia?

It’s not necessary in the way it perhaps is in the U.S., as you can get work as a newbie just by word of mouth, and the recommendations of lecturers, producers, and funding agency staff, but it can certainly be useful once you are starting to get work to have someone there to negotiate contracts and deals for you.

There are many websites that list all the lit agencies in Australia, and you can approach them to find out who the best person is to talk to about being taken on (generally a more junior agent if you have no credits yet). Often they are quite keen on representing TV writers as they have more regular work (and income!) than the feature film writers.

I’ve received a couple emails from aspiring Australians who want to break into TV… in America. Is this possible?  Are there established relationships and channels connecting Australians to U.S. television?  Can a wannabe in Australia break into U.S. TV from across the pond, or do they need to become a big enough success in Australia first?

I think the U.S. market is very good at talent spotting and is always on the lookout for good ideas that can travel, regardless of experience.

Set in LA, created by Oz

Realistically, though, the Aussie writers need to get themselves a U.S. agent or manager to be able to access the broadcasters in the States, as they are unlikely to be able to submit ‘unsolicited’ proposals. It can also take a bit of time. Australian Shane Brennan (the highly successful showrunner on NCIS and the creator and showrunner of NCIS: LA) spent many years doing regular trips to the US and getting experience as a writer and creator of shows in Australia before he landed such a big gig in the States.

What are the 3 biggest mistakes you see aspiring Australian TV writers make?  Or, based on your experience, if you could give aspirants 3 things NOT to do as they try to break in… what are they?

Here are a few seemingly obvious traps to avoid that unfortunately people do still fall into at times.

  1. If you are applying to write on an existing show, make sure you have done the research – i.e. watched more than one episode, know the character’s names and main plot strands and if possible actually read some of their previous scripts.
  2. If you do make it into the writer’s room/get commissioned to write an episode, remember that TV writing is generally a team effort (and there’s a hierarchy). Often you can end up being heavily edited or ‘overwritten’ by the Script Editor and/or Script Producer. It’s also very likely that the broadcaster will have quite comprehensive notes that you need to take on board. It can feel pretty brutal and there’s a fine art to dealing with feedback. Sometimes the suggestions given might not work, so there’s no point in you slavishly following them and ending up with a script that you know doesn’t hold together, but equally they are usually indicative of some kind of issue that does need to be addressed in the script and the onus is on you, as the writer, to work out a better solution to the problem. The most important thing is how you handle this; don’t be truculent or defensive about your work – you can gain a reputation for being ‘difficult’. Instead try to walk the line between arguing for what you believe in storywise, but understanding that there are bigger issues at stake for these guys than just the artistic integrity of your individual episode. Quite frankly, in the highly pressured environment of TV no one wants to work with someone who makes their lives even harder and your reputation in dealing with notes can be as important a factor in you getting further work as your actual craft skills and talents as a writer.
  3. And finally the cardinal sin, that is sadly not apocryphal- don’t go into an interview for a TV job and say that you don’t watch TV, you think TV is rubbish, or that you really want to get into features but this is just a stepping stone. No one wants to hear that their chosen field is being belittled or treated as second-class. To be honest, you would also be an idiot if you were saying that these days, as it’s clear that some of the highest quality writing around has been coming from TV (shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men in the U.S., State of Play and Skins in the UK, and Love my Way and Rake in Oz)

An aspiring Australian writer/producer wants to land her first job in television… which, I’m guessing, will be an entry-level position.  What kind of first job can she expect to find… and how does she go about finding it?  Are there some good Australian job-hunting resources, like websites, employment agencies, conferences, even books or magazines?

One of the best places to look for film and TV jobs is on the online publication Screenhub. They do a jobs bulletin every week, as well as a news bulletin twice a week, which is very useful for being across what is happening in the industry in general and coming across as well-informed in your interview. It is subscription based, and costs around $89 a year, but some of the universities have bought access for their media students.

It is also worth getting the AWG (Australian Writer’s Guild) enews, as they offer many different opportunities for their Associate Members (i.e. early career writers). For example, they run an annual internship on long-running Aussie drama Neighbours that offers a chance for new writers to get onto the show.

It is also possible (in Victoria at least) to apply for an writing internship on a Television production – you need to broker this yourself, but you can receive 50% of an award-level salary from Film Victoria (the government funding agency in Melbourne) so the production only has to match that. These internships are specifically about up-skilling, so it’s not completely entry level, but if you have been a script assistant or co-ordinator, for example, or even had some writing experience and now want to gain experience as a Script Editor or Script Producer, then you can apply for this funding.

Thanks again, Charlie—and I hope that helps, Aussies!  For the rest of you, no matter what country you live in, please email questions or comments to chad@chadgervich.com… or simply post them in the comments section below!

4 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: G’Day! TV Questions and Answers From Down Under…

  1. Jeff McMahon

    Dear Chad, when you do make it to Australia please bear in mind that there is a whole continent west of the Great Dividing Range full of talent and that Australian culture is not confined to Sydney and Melbourne.

  2. Scott Wallace

    Good article. Now here’s a curly one for you. What’s the best way to break into the Argentine film industry? (Although I live in Australia, I’m writing a screenplay based on an episode in Argentine history, so maybe Argentines would be interested in it more than anyone else. But I don’t know how the Argentine film industry works: do they use agents for scripts? Or do writers contact producers directly?)

  3. writers room

    Quite frankly, in the highly pressured environment of TV no one wants to work with someone who makes their lives even harder and your reputation in dealing with notes can be as important a factor in you getting further work as your actual craft skills and talents as a writer.

COMMENT