PRIMETIME: How much personal background should I reveal to showrunners?

Today’s question comes from Carlito, a writer, producer, and self-professed “closet nerd.”

As a young man, Carlito ran with a gang of “knuckleheads” and landed in prison for five years. When he got out, he went to college and “launched a writing career,” becoming “Editor-in-Chief of a national magazine, selling and producing a series for MTV (and later producing other shows for other nets).”

Carlito recently moved from NYC to L.A. “to shift his career into a higher gear.”  Which brings him to today’s question…

How receptive are showrunners to so-called diverse voices these days? Equally important, how receptive are agents/managers to same? How much of my background should I share at a first meeting? (For example, if I’m ever lucky enough to take a meeting with Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy fame, I’d think my bio might go over well, but what if I’m meeting with Damon Lindelof?) …I’d hate to (a) be pigeonholed into the “reformed crook does good” category (especially since I was reformed long before I ever got arrested—but that’s for the memoirs) or worse (b) scare some showrunner out of giving me a shot.

Today’s your lucky day, Carlito, because if there’s one thing television LOVES right now, it’s “diversity.”  For the past few years, there’s been a huge push to inject diverse voices into writers rooms.  Studios have even instituted “diversity writing programs” solely to find and nurture writers who might otherwise have never found their way into a production office.

More on that in a sec; first, your other questions…

How much of my background should I share at a first meeting?

All of it!  It’s what makes you fascinating, unique, and different from every other UCLA film school graduate showrunners have been reading and meeting!

Of course, when hiring new writers, the first thing any showrunner looks for is SKILL.  “Can this guy write?”  “Can he tell a riveting story?”  And I’m guessing: as editor of a major magazine, you’re a fine writer. Now, writing magazine articles is different than writing TV stories, but you know your way around a sentence. And I’m guessing you’ve spent time learning all you can: writing specs, producing original material, studying scripts, etc.

Next, showrunners look for COMPATABILITY. “Is this guy easy to be around?” “Can I spend 15 hours a day locked in a tiny room with this person?”

The next thing a showrunner looks for is LIFE STORIES and EXPERIENCE. “What unique perspective does this writer bring to my room?” “Does he have a mental library of stories and characters that can enhance my show?” That’s where your background sets you apart from other writers. Every EP I know would rather hire someone with a fascinating background, someone who’s lived life and experienced interesting things, than a wunderkind fresh from USC.

So own your history, and don’t be afraid to share some of your favorite adventures!  Your job is not only to TELL the showrunner of your compelling background, but to PROVE you can tell a story and move people with your words, so go for it!

I’d hate to (a) be pigeonholed into the “reformed crook does good” category… or worse (b) scare some showrunner out of giving me a shot.

Not every writer is right for every show, and a certain amount of “pigeon-holing” is inevitable and appropriate.  You might be perfect for a new Kurt Sutter (or Damon Lindelof) show, but completely wrong for Cougar Town, or Glee, or a new sitcom from David Kohan & Max Mutchnick.

However, what will “pigeon-hole,” or identify, you is not your background, but the kinds of stories you tell, how you use your background, and your voice as a writer. No writer can write everything equally well—drama, sci-fi, romantic comedy, mysteries—so your job is to know what kinds of stories YOU tell best… and embrace that!  There are plenty of ex-cons who could use their backstory to tell gritty life-on-the-street crime dramas… but others might use the same material to tell touching stories about finding love in an unforgiving world… or hilarious sketches about the extremes to which people go in moral dilemmas.  You must know what kind of storyteller YOU are… and articulate and illuminate that in the meeting.

Now, getting your foot in the door…

Since you’ve produced shows, I’d contact anyone you know at MTV or other networks and companies you’ve worked for. Your goal is to get a writers assistant job on a scripted show, preferably the type of show you hope to write for, but you may have to begin as a PA or runner.

If you’re not willing, or financially able, to start at the bottom, you can always get a more lucrative job—writing for magazines, producing reality, etc.—and write and network on the side… but your goal needs to be getting to the writers room, which usually means being a writers assistant.

In the mean time, here’s a list of the main network and studio writing/diversity programs:

CBS Writers Mentoring Program

FOX Writers Initiative

NBC’s Diversity Initiative For Writers

NBC’s Writers on the Verge

ABC/Disney Writing Fellowship

Warner Brothers Writers Workshop

NATPE Diversity Fellowship

Hope this helps, Carlito… good luck… and keep reading! And for the rest of you—keep the questions and comments coming: chad@chadgervich.com.

One thought on “PRIMETIME: How much personal background should I reveal to showrunners?

  1. susan

    I really liked the way Chad broke down Carlito’s question when answering, and especially what was said about \voice\ vs. \pigeon-holed\, BUT I have to argue that the comparison had a slight error–in that \diversity\ remains about color or ethniticity and NOT voice in the sense of \varied experience\ i.e.: a reformed criminal (but one who is a caucasian-American, not of color or other country).

    Especially, for example, when you consider most Hispanics or Latinos today are actually born and raised here, in America, and are by all means, very American in culture and daily living experience. And for example, I as a white, Irish-Italian American grew up disadvantaged from a broken home with an Alcoholic mother and lived on foodstamps. But because I’m white, non-Hispanic, I don’t meet the Diversity profile that’s really in place.

    Diversity should really mean \diversity\.

    Just sayin’.

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