PrimeTime: If You Hate TV, Why Do You Want to Write It?

Today’s question comes from Steffan, who emails …

Read your treatise (HERE and HERE) regarding aspiring T.V. writers … Interesting. What about screenplay? Certainly you will say still “must move to L.A.” but neither John Grisham nor Stephen King immediately moved out there. Sure, those are special cases of extreme talent who went from novel to screenplay but just saying … .

Just like many folks live in one area and fly to others to work, I believe [making a career] is about focused precision on appointments, pitches, etc. Is it better to be out there? Sure it is …

Your thoughts and other guidance/tips for novel/screenwriting?

Frankly, the drudgery of uninspiring reality shows and non-stimulating films and T.V. shows is depressing. When you have two shows a year that are dramatic, that are worthwhile, and five movies a year … is creativity not most important?!?!?

Perhaps the running down of America holds true and has permeated the industry.

Well, Steffan … let’s look at your use Stephen King and John Grisham as examples of screenwriters who didn’t immediately move to L.A. First of all …

Stephen King and John Grisham are not screenwriters.

Stephen King was a best-selling, multimillion-dollar novelist first … before he dabbled in screenwriting. When you’re a best-selling, multimillion-dollar anything, you have a kind of clout and power most other writers never have; if you say you want to write a particular screenplay, you can write the screenplay — you’re not clamoring to prove yourself. (But even now, Stephen King has written only a handful of scripts, and John Grisham hasn’t really written any.)

So, you’re not doing yourself, or your career-planning, any favors by using Stephen King and John Grisham as examples of people who broke into screenwriting while living someplace else.

Not the best example of how to start a screenwriting career.

If those are the role models you want to follow, fine … but then you should try being a novelist … because Stephen King and John Grisham were not aspiring screenwriters who found some clever backdoor into the industry.

If you can become the next Stephen King or John Grisham, then you can also live wherever you want. But living somewhere else and flying to L.A. pitch meetings is NOT a viable strategy for launching an actual career. It’s not realistic or productive to say: “I want be a screenwriter … and I am going to do it by becoming one of the best-selling novelists of all time.”

Now, do I have thoughts or tips for novelists and screenwriters? …

Well, I’m not a novelist, so the only real advice I have is the advice I’d offer an aspiring writer in any medium:

WRITE YOUR ASS OFF.

DO NOT STOP WRITING.

NO MATTER HOW GOOD YOU THINK YOUR MATERIAL IS, IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

Beyond that, for more business-y novel-writing advice, I’d refer you to my friend Brian Klems at Writer’s Digest magazine. He writes “Questions & Quandries,” a wonderful blog that takes reader questions and offers all kinds of business-y writing advice.

I’m also not a movie-writer, so there are definitely bloggers more qualified than I to answer movie questions … in particular John August, who has a great piece, “Writing For Hollywood Without Living There,” HERE.

So, Steffan, I’ll jump to the end of your email, where you ask:

When you have two shows a year that are dramatic, that are worthwhile, and five movies a year is creativity not most important?

I won’t comment on the movies, because, well, as a (relatively) new father, I’ve only seen about five movies in the last two years. Plus, I’m a TV guy … and this is a TV blog … so I’ll stick to TV.

But I hear this kind of thing a lot. Sometimes writers come in saying, “I’m just so sick of bad TV, I wanted to do something different.”

Or: “There are so few good shows on TV, so I wanted to create something that was smart.”

Or: “I’m not really a big TV-watcher, but …”

And to all of them, including you, Steffan, I say this:

What fucking television are you watching?!

There has never been a time in history when there have been more than phenomenal television shows on air at the same time!

If you think there's no worthwhile TV...

“Only two worthwhile shows”?!

Do you not watch Mad Men, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Killing, The Good Wife, The Walking Dead?! And those are just the “dramatic shows” I’m listing off the top of my head!

If you want to talk comedies, let’s talk about Parks & Recreation, Louie, 30 Rock, Community, Modern Family.

TV is full of amazing shows right now! Even many of the older shows like CSI, Psych, How I Met Your Mother, and The Office are aging pretty damn well!

In fact, there’s much more great TV than great movies in the theater!

So here’s my point in all this …

...You're clearly watching the WRONG TV.

As someone working in the industry, there’s nothing more off-putting than when somebody comes to you, claiming they want to be a TV writer or producer, and says, “I think most of what you do is shit, and I want to do it, too. Will you hire me?”

And the same goes for screenwriters and filmmakers.

There’s no better way to make sure you DON’T endear yourself to agents, producers, or writers than by spitting on what they do for a living.

Nobody wants to hire, or represent, a guy who says, “I think most of what you people do sucks. Now help me get in. Buy my project. Read my script. Give me a shot.”

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think critically about the work you see … and it doesn’t mean you can’t dislike something (as long as you can articulate, intelligently, why you don’t like it). But showrunners, screenwriters, producers, executives, and agents want to hire the guy who says:

“I love television (or movies)! I see all the great stuff out there and I get inspired! I want to be the next Greg Daniels … or J.J. Abrams … or Ryan Murphy … or Vince Gilligan!”

That’s the person we’re looking for … the person who’s motivated out of passion, love and respect for the medium, the craft, and the professionals making content … NOT the person motivated out of disdain and disgust.

So if you think there only two worthwhile shows on TV right now … and there are only a handful of good movies in the theater … then I will say:

  1. You’re wrong. And …
  2. Don’t bother trying to become a TV or screenwriter. Because you won’t get in. And you probably don’t deserve to.

If you have other questions, thoughts, or rebuttals, please don’t hesitate to email me at chad@chadgervich.com, Tweet me @chadgervich, or simply post in the Comments section below!

11 thoughts on “PrimeTime: If You Hate TV, Why Do You Want to Write It?

  1. Bill M.

    “you’ll figure out some way to connect to and appreciate it. And if you don’t, that’s fine—just don’t expect to have a long career.”

    Well said, super key to any collaborative medium.

    “Thanks for respecting my opinion. You should—it’s more right that yours” is my new favorite quote and will continue to grace my Facebook status for the rest of the week.

    Also, I really enjoyed the interview with Gray on the TV Writer Podcast.

  2. Fred Bluhm

    I agree that biting the hand that you hope, someday, will feed you, is the least intelligent approach to take when trying to break into television or film. That said, if you feel that what’s offered these days in those mediums is junk, then, instead of taking it out on a potential employer, use those feelings as a motivational tool to keep writing; if you can do better, then do it!

    In my opinion – and it’s only that – if you’re serious about writing for a specific TV show, then watch as many episodes of it as possible beforehand in order to become more familiar with the show’s concept. Know where the show has gone in the past – where it seems to be heading in the future. Does the show follow a soap opera format, or is there a new theme every week? How does it flow from one scene to the next. Know the characters; their personalities, their mannerisms, how they articulate themselves verbally – some characters have a specific way they act and speak. Know their past history on the show; anything you can incorporate into a script that a producer/director feels will enhance their show.

    And speaking of motivation, when I heard the rumor that “Grand Torino” could be Clint Eastwood’s last appearance on film, because, as he said, “They don’t make many pictures for guys my age,” I set about writing a script for a guy his age, with him in mind. Sounds crazy, but that was my motivation; I like seeing Clint up there on the screen once in a while. Now, if I can only get him to play an “older” hit man.

  3. Danzier

    In my scriptwriting class we were required to watch the shows for which our classmates were writing scripts. It’s true that if you don’t watch the show you won’t write a good script for it, and also true that if you don’t watch the show you can’t critique either the show or the script.

  4. IhateOpera

    “Thanks for respecting my opinion. You should—it’s more right that yours” is my favorite quote of the year. Thank you.

    By the way, you are absolutely right.

    Also, I wrote an Opera but all Opera sucks and I refuse to watch it. How can I get a job in Opera? Additionally, I live in Idaho Falls, Idaho. To have a job in Opera, I think it’s unfair to say I have to move to a city with Opera. Please advise before I tell my parents I am moving out of their basement.

  5. John Boy

    I completely agree with Chad. It’s really just a matter of doing your homework. I don’t understand why you WOULDN’T want to study tv if you’re going to have a career in it.

    I don’t watch shows off a tv set anymore. I watch all of my shows on my laptop. It’s part of my writing schedule. Write during the day and pick an episode from a few shows every night to watch and study before I go to bed. I also read articles from The Hollywood Reporter online (and of course good ‘ol Chad’s) just to keep in the loop. I also watch interviews with showrunners and keep up with them, so I can learn more and more how to think like them when writing.

    Not having Showtime or HBO is NO excuse anymore. In fact there’s really no excuse at all for not catching up with any show at anytime. The internet has changed everything. I can grab a pilot script from online, read it, then instantly watch the episode on my laptop. There are sites that allow me to put together my own list of favorite shows with their airtimes so I can follow them.

    The difficulty for me is how overwhelming it can become. So I narrow my study list down to 3 or 4 networks with shows I’ll follow. I focus on drama but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the other genres.

    It all just seems very elementary to me. If I want to be in that room with John Landgraf at FX, not only do I want to have a great drama script for him, but I want to show that I appreciate and care about what he does at that network. It can only make my pitch experience better. Right?

    Anywhoo, thanks again Chad.

  6. carlito rodriguez

    EXCELLENT post, Chad, “harsh” words and all.

    Director/writer friend of mine — who’s knowledge of cinematic storytelling I respect — and I used to have some pretty funny TV vs. Film debates, which were ignited when, during a conversation about our respective careers I’d strongly suggested that (because his short films have won awards and accolades ranging from Tribeca to NBC Short Cuts to the LA Latino International Film Festival) he should focus a little more on getting his director’s reel to showrunners and dev execs, and he replied that for a director, helming for the small screen was about as far removed from creativity as “directing” actor reels.

    And then, in his best Columbia MFA accent, he added: “It’s the lesser medium, so that’s expected.”

    Long story short, (after our friends separated us from going to the knuckles) I ran down a list of the most compelling dramatic AND “cinematic” storytelling of the past ten years — all of it on television — and dared him to come up with an equivalent number of films.

    Needless to say, he couldn’t (although, in all fairness, he tried to go the uber-indie route, but I countered by pointing out that [with all due respect to the internet], there is no “indie” circuit for television).

    Me, I love the “wasteland.” Have since I was a kid, watching “Streets of San Francisco” and “Rockford Files” with my pops, even though I was too young to understand what I was watching. And fell in love beyond hope when “Hill Street Blues” first aired, and again, I was too young to know anything more than being captivated by INCREDIBLE storytelling — and dare I say, a lot closer to my own real-life experience than anything I’d seen before it.

    The rest, as they say, is history, still being written, as I pursue my passion, feed my spirit and follow this insane dream that started in The Bronx and has thus far, led me here to La-La Land. And though I might aspire to create “better” fare than, say, Jersey Shore, for example, I do recognize that the same thing that drew me in, week after week, for Hill Street is the same that compels viewers of all stripes to tune in today (day of or Hulu or DVR or Netflix or any permutation of such): An interesting story, well-told.

  7. Chad

    Dan—

    Thanks for respecting my opinion. You should—it’s more right that yours.

    First of all, I never said anyone had to “worship” anyone. In fact, I pretty clearly said you can dislike anything you want… “as long as you can articulate, intelligently, why you don’t like it.” What you can NOT do, however, if you expect to do good work and have a career, is blindly dismiss the entire medium, without giving it any critical thought.

    There are a TON of amazing shows on right now… and no, most of them are not on HBO or Showtime. (HBO and Showtime have some great shows, but “American Horror Story,” “It’s Always Sunny,” “The Walking Dead,” “Hell on Wheels,” “Parks & Recreation,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Louie,” “Community,” “Boss”… NONE of these shows are on HBO or Showtime—and I think I just listed off more original shows than HBO and Showtime have COMBINED.)

    I also said don’t “spit on” the livelihood and products of the people you want to hire you. That’s just good business advice. If you were applying for a job at a restaurant, would you go in telling them how terrible their food is?

    You may not like any of the shows on TV right now, but the writers, agents, producers, and execs behind them are—regardless of what you think of their work—THE PEOPLE YOU NEED TO HIRE YOU. And they work hard, harder than you can possibly imagine, trying to put out good product; they don’t always succeed, but making a TV show—even a not-so-great one—takes a phenomenal amount of hard work… and there a hundreds of factors that can derail it. So no one’s going to hire you, or buy your work, even if it’s BRILLIANT, if you—or Steffan—insist on telling them their shows are no good.

    If you’re a good writer, you may even get HIRED to write on a show you don’t particularly love. Are you going to turn down that job? I would think not. Rather, you’ll figure out some way to connect to and appreciate it. And if you don’t, that’s fine—just don’t expect to have a long career.

    Lastly, I never said anything about watching TV shows on the Internet or DVD rather than an actual television. So you don’t have a TV?… Big deal. Whether you’re watching “Bones” on a plasma screen, an iPhone, or a laptop doesn’t matter… you’re still watching “Bones.”

    Now, if you had said you’d written a “Bones” spec without ever watching the show (because, you know, you hate TV)… I would say—with a pretty strong degree of confidence—YOU DID NOT WRITE A VERY GOOD “BONES” SPEC.

    The point is: it doesn’t matter where or how you watch TV… but if you want to have a CAREER in TV, you need to become a student of TV. …Which means you need to invest time, energy, and thought into studying shows that are currently on. You don’t have to like them all, but you do need to have an understanding, respect, and appreciation of what they are, how they work, why they’re successful.

    … Because I promise you: if you have nothing but disdain and dislike for the medium, you will be trampled—and rightfully so—by the hordes of talented writers who DO love TV.

    CG

  8. Dan Delago

    Chad, I respect your opinion but there are many paths to becoming a successful TV writer. I do NOT think you have to be a fan of current TV shows to be a successful TV writer.

    I do not own a television. Yes, oh the horror! I dropped cable too. It was the best decision of my life. My quality of life is so much better and I have more time to write now. Not worrying about whether my favorite TV show is on yet.

    I’ve written a spec script for the ‘Bones’ television show without having to tune into it each week. There are many ways of studying a show you want to write for on the Internet and through DVD sets.

    Chad, you are correct, there are some good shows (unfortunately most of them are on HBO or Showtime). However, reality TV has taken a huge bite out of the creative end of the profession.

    So to tell someone that he doesn’t have a chance to succeed since he doesn’t worship the ‘Boob’ Tube is not being totally fair to that novice writer.

  9. anthony ventre

    You’re right about ppl dumping on TV. it’s true that lots of TV sucks but I am always impressed by the level of writing that goes on with shows like “Good Wife,” and “House” and one of my new and early favorites, the American “Prime Suspect.”

    Many of the television writers have raised the bar on dialogue, character dev, and other elements and, for the more intelligent shows, I’m a little envious.

    It’s not all perfect b/c it’s hard to fit everything in to a one-hour shot. But saying it’s “crap” is just a little ego salve for those of us who are currently looking for employment… :)..

    The good shows, the good writers, the

  10. Oscar

    As harsh as your words may be, it’s something that people need to hear.
    I’m not a professional, still very much an amateur, but nothing motivates me more than watching the great films or TV shows of the moment.
    In fact, for a few years I’ve been writing screenplays only, not even thinking about television writing. But great shows like Dexter, How I Met Your Mother, and the first season of Fringe (huge sci-fi nerd) all got me thinking more and more about learning TV writting.
    So it was the great shows I see on TV that have me currently neck deep in the subject.
    Nice response.
    Harsh, but necessary.

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