WRITERS’ ROOM 101: Three Types of TV Staffing Meetings

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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Always say yes to the bottled water.

It’s springtime. Smack-dab in the middle of staffing season. You’re scurrying around Los Angeles in your car, rushing from meeting to meeting with any network executive, studio executive, and showrunner who’s read your latest writing sample and agreed to carve a little time out of their busy schedule for you. Before each meeting, an assistant will ask you to have a seat in the waiting area and typically offer you something to drink…a bottled water, usually. And if you’re anything like me, you say yes to that bottle of water, each and every time.

Why? Because statistically speaking, it’ll probably be the only thing you walk away from the meeting with.

InterviewThat might sound harsh, but it’s not an exaggeration. As I pointed out in my previous post, there are far more writers seeking jobs at any given time than there are jobs available, and that’s especially true at the height of staffing season. As a result, the networks and studios (not to mention showrunners) are faced with reading and meeting dozens, if not hundreds, of writers each year as they decide whom they’ll ultimately hire.

For all the endless talk about the importance of writing an awesome script (and yes, it is critically important), that’s really only half the battle when it comes to landing an actual job on a television writing staff. You’ve also got to be “good in a room,” as they say, which basically means making such a great impression that you win people over in these face-to-face meetings. After all, as good as your script might be, they’re considering hiring you, not the script you wrote. Staffing meetings give the powers-that-be a chance to make a personal connection with you beyond matching a face with the name on the cover page of your pilot, and sometimes that can be enough to mean the difference between you getting the job and not.

Next time I’ll talk in detail about what actually happens inside these meetings. But for now, let’s differentiate between the three primary types of staffing meetings you’ll have: general, show, and showrunner.

General meetings, to be perfectly honest, tend to be the most frustrating of the bunch. They’re also the hardest to prepare for because they’re, well, general. These meetings are the result of an executive reading your work and wanting to meet you because they’re a fan (and/or your agent successfully convincing the executive that you’re a writer who really really really should be on their radar). Which is great – it’s certainly nothing to take for granted – but unfortunately it means that you’re not there to discuss a specific job opening on a specific show; it’s really more of a getting-to-know-you session.

Some writers think “generals” are a waste of time because by definition, no job offer will result from them. But I’ve come to view them as opportunities to a.) keep getting my name out there, and b.) further polish my interview skills so that I’m more at ease when an all-important showrunner meeting comes along. So my advice is to take any general meeting you can get and make the best of them. At the very least, you might establish a long-term working relationship that’ll pay off months or even years later.

Then there are show meetings (not to be confused with showrunner meetings, which we’ll get to in a moment). As the name indicates, these are meetings with a network, studio, or production company about a specific show of theirs. For instance, you might meet with NBC about a potential opening on The Blacklist next season, or Sony Pictures Television about Battle Creek, and so on.

As you can imagine, show meetings are considerably easier to wrap your head around than generals because instead of having to immerse yourself in the network’s entire drama or comedy lineup, you can just drill down on the particular show in question and go in there ready to discuss it at length. So you’ll binge-watch several episodes if it’s currently on the air, or read the pilot script over and over until you know it by heart if it’s a new series in contention. Either way, the major upside of a show meeting is knowing there’s an actual job up for grabs, and that’s always a plus.

Lastly, we have the all-important showrunner meetings. These are the meetings everyone wants, mainly because most of us harbor romantic notions of the showrunner liking us so much that they stand up in mid-conversation and yell, “You’re hired!” And then (in our fantasy, at least), they order their assistant to cancel all the other meetings with all those other writers because they’ve finally found The One.

Rest assured that even the most successful showrunner meetings usually don’t end that way, but we still like to think of them as pretty much make-or-break, and rightfully so. A showrunner meeting means you’re sitting down with the executive producer of the show, who’s often the person who created the series and wrote the pilot. Without their stamp of approval, your chances of getting the job are practically nil.

Having said all that, it’s been my observation that the showrunner isn’t always the final decision maker when it comes to staffing. Without question, the showrunner has a lot to say (probably the most to say) about who’s going to end up on their staff, but ultimately, these decisions are made collaboratively between the showrunner, network, and studio. That means even if the showrunner loves you and wants to hire you, but the network is dead set against you for whatever reason (remember that general network meeting you refused to take seriously?), chances are you’ll probably come out on the losing end.

At the end of the day, a lot of different people have to sign off on you before you receive an actual job offer. That means you’ll need advocates on your side. As many as you can get. Therefore – and this should really go without saying – not only should you consider each meeting as important as all the others, you should treat each person you meet with like they’re the most important person in the decision-making process…right down to the assistant who brought you that bottle of water. In a few years, they might be a development executive holding your next job in their hands.

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