WRITERS’ ROOM 101: TV Staffing Meeting Tips

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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As I write this, the major broadcast networks are gearing up for their 2015 upfronts presentations – the annual TV industry event, held in New York City, where the year’s new and returning shows are formally announced. While some shows are picked up in advance of the upfronts (as with three recent NBC series), most have to wait until the very last minute to find out if they’re going to make it onto the schedule.

Interview In ProgressAmong the current shows, some are “on the bubble” (i.e., facing possible cancellation, but their fates are still officially undecided) and others have been renewed for quite some time. It’s safe to assume shows in the latter category have already staffed up and started writing, which pretty much means the window of opportunity for staffing meetings is quickly coming to a close. And because it bears repeating, as I said in my previous post, not getting staffed immediately prior to or during the network upfronts by no means suggests that you won’t have opportunities elsewhere throughout the year. It’s always good to keep that in mind.

Anyway, you’ve probably had a few (maybe even several) staffing meetings already, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have a few more before the networks finish making their final decisions. So I figured this would be a good time to offer a few words of advice for those of you who still have meetings lined up.

I’m sure it goes without saying that none of these tips should be construed as any sort of guarantee that following them will automatically result in a job offer, but I feel like I should probably say it anyway: none of these tips should be construed as any sort of guarantee that following them will automatically result in a job offer. There are a million variables that factor into each and every hire, and frankly, almost all of them are out of your control. All you can do is put your best foot forward in hopes of tipping the odds in your favor.

Everybody clear on that? Good. Let’s go.

DRESS COMFORTABLY

I was recently asked by an up-and-coming writer what she should wear to her very first showrunner meeting. Long story short, while you should never forget that these “meetings” are bona fide job interviews, there’s no need to dress too formally. In other words, no suits. It sounds strange, but you won’t look like a “writer” in the eyes of most people if you’re overdressed. Conversely, you don’t want to show up looking like you just strolled in from the beach or gym. Aim for something in-between. Think “business casual” and you’ll be fine.

OVER-PREPARE

Everyone likes to say, “preparation is key,” and that’s certainly true. But I always feel more at ease when I walk into a meeting knowing I’ve taken it a step further…so I tend to over-prepare. If it’s a new pilot, I read the script several times. I make notes in the margins. I know the characters by name and understand their relationships to each other. If it’s an existing show, I binge-watch as many episodes as possible, either by finding the show on demand, or streaming, or getting DVDs from the library if I can’t wait for Netflix. The point is to immerse myself in the show to the point where I’m “fluent” in it. I certainly never get asked everything I’ve absorbed about the characters or the show, but that’s far better than being asked a basic question I should know the answer to but don’t.

BE ENERGETIC…

This is especially true of showrunner meetings. Basically, being on staff means spending eight, ten, sometimes twelve hours a day in the same room sitting at the same table with the same group of people. Since your writing was obviously strong enough to get you the meeting, what you want to do now is demonstrate that you’re the type of person other people want to be stuck with for extended periods of time. Remember: the showrunner or executive you’re meeting with has already met dozens of other writers. They’re tired. They’re probably stressed. And so, as superficial as it may sound, you have to convince them that you’re fun to be around. You might be a sullen, brooding genius who can crank out awesome scripts in the blink of an eye, but no one’s ever going to find that out if you don’t land the job first. And that means being extra-personable in the meeting.

…BUT DON’T BE FAKE

Say you’ve done your homework and found out the showrunner is a huge sports (or comic books, or classical music, or whatever) fan…but you’re not. That’s okay. Don’t sweat it. And whatever you do, don’t pretend to share an interest in the showrunner’s hobby in hopes of quickly forming a bond that’ll make you stand out from the other candidates. It could easily backfire on you and derail the meeting. So don’t bother Googling a bunch of sports statistics the night before your meeting and trying to awkwardly cram them into the conversation. Remember: it’s a job interview, not a first date.

KNOW WHAT YOU’D BRING TO THE SHOW

One of the best things you can do for yourself is zero in on one or two characters in the show to whom you most relate, and be prepared to talk about why. Is one of the characters in the military, and you were in the military? Perfect. Is one character a divorced, adopted fraternal twin, and you’re a divorced, adopted fraternal twin? Even better. Speak about that character with authority, and you’ve instantly made yourself an asset to the show. You can even go a little more broadly than that – maybe you grew up in the same city in which the show is set – and play up that connection as something unique you’d bring to the show’s writing staff.

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

Here’s another thing that should probably be a no-brainer: don’t say anything negative about the show. Period. You might think telling the showrunner, “And here’s what I didn’t like about the script…” proves you’re a bold, independent thinker and not just some ass-kisser, but you’d be wrong. You’ve basically just told a potential employer that their newborn baby is ugly. Look, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for you to express disagreement with story or character choices once you’re in the actual writers’ room…but the initial meeting isn’t the time or place. So lean into the things you like about the show, and save the negativity for later.

DRINK THE KOOL-AID

The sad truth is, you’re not going to love every single show you meet for. Hell, you’re not even going to like every show you meet for, but let’s be real: you have to eat. And that means you have to work. Just like any other career, over time there’ll be some job interviews you’re dying to get and others you have to take in order to stay employed. But once you get the meeting, there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by giving it less than 100%. So read the pilot or binge-watch the show as many times as it takes for you to fall in love with the show. Become its biggest fan. Go into the meeting prepared to talk about the characters like their old friends of yours, and how you’d love to see them do this or that in future episodes. Your enthusiasm will show, and that could mean all the difference between you getting the job and not. Because trust me, the next writer the showrunner meets with might actually want it more than you do. Don’t let them out-maneuver you!

Good luck, writers.

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