Top 10 Screenwriting Lessons from the ATX Television Festival
Both on-screen and behind-the-scenes TV talent convened in Austin, Tex., to discuss what makes shows successful. We picked out the best advice that screenwriters shared to help you transform your script or show idea from spec to production.
What does it take to get an idea to the small screen? Great writing, the right connections, and the patience of a saint, according to the ATX Television Festival. This past weekend, masterminds behind some of television’s hottest shows converged in Austin, Tex., to hash out how the medium has evolved and where it’s headed in the future. Both on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent including actors, writers, music supervisors, showrunners and executive producers, as well as reps from select web series, discussed their rise to the top and what makes a show successful. Here are the highlights.
Supplement Your Education
While many speakers at the ATX Television Festival had undergrad degrees in their field, nearly all stated that they added to their formal education by dissecting media on their own.
“If you really want to be a TV writer, make an outline and recreate the episode,” said Jane Espenson, a writer and producer whose long list of credentials include Gilmore Girls, Battlestar Galactica, Dollhouse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Once Upon a Time.
Richard Hatem, a writer and producer for shows including Grimm, Secret Circle, and Supernatural, advised those who want to work behind the scenes in television to “think like an editor” and figure out why you like (or dislike) certain shows and what makes a piece of media effective.
There Are Many Ways Up
You don’t have to be born into the biz or have crazy connections to make it in entertainment. Whereas many writers carved out their niche by slowly gaining promotions within production companies, some broke in without any TV experience at all.
“There are two paths to the top, and one is to climb the ladder, and the other is to come in from the side,” said Noah Hawley, a writer who broke into film and television only after having two novels published.
Today, Hawley is a screenwriter and producer behind series like Bones, The Unusuals, and My Generation. He added that the advantage to writers establishing themselves before heading to Hollywood is that they can figure out their own voices before writing in someone else’s.
Set Yourself Apart
The value of originality was echoed time and time again throughout the conference. Despite the fact that networks have monetary incentives to play it safe, taking risks and developing a style of your own is still the hallmark of good TV writing, art direction, and cinematography.
“If you’re trying to guess what’s cool, it’s not going to work,” said Mark Schwahn, creator of the uber-popular CW series, One Tree Hill. “You just have to find your voice.”
Even if an idea or character isn’t yours, producers will still expect you to add your own personal touches, said Bob Levy, executive vice president of film development and production for Alloy Entertainment. Unlike traditional production firms, Alloy creates concepts for series like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Lying Game, then partners with novelists to turn them into book series, which later may turn into television shows or films. Despite the fact that Alloy oftentimes originates the kernel for a specific series, the real draw, Levy stated, is the original voice the writer adds.
“My job as a producer is to empower the artist to make it theirs,” he said. “… You have to breathe your vision into this. You have to breathe your life into it.”
Aim For Empathy
Whether creating a street-smart but relationship-averse FBI profiler or a coming-of-age teen werewolf, good television centers on characters that viewers can see themselves in, explained Jeff Davis, creator of the CBS procedural drama, Criminal Minds, and the MTV horror series, Teen Wolf.
“The more you can make the characters like us, the more you’ll be frightened of them,” he said.
Jose Molina, a writer on Firefly, Grimm, and The Vampire Diaries, added that in order to write with emotional complexity—the pain, surprise and elation that moves a script—aspiring television writers need to experience it first.
“Get the hell out of the house and live a life,” he said. “Get out from in front of the TV… the more you live … the more you’ll be able to go ‘the script now feels lived in and real.’”
Get Ready to Collaborate
You’ve got a vision for your project, but so does everyone else. Whether you’re working on the visual, written, or musical end of television, those working behind the scenes should be prepared to hear criticism from a wide array of coworkers, ranging from those directly working on your project to the off-site people who fund it. They should also know what parts of their job they can negotiate on and which parts they should fight for.
“There’s no predicting what a network will do,” said David Hudgins, co-executive producer of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. “The hardest part for me is to say this is the show I want to make.”
You Don’t Have to Live in the Big City
While some writers and producers advocated for newbies to move to entertainment hubs like New York or Los Angeles to get their big breaks, others said that talented folks in jobs like writing could get experience anywhere. Kyle Killen, the writer behind NBC’s Awake and the Jodie Foster film, The Beaver, admitted that after doing a couple of small internships in Hollywood, his career didn’t really take off until he moved back to Austin where “every computer in Starbucks isn’t generating the next great screenplay.”
Ignore the Critics
A common theme among almost all the panelists was that each of them had worked on projects that bombed in ratings, was canceled early, or never hit the airwaves at all. There’s only one way to cope with that—move on.
“Shows don’t get canceled because they’re bad. They get canceled because nobody’s watching,” said Noah Hawley of Bones and My Generation. He later followed it up by adding, “If people don’t want to watch it, it’s not your fault.”
Finding a way to focus on the project, doing your best to make it the best, and divorcing yourself from its reception are critical to weathering the inevitable ups and downs in the entertainment business.
Do It Yourself
“There’s so much opportunity for original voices,” said Erica Messer, a showrunner for Criminal Minds and a former writer and producer for Charmed, Alias, and The O.C. Unfortunately, she added, television networks are frequently disinclined to take chances on new kinds of material.
That’s OK. If traditional media outlets won’t support your work, do your passion project anyway. Along with shows that air on traditional television networks, web series including Husbands and Dating Rules From My Future Self also were showcased at the ATX Television Festival, proving that you don’t necessarily need the backing of a huge network to make an impact.
Success = Preparedness + Luck
Having a completed project, regardless of whether or not it has studio backing, is vital in proving that you can see a concept through from beginning to end. While luck and connections play a role in making it in Hollywood, so does preparing yourself by having a finished product to show at a moment’s notice.
Mark Schwahn of One Tree Hill is proof that doing your homework pays. In a panel discussion with television show creators and showrunners, Schwahn admitted that he got his big break in the biz while volunteering at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. While attending a film screening with a random contact, Schwahn found out that the contact he was with worked for a production company. After making the connection, the contact agreed to pass a script Schwahn had written on to the big boss.
“I got really lucky,” Schwahn explained, “… but I had worked on that script for a long time.”
Expect hard times. Expect fears. Expect disappoints. Even the most successful panelists experienced periods of self-doubt.
“When I read My So-Called Life, I heard [series creator] Winnie [Holzman] in Angela. I thought ‘I don’t think I have a voice. I’m going to be a kindergarten teacher,’” said Liz Tigelaar, a writer and producer whose credits include Revenge, Life Unexpected, and Once Upon a Time.
Liz didn’t quit and neither did any of the other panelists when they faced rejection and fear.
“Hollywood is like a castle with no door,” said Noah Hawley. “You just keep circling it and circling it until you get in.”
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