Writing TV is at its heart guerilla warfare, with writers doing their best to sneak their best work past executives and censors. Here’s Louis C.K.’s take on the subject:
Why should you enter TVWriter™’s currently running (and only a week or so away from closing) People’s Pilot competition? Well, here’s some food for thought:
I first met Mickey Fisher back in September of 2014. We were both scheduled to speak at the Cincinnati Film Festival‘s screenwriting panel. Mickey, however, was scheduled a few hours before me. Usually when I’m speaking at a film festival, I use the time before my slot to network, exchange information, and form new industry relationships. But with Mickey, that all changed. I found myself fascinated by his amazing story, and how over night, through a screenplay contest, his life changed drastically. Still to this day, I can’t figure out why I would be scheduled after Mickey; who in the world would want to listen to ME after hearing Mickey speak first!
So who is Mickey Fisher? Mickey is a native of Ohio, who is the writer and creator of the popular CBS series, EXTANT, staring Hale Berry, and executive produced by Stephen Spielberg. Need I say more?
But what makes Mickey’s story even more inspiring? He was discovered (and so was EXTANT) through a screenplay contest (trackingb)!
So I caught up with Mickey, who is one the nicest people you will ever meet, and asked him for an interview. For those who don’t know, I’m the Screenplay Contest Director for this year’s Cincinnati Film Festival (Screenwriting Staffing is the official sponsor). That’s why I thought it would be fitting to have Mickey share his thoughts on screenwriting contests on ‘The Backstory’!
Screenwriting Staffing: What is your overall thoughts and opinions on screenplay contests?
Mickey Fisher: A contest led me to having my own show on CBS so of course I’m a bit biased, but I think for someone who is outside the industry like I was, they’re a great way to get your material into the right hands. Even the ones I didn’t win paid off in some way. I was a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship back in 2006 and even though I didn’t win, a student in a graduate producing program tracked me down and asked to use my script for her thesis project, which led to a friendship and professional relationship that exists to this day.
Screenwriting Staffing: What should EVERY screenwriter look for when choosing and submitting to screenplay contests?
Mickey Fisher: You have to do your research and find out which ones are really kicking off careers or opening doors for people. When I entered the TrackingB TV Pilot contest I had been reading about it for a year or two and knew that it was a viable option for getting scripts in the hands of people who could do something with them. Shortly before I was a finalist there I won a contest held by The Writer’s Store and I entered because I knew one of the prizes was a lunch meeting with Susannah Grant. I had read about The Nicholl Fellowship for years before I entered that back in 2006. Now there’s The Blacklist website, which isn’t a contest, but it’s got a real track record for launching writers.
You know you’ve made it when you join the ranks of those bitching about the horrors of pilot season. What’s there to bitch about? Ask the man who knows:
Now we’re getting down to it, pilot-wise. The last pilots have been delivered and networks are cobbling together their upcoming season. It used to be exclusively their Fall season but now they pretty much order all the shows they plan on rolling out throughout the course of the year – Fall, Mid-season, Early March (slim chance of renewal), Late March (no chance – just schedule fodder), and Summer.
The scene shifts to New York where all the big decisions are made. A highly respected agent once said, “Everything turns to shit over Mississippi.” He’s right. Shows that network execs were excited about in LA seem to lose their luster. The testing has come back. Someone higher up doesn’t like it. Other pilots have now come in they like more. The network wants to shoehorn an actress into the show, the showrunner balks, quits or is fired, and now there’s a mad scramble for a new showrunner. Negotiations for license fees get complicated. Power agents, showrunners with clout, and studios lobby for the best time slots. Networks waffle on what direction they want their Fall season to take. Add another hour of comedy? More drama? Move comedy out of Wednesday night?
How do the new pilots mesh with existing shows? What’s a compatible lead in? And then there’s counter-programming. Is this the year you can topple THE VOICE? And if so, with what? Is THE BLACK LIST vulnerable? Have they run out of cities to tack onto NCIS?
If you’ve got a horse in this race it can make you CRAZY. Rumors swirl hourly. You read the on-line industry trades and shows are on the schedule, then dead, then a strong candidate for mid-season, then maybe another network is interested if the first one passes, then that option flames out, then they’re alive again at the first network.
I call them “cop shows” or, if I’m feeling a bit cutesy, “badge operas.” A screenwriting acquaintance says they’re “procedurals.” But never mind the label: by whatever name, they’re what constitutes most of the bread-and-butter television programming and you probably don’t have to go further than your nearest remote to find one.
There will be a pseudo family of protagonists – police, doctors, lawyers, feds, the occasional fire fighter or paramedic – and these people will be presented with a problem, usually one that involves injury done to an innocent party, and, using their skills and wit and such facilities as are provided to them, they will solve the problem. Usually, but not always, there is a happy ending appended to the story and once in a very great while, things end badly.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for that episode. Usually, by the rolling of the end credits, righteousness and harmony have been restored, justice has been done. The message, which we get over and over and over and over again, is that the system works to assure that the good guys win. Those good guys may have their quirks and eccentricities, but they’ve got each others’ backs and they will get the job done!
Do you believe that? Do I? Well, no, not consciously. That’s not the message real life has delivered. But it is the message that we hear every day, constantly. And I suspect that it registers with most people, at least subliminally, and we are cheery and optimistic enough to hit the mall and, you know, buy happy-making stuff.
Many of the world’s religions have been offering similar palliatives for centuries. No matter how wretched your life is, be patient and do what we say and eventually you’ll go to the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
But procedurals aren’t all that television provides. Lately, if you’ve surfed your way onto a news channel, you’ve seen images of fire and chaos and violence. That little town outside St. Louis – Ferguson, is it? And a couple of hundred miles or so south of where I’m sitting, a favorite city, Baltimore. Riots and looting and pain and terror. None of it scripted.
More to come? Almost certainly.
Maybe something can be done. But…the situation isn’t really that bad, is it? Oh, that business in Ferguson and Baltimore and maybe a few other locales here and there, now and then – that’s certainly disturbing. But fundamentally, everything’s okay. Nothing broke that won’t be fixed.
Now, what’s on tonight? Law and Order SVU? One of the CSI shows? Oh, and Bones. Bones is always good.
Dennis O’Neil and TVWriter™’s Beloved Leader worked together separately on a BBC series called CAPTAIN THUNDER a million years ago. Which is to say that they each wrote early episodes for the show before it hit the air. So although they’ve never met, they’re sort of Bonded Brothers in Exploitation. Although LB has never written for Comic Mix, Dennis has a regular column there, where this post first appeared.
These days it seems like everybody loves every TV series Shonda Rimes produces, especially writers looking for good gigs on shows that seem like they’re going to last forever. Here’s one woman writer’s story of what it’s like to make it into ShondaLand:
Before we [headed] into the season 4 finale of Scandal, The Root sat down with Scandal writer Raamla Mohamed to talk about how she began her TV writing career, what it’s like working with Shonda Rhimes and her thoughts on the importance of diversity in TV writing.
I was introduced to Mohamed by a mutual friend when I moved to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., two years ago to pursue my own career in TV writing.
Mohamed began as a writers production assistant on Grey’s Anatomy in 2009. Then she worked as a medical researcher on Off the Map before becoming a researcher on Scandal during season 1. After being accepted into the Disney-ABC Writing Program, Mohamed returned to Scandal for season 2 as a Disney fellow.
Since then she has worked her way up the ranks of the writing staff, and starting season 5, she will be an executive story editor. Mohamed has written five episodes of Scandal and co-wrote an additional episode with another writer. This season Mohamed has written “Where’s the Black Lady?” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
The Root: How did you first decide that you wanted to be a TV writer?
Raamla Mohamed: I’ve always been a fan of television and movies. I’m an only child, so it was pretty much like the TV was my friend. I was also raised by a single mom, so when I got home from school, I would do my homework, then watch TV. Then, at Columbia [University], where I went for undergrad, I double-majored in English and film studies. So I had been interested in TV and movies for years, but I didn’t know in what capacity.
After college I worked in off-Broadway theater in New York [City] and had the opportunity to watch so many shows and plays. That’s when I realized that I was excited about writing, so I applied to grad programs.
TR: And how did you land your first job in the industry?
RM: About a year after I graduated from University of Southern California’s grad school for film and TV writing in 2008, a friend told me that there was an opening for a writers production assistant on Grey’s Anatomy, one of my favorite shows, so I interviewed for it and got the job. That’s where I really learned a lot about TV, and I got to watch these writers sit in a room and on couches telling stories.
I tell people that it’s like this music video back in the ’90s by Blind Melon called “No Rain,” where this girl was a bumblebee, and at first she couldn’t find her place, but then she found this place with all of the bees. That’s kind of how I felt when I started working at Grey’s. I was like, “All of the bees are here! And they pay you for this!” After that I was like, “Whatever it takes, I will try to make this my career.”
TR: So what is it like working for Shonda Rhimes?
RM: Well, I’ve been working at ShondaLand for almost six years, and even when I was an assistant and Shonda would give notes after our table read, it would be pretty amazing how she could just pinpoint what was wrong with the script and know how to fix it. And afterwards you’re like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But she’s Shonda Rhimes.
There have been things that she’s pitched and I’ve been like, “Really??” For example, when she first came up with the idea that Fitz and Olivia would just take one minute with one another sometimes, I saw the script and was like, “What? And then what happens?” But then cut to when I see it on-screen: Fitz and Liv are sitting there and the song is playing, and I’m crying. That, to me, is a perfect example of how she just has her finger on the pulse of what’s going to be awesome. You learn a lot.
TR: As of season 5, you’ll be an executive story editor on Scandal. Fancy! What is the best part of working in a writers room?
Read it all at The Root
Ooh, it’s infographic time. We lurve these:
Originally published at Hollywood Reporter