Sublime Primetime – Insights From Emmy-Nominated Writers

 Sublime Primetime

by Kelly Jo Brick

Several of this year’s Emmy-nominated writers attended the annual Sublime Primetime event presented by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety. Writers Elliott Kalan (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), Joshua Brand (The Americans), Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Stephanie Gillis (The Simpsons), Christine Nangle (Inside Amy Schumer), Semi Chellas (Mad Men) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) spoke about the episodes they submitted, their inspirations, challenges and the business of TV.

Emmy-nominated writers shared with TVWriter.com some of the best advice they got as they were growing their careers.

Elliott Kalan, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – “I think the main thing that stood out was to not either wait for the perfect moment or to hide yourself. Like not to feel like, well I’m really good, somebody’s going to come out and find me. It’s up to you to put yourself out there as best as you can and to go after every opportunity that you can and to not wait for somebody else to come to you, but in a professional way.  To put yourself out there in a way that people will either hear of you or get a sense of your material. And with the internet now, that’s kind of easier to do than ever.”

Semi Chellas, Mad Men – “At the Canadian Film Centre where I studied, the Artistic Director told us when we graduated, to all the writers, ‘Make sure to get dressed every day.’ That really has helped me. That’s the single best piece of advice I ever got. Because if you’re lying around in your pajamas, you’re probably not taking yourself seriously. You need to remember that advice more than you would think.”

Jane Anderson, Olive Kitteridge – “I have always written in a style true to my own heart. The worst thing you can do is to try to fit yourself into a style or genre that doesn’t belong to you. Find your own voice. And if you have a unique enough voice, the industry will eventually find you.”

Alec Berg, Silicon Valley – “I think the simplest advice I ever got which is probably the best, is write every day. Want to be writers fail because they don’t write.”

Matthew Weiner, Mad Men – “I got a piece of unsolicited advice when I was unhappy with one of my jobs, which was, a friend of mine said, ‘If you can write, you can change your career.’ So no matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, no matter what it is, just keep writing. I wrote Mad Men on spec, at night, at another job. So that was part of it and I was like even if I don’t sell this, even if I don’t get to make it, I feel better and also, it changed my life. And you’re never too old to write a piece of new material. You’re never too established to write a new piece of material. If you want to have what people you admire have, you’ve got to keep writing.”

Writers also addressed the changing environment of television and competing in an atmosphere of nearly 400 scripted series spread across numerous platforms.

Jane Anderson – “I think what’s happening now is television has become what feature films were in the 70s, when incredible independent work was being done like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate. Right now we are overtaking the feature film industry for inventiveness and creativeness and getting out of the box. So I’m really proud to be in this medium right now.”

Matthew Weiner – “There was a lot of great TV in the past and then traditionally, the movie business comes in and scoops up all the writers and they end up in the movie business. And now it seems to be going the other way. For me, the Sopranos is sort of the beginning of what’s going on right now. To me, what’s been nice, is the audience has to pay attention and maybe you have to do something insane to stand out and you need to spend more for marketing and you have to get people to go to a new place to figure out how to do it, to see your show. But for the Writers Guild, the more jobs the better. The more shows the better.”

Semi Chellas – “I think of it the way I watch series now and it’s much more the way I used to read novels. I will take one at a time. I’ll watch it in chapters. If I’m liking it, I’ll look at my friends watching it too so we can have a book club about it.   I feel like that gives me an enormous sense of possibility that it’s not anymore about getting the right night, keeping people on through the commercials, those things that I started out being sort of driven by when I started writing for TV have kinda gone away and it now feels to me like going to a bookstore or a library and there’s all kinds of books and there’s books from ten years ago and there’s books from 100 years ago and you still are enjoying them and talking about them with people, so it gives me a sense of freedom.”

Stephanie Gillis, The Simpsons – “Animation, it’s just blown up, I mean the last 5 years it’s been incredible. I do feel like in terms of content, that there’s so much, there’s also so many possibilities.”

Panelists also reflected on the challenges they and their fellow writers are facing in the current marketplace.

Matthew Weiner – “It’s so lucrative right now to have a show. It still costs a lot of money to make a pilot and they’re all trying to find all these sneaky ways to get writers to do work for free. New ways invented every day. Where’s your bible, let’s open a fake writers’ room and we’ll put it on a fake TV set, can anybody draw, can you show me the whole show, can I have 50 scripts and whatever.  That’s always there to see what their investment’s going to be.

And we’re not here to complain about these things, we’re here to celebrate how great it is to be a writer, but it’s upsetting to see. My motto was always, and I imbued every single person I’ve ever worked with, with this idea that you cannot let them use your love of your work against you, because all of us would do it for free. That’s why we have agents and some have a union. And all this stuff, we would just do it and never think about it.”

Joshua Brand, The Americans – “I’m sort of at a different place along the trajectory in my career. So the guys who are at the top get paid very handsomely. But it’s become a much tougher business, not just for writers. Certainly going from cable shows and 13 episodes so these writers or the actors are working 6 months a year and then they’ve got to get another job. They have families and if they have a mortgage and how do you get another job because they then have an option on you for that show. It used to be working on a network show was 22 episodes and that would be your year. Income equality that we hear about affects the business as well. People who are getting squeezed are the people who are at the lower end. And it is much tougher from my perspective on those people than it was for myself starting out. It used to be that, I was talking to someone earlier who was a young writer and it used to be that on shows, a number of episodes were left for freelance writers and that’s not the case anymore.”

Christine Nangle, Inside Amy Schumer – “With us, with sketch comedy, things can go online and be digested much more easily than an entire episode of a show. So the issue that the Writers Guild has taken an interest in that we deal with is when an entire sketch is online and it will have a 5 second Comedy Central thing after it. And we’re not getting paid for it because it’s used as advertisement, promotion. And so it’s really frustrating. And so for us, it’s like a sketch is a like a chunk of our show and somebody can watch that and say oh, that’s funny and move on and that’s it. It’s not like there’s a cliffhanger where they’re going to tune into the show to see what happens next. It’s been incredibly helpful for us to have our sketches to go viral and get attention. But in terms from the writer’s perspective, seeing all our stuff online all the time and however many views it has and know it doesn’t exactly affect what you’re taking home at the end of the day, like I really hope that we can figure that out because I think that’s going to be a huge issue.”


Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.