TV Writing Myth Dept: TV is Small Movies

Pamela Douglas is a winner of the Humanitas Prize and numerous other  TV and screenwriting awards. Her produced credits range from network movies to such dramatic series as A Year in the Life, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many others. Her book, Writing the TV Drama Series, has become a leading resource anyone who wants to create television drama…so we’re glad to bring you this lovely bit recently found on one of our favorite interweb sites.

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by Pamela Douglas

Both TV dramas and movies deliver stories played by actors who are filmed and shown on screens. And many filmmakers — writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, and so forth — work in both theatricals and television. In fact, Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg were involved with TV veteran John Wells at the inception of ER. Action movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer does CSI. Alan Ball, who wrote the movieAmerican Beauty, became executive producer of Six Feet Under and True Blood. Melissa Rosenberg, an executive producer at Dexter, wrote the theatrical hit Twilight. And Frank Darabont, nominated for three Academy Awards, including for writing The Shawshank Redemption, is producing The Walking Dead on AMC.

A funny experience on a series brought home how connected film and TV writing can be. My agent told me that several writers had quit the staff of a show I admired. I couldn’t figure out why- the series was winning awards, it was renewed, and the characters had plenty of potential. Not to mention the writers were making a bundle. Maybe the showrunner was a monster. But I met him, a bright guy, no crazier than anyone else in town. So I went to work.

First day in my new cubicle, I waited to be called to a story meeting, or given an assignment, or a script to rewrite. Nothing. I read all the magazines in the waiting room. Second day, I observed everyone else writing furiously on their office computers. Why was I left out? Had I offended someone? My mind fell to dark ruminations.

Finally, I popped into the cubicle next to me — “What are you writing?” The writer looked up, wide-eyed — didn’t I know? Everyone was working on their features. “He wants to do it all himself,” my fellow staffer said about the executive producer. “He keeps us around to bounce ideas and read his drafts. But he thinks it’s quicker if he just writes the show.” There I was on a TV staff and everyone was writing a movie. Pretty soon the studio pulled the plug on our feature scholarships, and that was the end of that job. But that illustrates an axiom: a writer is a writer, whether television or feature or for any new media.

Still, the more you know about features and television, the more unique each is. People go to movies to escape into a fantasy larger than life with spectacular stunts, effects, and locations. At $10+ per ticket, audiences demand lots of bang for their bucks. And teenage boys — a prime target for features — relish the vicarious action that big screens do so well. If you saw Avatar rerun on television, or rented a summer blockbuster, the giants of Pandora became toys, and armies of thousands were reduced to ants. Some bubbles are not meant to be burst.

From the beginning, theatrical features grew out of shared entertainment — think of crowds watching vaudeville. Television didn’t intend that kind of experience. In fact, the parent of TV is more likely radio. A generation before television, families gathered around their radios for vital information, whether the farm report or the war. And radio dramas were character-driven; beloved familiar personalities scrapping and coping with each other, bringing someone (often women, hardly ever teen boys) to tears or laughter every day. Close, personal, at home.

And real. Before radio, people got their information about the world from newspapers. That lineage continues in what we expect of television. Television became fused with what people need to know and what they believe is fact. So it’s not an escape, not fantasy, but the fabric of daily life.

Oh, you’re saying what about Star Trek or Smallville, for just two examples — they’re hardly real. Well, I did a brief turn on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I can tell you the producers were interested in stories about people — people who lived in a distant environment with futuristic gadgets, yes, but the core was relationships among the crew, testing personal limits; and, at its best, the exploration wasn’t distant galaxies but what it means to be human. As for Smallville, the young Clark Kent is a metaphor for every teenager who struggles with being different, figuring out who he is and how to be with his friends. This is heart stuff, not spectacle.

Read it all at SSN Insider