Monday, September 13, 2010

Q&A With Television Writer/Producer Alan Cross


Where'd you grow up?    

 I grew up about as far away from Hollywood as you can get:  Anchorage Alaska.   As a kid, I related more to Woody Allen than the hunters and fisherman who populated Alaska.  (I’m not Jewish, but I’ve never been athletic or a “gun guy” or a wilderness enthusiast.  I liked to watch TV and go to the movies.)   

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved living in Alaska.  I had a great family, and an amazing mom.  My mom was terrific for many reasons, but significantly because when I told her what I wanted to do with my life (become a TV writer) she absolutely encouraged and supported me.  There was no hesitation.  No “Gee, Alan, are you sure you really thought this through?”  No.  She knew I could do it and believed in me one hundred percent. 

So here’s what I believe:  Everyone needs someone like that in their lives  – someone who supports their career ambition and embraces their dream.   If you’re surrounded by negative people, get away from them!  Now!  Life is too short. 

Develop a positive mental attitude.  Hollywood can be a cruel town.   You have to be strong.  Persistent.   Thanks, Mom. 

How'd you wind up in LA?   First "big break"/writing gig? 

I came to Los Angeles to go to the University Of Southern California.   I initially got rejected by their Film School but accepted by the University.  So I went anyway because I discovered you could take a lot of film classes without being in the actual film program.   And, when I tried a second time to get into USC film school,  I was finally accepted. 

Three years later I left USC and started working in the Los Angeles area.  If you’re very fortunate, coming out of USC, you direct a great student film that gets you noticed by Steven Spielberg and you live happily ever after.   And if you don’t, you become a Runner.   Which is what I did.  A friend hired me for a runner job with the television accounting department on the Disney Lot in Burbank.  The runner gig eventually led to a job as a Story Analyst for the Disney Sunday Movie department.   I read hundreds of movie scripts and realized a simple truth: Yes, screenwriters have a lot of competition.  But the number of people who write screenplays well,  who know structure and can write good dialogue, is a much smaller number. 

During my career as a Story Analyst I was always writing TV specs, by myself and with writing partners.   With time and persistence, I figured out how much plot I needed for my story.   I figured out how to write a smart joke.  My partner and I finally figured out a story with a strong comedic hook that got us our first professional job as staff writers on a half hour sitcom called CITY. 

Television vs. film.   What are the Pros and Cons of each medium? 

The advantage of writing for television is the short amount of time between writing your script and seeing it filmed and aired on TV.  I’ve often joked that it’s the closest thing to being God.  Because something you imagined, just an image in your head, is quickly and professionally created – made real - just a few days later. 

The cons of television writing?  There are a few.  Mostly the long hours.  Especially if you’re working on a sitcom.  Why?  Because your success depends on the jokes being funny.  But the power and freshness of a joke weakens with repetition.  After you’ve heard the same joke in rehearsals five or six times, you begin to doubt whether or not the joke is still funny.  So new jokes are created to replace the original joke.  In short, there’s a lot of probably needless re-writing.   It’s just the nature of the sitcom beast. 

Group writing in a sitcom is necessary.  But in-group rewrite sessions you can be rewritten to the point where there’s very little left of your original material, even though your name still goes on the script!  For example, your favorite sitcom writer, whose episode of TWO AND A HALF MEN you love, may only have had a handful of their lines make it into the final, aired version of the teleplay. 

The pros of feature writing?  Well, the paychecks are bigger and the high-end production values look great.   Everyone wants to make a feature because of the prestige that is associated with a successful commercial film.  The biggest con to being a feature writer is that it’s a director’s medium.  The writer can be treated badly, ignored, barred from visiting the set, and rewritten to the point where you lose final screen credit. Also, it can take years to get your writing made.   The time frame in television is much faster.

How do you land a TV staff job?  Tips? 

In my experience, if you go on to actually GET the staff job you interviewed for,  you almost have it before you walk in the room.  That’s because the Executive Producer has already read your material and loves it.  They’re looking forward to meeting you and hope you’re not a jerk in person.  All you really have to do is not be an asshole in the meeting, show a genuine interest in the show, and you’re hired.

The big tip:  If the show is already on the air, WATCH THE SHOW before your interview.  Be able to reference episodes/scenes you like.  (If you really need the job, yet hate the show, FAKE your enthusiasm and sell it!)   If it isn’t on the air yet, get a hold of the pilot or pilot script.  Be able to talk about it in glowing terms.  FIND SOMETHING you like about it.  Anything.   During the interview it helps to match the Executive Producer’s energy level.  If they’re quiet and low-key, then being loud with relentless energy won’t go over well.   Or the reverse:  if they’re high energy and restless, being quiet and soft-spoken certainly won’t win them over.  Know how to read the room and adjust. 

So in the end is it wise to “just be yourself?”  Yes.  Absolutely.  Be yourself.   Don’t come across as phony (especially if you’re faking your sincerity!).  But get a bead on the Executive Producer’s personality and try to emphasize the part of yourself that seems to be the best fit.    

Should a new writer write a spec TV pilot? 

The current wisdom is ‘yes.’  This hasn’t always been the case.  Unlike features, newbie TV writers have to prove that their one killer spec script wasn’t a fluke.  You usually have to write at least one other great sample.  If you have two specs written for existing TV shows, then it proves you can mimic another writer’s voice, which is an essential part of the staff writer’s job.  So far, so good.  Writing an original spec pilot is an opportunity to show off YOUR voice. 

And, if your original TV pilot turns out really good, and fits the needs of a network, it’s an opportunity to leap frog the standard job ladder and wind up with your OWN show on the air.  So, yes, write an original spec script.   (And if you get your own show on the air, hire me!)

What’s the hierarchy of the television staff room?  What are the various jobs?   How do you move up?

Well, first, the obvious things:  You move up by working hard, getting along with the other staff writers, contributing great ideas that can actually be used in the show, and respecting the leadership and final word of the show runner.   A tip I would give a beginning writer:  When you’re in the writers room make positive contributions.  It’s EASY to point out the problem in another writer’s pitch (“Sorry, but that idea won’t work because it’s too unbelievable for the character, etc.”)  

If you disagree with another writer’s pitch, don’t just shoot it down, propose what you think is a BETTER idea.  (“I’m not sure our hero would do that, but if you take the first part of what you’re pitching, and you change the second part so that the hero DOESN’T see the knife, then you’ve got some real suspense!”)   Be supportive.  Don’t tear down other writers contributions without offering your own, hopefully better, alternative. 

The Staff Writers 

The staff writers are the people on the bottom of the ladder.   Staff writers are the new guys.  This is their first job.  They’re the least paid.  But they don’t care.  They’re just happy to be there.  They’re on staff to learn and hopefully say something occasionally smart enough to justify their presence.  Still, there’s not a whole lot of pressure on a staff writer on a daily basis. 

No one necessarily expects great story ideas or jokes from a staff writer.  So if you manage to impress people at this level, great!  Your time to impress your boss comes when you’re given your first script assignment and, hopefully,  knock it out of the park.   This is how you keep your job and move up the ladder.

Story Editors/ Executive Story Editors 

These are staff writers with at least one show hire, or one season on a writing staff,  under their belts.  They’re still considered beginners.  No leadership role is expected at this level.  Frequently, mundane writing tasks are assigned to Story Editors, such as writing episode summaries or putting together a show bible.   The pay’s better though no one expects too much of you yet.  You ARE expected to contribute ideas in the writers room.  Here’s a tip:  If you can’t contribute good ideas, then dance.  One writer I knew did this.  He called it the “End Of The Night” dance.  He’d get up on top of the boardroom table and strut like he was at a dance club.  Everybody loved him!  (He was talented too, which always helps.) 

Producer/ Supervising Producer/ Consulting Producer 

These are fairly nebulous titles.   Usually, they indicate you’ve had some experience.  Maybe you’ve been on staff for a couple seasons.  Or you’ve worked on a handful of other shows.  Your salary quote is higher than a Story Editor or Staff Writer.   And thus the expectations for the quality of your work are adjusted upward.   You haven’t priced yourself out of the market yet, so it’s still fairly easy to find work.    No real leadership abilities are asked of you.   Though you may get invited to sit in on an editing session for your episode.    (At least you can ask.)   

The only real wild card here is the Consulting Producer title.   Let’s say you’ve actually been an Executive Producer on another show.  But that show went off the air and you need another job.  There’s a new show you want to write for but they don’t have the money match your pricey Executive Producer salary quote.   You don’t want to work with a lesser title.   What to do?  To make you happy, the studio will call you a Consulting Producer.   There are some hour-long shows with LOTS of Consulting Producers.  They’re usually high-end guys who agreed to the Consulting Producer title and lower pay, in order to get on a writing staff.

The Co-Executive Producer 

The Co-Executive Producer is often designated as the Second In Command  (not always, sometimes it’s just your title).   They run the writers room while the Executive Producer (EP) is in casting or editing, etc.   It’s a lot of responsibility. 

And it’s a hard job to get.  But it’s rewarding.  Leading the writers’ room is challenging.  But the moment you find the emotional arc of an episode, or figure out the moment that makes a story click, it makes the frustration and stress worth it.   So does the paycheck. 

You’ll have to pitch the scenes you’ve written to the Executive Producer when they return to the room.  And you hope they like it.   And if they don’t, you have to be able to accept their word and go back to the drawing board if you have to. 

(Did I mention that you really hope they like it?) 

The Executive Producer (EP) 

This is the person who created the concept and wrote the pilot script that sold the show and got it on the air.  Or, this is the seasoned pro who the network trusts and hires when the original, newbie writer was deemed “not ready yet” to run their own show.  The EP is hired to have a vision for what the show should be.  They have final say about every creative aspect of the show (assuming they’re in sync with what the studio and network execs want.  If not, it can get ugly quick.) 

The EP is sought after by every show department head for their guidance and approval in making decisions.  This makes the EP’s time extremely valuable.  They are constantly being tugged in different directions.  Naturally, they are often out of the writers room for hours at a time, leaving the Co-EP and the writing staff to beat out the next episode of the show on their own, armed only with a rough idea of what the EP wants (because even THEY don’t know what they want yet).   

Some writing staffs will decide whatever direction the EP gave them no longer works.  Or they’ve stumbled on to a better idea.  Left on their own, the staff will beat out a story they believe in, only to have the EP return, hours later, and become angry that their staff strayed from their original mandate.  Or, the writing staff stays true to the direction the EP gave them, only to learn the EP has changed their mind about the direction of a story the staff spent five hours developing while they were gone.   Frustrating?  You bet.  But this frustration is a part of your job.   You want to be an EP yourself someday.  The only way to get there is to please the EP you’re working for now.   

Learn to be flexible if you want to survive and get ahead in the business.

Are we in a Golden Age of television? 

Yes.  I say ‘yes’ only because of the wide range of high quality, scripted, television worlds.  These are worlds we’ve never seen before on TV.  Everything from the sci-fi exploration of LOST, the desperate despair and frenzy of BREAKING BAD to the insightful elegance of MAD MEN.  This is great TV.   You may not like all these shows, but they are all executed with first class production values, great acting, and powerful dialogue that equals and often exceeds what you experience at the movies. 

That’s not to say that crappy shows have gone away.  They’re still here.  And some of them do great in the ratings.

Many top screenwriters have moved to television?  Why? 

Because a lot of TV executives wish they were making movies.   They want to be associated with successful people.  (And to be fair, in concept, who doesn’t?)   Successful movie stars, directors, and screenwriters have an allure to TV networks and studio executives.   They are more likely to buy a pitch from McG than the same basic pitch from an unknown writer.  McG has been successful in the past.  His success immediately brings buzz to a TV project and raises expectations of movie-quality production values. 

Top screenwriters, who are often treated like second-class citizens in the movie world, find that they are kings in television.  The directors work for THEM, and not the other way around.   Which is reason enough to move into television. 

Should your original TV pilot have 4, 5, or 6 acts? 

A few years ago I wrote a one-hour drama pilot for a major network.  I got a few meetings off of the script.  One of the meetings was with a development executive at another studio.  Fox Studios.   The Fox executive told me that when he was sent my pilot script, there was no attachment that identified which studio my pilot had been written for.  But he knew, as soon as he finished it, which studio had commissioned the script.

“ABC, right?” He asked.   Yes.  He was correct.  I asked him how he knew. 

“Because it’s written in five acts,” he told me.  And then went on to explain that 

ABC was the first studio that developed the Five Act structure, simply to squeeze one more set of commercials out of an hour of television.  Genius!  Or maybe I should put that in dubious quotation marks:  “Genius?”  Yes.  Much better. 

So how many acts should your one-hour spec script have?  Here’s what I’d do:  If you’re writing for an existing show, get one of their production scripts and see how many acts they use.  Then plot your spec script with that same number of acts in mind.  Simple!  If you’re writing an original pilot spec?   I’d shoot for five acts.   It shouldn’t be that hard to do.  The fifth act is, essentially just picking a moment in the fourth act and splitting it in two.  If the studio loves your pilot, and wants to buy it, only to notice it doesn’t have a sixth act, I can’t imagine they’d change their minds and pass.  They’ll buy your pilot and ask you to create a sixth act out of your fifth.

Thanks to Stephen for the great questions.   I hope my answers have helped someone somewhere get a better sense of the TV world and I wish everyone the greatest success in selling their work to the Studios and Networks. 

Alan Cross   September 13th, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Book Review: THE STARTER SCREENPLAY by Adam Levenberg

I know what you're thinking already: Another screenwriting book!?   I've got a shelf full already.  Me, too.  

But here comes a new book unique from all the others currently on the market: THE STARTER SCREENPLAY by Adam Levenberg. 

Hollywood executive and consultant Adam Levenberg has a unique book out with great information.  THE STARTER SCREENPLAY is told from the POV of a creative exec that may be buying your material.  How to avoid the big, "No."

The value of this book comes from Adam's experience as a Hollywood executive who spent thousands of hours speaking with unrepresented screenwriters.   What do you need to learn to have a shot at success.   It's in the book!

An alternate title might be, WHAT SCREENPLAY NOT TO WRITE.  This is the first book to specifically identify types of movies that are difficult for new screenwriters to deliver.  For example, he suggests avoiding an ensemble drama like CRASH.  Why?  Because ensemble movies are exponentially harder to write than a "single hero" movie.

The chapter on "What Not To Write" is the most expansive resource out there on how the majority of amateur screenwriters are DOA at the concept level.  They start out on the wrong foot and never recover.  This wastes months, if not years, and prevents most amateurs from breaking into the pro ranks.

Adam is a huge fan of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT and has created a companion piece from the executive's perspective.  New screenwriters often get hung up on describing their ideas as "this meets that."  Adam lays out exactly how to use existing movies as templates while incorporating your own creativity and ideas to create something original.  He calls this adding value to your story.

The book is a fast, easy read that delivers essential information on virtually every single page.  Overall, THE STARTER SCREENPLAY is groundbreaking because it delivers information you can't find in other screenwriting books.  If you feel you have advanced as a writer but are hitting a career brick wall, give this one a read.