Wednesday, 25 April 2018

To Spec or Not To Spec - Should A Brit Write For American TV?

Me saying America is the dream for filmmakers is like saying Diet Coke is inferior to regular: everybody knows it. Money's better, there's more platforms and distributors, the audience is bigger and there's simply a greater variety of series to work. Add to that that many TV scribes have gone on to have lucrative feature careers (Abrams, McKenna, Pinkner, Whedon) and well, who wouldn't want a slice of that?

Of course, like everything screenwriting related, reality sets in: no unsolicited submissions, no contacts, agents don't want to know you, L.A. is expensive yadda yadda yadda, what is one to do? Well, several American networks/parent studios offer TV Fellowships: special training programmes, some even paid, where you get taught how to write television with the intent of getting you staffed on a series. And with no submission fee, all you need to take your shot is a semi-decent cover letter, and a finely polished spec script.

(NOTE: Spec is a common word in the screenwriting sphere, so it's important to clarify: 'spec script' , in this context, refers to writing a script for an existing show, and is strictly an American/Canadian thing. The UK does not trade in specs for existing series, only original material (spec pilots) so don't bother writing your dream episode of Doctor Who or EastEnders. No one will read it.)

The top dogs are as follows:
  • CBS Writers Mentoring Program
  • Disney/ABC TV Writing Program
  • FOX Writers Lab (FKA FOX Diversity Writer’s Initiative)
  • NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge
  • Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship
  • WB Writers’ Workshop 

So, for a Brit, what are the pros and cons of doing a spec for these Stateside opportunities? First, the positives:
  • A New Addition to your Skillset: Adapting and working with the material of others is part and parcel of being in the screenwriting trade. Learning how to adapt to the voice and style of another writer and property is a useful skill to have, and can even help you find and hone your own.
  • You Don't Have To Create A World And Characters: It's already there before you. No need to spend hours, agonizing over character bios or extensive world building: the series has done it for you. All you need is a damn good plot, tight structure and ensure everyone sounds like they should, and badda bing badda boom, you got yourself a script! 
  • Opening the door: as said, the American market is superlucrative. Competitve as hell, even more than the UK, but very rewarding if you score. Remember, you make money both off the script and the time in the writer's room (yes, you get paid to drink coffee and eat donuts while mapping out the season). Also better if you want to do genre stuff - horror, sci-fi, fantasy, superheroes. 
  • Good First Impressions: With all possible respect, there's a certain glamour in having, say, The Flash or Jessica Jones as your first TV credit over, say, an episode of River City or Igglepiggle.
  • Your Own Canon Fanfic: Okay, a cheap one, but it's true. You get paid to write your dream story for a show you love. Sure, you may not be able to write about saucy bedroom antics, but you'll get to feel like you're in the club. Or you might get to write the bedroom episode.
And now, the flipside:
  • Paperwork: Thought you could skip treatments, outlines and redrafting, just because you're a fan? Nope! You may not have to create characters, but you sure as hell are going to have to create a tightly paced narrative with stakes, conflict and emotion. Otherwise, it's just another bad script on the slush pile.
  • Time Limit: Pilots can always be rejigged and resold, since there's no strict cutoff point. With produced TV series, however, there's always the looming spectre of cancellation or just ending. Once a show's done, that's it: you can't spec it anymore, unless it's a towering behemoth like Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy (which some of these workshops do allow, but always check). 
  • Stasis: Because you're writing an episode that can fit anywhere in continuity and serves as an encapsulation of the series, it does mean you can't make major character or narrative development your focus. The actual writing staff are already doing that, and likely don't need you to tell them how to tell their story.
  • You Won't Get On That Show: Specs are read by your series' competitors, to see if you can write a show in that general genre and style. If you're deadset on writing for NCIS, you're better off writing for CSI.
  • Distraction: In rewatching and studying your show of choice, the possibility for getting side tracked very much exists. What starts out as 'research' suddenly turns into binges and then marathons of shows completely unrelated to your spec. We're writers: we procrastinate any chance we get. It's vital you exercise discpline: watch what you absolutely need to, then go.
  • Moving: If you do get on, you will have to relocate to LA in order to attend the classes and workshops. While some do provide accomadation, check and if not, make your plans. An introvert who wants to stay home will not suit these at all: don't think Bryan Fuller would be happy having someone write American Gods all the way in Hull.
If you're still unsure of what to do, is a great little site that helps give you a lens on the American market, as well as a well stocked library of scripts to study. Unlike what you've seen on the BBC, these scripts are almost all broken into acts (this is less some abstract principle, and more to do with commercial breaks), so learn this as it'll help you write correctly.

The fact is, screenwriting is a crapshoot: anything you can get or use, do so. Every little really does help, and there's no one path inward. Worst comes to the worst, you have another script in your arsenal, and that experience is never not useful. However, if I can offer some of my limited advice, don't make it your first: get comfortable writing, get good at telling stories and then try speccing. You only get one shot to impress, after all.

P.S. If you want to be clever and try to bypass this by some good old fashioned networking, then please, PLEASE, don't pull a stunt like this one. Just don't.

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