Writing American TV fiction: An ironic look at the process

Strike Diary - THR

During the 2023 screenwriters’ strike, The Hollywood Reporter is publishing an account of the situation through the eyes of an anonymous film writer.

It’s a delightful and very ironic take.

In one of the pieces, the writer describes, with a sense of humor, the process of developing a project for TV.

The genesis

A production company has a piece of I.P. (Intellectual Property) and after eight other showrunner-level writers passed, they brought to you because they knew you would be perfect for it and were the first person they thought of. You are flattered because you are vain and willfully stupid, and you read the book or watch the Swedish series or check out the children’s drawing you’ve been brought in to adapt and you convince yourself it’s ripe for a reimagining and they are right, you are the exact person to do it!

You fake a deep, personal connection to the material and work up your take. The producers love your take because everyone else has passed and they are about to lose their deal and also because your ability to conjure enthusiasm where none actually exists is sort of all you have, so you absorb their wildly unhelpful notes and suddenly pitches are set up all over town (on Zoom, of course, because no longer having to have writers in their offices is, for executives, the single greatest thing that has ever happened to them and sort of worth having lost their great aunt to COVID).

Meeting the executives

Two minutes before the pitch, a handful of executives across town groan and tell their partners they have to hear some stupid pitch and log on, smiling like fearful children, making awkward small talk until the producers fumble an intro and you start talking, trying hard not to focus on the one executive who, from the reflection in their glasses, is clearly watching Love Is Blind while you pitch.

You finish and each executive asks a very perfunctory question to show their boss how hard they were listening and after the Zoom ends, everyone waving goodbye like parents watching their children on a ferris wheel, you tell your agent you think it went, “Really well, they seemed really engaged and asked a lot of super-intelligent questions!” A few days later you hear, to your shock, they are buying it!

But instead of celebrating, you obsess on why it took a few days and are they really just buying it because they have a deal with the producers? But those thoughts eventually go out of your mind because six months have somehow passed and the company’s business affairs finally close your deal for much less than your quote.

The kick-off meeting

You finally have your kick-off meeting with the company, and three of the faces on the Zoom are new, the true champion of your project having departed the streamer four months ago to run DJ Khaled’s new production company. These complete strangers tell you again how much they love your project, then a junior executive tells you their core demo has proven to actually be 13-year-old females so could you set the show in junior high instead of at a newspaper?

You contort the premise of the show to fit all the precepts the algorithm has identified as necessary components for success on their platform, including now making the story engine completely episodic, because “attention spans.” And after only seven drafts of the outline, you are finally sent off to script.

A script, finally

You finish writing on the year anniversary of your initial pitch and send it in on a Friday because they are “dying” to read it. Four weeks later a notes Zoom is set on which now all of the executives are new, the two most experienced of them having left to start Waze’s new streaming service; the junior executive is now running Freeform.

They spend one minute telling you about the four jokes from your draft that they love — one of which wasn’t in your draft but was actually from the Succession finale — and then inform you that it’s “totally your choice” but their latest software update on the algorithm revealed that in fact serialized shows create more emotional investment in audiences and also that 13-year-old females have been trending down and thus their new target demo are 48-year-old men.

Hyperventilating with excitement

So you completely rewrite the draft, turning it in on a Monday because they are “literally hyperventilating with excitement” over reading the new draft. Five weeks later a notes Zoom is set on which only your agent’s assistant appears to tell you the executives all had emergencies and the call will be rescheduled. Two minutes later you get an alert on your phone that Waze has just greenlit a show starring DJ Khalid set at a newspaper. Your show is now soft dead, which is just dead but without a body or a confrontation.

Read the whole article here. Strongly recommended!

More on Screenwriting? Check Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREEN WRITINGBest Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITINGHow TOY STORY 3 Was WrittenHow Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was WrittenHow Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT Was Written , Subtext: The Magic Dust of Good Screenwriting, David Mamet’s Master Class Memo to the Writers of THE UNIT, and For Screenwriters: Endings, amongst many other posts!

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