Finding A Home For Your Film Or TV Series
Creative Screenwriting Magazine attended this year’s Produced By Conference at Warner Bros. Studios to discuss the current state of our industry. We attended a comprehensive panel discussion with some senior industry executives on the future of producing film and TV shows… and everything in between. The panel comprised of Dan Goor (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation), Dee Harris-Lawrence (David Makes Man), Leslye Headland (Russian Doll), Alexandra Rushfield (Shrill, Love) and Hayden Schlossberg (Cobra Kai, Blockers).
The panel was asked about where current film and TV buyers source their material. Screenwriters can approach writing new material from two distinct angles- where there is a veritable gap in the marketplace and what sparks their creative inspiration. There is no single (or simple) answer to this question.
They continued to discuss how they brought their shows to the screen.
Dan Goor recalled the genesis of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He simply wanted to create a workplace TV show he loved. “It was a very specific workplace comedy with a tremendous amount of exposition to get through. We wanted to create a TV show where the exposition was immediately apparent.” He broke it down to its bare essentials when Jake Peralta states “we’ve got a murder to solve.” Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a natural extension of Parks And Recreation and The Office.
Dee Harris-Lawrence took a different approach. “It was all about seeing what was the next big thing. I would watch all the shows that were on and take it from there. I was always chasing.” As she progressed in her career, she became more judicious with her creative choices. She quoted her mentor from Saving Grace and decided to “write what you want to see.” Otherwise, screenwriters run the risk of blending in with all the other TV shows. It’s not so much that your story needs to stand as your voice.
Leslye Headland was fortunate enough to have Russian Doll co-creator, Natasha Lyonne bring the major elements of the show to her. “In a way, we created something we hadn’t seen before, but first we had to spin all those story ideas into a TV show.” They set out to write a TV show with a female protagonist that “didn’t have to do with her job, her family or her loved one.” This posed a formidable challenge for them given that the related-themed Happy Death Day 2 had recently been released. The similarity challenge was overcome by the unique spin of Russian Doll.
Ultimately, it comes down to defining the premise of a show and expressing it in an original way as a “binge” show to make it stand out.
“You have to look at what’s going on in the marketplace, react to it, don’t pretend it’s not there… but also lean into the restrictions of your own project to see what sets you apart.” Writers shouldn’t be afraid of writing something that’s already in the zeitgeist, but rather be afraid of being a duplicate of other shows.
Alexandra Rushfield was given the novel for Shrill to consider- a prospect she was initially not happy with. Once she was engrossed by the concept a fat woman trudging through life, she realized “there are so many people this could appeal to.” Shrill largely bypassed the traditional body image and fat-shaming tropes of similar stories to make it unique. “It wasn’t a story of Annie stepping on the scales or trying to lose weight, but rather a story of acceptance. It’s the humanity of it that I believe in.”
Hayden Schlossberg is more pragmatic with his creative process. “It all starts by drawing from my life and my personal experiences. You take that story and look at the marketplace and where it might fit in. I look at the holes and the trends.”
There are so many platforms in the marketplace which create a bewildering array of opportunities for screenwriters and filmmakers. Aside from the challenges of getting something produced, screenwriters need to identify and find their target audiences. It is a jumbled matchmaking landscape of content-hungry platforms all looking for content.
Is there a battle between the broadcast networks and the streamers?
Dan Goor, a TV network veteran is currently dipping his pitching toes into the world of streaming. “Although it’s very exciting, specific and interesting for the streamers, there is still a base appeal for network TV. It’s easier to imagine a world where the platform you’re on is already in most people’s homes rather than having to subscribe.”
Hayden Schlossberg believes that networks will soon start emulating the streamers to a greater degree in terms of creating more serialized content. “The big thing now is swearing, so that may be where the line is drawn to decide if it’s a network show or not. This used to be the dividing line between network and cable TV.”
The limited release platform use to be an outlet for independent filmmakers to get their work viewed.
Although the limited release platform is crowded by industry veterans, there is space for fresh voices. “Streaming allows newer voices to have access that more experienced filmmakers have,” stated Leslye Headland. Films and TV shows created by females typically had unlikeable filmmakers. The reviewers for Russian Doll were largely female. However, the fact that these same women reviewed video games to allow “a streaming platform which is highly competitive, but also reaches a different audience.”
The beauty of streaming is that non-traditional voices can be heard and avoid “greenbooking the story.”
This can be a blessing and a curse. Too many TV shows dropping at once can overwhelm audiences and inhibit their organic promotion via word of mouth. The problem with binge TV is that by the time people can discuss what they’re watching with their friends, the shows have disappeared. Audiences have a sense of “talked about shows” as distinct from actually having the time to watching them.
CBS access drops the first few episodes of a series at once before reverting to appointment TV. There is room for both models. It’s the problem with having too many stories to tell. Everybody’s trying to stand out in the crowd.
Streaming also allows viewers to catch up on back seasons through binge-watching. Time-shifted viewing allows for this.
Dan Goor espoused the Starbucks model for binge TV. Streaming platforms act as billboards for TV shows to raise awareness. “You may walk past a few Starbucks stores and look inside, but keep walking. You may end up buying a cup of coffee on the fifth or sixth store.”
“Pitching both a new TV series or additional series is a tricky thing. At least pitch the first season, especially in serialized television with the understanding that it might continue,” said Schlossberg. “You don’t go in pitching an end to a TV show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine because it’s composed of standalone episodes,” said Goor. There is a paradox in how traditional network shows should be pitched.”
In the writers’ room, newer TV writers need to understand “there’s a learning curve, there’s no expectation that you’re going to be funny right away. It’s okay to listen and be quiet. Nobody is keeping track of who made each pitch,” advised Goor.
The makeup of TV writers’ rooms is changing. It’s fine to have an all-female writing staff or writers of color in the room, but it’s equally important to maintain traditional white voices in the mix. “Even if the race and gender of a character aren’t specified in the conversation in the writers’ room, it’s worth having that weird and uncomfortable conversation to make the room more diverse,” added Headland.
“Don’t let your comfort zone inhibit your progress.”
Cultural diversity was one of the reasons to set Brooklyn Nine-Nine there. “Brooklyn [the borough] is about fifty percent diverse,” said Dan Goor.
Hollywood has traditionally leaned towards more liberal ideologies. It has been somewhat of a struggle to maintain representation to opposing viewpoints. “There’s a way to include a point of view without servicing it,” said Leslye Headland. Exploring opposing viewpoints and people’s reactions to them form interesting pieces of drama.
“Diversity doesn’t just mean gender and culture. Diversity means different cultures, ideologies, and opinions,” added Dee Harris-Lawrence.
“When we deal with polarizing issues, strong-arm tactics by a character usually fall flat,” said Goor. “We make it clear that there is no pie in the sky resolution. A character with an unconventional worldview should believe what they’re saying without being mocked by the other characters.”
“There is no doubt that Hollywood is extremely progressive. Sometimes you care about reaching middle America and sometimes you don’t,” mused Schlossberg. “My family comes from both sides of the political spectrum. A character like Cobra Kai comes from a Reagan, Rambo, Rocky mentality. Sometimes you have a certain audience that flocks to you because of that, welcome or not.”
“The main lesson is for screenwriters to create a character with different viewpoints and making them human. Take ‘All In The Family’ which is about a conservative character with heart. You can do amazing things because you can write a story that brings people together.”
“A writers’ room needs to be a safe space not just for writers, but for ideas,” advised Hayden Schlossberg. “This is especially true of sensitive subjects. Cobra Kai is the embodiment of toxic masculinity. I made it clear to my writers that the intention was to create great stories and generate good ideas. You don’t want writers to hold back. There also needs to be a space for writers to express their discomfort. Otherwise good ideas disappear if they are not discussed. There’s a balance between caring for people and not hindering the creative process.”
A TV show can last one season or over ten. The panel was asked when it’s time for a TV series to film its grand finale.
This could be a matter of pre-determined character arcs that have reached their natural conclusions. Sometimes it’s the audience. “Sometimes you create characters along the way that fans like and suddenly you get invested in, so you keep going off on tangents you never thought,” said Hayden Schlossberg of Cobra Kai. “You need to have that same excitement to continue when you started. A show is only really over when audiences want you to continue and you don’t.“
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