You’ve probably seen lots of hashtags on Twitter recently displaying inspiring messages of support and collaboration between writers like #IStandWithTheWGA #WGAStaffingBoost and #WGASolidarityChallenge. You may have even sent a tweet in response, hopeful that your brilliant creativity comes across in those 280 characters and someone, anyone, offers to read your amazing pilot. But in reality, a majority of those opportunities are upper level WGA writers and producers helping their fellow union members who are currently agent-less (due to the WGA/ATA stand-off) and looking for work during staffing season. But what about non-union writers who are trying to land a job in TV? How can a newer aspirant get into a writers’ room? While submitting scripts to producers, managers, contests and fellowships are all potentially viable ways to get noticed by a hiring showrunner, there is another way.
Unlike in feature writing (movies), TV has a (sort of) job track for aspiring writers. Entry is difficult to come by and in very high demand, but this has been the jumping on point for many writers’ careers. It’s called being an assistant. So if you’re looking to get a start in the industry, and live in or near Los Angeles or NYC (or are planning on moving), then this might be a great way to get your start. It’s not easy and there are limited positions available, but if you can land one of the available assistant gigs on a TV show, it can be an amazing opportunity to get into the writers’ room or showrunner’s office to learn the process and eventually show what you have to offer to those in a position to hire you as a professional.
Before you scoff at making coffee runs or assembling scripts at the copy machine, realize that getting your big break as a writer on a TV staff is incredibly difficult. Writing for TV is very collaborative. The showrunner needs to be comfortable spending many hours for months on end with his or her writing staff. Hiring someone who is difficult or doesn’t understand what the job entails can be problematic and so they tend to hedge their bets and hire who they already know and like, or give opportunities to those who have been vetted and vouched for by people they respect. If you don’t fall into either of those categories, you can face a tall challenge in getting serious consideration.
That’s the reason that being an assistant can be a tremendous way for the aspiring TV writer to get access. Not only do you learn what a writers’ room is like and see the production of a television show from the ground level, but you get to work (and socialize) with the showrunner, writers and crew. This is important in numerous ways, both in terms of them getting to know that you’re a pleasant and competent individual and have been in the trenches before, but also because you’re intimately versed in the characters and storylines of your particular show and therefore more qualified to pitch new episode ideas than an outside writer.
But how do you land a cherry spot as an assistant in a writers’ room or TV production office? What skills are necessary? How much can you learn as an aspiring writer by being an assistant? What’s the difference between a writers’ assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, a writers’ PA and a script coordinator?
We asked a number of current and former assistants those questions and here’s what they had to say.
They are: (click on links below for more info on the specific roles)
What does a Writers’ Assistant do?
Mauro Flores (WA on Starz’s VIDA): Writers’s assistants takes notes, dictation, and research and they take all that information, pair it down into an organized document for the showrunner and writers. If the writers and especially the showrunner are in the room, it’s your job to write down everything they say if it’s related to the story. A friend, and current showrunner, described it perfectly, “you’re basically a silent stenographer in the back”.
Ed McCarthy (WA on USA/Netflix’s DARE ME): Write. A lot. You’re typing everything the room says. It’s your job to keep track of all the ideas, pitches, and dialogue flying around the room. You also work on episode notes for individual writers, keep track of boards in the room, etc. Essentially, you become the institutional knowledge for the show and are writing an insane amount of notes a day.
What does a Showrunners’ Assistant do?
Erin Conley (SA on Netflix’s SHADOW AND BONE): The showrunner is in charge of every aspect of production, from breaking the first story in the writers’ room to delivering the final cut of the last episode. Because their time is so valuable and in such high demand, a big part of being a showrunner’s assistant is learning to gate-keep, prioritize, and make sure every department on the show and every studio or network exec feels like their requests are being heard. The day-to-day can vary a lot depending on the showrunner and the show. There are plenty of typical assistant duties, ie managing phones and schedules, that are pretty universal, but I have also run writers’ room Twitter accounts, accompanied my boss to set in another city, given notes on drafts and cuts, taken notes in the writers’ room or on network notes calls, sat in on interviews for department heads, hired and managed writers’ PAs and other support staff, and so much else.
Shelby Enlow (SA on NBC’s SUNNYSIDE): It’s a little managing of the showrunner’s schedule, and a lot of random odds and ends they need done. I think what the job entails really depends on the showrunner.
What does a Script Coordinator do?
Jen Troy (SC on CW’s SUPERGIRL): A script coordinator’s main job is to proof, track storylines/continuity, and distribute scripts to the Studio, the Network, Production, etc. They also track Clearances notes, BS&P notes, and handle some writers’ paperwork pending on the show.
What does a Writers’ PA do?
Brenden Gallagher (former WPA on NBC’s HEARTBEAT): A writers’ PA gets lunch for the writers and maintains the office space, especially the printer. Also, you will be called upon to do odds jobs and tasks for writers. Examples include getting their mail, sending gifts to agents/managers, and ordering office supplies. That being said, less common tasks like buying a Christmas tree, tracking down a rare comic book, or entertaining a writer’s kid on an unexpected day off from school are all on the table.
I would encourage writers’ PAs not to let themselves be taken advantage of. Anything FOR THE OFFICE is fair game, but if writers are asking you to pick up their dry-cleaning or swing by their house to water the plants, talk to someone higher on the totem pole in the assistant and see if you need to draw some boundaries.
About living in L.A.:
How important is it for aspiring TV writers to move to Los Angeles (or in some cases, NYC) and why?
Brenden: It is essential for a TV writer to move to Los Angeles. There is no way around it. While it is possible to have an indie film career outside of Hollywood, television lives here. Even if something shoots in another state or country, the writers room is generally placed out of LA. Just like tech workers move to San Francisco or auto workers move to Detroit, this is where film and TV happens.
I am aware there are exceptions to this rule, but generally, these writers established themselves in LA and then moved once they were hot enough to be pursued regardless of where they lived. But if you are starting out, why deprive yourself of the networking opportunities and the creative possibilities of being where everything is happening?
Ed: I think it’s essential. LA is where almost all the rooms and writers are (with the exception of a few rooms based in NYC). As much as we’d like to think all we need to land our dream job is a great script, it’s just as much about connections. You gotta live here to start and maintain these relationships.
Erin: It is crucial because that is where the vast majority of jobs in writers’ rooms are going to be, and given the fast-paced and ever-changing nature of the industry, many opportunities will require you to be able to start immediately. The concept of moving without having a job lined up is scary, but it is practically a necessity in this industry.
Jen: It’s important. Being a TV writer means going into a writers’ room and working with a talented group of people to shape a show. Those rooms mostly exist in Los Angeles and NYC. You need to physically be where the magic happens to make connections and get into one of those rooms.
Mauro: If you want to be a working TV writer you pretty much have to move to LA or New York, and it comes down to networking and physical presence. Whether you’re good at networking or not, you’ll eventually get invited to some event or function where you’ll be introduced to people who could be colleagues or champions of yours someday, but you actually have to be physically present in order for that to happen.
Shelby: I think it’s imperative, honestly. So much of finding your path of success in film and television is finding your tribe of those you want to collaborate with, and making friends who can go to bat for you. At the end of the day, that’s what separates you from someone else – someone advocating for you.
When did you realize that moving to Los Angeles was a big step for your TV career and how did you prepare for it?
Brenden: I worked in New York City’s indie film/TV scene for a few years after college. I had a small production company and made web series and short films, while also assistant directing, line producing, and making short films/music videos for clients. I never made ends meet, and I wasn’t creatively fulfilled. The last two years I was in New York, I was writing all the time. I wrote a number of pilots there and I devoured podcasts like The Nerdist Writers Panel and read books about TV writing to prepare for the move.
Ed: I think I’ve always known living in LA was a necessity. Once I knew I wanted to take the chance and do it, I spent a year saving as much as I could. At the time, my day job was in education, so I took a night job as an adjunct writing instructor at a college. The money I made during the day paid the bills. The money I made at night went to savings for LA. I lived very frugally and saved as much as possible. I wanted to save up so I didn’t have to worry about money for at least six months when I moved to LA, as I knew getting a job would not be easy. Before moving to LA, you gotta have a plan and try to set yourself up for success. So I saved, found the cheapest place I could when moving here, and hit the ground running.
Erin: I grew up in upstate New York and decided I wanted to pursue a career in television while an undergrad at Boston University. I did the Los Angeles internship program my junior year, which we liked to call “LA with training wheels.” Having that experience was huge in terms of getting me comfortable with the idea of moving here permanently, and introducing me to the industry via the two internships I did.
Jen: In high school, I realized that if I wanted a career in Entertainment, I would need to be where the majority of the jobs were. I applied to colleges in Los Angeles and ones that had a Los Angeles program. Moving across the country was daunting, but knowing that I had a few months doing my college’s program, made it easier to transition.
Mauro: Honestly, it’s been a windy road for me. I started off as a theater teacher who enjoyed writing and directing plays on my nights and weekends, and I didn’t know anything about TV writing. But after taking a playwriting workshop, I was encouraged by the instructor, a person whose work I admire, to pursue a career in writing. Initially, I started off as a playwright and got into the NYU MFA program as one, but after taking classes with some professional screen and TV writers, and with the encouragement by them and my peers, I decided to take a shot at TV writing.
Shelby: For a long time, I was Lady Bird-ing it and snubbing the idea of California. I wanted to go to New York “where culture is”. But DePaul University, where I was going to school, really stressed what this LA Quarter program could do for us in helping find internships, making contacts, and easing the transition to LA with others we knew before we really had to make the decision permanent. I could also take out an extra loan that could help me eat FiberOne bars while I worked for free for three months. What really helped flip me to LA was a friend who was already here telling me, “Even if you went to New York, you’d have to move here eventually anyway.” And as someone who hates change, I liked the idea of as little change as possible. Don’t you love my romantic, Hollywood dream-chasing story?
For more on the path from TV assistant to writer, check out the follow-up article, From Assistant to Writer.Find us here: