Writers face tough post-strike world

Fewer big buys and shortage of shots at stardom

With budding TV scribes having resumed their battle to break into the industry in a post-strike world, some believe entertainment’s new economic landscape has made the climb for the next generation of potential Emmy winners even steeper.

“It’s probably more difficult to break into Hollywood now, because (the studios) are going to buy less, and they’re going to buy from those high-end writers and showrunners that they believe in already,” says one TV lit agent. “So, there will be (fewer) slots for flyers or new writers. It will be more difficult for that guy who just has a great sample to come in and pitch a show.”

“Family Guy” showrunner David A. Goodman has seen the business shift over the last two decades in ways that make it harder for both emerging and established writers.

“There’s no question it’s a time of uncertainty,” Goodman says. “We’ve had our staff here pretty much unchanged in four years. Fifteen years ago, half the staff would have already been gone to develop new shows, but there are just not that many opportunities anymore.”

That stasis has a trickle-down effect. When people stay in staff-writer positions because new jobs aren’t available to them, then aspiring writers can’t move into their vacancies, Goodman explains.

Some agents working with television writers have likewise seen changes throughout the industry that have made it more challenging to bring unknown writers with new ideas into a meeting.

“I don’t think you’re going to see too many new writers going in and pitching cable, the networks or film and coming out with big sales right now,” says another agent also representing television writers. “When I started as an agent, there were 14 or 15 places buying material. Now there are four or five. It’s a vastly different market, and that’s not because of the strike.”

For several networks, the strike increased some financial pressures that in turn moved up the emphasis on a year-round pilot and development season. And while some are open to new ideas, the focus is on their bottom lines.

“We wanted to break the mold of traditional pilot season because we thought it was very counterproductive to the creative process,” says Teri Weinberg, exec VP development and programming at NBC Entertainment. “We’re hearing pitches, and we have things in different stages of development, but we see production costs rising, so we have to be strategic about what we decide to do.”

Jennifer Nicholson Salke, exec veep of creative affairs at 20th Century Fox TV, sees the same changes moving through the industry.

“It’s all part of the same wake-up call,” Nicholson Salke says. “It’s been a constant bringing down of the volume of what we’re developing, and you’re looking for those shows that have a really devoted niche following of people. We’re looking for ways we can be more specialized and more disciplined with (our) budget.”

With the traditional sales routes more difficult to traverse, many are looking to new media as a means for new talent to find a voice.

“I think the legacy of this strike will be that as the studios tried to go out and create entertainment without writers in so-called reality programming, now talent is developing production without the studios, using the new relationships that were built during the strike,” WGA West prexy Patric Verrone says. “I think that will hopefully provide a lot more opportunities for writers and actors.”

Goodman thinks that, regardless of what may come from evolving media, the writers will have to adjust to the shifting playing field in order to continue working and become more creative in finding new work. Goodman isn’t alone in that opinion.

“You’ve got to be a writer with some entrepreneurial skill, because otherwise you’re an employee of a contracting business,” says Rob Long, a television writer since the 1980s and host of NPR’s “Martini Shot,” a weekly broadcast focusing on his industry experiences. “That’s not a great position to be in.”

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