Prominent writers work under producer title

The surest sign of the incredibly tight job market for television writers can be found in the credits of new fall series.

Not only is there a noticeable drop in the number of credited writers and producers, but a growing number of prominent scribes are working under the nebulous job title of “consulting producer.”

Experienced showrunners and senior writer-producers who would have easily landed full-time staff slots just a few seasons ago are now taking on consulting producer gigs, thanks to the much-diminished number of scripted series ordered by the major nets for the 2009-10 season.

The rise of consulting producers is definitely a function of market conditions, but that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically a horrible situation for writers. Seasoned scribes who have reached the exec producer or co-exec producer level say they’d much rather work as consulting producers than take another title that would indicate they’ve taken a step backward — and make it harder for them to command exec producer stripes in the future.

“It is a manageable, win-win situation for everyone involved if (a consulting gig) is properly put into place and constructed,” says Thania St. John, a drama vet who is a consulting producer on Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva.”

“Nowadays you have a large group of very talented (writers) who have reached a certain level in their career. At some point there’s just not going to be that (top) job available, but you still want to work. It makes sense to be a consulting producer.”

The consulting producer role has become commonplace on comedy and drama series during the past decade. It typically involves an experienced hyphenate working one to three days a week on a series — helping to break stories and outline arcs, offering rewrite and punch-up services and general troubleshooting advice.

Fledgling shows tend to bring in consulting producers as a way of tapping into the wisdom of a seasoned pro without adding to the full-time salary roster. It’s not unusual for a studio that has signed a writer to an exclusive overall deal to assign that scribe to a consulting gig on another studio production while the scribe brainstorms pilot ideas.

In flush times, a consulting producer slot was also a way for a showrunner to throw a bone to friend in need or to repay a favor.

Not any more. This year, with the cost-cutting crusades at every network and studio, writing budgets have been slashed, and shows are relying on consulting producers to pick up the slack — so much so that some consulting producers put in as many as four or five days a week. And more and more writers who once would have been ensconced in rich studio development deals are taking consulting gigs.

The shift amounts to a big bottom-line hit to scribes who might’ve commanded $45,000-$55,000 per episode just a few years ago but are now being offered consulting slots for $15,000-$30,000 an episode, on the high end. They also earn scale for story and teleplay fees if they pen scripts (about $22,200 for a half-hour and $32,700 for an hourlong).

Most of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC’s frosh skeins have at least one consulting producer on staff. Fox’s “Brothers” leads the charge with seven credited consulting producers; CBS’ “Accidentally on Purpose” has five. Original cable skeins often make frequent use of consulting producers as a cost-saving measure.

Among the notables working in consulting producer roles this season are Mara Brock Akil (ABC’s “Cougar Town”), Mike Scully (NBC’s “Parks and Recreation”), Jeff and Jackie Filgo (ABC’s “Hank”), Rina Mimoun (ABC’s “Eastwick”), Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (ABC’s “FlashForward”), Adam Chase (Fox’s “Sons of Tucson”), Jonathan Pollack (NBC’s “Community”), Greg Walker (CBS’ “Three Rivers”) and Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters (Fox’s “Dollhouse”).

“If I were in a management position right now I would gladly take 10 consulting producers who I know and trust rather than staff a show with people at other levels who I’m not sure of,” St. John says.

The trade-off for writers working as consulting producers is flexibility. A consulting producer is not exclusive to any one show or studio, meaning they’re free to write for other shows and field development prospects all over town.

The freedom to develop is a big plus, scribes say, because often a studio will bar its top hyphenates on a first-year series from pursuing new projects, in order to keep them focused on the care and feeding of their infant skein.

Perhaps the biggest contribution that a consulting producer can add to a writers room is perspective — both from a writer’s past experience and in offering a fresh pair of eyes on ideas for scripts and story arcs.

“What happens when people who are working so intensely, day after day, in this 24/7 job is that you tend to get lost in the details,” says Frank Pierson, a veteran screenwriter (and an Oscar winner for “Dog Day Afternoon”) who was recruited as a consulting producer on AMC’s “Mad Men” this season.

“By coming in once a week, I could see things that they didn’t see and help them take the long view on how an idea might play out,” he says.

In Pierson’s case, it also didn’t hurt that he was just getting his start as a young TV writer during the early ’60s-era of “Mad Men,” which allowed him to offer unique insights to his younger colleagues in the writers room.

St. John was coming off a four-season run as the exec producer and showrunner of Syfy fantasy-drama “Eureka” when she segued to “Drop Dead Diva.” Having done consulting gigs in the past, she was happy to join the staff of a show that she admired.

“Diva” already has five exec producers, so the consulting role was the best option “that allowed me to be part of something like this in a really great way and work in a capacity that I love,” she says.

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