The explosive growth in the number of original scripted TV series during the past few years is a daunting challenge for writers as the volume makes it harder for shows to break through. But the expansion also makes it easier for writers to pursue their passion projects.
That was the sentiment shared Thursday night by a clutch of Emmy-nominated writers who gathered at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills for the annual Sublime Primetime panel discussion, hosted by the WGA West and Writers Guild Foundation.
Moderated by Variety‘s Cynthia Littleton, the panel featured contenders from various Emmy categories: Jane Anderson (“Olive Kitteridge”), Alec Berg (“Silicon Valley”), Joshua Brand (“The Americans”), Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”), Stephanie Gillis (“The Simpsons”), Elliott Kalan (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”), Christine Nangle (“Inside Amy Schumer”) and Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”).
When asked about the sheer number of shows that are currently on the air, Anderson said that if she thought about it she would never be able to get anything done.
“I think if we ever thought about that we’d never write again,” Anderson said. “I think what’s happening now is television is becoming now what feature films were in the ’70s. We are overtaking the feature film industry in inventiveness and creativeness and getting out of the box.”
The success of “Mad Men” in transforming AMC from a vintage movie channel to a top TV contender has helped fuel the boom in cable series. In bringing the show to a close earlier this year, Weiner put it simply: “We wanted to end in a way that didn’t destroy the beginning.”
The panel then moved to whether comedies were harder to gain traction with slews of them coming out every season.
“When we’re doing the show we’re doing the best show we can do and all we can do is make ourselves happy,” Berg said of his process on “Silicon Valley.” He believes that’s standard operating procedure for most writers but acknowledged that it’s a subjective decision for every writer and every show. “At the end of the day, I’ve seen (shows) that I’ve loved die a horrible death and I’ve seen things that I thought were garbage succeed,” he said.
For “The Daily Show’s” Kalan, the writing process was different than the other writers and the struggle to keep things fresh was a day to day fight.
“The challenge for us always was we’re doing so many of these each year, how do we not just let the machine run it and how do we actively make each one different or as interesting as it can be in their own way.,” Kalan said. “The daily schedule pressure was so tight that it was trying as hard as you can to make it as good as you can while running on a treadmill.”
The group spoke about working in a bubble when they’re in the thick of writing scripts or producing episodes. It can be hard to let the outside world in when consumed with work.
When working on the sketch series “Inside Amy Schumer,” Nangle said can only come out of her writing bubble to watch vintage reruns.
“Right now I’m extraordinarily obsessed with ‘Murder, She Wrote,’ ” Nangle said. “There’s something about it that’s calming even though there is murder and in every episode a maid screams and drops dishes but just knowing that that’s done and somebody wrote that show and it’s in the past and it’s going to be fine. It’s just calming for me.”
Chellas said that in order to make sure she is always writing something for herself beyond her day job she makes a point of trying to write 500 words a day on her own time.
“I write in a journal every day, for like 20 years, I write 500 words every day and then don’t save it,” Chellas said. “I decided I needed to just do something and to me it is like running on a treadmill.”
Gillis said that her creative freedom came from being in “The Simpsons” writer’s room.
“At “The Simpsons” our creative freedom doesn’t just come from the actors but from the other writers,” Gillis said. “You can feel like you wrote a first draft that’s pretty good but you know that by the time it hits the table or the screen it’s going to be so much better. It helps starve any doubts I have when I’m writing.”
Brand, a veteran writer and showrunner whose credits include “St. Elsewhere” and “Northern Exposure,” talked about how much more difficult it is for younger writers to make a living in the industry compared to when he started out. Salaries are squeezed for all but the top echelon. Deal terms are less advantageous for lower-run writers, who can be hampered in seeking other employment if they sign on to a show that only does 10-13 episodes per season.
“It’s become a much tougher business,” Brand said. “It used to be working on a network show was 22 episodes and that would be your year. It used to be a number of (episodes) were left to freelance writers but that’s not the case anymore.”
As the group discussed a host of issues that are bearing down on writers these days, Gillis got a laugh with her observation: “Writers never complain.”
The scribes noted that vast changes in the way TV series are being developed — from straight-to-series orders to multiple scripts ordered before a pilot is shot — is opening the door to networks and studios pushing writers to do more work for less compensation. And the group acknowledged that the era of substantial residual checks flowing into writers from reruns is ebbing in the digital era.
“My motto was always ‘You cannot let them use the love of your work against you, because all of us would do it for free,’ ” Weiner said of attempts to get free work out of writers.