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HBO, CW, Sundance Execs Offer Advice on Breaking into TV for Young Writers

For writers looking to break into television, having a unique voice and story to tell is important — but it’s not everything. Executives say the other part of the equation is knowing the marketplace well enough to know where your story would fit best.

“The things that make us come out of a meeting and make us say, ‘Oh we should talk to them more’ is how much mastery [a person] has over the material and their own take on the work, even if it’s a genre we’re not familiar with, and [that] they’ve done their homework and are connecting with what we need,” said Jennifer Titus, senior vice president of on-air and digital programming at the CW and CW Seed, at a New York Television Festival evening of panels in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

Owen Shifflett, vice president of development at Shudder, also encouraged writers to “stay flexible.” “You’ve got to be somewhat agnostic to seeing your story come together in short-form or long-form or animated clips,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways that content is getting out there these days.”

The executives also offered advice on how to prepare for a pitch meeting. While Titus noted that the trend has been to get more visual, with writers coming in with everything from sizzle reels to stop-motion animation, Sydney Bright, a development executive at Bento Box Entertainment (best known for the animated series “Bob’s Burgers”) said that her team doesn’t care what writers bring to the meeting — and many don’t come in with any art or animation at all.

“We’re looking for who you are as a person and your relationships and your background,” Bright said.

That sentiment was echoed by Kara Buckley, manager of original programming at HBO.

“You have to be strong on the page to get the meeting, that’s a given, but you get the job because of who you are — because of your history,” Buckley said. “I think the best thing to do in a general meeting is to talk about yourself and your background and the things that make you interesting — why you stand out from everyone else.”

That can include valuable first-hand experience that “can’t be replicated or taught” for the show, she said, but it can also cover just a general passion for a character or a story.

“We’re looking for the show that you are dying to tell — that you can’t sleep at night because you have to get up and write it, that it’s seeping out of your pores,” said Buckley. What turns her off: when a writer rattles off seven ideas. Her takeaway is that means that none of them truly matter.

Authenticity and specificity were the words used by everyone on the panel to describe a writer’s most important asset — along with personality. “Life Sentence” co-creators Erin Cardillo and Richard Keith both noted that when they were staffing their series they were not only looking for writers whose experience could “fill gaps” they had, but also for people who were enjoyable to be around for eight hours a day.

Buckley, too, stressed the importance of being pleasant, respectful and even receptive to criticism. “Life’s too short to work with a–holes, and we have experienced that a lot at HBO,” she said. “We released them with joy and won’t work with them ever again.”

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