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TV Staffing Season a Drama For Writers Seeking Positions

TV Staffing Season a Drama For Writers Seeking Positions By CARLOS MARTINEZ Staff Reporter Richard Blau doesn’t like to talk much about his career. “It’s hard to talk when you don’t know whether you’ll find a job doing what you like to do,” said Blau who is among the 4,500 members of the Writers Guild of America who write television scripts. Sitting nervously at his North Hollywood home, 30-year-old Blau smokes a cigarette while pondering a question put by a reporter. “It’s not me,” Blau says, in an apologetic tone. “It’s staffing season.” Indeed. The one time of the year when TV writers in the Valley and throughout Southern California must do their all to get a job on the writing staffs of new television shows. It only happens once a year, during a three-week period in May when the broadcast networks formally announce their new shows for the fall and the mad scramble begins. Jobs usually pay about $200,000 a year and above, with experienced writers commanding $500,000 or more, the Guild says. Blau’s career is only getting started, he says, after getting a staff job on short-lived UPN sitcom “Platypus Man,” three years ago, and a couple of other equally unsuccessful sitcoms since then. A graduate of Union College in upstate New York and seeming countless writing workshops in Los Angeles, Blau is uneasy about his chances of landing a writing job with the 23 new sitcoms set for production at the six broadcast networks. He, like countless other seasoned and not-so-seasoned TV writers, has been busy working the phones in the weeks leading up to networks’ announcement of new shows, trying to determine which pilots would be picked up for a fall series. “You gotta make as many contacts as you can and talk to everybody you know who might have heard something so you can target those shows,” he said. Liz Stein, a USC graduate and admitted TV newbie, is learning things the hard way about staffing season. “You just try to find out from people you know and see if you get lucky,” said the Burbank resident. “But I realized that a lot of people I was talking to didn’t know what they were talking about. None of the shows they said were a cinch were picked up.” Stein’s efforts to contact shows she knew were picked up have politely told her agent “not interested.” “They didn’t even want to see my sample scripts.” Paul Chitlik (photo), a veteran TV writer, who now writes made for cable features, isn’t surprised by the harsh reality television writers face today. “By the time you hear a show is picked up, the show’s producers already know who they want to write for them so it’s already too late,” Chitlik said. “I know that from experience.” With only between four to 12 staff positions per new show, and only a handful of open slots in ongoing series, the competition is intense and often nerve-racking on writers. “You really can’t sleep and you can’t call your agent and you get to the point where you just have to sit and wait,” Blau said. For the three-to-four-week staffing season, it’s a question of all or nothing, for writers, Chitlik says. Few freelance gigs “The way TV is today, there really aren’t that many freelance episodes available after staffing season as there were 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “You used to be able to write four or five freelance episodes and get by, but you’re lucky today if you get one. Everything is staff written.” Ideally, TV writers should have their sample scripts or those they’ve written about a current show on hand by the time staffing season starts in early May. The scripts, Chitlik says, should represent the writer’s best work, whether it’s a produced script or not. The sample scripts, either two or three of them, must then be submitted by the writer’s agent to the production company producing a show if that company shows interest in the writer. “That’s not always easy to do,” Chitlik said. In fact, writers are turned down left and right unless their agent has a good relationship with that show’s producers or decision makers, Chitlik warned. But the biggest hurdle facing writers is finding out which pilots are the most likely to be picked up and then try to “work” on its producers or in most cases, story editors or production heads even before the show is picked up by a network. “I used to just go on the studio lot and make my rounds, but with security nowadays, you can’t do that anymore, so it’s a lot harder for writers,” Chitlik said. Those unfortunate enough not to have a high-powered agent must do the leg work themselves and keep atop the business by checking trade publications like the Hollywood Reporter or Daily Variety which lists production activity by individual studios and production companies. But even those lists are not enough, Blau complained. “Touchstone Television is one of the biggest TV producers and they’re not listed anywhere. The same is true for a bunch of others,” he said. So it really comes down to the writers’ grapevine or network of contacts that each writer has, Chitlik says. “You hate to say it, but it’s really about who you know and where your contacts are,” he said. Waiting for meetings Stein, whose agency she would only describe as a “boutique agency,” made up of one agent and her assistant, has been busy sending out some of her script samples in the past week, but so far she has no pitch meetings scheduled for any shows yet. “That’s where you really have to work it and work it well because if you don’t have good story ideas or show enthusiasm you may as well move to Bolivia because you’re not going to get a job,” she said. At 25, Stein likely has a long way to go before she hangs up her laptop for good, but to others like Chitlik who is in his early 40s, his TV writing career is over. “I’m over the hill to a lot of those guys, but it doesn’t bother me because TV was good but you can’t do that forever,” he said. Having served as writer on the sitcoms “Perfect Strangers,” “Small Wonder,” and “Who’s the Boss,” as well as serving as story editor on “Twilight Zone,” in the mid-1980s, Chitlik has moved on to produce the UPN film “Alien Abduction,” “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol,” “Seatek,” and most recently “Ringling Revealed” for the Travel Channel. “I don’t miss TV (writing) as much as some people might think,” Chitlik said. “Writing features for cable is great.”

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