Staffing season, thanks to streamers and premium cable, happens all year round now, so that’s even more pressure on writers to always be writing and always be ready.
Let’s say you’ve gotten lucky: after weeks and weeks of plugging away at your latest writing sample, maybe even taking one of our Televisionary or Draft Intensive classes to further fine-tune its development, your reps have submitted you for staffing and you’ve scored a staffing meeting with a production company, studio, or network. If all goes well and you nail that meeting, the next step is the big do-or-die moment: the showrunner meeting.
One question we see a lot of students asking is: how does one best prepare for those staffing meetings?
Drilling down your personal story is paramount in any meeting, whether it’s a general or staffing. Think about what aspects of your own life story make you uniquely qualified for this writing job. There are probably a lot of TV writers out there with similar resumes to you, but only one YOU. What about your voice, or life experience can you see reflected in the show you’re meeting on? And how can you convey that to the exec that you’re the absolute best fit for the job?
Depending on what show you’re up for and what level you’re going for, the way you prepare may vary. Also, of course, you might not have ANY time at all to prepare — many staffing meetings come up with less than 24hrs notice. So if you find yourself in that position, or find yourself in the fortunate position to have a lot of staffing meetings on the docket, you’ll want to prioritize your prep in terms of what shows you feel most excited about, what you feel you’d be the best fit for, and what your reps recommend in terms of order of priorities.
If you’ve never been staffed before, you’ll most likely meet on a lot of first-season shows. This is a great scenario because you won’t have a ton of cramming to do.
First, read the pilot script. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many rookie writers don’t. Read it 2-3 times, because you always miss something on the first read. Make sure you’re familiar with the storylines, themes, and major characters.
Try to identify characters you feel drawn to or feel a personal connection to — this is an easy way to underhandedly pitch ideas for them in the meeting. Not all showrunners or execs like writers to overtly pitch in a meeting, especially if you’re interviewing for a lower-level position, but anything you can say that will make you stand out as uniquely qualified will only help in the long run. There’s a way to do this that doesn’t feel as overt and, for lack of a better word, thirsty, as saying “I have a pitch for XYZ character.”
Let’s say, for example, that we’ve jumped back in time a few years and you have a meeting for the first season of GLOW.
You’ve read the pilot script and researched the world and time period. You were never a wrestler, nor were you a fan of the sport, but one thing you understand really well is the complexities of friendships and love triangles. So when the exec you’re meeting with asks if you have any questions, one thing you could ask is “Yes, I was wondering what will become of Ruth and Betty’s friendship? I went to college with two best friends who had a falling out when one slept with the other’s boyfriend. They didn’t talk for years, but when the friend who was dating the guy broke up with him and realized he was trash anyways, they reconciled over lunch and are now friendly again.” This lets the exec know that you’re thinking about the characters’ journeys and arcs beyond the pilot and also gives an exec an idea of the type of life experience that you’d bring to the show that another candidate might not.
Softly pitching in the form of questions in this way is a safe, non-overt way to show off what you’d bring to the room as far as story goes, but lets the execs know that you know your place as a staff writer and won’t walk in thinking you’re God’s gift to Final Draft and have all the answers to questions it’s very possible that nobody will ask you.
REBOOTS AND SPINOFFS
Reboots and spinoffs present an interesting challenge in terms of preparation. Say you score a staffing meeting on THIRTYSOMETHING (ELSE) at ABC, a reboot of their 1980s hit THIRTYSOMETHING — but are only 27 years old yourself, so you weren’t even born yet when the original was on.
Often times, you won’t have time to watch the entire series of THIRTYSOMETHING, so just watch the first two episodes and last two episodes of each season, with maybe one or two episodes in between. If you don’t have time for that, watch first, middle, and last episode of each season and read any recaps or summaries of the show you can find. If all that’s available is Wikipedia summaries, that’s ok, but not ideal — read some reviews of the series to get a more nuanced idea of the characters’ journeys.
If you’re meeting on a spinoff of a show that’s had way too many seasons to possibly catch up on, then try to re-trace the steps on IMDB of when the characters starring in your spinoff are introduced. If there’s enough time for you to watch all those episodes, we encourage you to do that, but if not, at least read detailed episode recaps/summaries, the most detailed you can find. Another idea we love is to scour YouTube for “Best of” compilations from that show — you’ll at least learn a few climactic moments from the series to have as a reference for your meeting. Then, apply the same rules as the section above: identify a character you feel drawn to or have something in common with, and come up with a few questions to ask about that character’s journey.
EXISTING SHOWS WITH MANY SEASONS… THAT YOU HAVEN’T SEEN
Say you get a meeting on Law & Order: SVU and have always been more of an NCIS kind of person. Or maybe you’re not that into cop shows at all, but like any good writer trying to break in, are going to say yes to any staffing meeting you can get.
SVU has had 21 seasons, and if you haven’t seen the whole show, that can seem really daunting to catch up on. They’ve also had a revolving door of Detective characters that’s changed up a lot throughout the years, with some recurring characters who have had significant journeys within the world of the show. To tackle this, we’d recommend watching the most recent few episodes, the pilot, and maybe a few episodes from the first season, then diving into the wilds of the internet for reviews and recaps of past SVU episodes. There have literally been hundreds, many of which pull from “ripped-from-the-headlines” cases.
If you find an episode summary that piques your interest, try to watch it if you have time, just so you can talk about cases that the show’s handled you really liked and why. This will let a bit of your personality and interests shine through rather than just proving to the execs you’re meeting with that you’ve done your homework as best as possible.
Ostensibly, you’re being called into meet on the show because the execs liked something about your writing. Ask your reps about what specific room needs the execs are trying to meet by calling you in—maybe you’re great at banter, which they need for a pair of Detectives, or maybe you’re good with structure. If your reps don’t have any intel then, well, lucky you! You get to be yourself and be honest about what you like about the show. Maybe one of the Detectives reminds you of your Uncle who wasn’t a cop, but was exactly the kind of Dad that Detective X is. Maybe you really like the way SVU deals with current events in their cases and are a true crime fiend yourself, so you were wondering if there were any plans to do a case based on XYZ murder, wink wink nudge nudge. See what we’re saying?
There are many creative ways you can position yourself as uniquely qualified to write for a show you’re not 100% caught up on. And if you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic or sell yourself short. They have researchers, writers assistants, and a whole writers room to maintain continuity and make sure no storylines are getting repeated. And remember that you got that meeting because the covering execs read your material and saw something about it that they thought would be a good fit.
Your job is to be interested, show that you have a personal connection to the material, sell yourself and your personal story as uniquely qualified to work on this show, and prepare as much as possible.
And of course, always send a thank-you card or email the next day at the latest.