Written by Ali Laventhol
While there are many steps along the way to landing a spot on a tv writing staff, today we’re going to talk about the final and most important part of the process—the showrunner, and what they’re looking for in their writers.
At the 2023 WGA showrunner training program, Tawnya and I heard several veteran showrunners discuss this exact topic. How do they approach hiring? What’s important to them? What do they look for in a sample and/or when meeting a writer?
Remember, a showrunner will narrow down candidates based on 3 categories: Writing sample(s), the meeting, and recommendations. Here are some of the answers we heard… straight from the showrunners’ mouths.
1. “My Staff Should Be Like The X-Men”
Several showrunners talked about making sure their staffs don’t have two people with the exact same talents. No two writers are the same. Some are better at character than plot, some are better in the room than on the page. A great joke pitcher may not excel at structure or the other way around. So make sure to emphasize your strengths in the meeting. Is action your specialty? Or heart and emotion? Are you an idea generator? Maybe you have a ton of on-set producing experience? Or, if you’re meeting on a detective show, say, and you feel you have a knack for procedural story breaking, don’t be afraid to let that “slip”—it may be exactly what they’re looking for.
2. “It’s Easier To Teach Structure Than Voice”
This quote is from a showrunner who was explaining that they will overlook imperfect structure in a writer’s sample if they find a voice that stands out—but not the other way around. This is not to say that you should skimp on your structure! However, for this particular showrunner, a sample that has something incredible to say, or one with an exceptional and unique voice, will beat out a script with perfect textbook structure any day.
3. “Don’t Tell Me What’s Wrong With The Show Unless I Ask”
This showrunner was stressing that if you’re meeting on a show that’s been on the air for a while, you should talk about what you love and why, but leave out the criticism. For example, do you relate to a specific character? If so, how? You can use this opportunity to tell the showrunner more about who you are. Maybe you have a favorite episode? Feel free to talk about why it resonated with you. Are there any relationships or conflicts you’d love to see explored more deeply? Bring that up, but through the lens of excitement and passion, not what you think is lacking. In other words, unless they specifically ask you what you’d change or what could be better about the show (and some might), keep that to yourself.
4. “Can I Tolerate You?”
Showrunners will be spending A LOT of time with their staff. And staff will be thrust into pressure situations together. So, are you someone the showrunner wants around when the sh*t hits the fan? Most showrunners said that this is a gut instinct. And that they don’t tolerate negative energy, as it impedes their ability to function and do their jobs. This is simply to say—in the meeting, be cool, be yourself, be someone YOU would want around during an “all hands on deck” moment.
5. “What Is Their Brand?”
One showrunner emphasized he is looking for verbal storytellers to include in his room. So the “tell me about yourself” moment in the meeting is crucial – the writer should encapsulate their brand into a well-told but concise, personal story. Make me lean in. Because if you can’t tell me a story in the meeting, how do I know you can do it in the room?
6. “Calling Around Is A Must”
No matter the level, the showrunner(s) will check your references. You will be vetted! Even if you send recommendations (which you should), they will likely call others who have worked with you in the past. Hollywood is a small world and it’s safe to assume everyone knows everyone. So start accumulating folks in the biz who can vouch for you and your work when you need them to.
7. “I’m Not Looking For Story Ideas”
This showrunner said that she’s not looking for pitches, and in fact the WGA officially prohibits this. Instead, she is looking for “POVs and skillsets.” So, instead of talking about an episode idea, give your perspective on the characters, their relationships and conflicts.
8. “Do They Talk Too Much?”
One showrunner confessed that they met a staff writer—whose script they loved—but as soon as they walked in, they were already talking and didn’t stop until the meeting was over. Sure, it’s important to have a few people on staff to keep the room going when it hits a lull but usually this responsibility falls on the upper levels. Showrunners are not looking for lower-level writers who talk 24/7. So take a breath in the meeting and remember it should be a two-way conversation!
9. “I’m Looking For People Who Fill My Void”
As this comedy showrunner explained, she knows that she’s not particularly quippy on the page, so she looks for that talent on her staff. Most showrunners know their strengths and weaknesses and they often look for writers who can shore up the places where they are not as strong. Your sample will do some of this work for you, but it also goes back to one of the points above—don’t be afraid to emphasize your strengths in the meeting!
10. “I’m About Mentorship”
One showrunner spoke about how she believes in mentoring her newer writers and she therefore looks for Upper Levels who subscribe to that philosophy.
11. “I’m Looking For Characters I Care About”
One showrunner really emphasized this in relation to when she’s reading samples. If you want more detail about how to achieve this in your scripts, see my previous Script Anatomy blog post.
We hope this list is helpful as you jump in and navigate the waters of staffing and prepare for your showrunner meetings. Best of luck and remember to keep us posted!
Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.