Taking a few days off from agonizing over my next gig to return to Full Sail University for their 5th Annual Hall of Fame celebration. I look forward to meeting with and speaking to the next round of grads, and especially to a Thursday lecture on what comes after you hit stride and your career stabilizes with fellow 2010 inductee Leslie Brathwaite, whose work with Pharrell Williams has been running on a loop in my brain for months.
Excerpt from a recent in-home interview for the folks at filmcourage.com. More cuts to come over the next few weeks.
Hi, all. I don’t usually do a lot of stumping here for anything other than the TV Writers Summit and Writers Store/Screenwriters University classes, but had a few things I wanted to mention here in the way of books that you should check out.
First of all, you can always find out about content from MY publisher as it’s released by just friending the MWP page on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/mwpfilmbooks
Ross Brown’s CREATING YOUR OWN TV SERIES FOR THE INTERNET has just released its second edition, and I’m quite anxious to dig into it. As this is the direction a lot of content production and distribution seems to be headed, it’s better to board that train earlier than later. I’ve been in talks recently on web-based content, myself, so friends — it’s happening.
While not an MWP title, Chad Gervich’s HOW TO MANAGE YOUR AGENT has been out since before the holidays and deserves to be mentioned. Actually, it deserves to be held aloft over your head as you charge down Sunset Boulevard shouting, “I finally know what I’m doing!” This book, as far as I’m concerned, is a must-have for anyone who has or is seeking representation. Buy, read, love.
EDITED TO ADD: Joke and Biagio (whom I absolutely adore) have a 40 minute podcast featuring Chad and discussing the book HERE. Thanks to regular reader Jack Decker for the tipoff!
Notice, I didn’t title this entry “How to NOT look for work,” as that’s a completely different tray of fudge. Nay, nay. This is “How NOT to look for work, as in, “Hey, bub, you’re doing it wrong.”
I’ve been wrapped out of the series I was recently working on and have been looking for work the last few weeks. I usually land somewhere else quickly, so I haven’t been too balled up about it. The interviews keep coming, and I hope to have some solid offers over the next week or so.
You may be a master job hunter, but on the off chance that you’re not, I thought I’d share with you a few things that could keep you from finding YOUR next gig.
THE EMAIL BLAST
Thanks for the hugely impersonal email that doesn’t even start with my name in it and also compromises my email address to everyone else you know because you don’t know the difference between cc’ing and bcc’ing the entire Realityverse. I was wondering how you were, as I haven’t heard from you in a couple of years, and at least now I know that you are looking for work. I might have had you on my mind last week while I was helping a buddy staff her show if you’d been doing your contact maintenance and dropped me a congrats on Hollywood Game Night or the last season of Basketball Wives just as I did for you for your last shows, giving you a quick shout-out on facebook and linking to your new season tease. I might have thought, “You know who’s really been thoughtful and encouraging? You. Maybe I should bring your name up.”
People you only hear from when they’re on the hunt or need something are usually a real drag.
PLAY THE DESPERATION CARD
I see in your email blast that you are “desperate” to find something. Including this word in your email is the professional equivalent of sending someone a picture of a dog that is about to be put down if “someone” doesn’t step up and adopt it. Not only do I feel like I’m letting you down, I’m feeling like maybe there’s some weird thing going on with you that’s been keeping you from finding something. Like maybe you’ve developed a penchant for showing up to work drunk forty five minutes late while wearing a lampshade and word has gotten around to everyone but me. I understand the concept of being desperate to find a new gig, but telegraphing it in a query is a mistake. It also tells me that I can take advantage of you and lowball on the rate offered, because, well, you’re desperate!
MAKE DEMANDS IN THE INITIAL QUERY
Let’s go to the other side of the spectrum. You’re not desperate. You’re confident and firm as a rock on what you’ll consider. Your email says “Supervising Story Producer or above, must pay at least $2500/wk.”
Now, look… I have a rate. I don’t like to work for less than that rate. I also have a certain title that I’d prefer to have. But I never open with demands as that’s something I discuss once I’ve got the potential employer on the phone.
You need to make what you need to make. I get it. And sure, I’ll turn down stuff if the rate is insulting or if the title’s too cruddy for the amount of work/responsibility, but right now you’re unemployed and should be taking the meetings, considering offers as they’re made, not just telling me flat-out that you’d rather sit at home than take anything less than you usually do. What if the salary cap I’ve been given to work with is $2400/wk? I might call, but I’d be less inclined to if you “must” make $2500.
Does it matter to you THAT much if I can get you your rate but not the title? Plus, if I have $2750 a week in my budget to bring you on and you say “must pay at least $2500 a week,” you just saved me $250.
DON’T BOTHER TO LEARN ANYTHING ABOUT THE PERSON/COMPANY
So someone you email blasted couldn’t find you a gig but passed your resume on to someone else. And you managed to get an interview for the job. Nothing impresses like not giving enough of a damn to Google your potential employer in order to sound like someone who’s paying attention to the industry.
There’s an old business adage that says that people love to hear the sound of their own name. Imagine how different meeting someone would be if you could walk in and say, “Pleased to meet you. I watched a few episodes of your show online last night, and it looks like a lot of fun.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE / IMPROBABLE SALARY
So the meeting goes well and it’s time to talk about an offer. What’s your rate?
If you give out an inflated quote, it’s not only going to put you at the bottom to the list of similarly qualified people, it’s also going to brand you a liar if the line producer calls your last employer and finds out you were making $500 a week less than you said you were in the interview. Yes, this happens all the time, and yes, it’s legal for a potential employer to call a previous one about your salary history.
A side note on salary: I once took a short job at just over half my rate and with a lesser title during a brief period in which I really needed to keep the money coming in, and not only did I survive, but the show was an enormous hit, the producers felt like I was doing them a favor, and the whole thing kicked a few more doors open for me.
Even the worst conversations with a potential employer, the kind who offers well below industry standard or have reputations for high turnover, should end with a graceful “Sorry we couldn’t work it out. Keep me in mind down the road if you have anything we might be able to work together on, though.” A bad offer is no reason to burn the house down, and that person you just spoke to on the phone about the position might be a week away from deciding to move on to another company. Don’t get haughty or show how insulted you are by an unacceptable offer, as it serves nothing but your ego and no one learns from it. Be gracious and hope they’ll think of you when they’re doing something with a real budget later.
Before we get started, let me share that I’m well aware that your job is not easy. You’re only as good as your last hit in the execuverse, and there’s a load of pressure on you to deliver the goods. I feel you. I understand. This isn’t one of those “smartass producer bashes the network execs” kind of things, because man oh man, do I get what you’re up against. Plus, I’ve worked with some pretty damn sharp execs in my day.
But you other folks…some of you don’t know what the f*ck you’re doing.
Many among you are brilliant and magical and when you exercise your authority or make a suggestion, and I marvel at how you so often provide insight, perspective, and practical solutions. Long may you reign, you lovers of the medium who know what works and what doesn’t and what makes it go. But for every one of you, there’s two young sprites fresh from the desks who run roughshod over experienced producers, spouting demands like “This show has to be a hit, you guys” and meaningless non-directions like “This needs to be better.” If the head of your network knew how far over budget you’re gonna put your project with your lack of understanding, you could be cruising for a professional bruising.
As we often said on Basketball Wives: “Get it together, boo.”
“BUT I’M SUPPOSED TO BE OVERSEEING THE SHOW FOR THE NETWORK.”
Here’s the first problem. Yes, you are overseeing the show for the network, but there’s no way in Hell you can do it all by yourself. This is what you have a production company stacked to the gills with professionals for. You’ve got to delegate some decision-making and let people do what they get paid for.
On the reality shows I’ve done where I’m running story on the post end, all but a serious minority tend to deliver on time. The process is efficient ONLY because I trust my story producers to review materials, propose outlines, work with editors to prepare assemblies of episodes for my review/refinement, and once those shows are in proper shape, I give the senior editor a couple of days to doll it up before I set foot in his or her bay. In delegating, I’ve freed myself up to oversee the larger picture of the season, my people feel like they have enough freedom to deliver their best work on a set deadline, and everything works out just fine.
When you want to sign off on everything and the kitchen sink, you’re holding us up and telegraphing that you don’t trust us. You, the person who has meetings and company responsibilities and always seem to be needing that extra two or three days or a week to respond to cuts and emails, are eroding the time we had allocated to making your show… and it’s costing the production company (and, eventually, your company) money. Big money.
If the show’s well cast and the staffing is killer-diller in the field and post, take a deep breath once you’ve approved an outline or script and let the team do what they need to do.
That said, feel free to continue to come “supervise” for a few days when we shoot in New York, Cancun, Paris or other exotic locations. We don’t even mind when you show up in the middle of a scene carrying your shopping bags as long as you’re quiet.
Rule Number Two: Know What You Want Early, Communicate It, Be Decisive
“I’ll know when I see it” isn’t leadership, and creating a situation where post has to deliver something that’s completely polished before you can deliver your advice is a waste of time and money alike.
I’ve worked on shows where the production company had to deliver something that was practically ready for air as a rough cut because they didn’t think a certain exec could handle seeing something that wasn’t almost in finished form. Now, this is sometimes an issue with the executive producer on the production company end of the equation, who’s looking to dazzle and keep you excited about the project. But whether you required it or not, it means spending days or weeks refining something that may be headed in the wrong direction completely. Staying until midnight trying to knock out graphics on a rough cut and still meet a deadline that was never meant for this siphons away time we could be spending giving you a more generally refined edit instead of going bananas with the complete bells and whistles.
THIS is why you need to develop the skills to watch something at the rough cut stage and give as much information as you can about your expectations to the production companies executing your shows for you. Sometimes it helps to draw a parallel to another show and say, “We’d like it to feel like Dance Moms” or “Shoot for the kind of pacing they had on Bethenny Getting Married.” It gives us a launch point.
Rule Number Three: Understand the Implications of Your Notes, and How to Give Good Ones
There is a practice in place at some networks where younger execs and assistants are delegated the task of giving the first round of notes on a rough cut, with each cut moving up the chain to the point where an SVP or sometimes higher will give the notes on the later, final episodes. I’ve always felt, personally, that this is the inverse of how things should be done. Many is the day that the folks in post production are stunned to discover that the higher-ups are completely dissatisfied with content that has been carefully crafted and reshaped by those who represent them and their interests, resulting in massive retoolings of product and cost overages for both network and production company alike.
It’s not your fault. Television is a subjective medium, and you’re doing what you can to help steer something toward what you think your boss will eventually like and approve.
One of the most important things to understand during the process is that everything you request will take some time to address. The post-production schedule has a certain number of days to turn around what you’ve asked for, and different types of changes can take seconds, hours, days or weeks to address. Feel free to ask for what you feel you need to, but understand that certain types of notes take a while, and that sometimes you can get the same result with tweezers that you can get with a sledgehammer.
For example, let’s say you’re not a big fan of a certain scene between a couple of leads on your show. It takes too long to get the information across, and while you feel that it’s a little bit low energy, you admit that the information delivered in the scene is important to setting up a later story point. Let’s also imagine that the show has wrapped in the field at this point, just to make it interesting.
You could either request a pickup scene (which would require assembling a full crew to go shoot for a single day) or simply request that the scene be shortened through the use of an interview pickup or two, which could be accomplished during any planned pickup interviews you plan to do for the later episodes still in post (at virtually no extra cost, because these are already planned). That little switch alone saves thousands of dollars.
As for knowing what to cover when you’re doing notes passes, here are some checklists you can use when giving notes on Build/Renovation shows and Docusoaps. Just find the type of show you’re working on and these will provide a good starting point for thoughtful notes.
- Does the episode follow the established format?
- Is the project clearly established in the beginning?
- Do we get the impression that the task to be established is substantial enough to be worthy of our awe on completion?
- Do we understand the obstacles to the completion of the task?
- (Most) Do we understand the motivation for taking this project on?
- (Most) Are there points in the project where some sort of difficulty must be overcome to proceed? Do these bridge the act breaks?
- Are the procedures executed over the process of the build adequately explained so that viewers know what is happening?
- Is all technical lingo broken down into layman’s terms either in-scene or in interview/VO?
- Are there any gaps in the progression of the project that will leave viewers concerned that something happened without them seeing it? (Is there time lapse or VO that might help to explain? “Last night, Terry and the gang stayed late and put up the drywall so we’d be further along this morning” is enough to get us past the shock of returning to see something that wasn’t done at the end of the last day’s work, for example).
- Do I believe that the quality of storytelling in this episode is up to par with what our viewers and my superiors will expect?
- Do I think this episode approximates what the network and production company agreed the show should be both tonally and visually? Can this be balanced against the realities of the production given complications we are mutually aware of?
- Does the content of this episode align with what was set up in previous episodes?
- Will the content of this episode make sense within the overall arc of the season and series?
- Do all regular cast members (especially viewer favorites, if show is established) appear in the episode? If not, does it matter to me?
- Does this episode have, at a minimum, a clear A and B storyline?
- Is there a sense of the logical progression of time and a build in the intensity of the action within these storylines?
- Does each scene feel as if it is about one thing, two at most? Exception: scenes in first and final episodes of a series/season where multiple characters are introduced or have their storylines resolved, as with a final dinner.
- Do I believe we are getting value from interview bites or are they merely telling us what we’ve already seen? Also, do they interrupt the flow of the scenework? Would more interview content help to break up and compact scenework that feels long or dull?
- Does the scenework feel compact/taut and deliver new information in every scene? In other words, do scenes within A and B storylines restate themselves without adding any new developments, complications or resolutions?
- Do the ends of each act compel the viewer to return? Does the final act set us up for something in the next episode?
- Do any orphaned (single and not part of the A, B, C story) scenes distract from or contradict the telling of the A, B, C stories?
- Do any/all orphaned scenes have value (being funny or interesting)
- Is the quality of the edit satisfactory? Are there any disturbing cuts, audio issues or other technical goofs I should ask about?
- Is this cut of a reasonable length compared to the final product? My rule of thumb: A first rough cut should not exceed ten to fifteen percent of the target run time of the show.
- Are there places where graphics or effects distract from the story? Are there places where a lower third or subtitles would be helpful? My rule of thumb: If you understand the dialogue, chances are the audience will, too. Subtitling people just because they speak with mild accents or certain dialects can be construed as offensive within certain communities. Heavy accents / confusing dialect / poor audio are the only reasons to subtitle spoken content.
- Is there any content that I feel should be run by legal before progressing to the next cut? If so, could the stories told in the episode survive extraction of that material? Is the inclusion of this material something I feel that I should discuss with legal/my superiors early on, rather than waiting until later in the process?
- Is there any content that has historically been an issue to my superiors or to a sponsor affiliated with the program? Is the inclusion of this material something I feel that I should discuss with my superiors early on, rather than waiting until later in the process?
In closing, I have only one other thing to add with reference to your notes: Be kind. Tell us what you like, if anything, in the cut. Positive feedback also helps us to discover what makes you happy, too.
There’s a danger to being abrasive or derisive in your notes, and there are a handful of execs that do fit into that category. When your attitude is too blunt, accusatory or demeaning — as in, notes that read “Who the f*ck cut this?” or “Really?” — you’re taking the wind out of the sails of the people who are working ten, twelve hours a day, sometimes six or seven days a week, to deliver what you want. If you can say it with a little sugar, we’d all appreciate it.
That’s all! Good luck to you new folks on your rise and rise!
I don’t do a tremendous amount of consulting, mostly owing to my work schedule, but I’ve finally added a consulting/services tab in case you’re curious about working with me to help develop your concepts out, having me speak to your college or university, or bringing me in to give your team an overview of the process from the production end.
As for that last bit, I’ve had a blast speaking inside the industry to groups — like the entire intern staff at Dick Clark Productions, for example. I hope to have the chance to do more of that this year at both networks and production companies.
One of my major goals for 2014, in fact, is to help bridge the gap between freshly-minted network-side execs and the production companies they interact with. It doesn’t have to be adversarial, and many issues and overages could be avoided by explaining process to people who haven’t ever worked on the production side. Save time, save money, and get the shows done the way you want ‘em by knowing how to better speak the language of production, I say.
Writer/Director James Gunn recently posted on Facebook that one of his goals as a younger man was to one day write a graphic novel. This got me thinking about my early (and now, unfortunately, past) obsession with a career in sequential art.
As a teenager and wanna-be comics writer/artist, I was lucky enough to correspond with many of my heroes, mighty most among them the legendary Will Eisner, with whom I kept up a correspondence for years.
Eventually, I went off to art school, where one of my instructors informed me at the top of my second year that cartooning really wasn’t an art form. There were only a few art instructors at the school and as much as I liked the others, I felt dumb and incapable around the guy, so I left. Shortly after that, I fell into writing (thanks to a fluke opportunity to write TV commercials celebrating Woody Woodpecker’s 50th Anniversary) and got set on the path I’m still on today.
I did put out a comic book called IKE AND KITZI in 1991. It was, to put it kindly, so-so. I’m convinced that the only sales it got were due to the Weird Al Yankovic intro that Al drafted for me while dating a friend of mine. 1950′s teenagers stumble on a record company plot to kill off a million-selling artist in order to make him a legend. Not great.
By 1995, I was chugging through film school at Full Sail University and had long forgotten comics. I’d started performing spoken-word material at Yab Yum, a coffeehouse down the road nearer to the University of Central Florida. I became fascinated by a rather glum poet by the name of Sandra Monday and the whole cast of characters that came there every week to artfully vent their spleens about the cruelties of life. My stuff, however, was always upbeat, which seemed to irritate the performers who were mostly rather serious. The whole experiment went south during a performance where my pal John Pett performed psychic surgery on me during a set, extracting two pounds of raw liver from a ziploc bag I’d had taped to my back for nearly an hour, extracting the plastic Smurf figurine contained therein that was making me so cheerful and unable to write poetry about the horrors of life.
Oh, well. Screw ‘em if they can’t take a joke, right?
That very same night, I went back to my apartment and created Jinx Oople… after a shower and proper disposal of my liver-scented sportcoat.
I went back to Yab Yum after the holiday break (at least the owner thought I was funny) and left a few hundred photocopied free issues of the first story for patrons among the free papers and flyers. Friends dropped other free copies around town… about 1500 in all, as I recall. The back of the 8-page booklet invited readers to yank the staple and reprint at will to distribute to friends. I hadn’t made any money off of comics, and just wanted to put something out that would be fun to share. The rules: Don’t change the art, don’t charge for the reprints.
That was in 1996.
Since then, I’ve heard from people all over the world who’ve had the chance to read Jinx Oople: Psychic Performance Artist, and the hastily-drawn little 8 page story has been reprinted countless times. I’ll do little stories now and again when I have a moment, then copy a bunch and just leave them around Los Angeles. A special 2-page story I did to honor my pal Rachel Kann helped redefine Jinx’s look and alter her bubble hairdo from the earlier comics and earned me a lifetime pal in the wonderful Katy Lim, who asked me about the book while working development for The Donners Company.
Never made a nickel off of Jinx Oople, but she’s still one of my favorite things I’ve ever created. I’ve tried writing a graphic novel for her, but to be real, I’ll never have the time to execute it.
I hadn’t looked at the books in a while, but came across the origin story today in a 2001 reprint and thought I’d share it here, just for the heck of it. Shot with my cellphone, so forgive the quality.
For comparison, check out Jinx’s evolution between 1995 and 2001 in the Rachel story…
If you are an assistant or anyone early on in a career at the network/agency level who feels that they would benefit from understanding more about the process of reality television production and post, drop me a line. Thinking about putting together an event mid/late January (free) for you folks on a Saturday. This is ONLY for people currently working in the industry in entry level positions.
I posted this on Facebook earlier this morning, and am reposting here with a few revisions.
Someone I know posted an entry on Facebook this morning along the lines of “Every time you watch a reality TV show, a book dies.”
Ironically, I died. Not completely, but just that little bit more inside.
Where other people have photos of their wives, husbands, and kids at home, I have framed title screen captures from every show I’ve ever worked on, show memorabilia and a wall of promotional content from Dancing With the Stars, Basketball Wives and Flipping Out, the latter of which still feels like some of the best work I’ve ever done. My bathroom sports photos of everyone from Ted Mack to the cast of Basketball Wives LA, and there’s a signed photo of Allen Funt staring back at me from my desk right now.
Buddha, Ozzy, and Andy Cohen greet visitors in my foyer. The Andy Cohen plate once resided in the office of a favorite former boss, Nick Emmerson.
I collect vintage television remotes and drive a car with tags that read 02BINTV. My hobby is writing and lecturing internationally on making reality shows and I answer maybe two dozen emails a week from would-be creators, producers and reality pros just looking for a word or two of advice. I took a year of my life to write a book about the storytelling craft in reality television after wondering why I couldn’t find any out there that didn’t focus solely on selling original shows.
Fits in your carry-on and is just the right size for shoring up wobbly coffee tables or starting a career
I’ve coined terms that are finding purchase all over the industry, like “Cheerio Theory,” which explains the reality producing conundrum where better content tends to drift to the front and back of a docuseries season, making the middle of the run harder to execute because we’re blowing the whole story wad on the first three episodes and the finale. I’ve thrown myself into more arguments about poor role models in reality TV than I can count, and back myself up with the words of some of the most respected media pros in the industry. I quote reality’s harshest critics as I think we have more in common than we’re at odds — heck, it seems like Jennifer Pozner (feminist media critic and author of the very good “Reality Bites Back”) and I are in touch multiple times every week.
DWTS poster signed by the entire season two crew, part of my remote collection, lecturing in Tel Aviv with guest TV formats wizard, Avi Armoza.
I’ve always loved television, and I love reality television especially because it’s like a puny, tenacious kid. It hasn’t grown up as fast as its brothers and sisters, so it’s generally loud and tries to call a lot of attention to itself with cheap stunts. It wants to be respected, but it just can’t help making the cheap plays for attention, even though it’s easier to appreciate when it’s quiet and thoughtful.
I know I take reality TV bashing a little too hard sometimes. Sure, most of it’s junk. Most of everything is junk. Junk with little jewels deep in the pile somewhere that you really have to seek out.
I’m not implying that it’s gonna be me, but I don’t think reality television has yet had its Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, or Walt Disney the way other kinds of TV and movies have. There is a difference between being successful and being a pioneer of something, an innovator. 51 Minds has had quite a run with their celebrity reality shows and talent for spinning their old shows off into new ones. Thom Beers built a hell of a brand at Original. Bourdain’s shows with Zero Point Zero are masterful and some of the only examples I can readily state of a final product that approximates a real vision centered around a single creator.
There are miles to go in reality television, and I’m really looking forward to what comes… and no books will be harmed. I’m of the mind that nothing will ever beat a really good book, but that reality TV can bring you escape, glimpses into worlds outside of your own, and inspire in much the same way that the best books, movies and other types of entertainment can — and in some ways, even more effectively.
We just all have to agree that it’s time to take risks again, move forward, and continue the evolution of reality television beyond the conversation about platforms and the novelty of other forms of delivery. Story wants to grow up.
‘Tis the season to fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.
And what pictures we’ve had this year, all brought to life through the painstaking and time-consuming process of crafting an often instantly forgettable product. We don’t all labor on hits… many of us trade our lives for the chance to work on the kind of shows America loves to enjoy in the background while they vacuum the rug or cook dinner.
Our cats and children may barely know us thanks to late nights in edit bays and offices, our neighbors not remember our faces owing to months-long out-of-town gigs or the fact that 90 percent of our waking hours at home are spent sleeping, rushing to do laundry, or packing and unpacking suitcases.
Still, for all that craziness — would we want to do anything else?
The real gifts, I find, are the friendships we’ve made in meetings, the field, and sitting in the dark trying to figure out how we’re going to address a note about lip flap when we only had one camera in the field. We treasure the bonds formed during the high points of working on a hit, the death throes of a project that should never have been greenlit, the rush to turn an hour-long show into a two-hour show, the sudden decision to whittle that two hour show down into a series of half hours, and the eventual pre-airing cancellation of something that’s eaten precious months of our lives at the expense of our spouses’ and children’s birthdays. The dull chest-ache of too many eight, six, even four hour turnarounds is just the bow on the box. It’s the friendships that matter and make it all so weirdly worthwhile.
As we enter 2014, please know how much I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with or for you, and that I feel — as you probably do — that there’s a lot more fun to be had out there together. I wish you all the best for a safe, happy, and productive new year.