For newbie and emerging writers, there are words and phrases you may hear but don't know exactly what they mean. "Development" is one of those words. Maybe you've heard of "development hell" or heard a writer saying, they're "in development". But it's one of those words you've heard about and maybe always wondered what it really means.
So I sat down with one of my really good friends who not only worked in development at one of Hollywood's biggest studios but now is a TV producer/development person for one of Hollywood's biggest TV writers. The writers she works with are A-list writers. They're Academy Award-winning and Emmy-winning writers. So these are goals for all of us writers to aspire to but definitely heads and shoulders above us preWGA writers. So I knew she would be the perfect person to explain exactly what you as a writer, need to know about development and how to do well when you get to work with your first development person.
How she got into development:
She worked for many years for FOX in the research department. Through that job she had access to the creative side and organically started going to table reads and giving feedback on scripts and meeting creators and because she was kind of doing a small portion of development through that she got moved into development. This is not the typical path to development. Usually, they start as an assistant at a talent agency and move up the ranks to get a job at a studio or network or platform.
What her job does in development:
Her job is to put together packages and work with writers and take it out and sell it. Putting together the package, when working at a studio, you have overall deals with writers or pods. As a studio executive, you cover those pods. Part of the job is to help those writers or pods, take their own ideas and execute them or help those writers find ideas. There are also independent writers or pitches that come your way. You could find writers you like that you want to take out. You could also find IPs; you see a book you really love or an article and you option that and then find a writer after. Basically, you're part of the process and put all the moving pieces together. Sometimes that means finding attachments, whether it be a director, or a talent attachment and you work on a pitch with the parties involved. Then you take it out to the marketplace, which could be cable, broadcast, streaming, and you try and sell it.
Once it's sold, then what?
Once a project is sold, you work on the development process through all the materials, from story doc, to outline, to draft, and if successful, it gets picked up to series and then you stay on the project and help produce it. Some departments are different though and handle that differently. When she was at 20th, they had a current department. So once you did a few episodes, you hand it off to the current department. So she handled new projects only.
What does it mean to have an overall deal?
That means the company has paid for exclusive services. It's usually a TV deal. It can be a first look versus an exclusive deal. If you're a writer, and you have a deal with a company, it means you can only produce shows for that company. The deal is usually for a couple years. There is the expectation you will deliver and make numerous shows. It's usually people that have a certain level of success. And they want that exclusive right to their work.
What's expected from these big writers?
Depending on the level of success and how big their pods, if it's a prolific writer, if it's a Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy, or someone that has a large deal, the expectation is bigger. If you're doing a writer-only deal, if they have a show on the air, their bandwidth might not be that great. Maybe they are concentrating on the show that they have. It can vary. People would like to do as many projects as they can handle. There's always the urge to hustle. But you do want quality over quantity if you want to go the distance.
What it's like being a pod executive?
She works for one writer now who has a deal with one studio. She's a producer now and works with the development person over at the studio. That means she's on the creative side whereas before she wasn't. She now works closely with the studio executives. So she's finding IP, finding writers, finding ideas; and sometimes writers will come to her with pitches.
How do ideas get to her in development?
Sometimes someone will bring a spec script someone is taking out and she can say yes we love it, we want to develop it. If that's the case, then she's giving notes on it and developing it to the level she wants to see this project. Or maybe the writer thinks her team will be additive to the project., maybe an area of expertise. Sometimes IP will come without the writer. Maybe they found the book on their own, or agents are taking it around town, or other producers are taking it around, or the studio has found it or the networks have. It could be a podcast, a book, an article, those are all IPs. So someone would then bring it to her or anyone in development and ask, is this something you like? If they like it, then they option it, then they look for a writer after. This is what is called the Open Writing Assignments you've probably heard of, or also known as OWAs.
What are OWAs?
An OWA is a piece of IP that they've optioned through the studio. Or it could be a self-generated idea that they're trying to find a writer for. Then the producers take meetings with writers they want to be in business with. Then as a producer/development person, they can say to that writer, "these are the OWA we have, and are any of them appealing to you?" Many times they work with a writer they already have worked with or know their material. The initial conversation with the writer about an OWA is, "are you interested in this project, let's talk about it," and then eventually the writers come up with ideas. As a producer they work on it together with the writer, and help craft the pitch. Eventually they take the pitch to the studio, where they're based, and they decide if they want to continue with it. The writer does NOT write the script until the idea is sold to a buyer. Once it sells, then it goes into the writing stage.
If the studio likes the pitch
The studio will decide, do we like this idea and do we want to proceed? If they do like it and want to proceed, then they give additional notes on the idea. They will help craft the pitch the way they like it. Then the producers take the idea/pitch to a bunch of buyers, and of course hopefully sell it. Once it gets sold, then they go through the traditional writing steps.
How is a TV producer different from being in development?
It's almost the same. The difference is as a producer she's more in the trenches with the writer, than she was as a studio executive. As the producer, she's with the writer, every step of the way. She's seen every draft numerous times, maybe 30 drafts, but at the network maybe she saw 1 draft. Also in production, she will be more involved on set, more involved with those decisions. In development it would be to a lesser extent.
What is her goal as a producer when she gives notes?
Just to be additive. To be an extra set of eyes. An extra opinion, to help guide it through the process, especially to be a mediator between the writer and the studio partners, the network partners, to help cut through it if there's a debate about what needs to be done, or how it needs to be done. To try and be as helpful as possible, to be the advocate for the writer, to try to fight the fight when there needs to be one, to also help massage things when it's the right note that needs to happen to help it go the distance. She believes for notes, it's really subjective, that it's just an opinion. Even when she worked in research and did focus groups, she never felt feedback had to happen, like it was a mandate, like this was the right way. She doesn't feel that way as a producer still. When she reads a script, she looks to see if something is confusing for her, or is there a part that will make it land in a more emotional way, or they keep hearing what's important to the buyer, then maybe that's where they should lean in, because that might be the deciding factor on it getting picked up. She just wants to be part of the team.
Has she seen a writer not take her note and it still work?
She has and she encourages it. She thinks if someone feels really strongly about something and are passionate, she likes having a conversation about why do you feel that way, what is the meaning for it? A lot of times when you hear that, it helps her as a producer, it helps her understand why. She believes no one is right necessarily, and if the writer feels strongly about it, they should keep it. She feels as a producer the worst thing you can ever do is to have a writer turn in something they don't feel good about, that they don't love. Because everyone wants to feel they delivered something that is representative of the story they wanted to tell. She believes part of her job is to protect the writer so that what they ultimately they see on air is something they feel good about. She hopes that going through the process, even with changes, will make the final script stronger.
What mistakes in writers do you see?
Sometimes taking every note and being too much of a people pleaser isn't necessarily the right way to go, because you have to feel you're writing your vision. But on the flip side you don't want to be so rigid you're not taking any notes, because the buyer knows what they're looking for, what their needs are, what gaps are in their schedule. She's seen both of these. But it could be a writer's style and maybe the next thing this writer does, will hit the mark. Does she believe it's good to be somewhere in the middle of these? Yes. She does believe a compromise of some sorts is always the best way. A little bit of flexibility never hurts. When it comes to making TV, there are lots of cooks in the kitchen and lots of people to please. So being able to roll with the punches is an important skill set, but also it's a balance to sticking to your guns.
What is something writers do well?
She believes it's just being really passionate about what you want to write, about having a strong point of view. (How many times have we heard this, writers?) It's important to have strong relationships with the teams surrounding you. When your team loves your project and they want it to go all the way, that's the best possible situation to get in.