TV WRITING ON DEMAND: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era.

How to be a Screenwriter

by Olivia Brennan.

With screenwriting giants Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes both recently signing mega deals with Netflix, it seems the traditional way of breaking into television and film is rapidly evolving with the opportunities from streaming and digital platforms now available.

Olivia Brennan recently had the opportunity to speak with Neil Landau who has served as a story consultant for some of the most recognised films studios including; Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Universal as well as working on films such as Jurassic Park and Stir of Echoes.

Olivia: Traditional TV has seen a drastic change in the way an audience can consume a vast variety of shows with streaming platforms such as Netflix.  Considering the more diverse genres and projects that are available to audiences now, what advice do you have for writers looking to write the next standout hit show?

Neil:  My advice is for them to lean in to what resonates for them personally.  Look within, not without. Write the pilot that only you could write.  Write something that showcases your unique voice.  Don’t emulate.  Be daring and fresh!  As showrunner Ryan Murphy posits “The more specific you make something, the more universal it becomes.”  No need to endeavor to write something that appeals to everyone. Find your authentic voice and write something that a loyal audience will gravitate to for the long haul.  Empathy is the key to building an audience, and that connection only happens via dynamic characters that are relatable and flawed.  Mine the emotional voids, we all have them.

Olivia: Would you agree that there are now more opportunities for emerging writers with streaming platforms, and what tips would you give to writers to utilise these opportunities?

Neil: With over 500 scripted shows, there has never been a better time to be a content creator; yet, conversely, there’s also never been a more competitive marketplace, as even established filmmakers are now working in TV.  Making an inexpensive web series pilot as Proof of Concept is a tried and true way to showcase your skills.  See Issa Rae’s Awkward Black GirlHigh MaintenanceBroad City; EastSiders. So many examples of how writers found ways to direct and/or produce their own material to prove they’re nascent showrunners.  The Duplass Brothers are strong role models.  Look at what they’ve achieved on Room 104 on HBO.  It’s impressive.  The Duffer Brothers were granted the right to direct their own pilot via a short film. Earn these privileges not through arrogance or shortcuts, but via hard work.

Olivia:  What would you consider the most obvious differences in formatting when writing for streaming platforms such as Netflix, for example; the audience no longer must sit through adverts or stick with an episode if it’s no longer interesting them?

Neil:  A serialized, contiguous storyline requires both a strong central question about What’s Going to Happen Next by the end of the season and a strong central mystery about something that happened in the past that is unresolved and demands resolution.  Audiences are always more compelled by what they don’t know than by what they already know, so embrace the mysteries and questions; judiciously spread them out along the journey.  Every great story needs “Narrative Drive” and the destination is always the truth.

Olivia: What advice can you give writers when considering the benefits and challenges they face in the current digital/streaming era?

Neil:  Just keep writing and generating fresh material to complement your body of work.  Try different genres with your own voice intact.  Be mindful of the marketplace, but then tune it out and write what you’re most passionate about — period.  Personal passion sells when it’s exceptionally well executed.  Good ideas are valuable, but overrated if they’re not well rendered.

Olivia: From your own experiences, can you share any opportunities or experiences that have enhanced and benefitted your writing, and were otherwise only available through digital/streaming platforms?

Neil:  I can foresee one of my feature-length screenplays being made by Netflix or Amazon in the future; it’s a low budget, dark dramedy about estranged brothers seeking revenge against their abusive stepfather.  It’s the kind of movie that, with the right director and casting, might have had a real shot at a major studio back in the 1970s-90s.  Not anymore.  Manchester by the Sea would have had a tough time getting a major studio to offer it as a theatrical release.  Amazon to the rescue.  I’m also working on a half-hour dramedy pilot this summer that could only play on Netflix, or maybe HBO/Showtime. To me, niche is the new mainstream, and I tend to be more attracted to niche stories vs. superheroes and special effects.  I miss the days of Ordinary PeopleDog Day AfternoonThe VerdictKlute.  The major studios are now in the tent pole blockbuster business.  So, streaming is filling that void by making movies!

Olivia:  What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve been given, and would you mind sharing with us?

Neil:  “Keep giving them you until you are what they want” is a gem, which I think is attributed to Dennis Palumbo, but my favorite comes courtesy of my late, great writing mentor, the novelist Carolyn See:  “A writer’s job is to tell the truth.” And lastly from Ann Donahue, Emmy Award-winning co-creator/former showrunner of the CSI franchise: “Work smarter, not harder.”

Neil Landau is an American screenwriter, author and producer. Neil is Assistant Dean, Dean’s Special Programs at the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television where he runs the MFA program in Writing for Television. His latest book, TV WRITING ON DEMAND: Creating Great Content in the Digital Era is available on Amazon and you can follow Neil on Twitter – @neilland

Olivia Brennan is a 28-year-old screenwriter & blogger. You can find more of her articles covering industry interviews, writing craft & filmmaking tips over at her blog Into The Script, and you can follow Liv on Twitter – @LivSFB