Friday, October 23, 2020

My "big break" that wasn't

I'm about to talk about something that I imagine a lot of fellow Writers Assistants can relate to - the close calls with what should have been your "big break."

The current way of making TV has changed the way one advances quite a bit. Fewer shows do 22 episodes a year, which in the old days, would have been enough to keep one employed for almost the entire year and also meant many more opportunities for an assistant to get a script assignment.

Today, shows are getting shorter order. Those 22 slots are shrunk down to 13. Or 10. Or 8. When you couple that with the size of the staff and the fact that many upper levels come onto a show with a contractual guarantee for a certain number of scripts, those extra slots that went to assistants in the past have disappeared.

Another reality that assistants have to deal with is that in general, you advance upwards on the same show. It's rare to advance laterally by moving onto a new show. This means that if you put in enough time on Show A, you might be rewarded with an assignment in a later season. But what happens what that series is a 10-episode order for streaming? That means it's only about 4 months of work and the show won't reassemble the writers room until as much as a year later, IF it gets picked up. Odds are, that assistant is going to have to jump onto a different show, and then another show. It how you get stuck at the same level.

This is why I beg you that if you run across a writers' assistant who's been at this for 7, 8, 9 years, DON'T ask them, "So why haven't you gotten a script/been staffed yet?" with the implication that if they were any good, it would have happened.

There was a moment where I was convinced I'd gotten a winning lotto ticket. Jeff Lieber hired me as the Writers' PA on the second season of NCIS: NEW ORLEANS and one of the first things I learned was that Jeff wants all the support staff to get writing credits. This was something I could verify by looking at the credits on his prior shows. Jeff's episodes would always be co-written with an assistant, usually with them earning co-story credit the first time around. Two assistants had gotten their chance on the first season of NOLA in season one, with one of them being advanced to Staff Writer for season two.

So as I came onto the show that season, that meant that I was third in line for a co-write with Jeff - the Script Coordinator and the Writers' Assistant were ahead of me. Looking at how the schedule shook out, it was extremely likely Jeff was going to write at least three eps in a 24-episode season and so I started on that job thinking, "Holy shit! By the end of this year, my name's going to be on an hour of television seen by millions of people."

Obviously, that didn't happen.

Jeff wrote the season premiere solo for reasons not worth getting into here. His second script was a collaboration with Katherine Beattie, our Script Coordinator. She eventually got a much overdue promotion to staff a couple seasons later. Alas, before a third episode could come up, Jeff and the show had parted ways. The new showrunner arrived after mid-season and at that point, had little interest in following through on any kind of mentorship that Jeff had established. Bye, bye episode.

And by the end of the season, bye, bye job. Here's the thing about TV, as my friend and mentor Javier Grillo-Marxuach is prone to saying, "You serve at the pleasure of the showrunner." That's the gig. It's the showrunner's prerogative to choose his own staff. When you sign on for the gig, you have to accept that. The point is that after 24 episodes of TV, I was out looking for a new job.

All I have to say about how I was let go is that it came in the form of a phone call on the first day of hiatus - after many conversations had specifically led me to believe I was going to be back the next season. This also was less than three months after I became a father.

Completely within the showrunner's prerogative to do that... but a heads-up might have been nice. A conversation a few weeks out to the effect of, "Hey, I know you just had a baby, but I'm going to be making some changes next season. I wanted to let you know so you're not blindsided" would have been a stand-up way to handle it.

I might add that if someone was an upper level writer/producer on the show and found out, say six weeks earlier that the showrunner was going to make this change, the honorable thing to do would be been to pull the WPA into your office and say, "If you repeat this, I'll kill you, but they're not bringing you back next year and they're not telling you until hiatus. After all you've done this season, I feel like you at least deserve to know."

I'm saying this because TV assistants work hard, and I think they work harder now than they used to with a much smaller chance of that script assignment coming soon. They have to change jobs more often, "play their dues" longer, and then even after they get the assignment, find it harder to be promoted to staff on these shorter-running series.

The absolute least thing that the people they're working for can do for them is to treat them honorably and be straightforward with them. They've earned that.

I should add that the showrunner reinstated the policy of assistants rewriting the following season. As far as I can tell, everyone who was on the support staff after me got a writing credit. This means I have the distinction of being the ONLY assistant on NCIS: NEW ORLEANS who never earned any kind of writing credit or script assignment.

The "big breaks" don't always turn out the way you imagine. You just gotta pick yourself up and move on to the next one.


  1. Similar situation with production crew. I used to be hired virtually all the time by a producer who sent me all over the world, so worked very hard and was always grateful.

    But then the phone stopped ringing about three years ago and it took a few months to find out why. She had found a new guy in Atlanta and, ostensibly to save money, just started hiring him over me.

    Two things about that:

    1. She had actually told me about him a few months earlier and literally said to me, "I wish he could spend the day with you on set so he can see how you do it."

    2. And she has the right to hire anyone she wants, but didn't even bother to reach out and say something like, "My budgets are being cut so I can't afford to send you, but if you agree to work as a local in Georgia, then I can continue to hire you."

    But no phone call or email or anything. Just cut off with no explanation. That was probably 75% of my business.

    It makes us, as "employees," realize how uncertain it is to rely on others for income, so I've worked hard to move out of that arena to become "my own boss" so I'm never put in this position again.