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To Staff or Not to Staff

WGAW member Terri Kopp on staffing first vs. selling first.

Photo by J.W. Hendricks

Should an early career TV writer skip staffing to try to sell their own show? WGAW member Terri Kopp (The Chi, In Contempt) has an answer.

Question: “As an aspiring TV writer, should I skip over staffing and go straight to selling my own show?”

Terri Kopp: If you want to have your own show on TV, my opinion is that you should try to staff before selling a show.

First of all, being on the staff of a TV show is literally the training ground for writing TV. It’s rare to find an exceptional pilot that was written by someone who hasn’t been in the writers’ room for a few years. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I knew how to write, but I had no idea what I didn’t know. On staff you learn how to break stories and how to write good scenes. You’re exposed over and over again to scripts being rewritten so you can see how they improve. You learn how to produce. You learn how to get and give notes. You learn how to break character arcs over the course of a season. If you work for a good showrunner, you learn how to run a room well. If you work for a bad one, you learn how not to.

Can you sell a show without staffing, and without being an already successful feature writer? Maybe. But it’s rare.

Also, being on staff is really, really fun.

Can you sell a show without staffing, and without being an already successful feature writer? Maybe. But it’s rare. Staffing gives you the credibility and connections to get in the room where the sale happens—or to get your spec pilot read in the first place. And even if you have the jaw-dropping, once-in-a-lifetime experience of selling a spec pilot without having been on staff, you are not going to be allowed to run it. You’re going to be assigned a showrunner who will run it, technically with you, but in reality for you. It will not be your creative vision on the screen. You will NOT be in charge. Why? Because the studio will have no reason to believe that you can actually do the job. Because showrunning includes managing a crew of 150+ people and a budget of $3-5 million an episode. They are not going to hand you that much money and tell you to have fun spending it. Because if you have not been in a writers' room for years, you will fuck it up. Trust me on that. You will not know how a TV show is made. And how it is not made.

If your [representative] is telling you that it is harder to staff than it is to sell a spec, I think that’s a sign that you have a bad [rep]. Yes, it’s hard to staff. But it’s incredibly hard for an established, experienced TV writer to sell a show and get it made. For a novice, it’s that much harder. If your [rep] is telling you not to staff, that you should put your head down and write specs to sell, they are doing you a disservice. They are not playing long ball and setting you up to succeed. They are looking for a quick buck.

…I’m not saying it can’t be done without staffing. I’m just discouraging taking the shortcut if you can avoid doing that. Staffing will pay off. Big time. Trust me.

Send us your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously. WGAW mentors provide informal career advice and are not expected to read scripts, give notes, hear pitches, or help find representation or work.

(This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2020 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)

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