I had the privilege of attending the Toronto Screening Conference on April 30, with a chance to learn about the television writing process from the likes of Wynonna Earp showrunner Emily Andras and the Emmy-winning writer of Breaking Bad and creator of Flesh and Bone, Moira Walley-Beckett.
As a TV lover and critic, getting to see writers learn from their peers felt akin to sneaking into the chocolate factory to see your favourite treats being made. There was a level of understanding and camaraderie between the speakers and the attendees that truly made it a safe space for up and coming writers to ask the questions that needed to be asked in order to strengthen their craft.
At the end of the day, it was also an opportunity to learn about the what it’s like to be a television writer in 2016 and to get a little insight about the current shape of the TV landscape. Here are three big lessons I was able to take away from the conference.
It’s okay to make mistakes
The single message that rang loud and clear through each session I attended was that there’s no harm in pitching a bad idea. Especially in the case of junior writers, it’s far worse to sit back and say nothing at all while waiting for a single golden idea to strike than it is to pitch more than one rejected storyline.
In her Writing Room Intensive panel, Andras spoke directly about the importance of creating a safe space in a writers’ room. For a screenwriter, breaking a good script shouldn’t be a competition, it should be a collaboration. However, in that same vein, writers can’t be afraid to kill their darlings. If an idea isn’t working, no matter how attached you are, you have to let it go.
Creating a pilot is hard to do
One easily identified through line of all the sessions I had the opportunity to attend is the hard fact that breaking, writing and even filming a pilot is intense work. Every person involved in the process of getting a pilot to the screen is feeling out the characters and the series’ world for the first time. Andras herself admitted that these factors often times make a pilot the worst episode of the series.
The problem is that the pilot is what sells the show. Even if the writers, actors and directors are still feeling out the atmosphere and aesthetic of a given series, the writing has to be strong in order to sell it to a network.
The TV landscape is changing
Writing consultant Jenn Grisanti, in her session on “How to Write a TV Pilot that Sells,” explained how paramount story structure is to create a TV pilot that works because of the quality of TV scripts that have been developed in the last five years or so. In Grisanti’s session, she remarked, “I don’t think there has ever been a better time for the writer than right now.”
During the session “A Conversation with Moira Walley-Becket,” the Flesh and Bone creator explained that writers now have to bring so much more material to a network than ever before. Beyond a working pilot, network executives expect creators to have a five year plan for their series, implying that longevity is the name of the game. As TV gets better, the expectations are only getting higher.
At the end of the day, it’s not just the networks that are changing, but producers and showrunners are becoming more outspoken about necessary developments in the industry. In his session on “The Antihero on TV,” Damien creator Glen Mazzara spoke out about the need for more female writers and directors. Andras also touched on the problem with the “Bury Your Gays” trope, and the necessary conversation that’s beginning to happen about the treatment of LGBTQ characters on screen.
The Toronto Screenwriting Conference took place between April 30-May 1, 2016. For more information on the conference, visit their website.