Why Writing TV is Better than Writing Feature Films (and Why it's Not)
What is better? Writing for television or features?
TV writing and writing movies are two very different journeys. The two mediums call for different:
- Career Paths
- Story Structure
- Script Format
- Writing Process
- Career Trajectories
However, we're currently in a Golden Age of Television that has been reigning for over twenty years with no end in sight.
The Beginnings of This Golden Age of Television
The quality and quantity of television content began to grow when premium channels began to offer arguably the best-written television we had seen thus far.
HBO led the way, giving us The Sopranosin 1999, a hard-edged series that was more Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas than the crime dramas found on network television — most of which were cop shows. Premium channels allowed for language, violence, and nudity not allowed on network primetime TV slots. This new freedom offered audiences a different kind of television. HBO would go on to offer shows like Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, and Game of Thrones.
AMC & FX
Other premium channels began to follow suit.
This quality also seeped into cable channels like AMC and FX, which were allowed their own freedoms that were close enough to the free reign premium shows had. They were allowed to push the envelope when it came to more adult-oriented material.
AMC offered the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the horror series The Walking Dead.
FX gave us Shield - a new kind of cop show that was allowed to push the boundaries that major networks couldn't.
While premium and cable networks grew their content base, major networks weren't left in the dust. NBC didn't need those freedoms to create ground-breaking series. Shows like The West Wing and Friday Night Lights told compelling stories in different ways than decades prior.
But the television platform was only getting started.
The Birth of a New TV Platform
Netflix's transition from DVD/Blu-Ray rental service to content creator changed the TV industry as we knew it. It proved that a streaming service could compete with the giants of network television, cable channels, and premium cable channels. The streamer's success with content led the way for the likes of Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, HBO Max, Disney Plus, and dozens more.
And this influx of content helped these streamers grow and grow — becoming less dependable of content from others. With that came more and more jobs for TV writers.
Endless Opportunities for TV Writing
We're not speaking in hyperbole about endless opportunities for TV writers.
As early as the 1980s and early 1990s, hopeful TV writers could only hope to work on major networks with limited time slots. But when the current Golden Age of Television began to blossom, more and more hours of content were needed.
- Cable and Premium Cable channels needed more shows.
- Streamers needed more shows.
- Streaming channels didn't need to adhere to time slots — they needed more and more content to sway subscribers their way.
Today is the perfect time for TV writers. The endless opportunities include:
- More writers room seats
- More opportunity to pitch original series concepts
- More room to grow and prosper as a TV writer in multiples shows and positions
The sky is truly the limit as networks, cable, premium cable, and streamers continue to grow. When limits are pushed, there is usually a bubble that bursts. But in this content-driven society, the bubble isn't bursting — it's expanding. And that is good news for anyone looking to become a TV writer.
And when you compare writing for television and writing for features, the TV writer moniker is more appealing when comparing the pros and cons.
TV Writing Pros
- Television writers live a more structured professional life when on staff, complete with office spaces they work within, weekly checks, and a team of collaborators.
- Endless opportunities and positions are available throughout networks, cable channels, premium channels, and streamers.
- The series format lends itself to more space and freedom to explore character and story arcs.
- The writers' room hierarchy allows for more career advancement from writing staff to showrunner.
- Writers can jump from one series to the next.
- The TV medium is a writers medium, where the writers run most of the content, whereas features are a director's medium where the director gets all control (and most of the credit).
- Hollywood is primarily television-driven right now, especially in these pandemic times where theatrical releases are not a concern. If you're lucky enough to become a staff writer, the pay is much different than that of a feature screenwriter. The nice aspect of the job of a television writer is that you have a more steady income coming in.
As you can see, there is no better time than now to pursue a career as a writer in the television medium. But that doesn't mean there aren't any cons.
TV Writing Cons
- As a feature screenwriter, yes, you can technically live anywhere and enjoy a screenwriting career, as long as you're willing to travel when necessary. But as a television writer, you have to be in the room. Thus, you need to live in Los Angeles — beyond any writers' rooms in New York, Chicago, or Atlanta.
- When you are hired as a staff writer for a show near the bottom of the totem pole below the showrunner, the executive producer, the producer, the story editor, and the more tenured staff writers, you step into an uber-collaborative environment. You're no longer writing on your own. You're conceptualizing, developing, outlining, breaking a story, and writing with a room full of people. It's competitive. It's intimidating. And everyone is doing whatever they can to stand out the most.
- At first, you'll take your time getting a feel for the room, scared to step on anyone's toes. Some opportunities to pitch story solutions will come as a test. But you'll need to take the initiative if you want to stay on staff.
- A staff writer is basically an employee of a company. And that company is the show. It's a full-time job. Feature writers work on a script for a few months on assignment or writing on spec — and they work wherever they want, beyond the required appearance at meetings now and then. Television writers "clock" into a Monday through Friday job in terms of having to be in a specific office space during specific office times.
- The term writer's block has no meaning in a writers' room. There's no time for that. If the room stalls on their duties, scripts are late, production is delayed, and money is lost.
- Each writers' room will have its process. Some try to keep a 9-5 schedule (which usually means 9-8 or so) for the benefit of all so they can get home to their families. Others expect the writers to stay late, even if that means working 12-hour days and beyond.
- Work doesn't stop when the season is over and the staff goes on hiatus. Television writers are always on the job in some way, shape, or form.
- Networks, in particular, can ruin a writer's year pretty quickly with an unexpected cancellation. You can go from your dream job to right back where you were before you attained it. It's estimated that 90% of series fail within the first few seasons, and almost every show eventually gets canceled. And when that happens, you're officially unemployed.
- As a staff writer, you may have supplied key story or character elements to an eventual script, but your work will be uncredited if you're not actually the assigned writer to write the script for that episode.
The Cons are Kind of Pros, Though
But a lot of these cons are actually what excites the person destined to be a TV writer.
You'll prosper if you're:
- Excited by the collaborative nature of the writers' room.
- Pushed to work harder in a more competitive atmosphere.
- Eager to work on multiple shows throughout your career.
- Ready and willing to make the move to Los Angeles (or wherever the writers' room opportunity is).
- Wanting to work your way up the Hollywood totem pole and into a producing or show running position.
And you can prosper most by doing what many successful writers are doing today — striving to master both mediums of features and television.
They each have their own pros and cons. And here's where it gets exciting:
- TV writers can write features in their own time.
- Feature writers can develop and write TV series prospects in conjunction with their feature aspirations.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies