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50 ways to get a script assignments

Wednesday, 6 July 2011
Opportunities don’t come along very often. You've gotta take advantage.

When David and I were starting out, our first sale was to THE JEFFERSONS. The story editors had liked our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and invited us to pitch stories. If the producers responded to one of them we would get an assignment.

The ground rules: Each story had to be no longer than one paragraph. Basically loglines, the type you used to see in TV Guide when there was a TV Guide. And you could only pitch three stories.

Back then you could actually make a living as a freelance writer. Shows had smaller staffs and left a lot assignments open for freelancers. That and the sexual revolution were the two best features of the ‘70s. So THE JEFFERSONS invited quite a few people in to pitch. Giving each writer three shots seemed fair. 

We pitched our three stories. The story editors liked one and passed it up the line to the producers. A week later we get a call. The producers didn’t buy our story. Shit!

But we were invited back to pitch three more. Which we did. And they liked one of them. Again, it was passed up the line. And this time the producers responded favorably. We got our first assignment!

Flash forward a few months. Among the other clients at the agency that represented us was Gene Reynolds, the showrunner of MASH. Our agents submitted our draft of THE JEFFERSONS and Gene liked it well enough to invite us in for a general meeting. George Jefferson is so similar to Hawkeye that if you can write one show it just stands to reason you can write the other.

We did feel we could write MASH, primarily because we had both spent some time in the army and had a good handle on that world and its idiocy. The meeting was lovely. Gene loaded us down with research material and said he’d be happy to entertain some story pitches from us. As we left, I asked how many? He shrugged and said, “I dunno.  As many as you got.”

A week later we were back in his office. And we had prepared fifty story notions. That’s right. 5-0. Given this once-in-a-lifetime chance to write a MASH there was no way we were going to walk out of that room without an assignment.

Gene liked two of the first ten and put them together. After that he stopped us. His head was exploding. We got the assignment. (It was the episode where the gas heater exploded and Hawkeye was temporarily blind. (Sorry. I should’ve said SPOILER ALERT.)

Now you may think that with fifty story ideas, selling at least one would be a cinch.  We thought so, too.  But no. 

Another show we got to pitch was MAUDE. There they let us come in with ten stories. Same deal as with THE JEFFERSONS (same company). The story editor liked one of our ideas but the producers above him nixed it. This happened five separate times. So we were 0-50 with MAUDE.

Meanwhile, on MASH, we wrote three episodes for them that season, and the following year we were brought aboard as story editors. We moved up the chain eventually to head writers. And I would say over the next couple of years we probably did 39 of the 50 ideas we originally pitched. Hey, we liked them when we came up with them; we liked them two years later.

The point is, whatever the opportunity – pitching shows, pilots, interviewing for PA positions or mailroom gigs, or whatever – do the maximum. And then do a lot more. Show more initiative than anyone else in the room. And never lose that mindset.  I’ve since become friends with that story editor from MAUDE and damn it, we’re still going to get as assignment on that freaking show!

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