Disney ABC TV Writing Program Notes

HWAS would like to thank everyone for coming out to the Disney ABC Writing Program event on May 17th. We would also like to thank our friends from ABC: Frank Gonzalez, Ollie Ashtari-Larki and this year’s fellows: Zahir McGhee and Phonz Williams. (Phonz is a part of HWAS and attended last year’s event).

Below is a summary of the event. Not a lot has changed since last year. But we have also included more details of the selection process and pointed out changes where there are any.

OVERVIEW

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Disney ABC Writing Program. As the program continues to evolve, some key things of note are:

  • The program will no longer be referred to as a “fellowship”. ABC believes that disbanding the moniker is a more appropriate way to designate that the program is not an internship or place where one trains to write, but is a program of professional writers.
  • The program is about a diversity of voices, not necessarily about diversity of an ethnic background.
  • Disney’s affiliate networks and ABC Studios do not have a diversity hire so the Disney ABC Program works similarly to an in house agency.
  • The Disney ABC Program is the only one of its kind in that it is WGA sanctioned. This is why the program does not accept original material. The program is designed to develop writers, not material. Fellows who are accepted actually earn WGA points.
  • The Program is built to be long-term where Frank and Ollie try to help you even when you leave. They try to help you find an agent and manager and to connect with past fellows. It’s about building one’s career.

APPLICATION DETAILS

Applications for the 2011 fellowship became available online June 1st-July 1st. Frank and Ollie recommend that you download the application first, create a checklist for yourself and put it aside to work on you spec script. Your script will not be read if your application is not filled out properly or is incomplete. Furthermore, this will allow you to focus solely on your script knowing that all other application materials are prepared. It’s also important to note that no original material is accepted and like always it is one (1) spec script from an existing show still on the air as of July 1st (i.e. renewed shows).

Also, if you are a writing team, you would take up two spots in the program and both writers need to apply separately. Frank expressed that while it’s not impossible to get in as a writing team, it is much more difficult because the team would take two spots and writing teams have been rare.

Some changes: there is no notary this year and everything is electronic (last year it was both electronic and hard copy applications).

Applications are due July 1, 2010.

APPLICATION PROCESS (June 1st- July 1st )

Last year there were roughly 1500 applicants. Eight were selected as fellows (four drama writers and four comedy writers). Each year the program runs from February through February, paying fellows $961.54 a week ($50,000 annually) with benefits. Many fellows get staffed as a writer on a show associated within the Disney Corporate family (i.e. ABC Entertainment, Disney Channel, ABC Family, ABC Studios, etc).

Once your application materials are in, 22 professional readers will do a first pass reading of your spec script. All readers are given a “test” to make sure they meet the sensibilities and standard of what the program looks for. This “test” is consists of giving the reader a script to do coverage on. All readers have worked professionally doing coverage before. As to which scripts go to which readers, the readers are asked to list the shows they watch and scripts are assigned accordingly.

THE SPEC

It’s important that you spec a show that people are familiar with. It’s okay to spec a cable show, but make sure it’s a successful and well established. If a reader doesn’t know the show you’ve written a spec for, they’ll have a difficult time judging your writing. Ollie suggested that how to gauge if a show is specable is that if it’s a network show, it should be in its second season at least and a cable show to be in its third season. It’s important do a show that is well known. For example, don’t write a SPARTACUS.

And as for the spec itself, it’s about having a good script with a great voice that SPARKS. Capture the show with an interesting twist.

Random note. A lot of scripts that came in last year included: Entourage, The Office, 30 Rock. Some that came in moderately included: The Big Bang Theory. Ollie said there were only a handful of Fringe scripts.

When submitting your application you have to check a box for comedy or drama. If you write a DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES spec (drama), you would check 1 hour drama. All one hours are dramas and all half hours are comedies for the sake of this application process. To get an idea of what got in last year, Phonz wrote a MAD MEN spec and Zahir wrote FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS spec.

THE SCORING PROCESS

The scripts are read blindly by the 22 readers and scored from 1 to 100. The highest scoring scripts from the first pass and by two readers (i.e. a score of 88 and above by two readers) are passed on. The top 60 scripts are read by Disney ABC executives.

THE SEMI-FINALISTS

These 60 scripts receive a phone interview. Applicants who make the cut will be contacted between November and mid-December for a phone interview.

Some tips including SHOWING YOUR PASSION FOR TV. An example Ollie brought up was someone who mentioned he/she was a feature writer and decided to give TV a try on a whim. This program is not for those who want to “try” TV. It is for those who are passionate and know the TV landscape and are serious about working in TV. Fellows chosen are those who watch TV and write. One thing both Frank and Ollie emphasized is that “writers write.” It’s about being serious and wanting to work in TV and continually honing your skills.

Phonz mentioned that he didn’t get into the program until the fourth time he had applied but kept writing and honing his craft every year.

Some sample questions that have been asked include:

  • What do you watch on TV?
  • What is appointment TV for you?
  • What do you think of (insert show here aforementioned)?
  • How do you think this show demonstrates who you are as a writer?
  • What do your friends say about you?

The phone interview is to assess what you bring to the table as a writer and WHERE you fit/can be staffed. BE CLEAR who you are as a person and writer and have a strong sense of self.

What can make or break a phone interview is to not be articulate. And not know who you are as a writer.

Another thing of note was having industry experience, while it’s not required, a lot of the nuances of working and fitting in a writers’ room are things you learn through practical experience. You have an advantage as someone who understands how the business works and how to make contacts. The program has noted a higher success rate for those with industry experience too.

For example, Phonz worked in the TV Lit department of an agency and was a writers’ assistant. Zahir is an MFA Screenwriting graduate, participated in the CBS Writing Program last year, and worked for the NAACP Image Awards.

At this point, it becomes crucial to have a second spec script and a full portfolio (roughly two specs and an original). Again Frank and Ollie emphasized “writers write!” And your portfolio does not break down into all one hour drama scripts or all half hour scripts. You can have a half hour spec and a one hour dramedy. In fact, the more ways you can stretch yourself and sell yourself as a writer is better. For example, when fellows went out to be staffed on a dramedy such as UGLY BETTY in the past, you could be asked to send in a half hour sample or a one hour sample.

Applicants are given a “survey” at this stage, which is a follow up to their application to update the Disney ABC Writing Program on what you have done as a writer to further accomplish your goals. This can include, listing more scripts you’ve written, obtaining an assistant job on a show, taking a writing class, obtaining an agent or manager, etc.

Finally, if the phone interview goes well, the applicant proceeds to the three-day interview process.

INTERVIEW PROCESS/FINALISTS STAGE…A THREE DAY PROCESS

The top 28 applicants are called in for the final interviews. The interview process tests their interpersonal skills, personality and experience. The key to this stage of the game is to be able to show the program how well you represent yourself and it’s about finding a candidate who you can work 12-14 hour days with i.e. someone who can imagine being in a writer’s room with. Don’t be afraid to talk and engage with others.

  • Day One Mixer: There will be a mixer with finalists and executives. When the night is over executives will discuss their perception of the finalists individually. They will be asking questions like; did he or she treat everyone at the mixer with respect? Can he or she work on a staff? Could he or she function within a writing room?

    Phonz shared that the people who made it into the program this were people who stood out at the mixer, were friendly and MEMORABLE. Something else to point out is that the mixer also includes executives, the Disney ABC Program staff and showrunners.

  • Day Two Interviews: A group of nine ABC Disney Executives will interview finalists individually.
  • Day Three Panel Sessions: This was liken to a “firing squad.” The panels will consist of producers from different shows who will ask further questions of finalists. This will give finalists a good idea of the kind of questions that Showrunners ask. Zahir and Phonz jokingly mentioned people such as Carlton Cuse may be interviewing you, so no pressure.

THE INNER WORKINGS OF BEING A FELLOW

First 30 Days: When you start the fellowship, the first thirty days is like a boot camp. It’s actually the only part of the program where you don’t write.

You come in for four hours each day. You focus on story structure and participate in workshops. You will not only be improving your writing, but improving how you present yourself as a writer and how you pitch yourself. There will be guest lectures about pitching and how to present yourself, as well as an improv workshop.

During this time, executives will be looking at your material to see if they respond to it and to get an idea of where you would fit in. You’ll have the chance to take meetings with Disney ABC shows, where showrunners will be interviewing you not only as a fellow, but as a potential staff writer.

Also the spec you wrote to get in will get a polish with more notes and table reads.

First 60 Days: If you haven’t been staffed within the first sixty days of the program you are now paired up with:

  1. Overall Executive Mentor: This Executive will be in current programming or development. This person is your checkpoint through the duration of the fellowship.
  1. Spec Script Mentor: This Creative Executive will work with you on your second spec.
  1. Alumni Membership Component: You will be paired up with three to four fellowship alumni who will mentor you throughout the year.

Here it is a continual process to get the fellow staffed, A CD is made of the writer (bio, headshot, video) and sent internally to execs (kind of like an internal writers’ road show) as shows get picked up, you start meeting on shows.

APPLICATION TIPS:

  • Download application now and finish first, then focus on your script. Make a checklist to ensure that all application materials are together.
  • Don’t be too fancy with your presentation.
  • Scripts should be typed and in standard industry format. Nothing handwritten.
  • Triple check for typos and other mistakes as basic grammatical errors will hurt your application.
  • Autobiographical Summary: This should be about one paragraph. Be honest and open. What have you done that maybe isn’t listed on your resume? What kind of experiences have you had?
  • Statement of Interest: What’s your pitch? Why would this program be good for you at this point in your career?

In all, good luck with your applications and spec scripts everyone and we look forward to seeing everyone at the next mixer!

12 comments:

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  2. Hello - my apologies if this is the wrong place to ask this question, but re: the right show to spec, I've been working on a spec of Better Off Ted, which was not renewed this year. However, it had two seasons, and was technically on the 2009-2010 season. Should I scrap my application this year?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you so much for summarizing the mixer as comprehensively as you have. I am an aspiring tv writer on the east coast, so to have access to this inside information is incredibly valuable.

    I am a white woman with no existing experience in the television industry although I have worked with home entertainment products (movies, shows, and music on disc) the last four years. While I have a strong spec portfolio, what real opportunity exists with me pursuing the Fellowship under the "diverse" column? Also, does the diversity also consider LGBT community as well?

    Thanks again for making this information available here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There are some conflicting statements on the 2011 application. Does anyone have info about the following?

    1) On page 1 it says "Prior professional work experience in the entertainment industry is recommended." But on page 6 in the FAQ section, it says "Previous experience as a paid, professional writer is not required however work experience in the industry is required." So is previous experience in the industry RECOMMENDED as stated on page 1 or REQUIRED as stated on page 6???

    2) Page 1 says to submit your script on a CD in PDF format. But page 7 in the FAQ section says your script must be "bound with standard brads." Does that mean they want BOTH a hard copy and an electronic copy???

    ReplyDelete
  5. Irene, unfortunately the ABC program only accepts specs for shows that will be on 2010-2011 so no BETTER OFF TED (though great show!)

    Susan, being a woman constitutes diversity in the male-heavy world of television. As part of the diversity of voice, LGBT is also recognized.

    Mark, if I recall correctly from last year, I included both the CD and printed script in my application. Regarding industry experience, it seems from the wrap-up of Frank & Ollie's comments that it is recommended not required

    good luck everyone

    ReplyDelete
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  7. Does anyone know if they recommend including a "Previously On" page at the beginning of your spec? I know the WB program suggested having one if you're doing a show with strong over-arching storylines.

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  8. Hello,

    I'm not sure if you would be able to answer my question, but I figure you might know something.

    I turned in an application this year, not hoping for anything, but figured that if it's free, why not?

    I'm confident that my application itself was strong, but I lack real experience in this business. I've heard this isn't necessarily a deal breaker, so I'm trying to maintain hope.

    On the very off-chance that I were to pass on to the interview portion of the application process, how would my age (I'm 20) affect my chances? Will my age bar me from participating?

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