For an aspiring TV scribe, landing the first writing gig is a feat. Holding on to that job is a triumph.
Shonda Rhimes has some advice for novice writers on how not to get fired: Make some noise around the table, so that you have an immediate impact in the room. The secret seems obvious, but Rhimes told IndieWire that it’s surprising how many newbies clam up and immediately limit their careers.
“I think everybody feels like their goal in their job is to sit quietly in the corner and watch things happen,” Rhimes said. “And that is the most deadly mistake you can make. That is exactly how you get fired. The most silent person in the writers room is usually the first fired person in the writers room. Because people start to either think that the person is stupid or creepy or honestly doesn’t have anything to say. And once that happens, you’re doomed.”
Rhimes, who just launched her own online writing seminar for Masterclass, stressed that writers who don’t aggressively participate are soon lost in the shuffle.
“People just get an idea of you and you become useless to them if you’re not helping them break stories in the room or move stories forward, or even being helpful in holding a marker and standing at the board and writing what other people are saying,” Rhimes said. “Then you are useless, you actually are not working. Sitting and watching is not working.”
She gets why people might clam up – there’s value in sitting quietly when you’re new to a writers’ room, and absorbing everything you can. But be warned: “People are judging that you’re not contributing at all. It becomes a self-fulfilling scary prophecy. You don’t want to speak because nobody might like what you want to say, and you’re afraid of getting fired — and then you end up getting fired because you never spoke.”
Rhimes is one of several notables who have signed on over the past year to create their own Masterclass video series and syllabus; others include Aaron Sorkin, Kevin Spacey, Hans Zimmer, and Steve Martin. (The Hollywood Reporter said each instructor is paid around $100,000 upfront, plus 30 percent of any revenue from their class.) Rhimes filmed around 30 10-minute instructional videos, which she was initially leery about.
“I was not excited about being on camera because I’m not a camera-ready person,” she said. “I’m supposed to write things and not be on camera but I ended up having a fantastic time. You’re busy talking about what you’re passionate about. [This] was a way to have a class for people who can’t afford to go to film school or can’t sit in my writers room, who won’t have that access unless they’re already working in Hollywood.”
Rhimes structured her class around lessons learned from the pilot outline, the actual pilot and the series bible for “Grey’s Anatomy,” as well as two pilot scripts and the Season 3 premiere script for “Scandal.” She also shared her original pitch to “Grey’s Anatomy,” “the one that I read from a piece of paper with shaking hands.”
Rhimes said she’s bullish on employment opportunities for new writers in this era of Peak TV – with a few caveats.
“There are a lot of television shows,” she said. “I don’t know how many last beyond one or two seasons… I think there are a lot of jobs. I don’t know that there are a lot of writers who work on many shows. I know a lot of people get hired. I don’t know if there are a lot of people who remain hired. There are a lot of writers who weren’t working because there weren’t enough jobs. Now every writer in town in the WGA seems to have a job at this point, which is wonderful. It feels like everyone is employed. It’s not like you can come in with a script and a dream and you’re definitely going to get a writers’ job, but it is easier to get in the door because there is a need.”