09.04.2013 | Todd Linden
In 2006 I won the AFF comedy teleplay competition with a My Name is Earl spec. It was by far the biggest accomplishment yet in my young career (unless you consider carrying 30 lunches at once as a television PA an accomplishment), and I hoped and believed the next step would be finding representation from this victory that could then lead to staffing on a show soon thereafter. Well, these aspirational timelines rarely work out the way we want…
I met with several agents and managers following my AFF victory, including Dianne Fraser at Industry Entertainment (note that for later). But nothing led to representation at the time. It was a disheartening result for this naïve Connecticut soul who had moved to California with the assumption things were going to work out (mostly because I was too afraid to think about the alternative). So I continued on with my climbing of the Hollywood assistant ladder. I could give you a longwinded, YA novel account of my years as an assistant and my struggles to break through. In fact, I started to write that, and then I deleted it, because all of us who have spent years trying to break in have had similar enough troubles.
Suffice it to say, over the years, I continued to write and write, and would show scripts to agents that I had crossed paths with through my various jobs, but would be told time and time again that while my scripts were good, they’d “have too many unemployed clients as it is and can’t take on another.” (Feel free to insert any other agent-y excuses you’ve been given here.) It felt like nothing was honest about this industry, and how long was I willing to play that game? And, of course, there were those dark days in which I questioned my abilities as a writer and whether I should find a new career (that continues to this day), but there was just nothing else I wanted to do. This all led to a spec pilot I wrote in 2011 about a couple who were lucky to have each other, but neither could seem to catch a break in the pursuits of their respective careers. It was truly my life at the time, and while part of writing that pilot was therapeutic, it also came from a very real place and people responded to that.
Most notably, I gave the script to a non-writing producer who I had befriended while working across the hall from him on the Disney lot when I was assisting a writer. I was simply hoping to get his notes, but he came back to me with a passion for the script and the desire to try to get it produced. Using his interest, I decided to go back to a couple of the agents and managers I had met with in the past to tell them of this recent development. I even took a big swing by contacting Dianne Fraser (I hadn’t seen her since the post-AFF meeting we had a half decade earlier). But when I reminded her who I was, where I was at in my career, and this pilot I had written that a producer wanted to take out, she agreed to read the script, and she responded highly to it. Ultimately it led to an agreement that she would team up with the other producer and after developing it a little further with me, we would try to sell it. While we never were quite able to get that project off the ground, Dianne was impressed enough by my abilities through the process that she took me on as a client, which was thrilling in its own right.
At the same time this was going on, I was a script coordinator on the ABC show, Happy Endings. And in its second season, I was given the opportunity to write a freelance episode for the show (it was called “The Kerkovich Way”, feel free to check it out!). It felt like the stars were finally beginning to align for me. And while there was no opportunity to get staffed at Happy Endings, I now had a manager and a produced script to my name. In the spring of 2012, I went out for staffing season, and got my first staff writing job on another ABC show called Family Tools. My dream of staffing had finally been realized.
The main point to take from all this, is that you never know what might lead to your big break, or more importantly, when it might happen. If I hadn’t won the AFF teleplay completion in 2006, I would’ve never met Dianne Fraser. If I hadn’t met Dianne, I wouldn’t have been able to reconnect with her in 2011 when I had a “hot” pilot to show, and I wouldn’t have found representation by the time I got a freelance episode of a comedy on TV. And if I hadn’t had that representation, I wouldn’t have been able to be officially submitted to shows for staffing consideration. And then I would have never met the creator of Family Tools who ended up giving me my big break. So while it may have taken a little longer than I had hoped, I can look back at AFF as a direct correlation to my success in television. (There were obviously many other variables that factored in to all of this along the way, but these were key things to even give me a fighting chance at success.)
Of course, the brutality of this industry doesn’t change after you’ve staffed (or sold that first screenplay). I’m currently living proof of that as well. Family Tools had the unfortunate fate of many first year shows and was quickly canceled, and I’m again an unemployed writer looking and fighting for the next break. Certainly not the best-case scenario when you’re a world-class pessimist like myself. But what I must remind myself is what I just told you: that my AFF-to-staffing story is proof that we never know what from our past might lead to our big breaks in the future. That unpredictability is a stressful truth and one of the worst parts of this industry. But it’s also one of the best. Because it gives us the best medicine to forge on: hope.