Last fall, Associate Professor of English Grant Jenkins organized an impressive lineup of experienced professionals for a TV Writing Symposium connected with his course on TV Writing. “The purpose of the TV Writing Symposium was to bring Hollywood to Tulsa,” says Jenkins. “Working, professional television writers attend classes, give talks and answer questions while they are in town, sitting face-to-face in real time with students.”
Through this series of events Jenkins introduced several professionals in the field to TU students, who received specific advice on many aspects of the industry and learned how writers break into this field. “It really allows you to see the path forward if you want to pursue TV writing as a career,” said English major Travis Ryan. Spanning from late September to mid-November, the events were made possible by the Department of English & Creative Writing, Department of Film Studies, Kendall College of Arts & Sciences, Darcy O’Brien Endowed Chair and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The symposium featured eight speakers, with one of them, Sterlin Harjo, likely best known as the co-creator of the Hulu/FX series Reservation Dogs, featured as a speaker for the TU Presidential Lecture Series on Oct. 19.
The first event in the series, on Sept. 29, brought Maggie Monahan and Bryant Loney (BA ’19) to campus to tell students about the range of writing jobs they can pursue in the industry and demystify the processes of pitching shows to networks. In addition to describing some of the work he has done developing his own projects (including one film for which he was named a finalist in the Austin Film Festival), Loney filled students in on the work he does as an adaptor for Netflix, taking shows written and produced in other languages and, with the creators’ permission, writing a script to translate the original show. Monahan, who is a writer on Hulu’s Crossing Swords and Disney+’s Earth to Ned, focused more on how to get a potential show project picked up, explaining the components of pitches and the usual processes for considering them. Alongside with her work as a writer, Monahan has also worked as an associate producer for The Trixie & Katya Show and Not Today Bianca. Due to this background, Monahan has seen the pitch and pick-up process from both perspectives. Each step, she noted, requires a pilot episode to show and flexibility, as a creator might need to rewrite the script in order for the show to be picked up by a network.
Sue Tenney and Amy Palmer Robertson, who work on the Netflix hit Virgin River as creator and head writer, respectively, spoke at the next event on Oct. 7. Most of the audience for this event had just screened the first episode of the series and used this experience to develop their questions. Asked what advice they had for aspiring television creators and writers, Robertson answered by proffering the advice Tenney had given her years before: “Just write and get something down on paper.” She went on to say that it was more important to write something down than to worry about it being perfect, as that comes with the editing and revision process.
The next event, on Nov. 11, featured Alison Tatlock and Alex Smith and reiterated the messages of adaptability, revision and collaboration that Loney and Robertson had delivered. During the event, Smith, who has written and directed four films, shared a sample pitch deck for a TV series to illustrate exactly how the process of proposing and considering show ideas works. Having sold four series to major networks including Great Falls, which he and his brother just sold to F/X, he was well positioned to describe the process. Tatlock has worked on prominent shows including Halt and Catch Fire and Stranger Things, and her most recent credit is Better Call Saul. When asked what she wished she had known before working in the TV/film industry, she responded, “I didn’t understand the extent of collaboration on scripts – the amount of notes and rewrites required – and the possibility that the script would be rewritten by the showrunner.”
The series concluded Nov. 15 with a visit from writer, director and producer Bradley Beesley and a screening of his documentary Okie Noodling. Released in 2001, Okie Noodling focuses on the activity of catfish noodling, or fishing with one’s hands, in Oklahoma. Co-producer James Payne and Nate Williams, a competitive noodler and competition winner, joined Beesley during the discussion portion of the event to answer questions about the sport and the film. When Beesley was asked what made him want to film a documentary, he said he was “interested in Les Blank films and documentaries, which highlight weird subcultures” and that they “wanted to find a weird subculture to highlight themselves.” The biggest thing he said about working on a documentary is “Characters are king. If you can find good characters, it doesn’t matter what they are doing.”
Taken together, these events fulfilled Jenkins’ hopes for a series in which “students get real-life exposure to the craft and business side of a profession that touches the lives of so many people around the world.”