By Sylvia Franklin
What follows is a report card on the more prominent writing programs (some diversity, some not) in the marketplace.
The Walt Disney Studios/ABC TV Fellowship Programs (ABCtalentdevelopment.com):
The granddaddy of all writing programs-the standard-bearer. With four dedicated fellowships in writing, acting, directing and production, the Talent Development Program is clearly the industry leader in finding emerging talent. This program’s been around for 17 years and boasts an unrivaled alumni roster still active in the industry.
Validation, visibility and access to industry executives are perks. Other considerations include a one-year paid salary of $50,000, studio and network affiliation and a concerted effort to place TV candidates on existing shows. Entry is difficult-thousands of hopefuls apply every year, though it bears mentioning very few feature film candidates have had their projects optioned or produced by Disney/ABC.
When the program started, it was more of a vehicle for minorities-people of color and women. Now it’s geared more toward finding the finest available writers. Best of the bunch. Grade: A
Fox Diversity Development (Fox.com/diversity/programs .htm):
Yep, it’s got its version of the year-long writing program, but what sets it apart is a second program featuring original material-television pilots. Distinctive new voices are what it’s after. If your material passes muster, you’re offered an option and/or sale of the pilot script for further development. Grade: B+
CBS Mentorship Initiative (CBSdiversity.com):
Television-intensive; a buddy program and a Johnny-come-lately to the writing program mix. Both an original and current writing spec (TV script of a show that’s currently on air) are required for entry. Only seven candidates are chosen. But you’re paired with a CBS executive who acts as your mentor-one who exposes you to other resources within the CBS network and, of course, supports and shapes your writing.
Candidates from this program are often placed on CBS shows in either a writing or support position. Unfortunately, placement isn’t a guarantee and the program does not offer an annual stipend. Grade: B
Warner Bros. (www2.warner bros.com/writersworkshop):
This program has gone through something of a transformation; it used to be the Warner Bros. Comedy Writing Workshop. Earlier, Warner Bros. ruled the comedy airwaves, with dozens of shows in which to place its TV candidates. Nowadays, this prestigious three-month workshop has changed with the diminishing sitcom times and opened its doors to a drama workshop as well.
Visibility and vetting from a studio are two key points here, as they are with the others. It also has a coterie of auspicious alumni, but the biggest drawback is the $495 fee if you’re accepted. And yes, at the workshop’s inception it was geared toward minorities, but it has since expanded its submission policies toward finding the best of the best. Grade: B
Guy Hanks & Marvin Miller Screenwriting Program (aka The Cosby Program, Cosbyprogram .com):
This program, founded by Bill and Camille Cosby, is privately funded and was created to assist writers of color who have a firm grasp on the tenets of writing. With an emphasis on television and feature writers, this 15-week course explores the craft of writing as well as the educational ideal of deepening the appreciation and comprehension of African American history and culture.
Alumni from this well-respected program are often recruited for other programs at Disney/ABC, Warner Bros., Fox, etc. And speaking as an alumnus, this was one of the best professional experiences I’ve had. Grade: B
Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship Program (Nickwriting.com):
If you’re into the lucrative market of children’s programming (live action and animation), here’s the ticket. This program has a three-phase approach, with every candidate allowed to participate in all phases of production, from pitching to post. There’s also an annual salary of $33,000, exposure to Nick execs and resources and the opportunity to pitch something original at the program’s denouement. This program is designed for culturally and ethnically diverse candidates. Grade: B
NBC Talent Diversity Initiative (www.DiversecityNBC.com):
This one’s a bit different. It has a diversity initiative in place with programs for actors, directors and comedic shorts, but the writing component is housed within the Diversity Scene Showcase, which NBC is putting together for early 2007.
Scenes are workshopped using all three disciplines. Writers can still, however, submit material through their reps to the appropriate diversity executive. If approved, the writer is referred to a showrunner on NBC’s current TV slate and evaluated for placement on staff. There are no guarantees, but it’s an option.
The good thing is your salary’s covered the first year through the network. All its efforts are a distinct improvement; NBC had no diversity presence at all a few short years ago. Grade: B-
Overall, all programs have their pluses and minuses-it really depends on the candidate. What you put into it is what you get out of it, but at least the option is there.
Sylvia Franklin is a television writer living in Los Angeles. She is co-chair of the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers and president of the Organization of Black Screenwriters.