Monday, December 06, 2010

WALKING DEAD fires their entire writing staff

THE WALKING DEAD writer/ executive producer/ director, Frank Darabont, recently fired his entire writing staff and intends to use freelance writers to tackle next season’s scripts. This is causing a huge stir in the Hollywood community. Well, not huge perhaps, but it is a topic at more than one Starbucks.

Some writers are outraged. Firing a staff could set a dangerous precedent, especially at a time when jobs are scarce. They have a valid point.


I love the fact that freelance writers might actually get a chance again. It’s good for them and good for showrunners, too.

Way back in the dark ages (the 70s), most sitcoms had very small staffs and relied on outside assignments. These freelance scripts basically served as auditions. No one got hired on staff until they had proved they could write the show. As a showrunner, trust me, that’s a far more efficient method of staffing. Today, you hire staff writers based on spec scripts and often times they don’t pan out. Then you’re stuck with some slug who you’re paying while more deserving writers are shut out.

I know this will sound like crazy talk, but there was a time when you could actually make a living being a freelance writer.  Don't scoff.  It's true!   You could support your family without having to spend seven years on CHARLES IN CHARGE.

The truth is, you don’t need fifteen people sitting around the table to rewrite a script. Depending on who you hire, four can often do the job better. And faster.

The first season of CHEERS, the entire full-time staff consisted of the Charles Brothers, me and David Isaacs. That’s it. When David and I were head writers on MASH, the only other staffers were Larry Balmagia and Ronny Graham. Okay, we almost wound up in Cedars-Sinai hospital, but we got the work done.

And we all collectively discovered some great talent thanks to freelance scripts.

There are WGA guidelines that each series must assign one or two freelance assignments a season, but it’s a joke.   Most of the time producers promise these to friends or writer’s assistant.   Not that some of these assistants don’t deserve a chance (there are Greg Garcias among you), but others are just being rewarded for loyal service.   Again, more deserving writers are being turned away.  

Bottom line --  I feel bad when anybody loses their job (and there were some good writers let go in this purge), but I would welcome a landscape where there’s not just six or eight staffing positions open each season but thirty or forty open script assignments.

Will that happen? No. Of course not.  More crazy talk.  But this is the first step. And as they say, every journey must begin with the first step, even if those walking are WALKING DEAD.


Max Clarke said...

That's impressive, just four full-time staff members the first year of Cheers.

Earl Pomerantz wrote an episode for Cheers the first season, Sam's Women. Very funny, "Beer...with two e's." Guess Earl was just that, a freelance writer back in the days when you could make a living that way.

Stu said...

Re: 'TWD' - part of an interview with the creator:

So...they weren't fired?

Anonymous said...

But what will Buddy and Sally do?

Atlanta said...

Another update, via io9, from EW:

Emmett Flatus said...

Watched the first episode of Walking Dead. Hard to believe they actually had a writing staff.

Troy said...


I believe you got this just right.

Another benefit might be this: Instead of every script being table-initiated, table-written, and table-homogenized by 15 writers in a process that can be described as just about everything except "writing"...

...maybe a few original/unique/rare ideas will emerge from that rarest of television dinosaurs:


It's worth a try...

...before they're extinct.


Anonymous said...

Ken, could you please expound a little bit more? I don't get the difference between today's practice of writing a spec as a sample, and being the freelance writer of old. OK, I get that a freelancer is not permanently on staff, but wouldn't the freelancer have also needed to come in with a spec script?

I mean, how else would the show runner go about deciding whether someone can write for their show?

Ben In Melbourne said...

Sorry, didn't mean to post anonymously. Freelancing question above was by me.

Gary said...

Turn out the lights...RIP Dandy Don. Too many of these, lately.

Ken, I'm in my home office.

I recently watched a Frasier episode that credited 6 writers. My question is, at what point are there too many contributors? I know, it depends on who they are, but is there a number - in general - that you do not want to excede?

Jeremiah said...

Thank you, Ken, for giving your opinion on this topic.

Some seem to forget "quality over quantity". A room full of monkeys may one day compose the works of Shakespeare, but more likely we'll get another "According To Jim".

CK said...

I agree on both counts, sympathy for the fired, some happiness for the freelancers. As a former sitcom show runner (2 series), we honored the WGA freelance minimums (tho the "penalty" for not doing so was laughable.) Yes, a couple of assignments went to deserving & struggling friends who'd pitched decent stories, but I can also think of 6 writers I'd never heard of who got script assignments based solely on their good writing. (One writer--gasp-- over 60.) I wrote 70+ on-air network scripts in the 80s and 90s, staffed nearly 170 episodes and at 61 am still trying (perhaps foolishly) to find ANY work. But my last WGA script sale was in 2001, a pilot that did not get made. My last freelance WGA work and staff position was in 1999. Baby, it's old out there.

CK said...

...By which I meant "cold" out there. (Tho it's getting old too.)

te said...

Speaking of MASH -- Amazon is selling the complete "Martinis & Medicine" box for $71.

MBunge said...

Considering that THE WALKING DEAD has now got nearly 80 comic issues to draw upon, I'm not sure I ever understood the need for a writing staff.


Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I certainly recognize the value freelancers can bring to the whole picture. At least, it brings a freshness to sitcoms.

I don't know about Walking Dead, but I doubt working strictly with freelancers is a good solution for a show that's heavily serialized. Imagine LOST being written by freelancers. It wouldn't be as tight as it is, plot or character-wise. And the showrunners would work themselves to death rewriting a ton of unfocused freelance work.

MBunge said...

"Imagine LOST being written by freelancers."

Uh, is that really the example you want to use? Really?


York said...

Say "te":


I just got All Things "M*A*S*H" for less than $2/disc!

[That's... what? Several... pennies for you, Ken!]

Brian said...

All this does is save the studios episodic fees for writer/producers. And the script assignments will not go to freelancers... they will go the friends and people Frank Darabont has worked with before, possibly some of those very same writers who were on his staff. All he's done is make the studio, very VERY happy... and cost writers their full-time jobs. Nice going, Frank.

Quinn said...

CK: You got it right the first time, "Baby, it's old out there", as "old" and "out in the cold" have become synonymous in TV writing.

Seniors (anyone 50+) are persona non-hirable.

Which explains why so much of television is so sophomoric.

Sally creeping down the alley said...

Untalented hacks:

rhys said...

There's been a lot of weak writing on the show with some of the dialogue being pretty bad. I hope they change up the staff enough to fix some of those issues.

Jhon Davis said...

@ rhys I like your work, nicely said!

- John Devis
Magento Themes

MBunge said...

"There's been a lot of weak writing on the show with some of the dialogue being pretty bad."

I've seen this complaint before and I think it speaks to the modern fetish for "clever" dialog. If there is one situation where characters spouting off witty banter would be laughably inappropriate, it would have to a zombie apocalypse.


Unknown said...

@CK - I'm in the same situation - a writer in my 50's.

I presume that you're good at what you do? You can write? You're good? You've got some smarts?

There are a growing number of people making a very good living creating YouTube properties.

If "they" won't hire you - hire yourself. True, it's easier said than done - but nothing worth doing is easy.

Anonymous said...

TWD ran a whole six episodes to date.

How big was the "whole writing staff" that produced this?

With a series that small, surely a singular vision - and perhaps even writer - is going to be as effective?

Steph said...

I was one of the people that was beyond excited about this show when I first heard about it and looked forward to it for months.

While I watched the whole season, I honestly felt it never got any better than the first few episodes and NONE topped the first which Darabont wrote and directed himself.

There just wasn't enough zombie action in those last few and wtf happened to the best actor (Michael Rooker) on the show? He cuts off his hand and....? Horse shit!

I'm still looking forward to next season as I am a self proclaimed zombie junkie but will be much more skeptical this time around. This may be a good move though. Hell, maybe the producers of "Dexter" will take note and do the same. It sucks this season!! Not to mention,Panface/monotone Julia Stiles is about as riveting to watch as a block of wood. I would've rathered Sarah Michelle Gellar!

Magento themes said...

But the technique the people use most of the time the the rephrasing concept and the books where the people can do the work and thay have the experence to work on diffrent topics and thats why not its a very hot issu