Most people believe that all you need is one big break to “make it” as a TV writer. But the truth is there’s always a new script to write, a new pitch to sell, and a new season to get staffed on. Even once you’ve made it, your screenwriting career becomes all about staying in the room and growing your network. To get some fresh insight on what it means to land a job as a staff writer for a TV show, we spoke with professional screenwriter Preston Walker.
After landing in the Launch Pad TV Pilot competition Top 50 List for his project MITZVAH, Preston was signed by Verve and staffed on B Positive, a new Chuck Lorre Production starring Thomas Middleditch and Annaleigh Ashford. Preston sat down with us to share his journey from writing comedy sketches to getting staffed on a major TV sitcom with some advice for screenwriting competitions, script coverage, and how you can network as a screenwriter in Hollywood today.
How to find your calling as a screenwriter
A Southern California native, Preston didn’t grow up thinking he would be a TV writer. He attended USC majoring in “Philosophy, Politics, and the Law.” What intrigued Preston though, was learning how to make a person laugh. “I was into improv,” he said. “The thing that I was obsessed with was if there was a really funny person in the room. Trying to understand how they were so funny.”
Preston added a screenwriting minor later at USC, but while USC is known for their alumni network, that wasn’t necessarily an option for Preston. “I did my last semester abroad, so I wasn’t able to do a ton of direct networking. After school, I moved back in with my parents, worked at a restaurant, worked as a tutor, and I did an internship in West Hollywood for free. I took Groundlings classes and was writing scripts every day.
I tried to do something every day that felt productive creatively and productive career-wise Usually, that involved sending emails to anyone I could think of that worked in the industry.
“It might appear easy from the outside, but reaching out to people you don’t know can be nerve-wracking,” Preston says. “I started to realize that if the people I was reaching out to were somewhat nice and genuine then they won’t resent me for that.”
How to get staffed on a TV show
It was through those emails and digging deep into his contacts that Preston was able to get an introduction into the industry. “I remembered I had been in a band in high school and one of the members of the band was the son of TV writer-producer Warren Bell (executive producer on the CBS sitcom MOM starring Allison Janney). I reached out on Facebook asking to talk to his dad. It was a huge stroke of luck because he happened to be an incredibly gracious and very generous guy.”
Preston made a solid enough connection with Bell to circulate his resume amongst Bell’s contacts. This led to a call from Disjointed and a job as a Writers’ PA. It was during Preston’s time working on Disjointed and later, Mom, that Preston was able to build a relationship with Marco Pennette. Pennette became a mentor Preston, letting him pitch jokes to him and then the showrunners. When Pennette sold his show, B Positive, that connection led to Preston’s first role as a staff writer. Marco also helped connect Preston to Jeff Greenberg, Preston’s agent at Gersh.
The importance of script coverage
Preston spoke repeatedly about how “generous” people have been towards him and how much luck he’s had in the industry. But he also stresses that while he’s plenty of help over the years, he’s also put in the work. Even while working, he was always writing and building connections. He applied on his own to Launch Pad Pilot Competition in 2017 and made the Top 25 while he was a writers’ PA.
“The real selling point for these competitions was the feedback,” Preston says. “As a writer, you’re just trying to get better. So, best case scenario I get a manager and worst case I find out why.”
Preston applied to the Launch Pad Pilot Competition again in 2019, landing in the Top 50 with his writing partner, Russell Carter, and their animated comedy pilot, MITZVAH. You might be asking, why did Preston apply for a second time when he was already squarely in the Chuck Lorre camp?
“I wanted the feedback from someone anonymous to tell us if it was good, but I wanted to see if we could get staffed or sell the show together,” says Preston.
Screenwriting competitions matter
Russell and Preston felt inspired when they remembered a DJ in Encino who had the bar mitzvah market locked down and felt it would make a great world for a show. This was the impetus for Mitzvah, which they wrote together by recreating the feel of a TV room. This meant splitting up scenes but mostly being together and rewriting everything together, which can be daunting.
“I love Russell, but I hate room writing,” admits Preston. “That’s a bit harsh but I feel like I’m on the spot. “There is that fear of looking like an idiot. That was one way that I learned how to behave in a group situation and what’s worth fighting for. And that’s not something you get before you’re in the room.” There’s always something new to be working towards. For Preston, he wants to establish himself and Russell as a writing team and he believes that getting their names out there in known screenwriting competitions is a great way to do that.
Making it into the Launch Pad Top 50 led to Preston and Russell meeting with a manager. “Knowing what to expect, interpreting what a manager says… you don’t get any practice for that in school. So getting that meeting and communication from Launch Pad was vital.”
How to become a staffed television writer
So what does Preston recommend to writers who want to write TV? “Write as much as you can, every day, and seek out collaborative and creative opportunities. [Writing for TV] is a job where you are building something together, but ironically, the work to get into that room is solitary. So if you can, do improv or write with other people, so you can learn how to collaborate.”
Seek out collaborative and creative opportunities. As we can see with Preston’s journey, that active role in his career helped him every step of the way. Now, with his new goal of teaming up professionally with Russell, it will be sure to drive their journey going forward.
Read more screenwriter success stories for advice, inspiration, and insider tips and tricks from professional screenwriters to help get launch your screenwriting career today.