On Being a Female Writer in the TV Business

Over the last six weeks of the writer's strike most of the voices have been male since they do make up 80 percent of the writer's guild. Women & Hollywood asked Sarah Fain, executive producer of the new ABC drama, Women's Murder Club (ABC, 9pm) to talk about being a female writer in the TV business and how the strike has affected her and her show.

Women & Hollywood: You're in the middle of your first season on the Women's Murder Club and you are now on strike for the foreseeable future. How do you think this will effect the momentum of the show?

Sarah Fain: It's hard to say. At this point, there are so many possible scenarios. The strike could hurt us, it could help us, it could have a totally negligible impact, depending on how long we're out and what ABC's development looks like. It's something I really try not to think about (which doesn't mean it's not a good question -- I'm just trying to live in a certain amount of denial). I can tell you that we have a really great fan base, which pleases me to no end. And we all love working on the show. I've worked with some pretty fantastic groups of people, but our team on WMC is something special. So I hope we all get at least five years out of it.

W&H: Women are 20 percent of the writer's guild membership, and in TV they make up about 27 percent of the writers. Why do you think it is still so hard for women writers to break into Hollywood?

SF: Depressing numbers. Yikes. Liz (my writing partner) and I talked a little bit about this whole woman-writer thing in Written By a couple months ago. It was a bit of a relief, because it's something we've been hesitant to talk about with any degree of candor for a long time. And I'll still be somewhat restrained, because we're not sitting in my living room bullshitting with martinis and cigarettes. Although I don't smoke anymore. And I don't drink nearly enough. And my living room's a mess.

Anyhoo -- there's no question that there's a certain amount of sexism in this town. Probably in every town and every industry. For the most part, we just let it roll gracefully off our backs. I think if you're not willing to do that, it's harder to succeed. Which is screwed up and sad, but true. It's just harder for women -- and it's not like it's easy for men. Why is it harder for women to break in? I wish I had a good, specific answer for that. But it's all so subtle. I will say that I think it's getting easier. There are great men out there who really don't operate that way -- like Joss Whedon and Shawn Ryan, both of whom we've been fortunate enough to work for. And there are a lot of amazing women role models. People like Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, Barbara Hall, and Yvette Lee Bowser. They made it easier for us, and hopefully we'll make it easier for the folks who come around next.

W&H: Most of the voices we've heard about the strike has been male comedy writers. Can you let us know why you support this strike? Since women have fewer positions as writers do you think the strike will have a more adverse effect on women?

SF: This strike sucks for everyone. I think most of the voices out there have been male comedy writers because there are just so MANY of them. Throw a dart in this town and you'll hit a male comedy writer. Or the model/actress he's standing next to (read: hitting on). And I say that with love. There are many male comedy writers I adore. But you're seeing them on the news because... well, they like to talk. A lot. It can be annoying. But the issues are the same for all of us. We all have a lot to lose -- as do the actors, directors, and crews.

W&H: Most people don't know the term showrunner. Can you explain a bit about what you do and how in TV the executive producers are writers where in film they are not.

SF: Showrunners are basically the people who carry the vision of the show and make sure that vision is being implemented throughout the process of creating a series -- in the scripts, in casting, in the directing, editing, music, etc. Since Women's Murder Club is our first show, we're lucky to have Scott Gemmill as our co-showrunner. Which is extremely handy, because there's a lot to do, and we can all split things up when it gets nuts. On any given day, we'll be in the writers' room (hopefully) approving story ideas, giving notes on outlines and scripts, re-writing, sitting in casting or approving casting tapes, making notes on cuts or sitting in editing, taking notes calls from studio and network executives, approving production choices in any number of arenas (sets, wardrobe, props, etc.), toning directors, and managing whatever crisis happens to arise. It's pretty much the best job there is -- never boring, always engaging, creative, and of course insanely stressful.

The difference between being a feature writer and a television writer is pretty huge. The entire structure of television is about educating writers in the process of making a show (at least it should be), so that they can be producers and showrunners. You start out as a Staff Writer, then move up the ranks through Story Editor, Executive Story Editor, Co-Producer, Producer, Supervising Producer, Co-Executive Producer, and Executive Producer. Each title basically indicates an increased level of experience -- not just as a writer, but as someone who can also produce a show. In television, the writers are in charge. We hire directors, and they are expected to execute our vision. In features, writers are less empowered. Once a film script is sold, writers are significantly less involved in the production process. It's safe to say that they're usually not involved at all. Film is a director's medium. TV is a writer's medium.

W&H: TV is much more receptive to women's voices than film is; and ABC is the most female friendly network outside of Lifetime. Why is TV a more welcoming medium for women's voices and women leads?

SF: I can't speak to film, but in television... it's all about the numbers. ABC has only gradually moved into its current female friendly state of being. It took shows like Desperate Housewives for anyone (but Lifetime) to realize that there was a goldmine in shows that particularly appeal to women. And ABC has been extraordinarily successful in tailoring their programming to the fairer sex. It's cynical, perhaps, but it's really all about money. They make shows that appeal to women, women watch the shows in large numbers, they make advertising dollars. What I will say about ABC in particular is that across the board, their shows don't talk down to women -- which is probably why we watch them.

W&H: What advice can you give a person struggling to break into the TV writing game in Hollywood?

SF: Succeeding as a television writer is, in some ways, a war of attrition. It takes time to break in. So if you're not willing to give it three to five years, you might as well go home. And even in three to five years, you may not get anywhere. The harsh truth is that it's all a crapshoot. I've been really lucky, and worked really hard. I'm not sure which was more important -- the luck or the hard work. I wouldn't have made it without both.

I definitely recommend getting into a writers' group. It's important to keep producing material, to keep improving. It keeps you motivated and helps you develop a thick skin. Which you're gonna need. Getting to know writers is crucial. When Liz and I first stared trying to get into TV, our old agent told us to make friends with as many successful television writers as we could. At the time, I was Lauren Holly's second assistant, which basically entailed brushing her dogs' teeth and making pedicure appointments. Liz was making $9,000 a year writing young adult books. We thought our agent was insane. How were we supposed to meet successful television writers? Like, what, is there some corner in Brentwood where all the television writers hang out? And then we met one TV writer (just happened to be Bob Fisher, who eventually co-wrote The Wedding Crashers), then another, then another... and now everyone I know is a TV writer, and all I want to know is where's the corner with the nice, single, professor-types?

This post originally appeared on Women & Hollywood blog.

Read more about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike page.