Sunday, April 21, 2024

Native Toledoan, Screenwriter Dana Greenblatt Talks Television Writing, the Strike and TV’s Future

One of the biggest entertainment stories of 2023 was the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, where writers, and by extension, actors, were on strike from May to September over a labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Strikes are not new, and one was the second longest in history for WGA. The 2023 strike raised the stakes as the industry grapples with tech and platform changes along with threats of massive changes from artificial intelligence. 

Dana Greenblatt, a former Toledoan who now lives in Los Angeles, works as a television writer and took part in the WGA strike. Striving to become a better writer seeking to achieve justice for all writers began for Greenblatt at an early age. Donna began Saturday Enrichment Classes at the University of Toledo and participated at the Young Authors Conference back in the 1980s, when she was 8. 

“At the Young Authors Conference you’d hand write a book and create the cover,” Greenblatt said. “You’d leave with a book that you wrote that was bound. I didn’t know (at that time) that it was going to be a career for me, but I knew I loved doing it.” 

Greenblatt graduated from Sylvania Southview in 1993 and enrolled at Ohio State University, with a desire to work in television. Her senior year at OSU she applied to graduate programs in television production, which led her to move to California when she was accepted at the University of Southern California. Of 25 students in her graduate class, she was the only student with a dream to work in television. “Back then, everyone wanted to work in film,” Greenblatt said. “They were two different worlds. Film was prestigious, and television was not.” 

That attitude changed, however, by 2002, when television experienced a renaissance. 

American Dreams, Tru Calling and The Dead Zone

During her second year in grad school, Greenblatt worked at a production company that had shows on the air and pilots in the works. The head of that company left and Greenblatt began looking for another position.  An offer at NBC and Comedy Central followed and she decided to spend a year working in a non-creative capacity, assisting writers in the writer’s room, to explore where she might fit in the industry. 


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While working with a writer on a show called American Dreams, she was offered a promotion that, for unknown reasons, didn’t pan out, but did lead to working with another writer on Tru Calling (Eliza Dushku’s post Buffy the Vampire series) where she got her first “story by” episode credit. 

For season two she was set to write a freelance episode, but the show was canceled. Instead of continuing as an assistant for one writer, Greenblatt asked to become the assistant for the entire room. “When writers get together in a room to work out stories, the assistant in the room keeps track of everything that’s said and keeps the conversation moving toward a completed work product – part referee, part conductor. The writing process is a group effort, where ideas are batted around and perfected. (The assistant) is an important role where being a good listener is key, while also providing a step on the path to working at a higher level. If all of that sounds chaotic, it is,” Greenblatt explains.

Nashville

Things finally came together with Nashville, a show that had a successful run from 2012 to 2018. With that show Greenblatt was co-writing episodes before finally becoming a staff writer. “It was a longer journey than I expected, but I learned a lot, I worked with great people and I was always writing.” 

A writer’s career advances through representation from agents, but writers get most of their jobs by networking, and being in the writer’s room provides that. 

The strike and the future of writing

One of the issues which precipitated the strike was the shortened numbers of episodes per season and the resultant effects on newer writers. If lower-level writers are coming in on a contract that only covers the writer’s room, and they never see the process of the script they’ve written being produced or the problem solving process of altering a script to match budget constraints, it’s difficult for them to access additional writing opportunities, as Greenblatt did. The LA cost of living is very high and it’s difficult to make ends meet on a low-level,  staff writer’s salary. 

Will jobs be replaced by AI? 

Greenblatt admits that the Writer’s Guild has not dealt with those issues. The strike seemed to garner more support across the board due to the impending reality of AI and how that may affect a huge number of jobs across industries. “There’s a lot of anxiety that, for publicly-traded companies, the easiest way to reduce cost is with people,” Greenblatt said. 

There are doubts that streaming in its current form is a sustainable model. There are only so many customers and the shows cost millions per episode, so, to continue to produce,  ad revenue will be needed,  which means streaming will likely become online cable TV.  Streamers disrupted a model that worked, only to find their model is ultimately unsustainable. Greenblatt relates that she doesn’t think anyone knows yet what that means for the future.

Advice for future writers

“It’s a weird time right now for the industry,” admits Greenblatt, ”but you don’t need a lot of formal training to write, though taking a class helps you learn proper format. Access scripts for TV episodes or movies so you can see what it looks like on the page before it becomes the final product. All writing starts with a character. The best books start with a character in chapter one and take that character on a journey. The thing that matters most is having a character with a goal and an obstacle — that’s your most important skill as a writer. Recall your life experience and write about it. That leads to writing that catches people’s eye and opens doors.”

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