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Interview with ISA Fellowship Winner Sean Collins-Smith

Ever since graduating from film school in 2010, Sean Collins-Smith has wanted to move to Los Angeles to pursue a TV writing career. His goal seemed unobtainable, though, until he won an ISA Fast Track Fellowship on the basis of his pilots End of Life and Lifers Anonymous. As part of his ISA prize package, he scored a week of industry meetings and wound up signing with manager Jewerl Ross of Silent R Management. He'll be moving to Los Angeles in September.

Q: What can you tell us about your background, and the scripts you entered in the competition?

A: I come from a background that's big on writing and telling stories. I double majored in Cinema and Broadcast Journalism at Virginia Commonwealth University. I'd always wanted to direct movies, but the Cinema program was writing intensive, and trying to hone my craft while living through the beginnings of the Golden Age of Television solidified writing as my passion. After graduation, I worked at a Richmond, Virginia, news station covering crime during the midnight shift. It was a dark, macabre world and I used the downtime I had between listening to police scanners to start writing my first pilot script. It ended up being OK - I entered it into one contest, was a quarterfinalist, then kind of moved on - but I sent it around to my friends and family, and they really dug my storytelling style.

END OF LIFE and LIFERS ANONYMOUS were my second and third pilot scripts, respectively, and the ones I'd eventually enter to win the Fast-Track Fellowship.

End of Life is kind of a mix between Grosse Pointe Blank and Léon: The Professional. It's a dark comedy concerning a euthanasia hitman who stages murders for the suicidal and takes a chunk of their life insurance as payment for himself and his team. He ends up reconnecting with his estranged daughter, which fuels not only a lot of the tension in the pilot, but will serve as the emotional drive of the series.

The old adage of "be ready to pitch at least three more ideas" is definitely true! Almost every meeting that week inevitably turned to, "So what else are you working on?" Thankfully, a manager I'd met at the Atlanta Film Festival told me to have multiple story ideas for films/tv scripts at the ready for situations exactly like this, and I took that advice.

Lifers Anonymous is basically Veronica Mars told through a grounded fantasy prism. In the 1920s, the main character, Zoe, wishes for immortality in a drunken state of disbelief. One hundred years later she's an antisocial, depressed private investigator with no friends or family. Eventually she stumbles upon the secretive, titular group Lifers Anonymous, and it dramatically alters her worldview. I always thought the worst part of living forever would be being alone - now that she sees there are others like her, where will her story go?

Q: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you outline your scripts, or follow any particular paradigm or structure? How long does it take you to go from idea to finished product?

A: A blank page can be both daunting and exciting as hell.

I've always found the process to be a little easier if I set up story and character beats in advance, kind of like mile markers. I know some people just write with no idea where it's going, but for me that's impossible. If I know exactly where in the narrative and in the character's history I want to drop the audience into this new world, that makes writing the teaser infinitely easier. Of course, that involves conceptualizing and mapping out the world and the history of your story beforehand.

After that, I try to give myself the aforementioned mile markers, usually beginning with the ending. By the time this journey is over, how do I want the pilot to end? What final moment or image or turning point do I want seared into the audience's retina, so they come back for part 2? What, thematically, makes sense? If I can have a narrative bookended by exciting - even disorienting - character and narrative beats, then setting those markers in between is that much easier for me.

With A-Z figured out, I get to work on everything else. I try to write with act breaks in mind, even if I envision the project on a commercial-free platform like Netflix or HBO. This allows my main focus to be propelling the action forward in an engrossing way. That doesn't necessarily mean it has to be pulse pounding, but it should, at the very least, be interesting, unexpected and serve the overall story.

As a sidenote, I'll mention I've never read any of the books that experts have suggested to me. My main reading has always been the teleplays and screenplays for films I've most admired. Hell or High Water, Firefly, The Leftovers, Cast Away, Dark City, The West Wing, No Country for Old Men, you name it. I either own their scripts in hard copy or have their PDFs, and by digesting their descriptive flow, the dialogue, the character motivations and the writing style, I've learned so much and found my own voice.

Q: The Fast Track Fellowship offers its winners a week of meetings in Los Angeles. How did those meetings go? What did you learn?

A: It's not an exaggeration to say that week in L.A. was the most exciting and educational five days of my life.

First off, the people the ISA lined up for me to meet really do respect the organization and trust they've selected stories worth reading. Because of this, everyone I met actually took the time to read my material beforehand. I can't emphasize how amazing that is. I went into meetings where they'd not only read both pilot scripts, but they had questions about the first season's arc, different characters' traits and my influences for writing the script in the first place. This was insanely educational for someone like me, who'd only met with executives once in my life.

A word of advice for anyone with meetings set up: the old adage of "be ready to pitch at least three more ideas" is definitely true! Almost every meeting that week inevitably turned to, "So what else are you working on?" Thankfully, a manager I'd met at the Atlanta Film Festival told me to have multiple story ideas for films/tv scripts at the ready for situations exactly like this, and I took that advice. You'd be surprised how much stock managers and development execs take in those on-the-fly pitches. Two of them straight up asked me to send me those finished products when I was done writing them. A third told me if one of my pilot pitches was as good as the completed pilots they'd already read, they'd have me in to pitch it to their boss.

That's incredibly motivational, as it just encourages you to consistently have more ideas at the ready the next time you've got meetings set up.

One last thing: remember the people you're talking to are not just gatekeepers of pop-culture, they're consumers of it. Chances are they've seen something that's influenced your work, so don't be afraid to talk shop with them about favorite movies and tv shows. You two probably have more in common than you'd think, and you'd be shocked what seemingly unrelated actor, film, show or scene you could end up bonding over, which can make pitching a much more conversational affair.

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Silent R, with whom you've just signed for Management. Was that one of the meetings you took in Los Angeles? What made you want to sign with them?

This just serves as another example of why what the ISA does is so important. One of the people they sent my scripts to works for Silent R Management, and I was scheduled to meet him the week of the fellowship. However, he loved one of my scripts so much that he immediately passed it up to his boss, Jewerl Ross, who owns Silent R. Jewerl called me and asked if we could meet that week, too, because he was interested in signing me right away.

That's not something you ever think can happen, yet it did, because all it takes is one person to connect with your script and your story.

Deciding to go with Jewerl was part of a larger, overall conversation about what I wanted to do with my career. Was LA in my future? I still wasn't entirely educated about what exactly managers did and what they could offer in terms of professional growth and industry exposure. So how did all the managers I met that week fit into that equation?

Eventually, what made me decide to sign with him was two things: the guy's utterly brilliant and he seemed like someone who would challenge me artistically. He's got a small, accomplished client list, and I found that to be encouraging because that would mean he'd answer my calls and devote time to me as a client. But in the end, I wanted someone who could give me unvarnished truth about my work, and challenge me accordingly.

Q: We understand you'll be moving to Los Angeles soon. Was that always part of your long-term plan, or were you encouraged to do so during your Fellowship week?

From the moment I graduated film school in 2010, moving to L.A. was always something I looked at as my white whale. Something desired but unattainable. In the interim, I did plenty of worthwhile things - worked at a news station, earned a master's degree in multimedia journalism, taught journalism at my alma mater for six years - but I always kept writing. Because I knew my ultimate dream was to have that "created by Sean Collins-Smith" tag attached to something, and I also knew to do that, I'd more than likely have to move to Los Angeles. I guess I just needed a push.

This fellowship was that push. It helped me network, find my manager and get my name around town.

Q: Have you entered other writing competitions? How did you choose which ones to enter? Any particular words of encouragement or caution?

I'm still fairly new to the writing competition and festival circuit. I didn't begin routinely entering contests until early 2017, and I was admittedly overzealous at first. I kind of just scoured Film Freeway and entered my script into anything with "TV" in the title.

I do not recommend doing this. Many of the contests I entered weren't necessarily illegitimate, they just simply didn't have much to offer except small cash prizes ($100, $200) against fees of $50-$75. You enter ten of those, and you're down a chunk of change with not much to show for it.

What I started doing shortly thereafter was researching the ones that routinely made the list of "top writing competitions." I also looked into those with a heavy social media presence. This lead me to enter several bigger ones, like the Austin Film Festival, Nashville, Screencraft and the Atlanta Film Festival (and, of course, the ISA Fast-Track Fellowship). I wanted to enter the festivals with notoriety and which offered good networking opportunities.

One of my biggest takeaways in entering competitions, specifically ones attached to festivals, is that if you're a finalist, network your ass off and nurture those connections down the road. As a finalist in both Atlanta and Austin, I was able to have "mentor sit-downs" with showrunners and managers that were remarkably insightful. I made it a point to connect with them on Twitter and stay in regular contact with them through email, which has led to script requests and opportunities for meetings in L.A. that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

I also learned to discern "good coverage" from ego-boosting coverage. Some of the best pieces of script analysis I got pointed out real flaws in my plots and narrative connections and possibilities I'd either missed or flubbed. There's one reader with WeScreenplay who I've gone back to three times with three pilot scripts, because I know he/she is truly observant and gives great advice for how to boost the quality and catharsis in a given narrative.

(Posted: 06/10/2018)