Talent On Tap – Sarah Dodd Delivers on the Pacific Screenwriting Program

If you’ve always wanted to write for television, this is the article for you. I am speaking with Sarah Dodd about the brand new Pacific Screenwriting Program. The program is a collaboration between Netflix, CMPA-BC, the Writers Guild of Canada and Creative BC. This is the PSP’s inaugural year and the turnout has been overwhelming. The program is for aspiring television writer’s that will be in real writing-room settings. You will feel like a professional, you will be familiar with a story-room, receive mentorship, connections and you will have one foot in the door.  I stuck my foot in an elevator one time and it didn’t have the same impact.


Our guest, Sarah Dodd is an amazingly successful television writer, showrunner and producer. She is currently the Executive Producer on the six-part mini series Cardinal. She is a passionate advocate for the local screenwriting community and very supportive of new voices. She has written and produced hundreds of television, both hour-long and half-hour long episodes. Ransom, Motive, Arctic Air, Falcon Beach are just a few of her contributions. She was extremely generous with her time and information about the PSP and I think everyone will appreciate the wealth of knowledge she shares with us.


“I had read that you will be teaching the very first class and leading the charge. What will that look like?”

“I will be for the first part of the program. We have six writers and myself and for 10 weeks we are going to run a story-room. Unlike a classroom scenario, this is more of what it would be like in a real world working writer share. I have a concept for a television series that’s an eight-part limited mystery. Over the course of 10 weeks the seven of us will talk big picture, we’ll figure out character arcs and themes along with what we want to do. Together as a group we’ll figure out all of the episodes. I will write the first episode and each of the six writers in the program will write a script. By the end of our 10 weeks we should have seven scripts and maybe even an outline for the eighth, which I would write later. The real goal is to experience a writers-room, as if you were hired on a show and Monday was your first day in the room. They will be working for me this time around since I’ll be going in with my own original concept but each year that we do this there will be a different showrunner with a different series concept. It could be a one-hour drama or half-hour comedy depending on what the showrunner wants to do. In my case it’s a one-hour drama. The writers already have the series proposal and are reading it and thinking about it. On this coming Monday morning we’ll get started.”

“Knowing you have the concept, do you also have a storyline and characters worked out?”

“I have some characters but it will all be part of our early conversations about making the strongest dramatic choices we can. I’ve given a proposal about who I think the killer is, along with the motive but we’ll be discussing it. For the first week or two we’ll be doing big picture stuff and coming up with what we think is the most exciting revelation and what’s the most satisfying.”


“How intensive will this program be in terms of attendance?”

“It will be a 40 hour work week together as a group but there will also be evening and weekend writing on their own time to meet the deadlines, just as it would be in the real world. Although we’ll wrap every evening, some will go home to have dinner and lives but some of them will have outlines to write, some will have first drafts to write and some will have second drafts to write depending on how far along we are in the process. We’re going to break every episode as a group, so the writer who’s writing episode 2 will be under the gun sooner than the one writing episode 7.”


“The writer assigned to episode 7 will have the luxury of more time?”

“They’ll have the benefit of having been through more script breaks in the room as well as being a witness to all the notes given to the earlier writers, which they can learn from but they will certainly still have to produce a first and second draft under a pretty tight deadline along with the rest. They’ll finish working with me at the end of 10 weeks, they will then have 4 weeks to work one on one with independent mentors on their own original material.”


Sarah continues,

“The program was hatched and created by board members Brian Hamilton and Liz Shorten.  I was brought on as the inaugural executive producer in residence. I’m coming at it as someone that’s been working in television writing-rooms since 1995. I will be bringing everything that I’ve learned along the way. We’ll find out what works and what doesn’t.  We’ll hone their skills and really immerse these writers into an experienced form where they could be hired into a professional writers-room. They come in Monday morning find out what show they’re working on. They’ll try to find the tone that I want for the show and make sure that their voice (when they write their scripts) will mimic the voice that I set out in mine. That’s really part of the job of being a television writer, when you’re working on other peoples shows.”


“How did the board determine the six finalists in the program?”

“It was a very competitive process. They created the website, had a lot of media attention and put out a call for applications to the program. That amounted to 137 applicants that had to be BC residents. Those are very exciting numbers and a lot of interest for just BC. When we received the 137 packages, they included reference letters, samples and letters indicating what the applicant wanted to get out of the program. A number of writers and industry people in BC had read through the first round of applications and narrowed it down to 40. There was then another level of judges/readers that narrowed that list down to 21. Those 21 applications then came to myself, the program coordinator, Raila Gutman and Ken Craw, our writer/producer who currently works on Heartland and is Vancouver based. He’s also part of developing the curriculum for the program. The three of us then read the through the 21 packages to narrow it down to the 14 people we wanted to interview for the 6 spots. One of the 14 people we called had thanked us very much for the call but declined because she had just been hired for another television show. We only  interviewed 13 people in the end and chose 6. It was a very tough decision because the 13 people all had excellent letters of reference, excellent samples, a real understanding of what they could get out of the program and that it really came through in their packages that they made it very clear to us that this was the next logical step in their career and that they were very serious about being television writers.”


Sarah continues,

“This is very much a focused professional level training for writers that already know that this is what they want to do and just need that extra push to be able to walk in the door and be a script coordinator, writers assistant or an entry level writer in a television writers-room.”

“Have you always been a BC writer?”

“Not really, I was born and raised in Victoria. I went to UVic for my undergrad before moving to Toronto, where I started my career in television as a writer. I was there for 8 years before moving back to Vancouver. I still had to travel back to Toronto and by luck, London, England for work over the years. I haven’t always had the luxury of having a writing room that I can work out of. Sometimes I’ve had to travel for work. I would love to be able to stay and work here but it’s not always possible. There aren’t  enough writers rooms or enough going on and sometimes the opportunities are elsewhere.”


“Do you find many US studios are bringing up their own writers when thy are shooting up here?”

“They’re not even bringing up their writers because they typically have their writers rooms in LA and are just shooting up here. The creative usually originates from the showrunner in LA and the writers in LA. It’s very rare to see television writers in Vancouver. Part of our hope is that, with the launch of the PSP the right people will see that we have the depth of talent here.


“It would be extremely wonderful if the program does have that impression at the end of its duration. What can they expect after the program?”

“Our hope is that the six participants will be fully trained to the point that, when the program is over they can apply to any story-room that is here and in a position to hire writers at their level. They will have the skillset to do it. After the 10 weeks with me they’ll have the one on one mentorship and will be learning about pitching and meeting agents, producers and network executives. They’ll also be taking rigorous script coordinating training, which is the entry-level position in a television story department. With that skillset they’ll be able to get their foot in the door.”


“Is it possible to go back to the earlier days in your career and describe how you first got your own foot in the door?”   

“I will say that I think it was a little easier back then only because it was pre-internet, pre-DVD supplemental and podcast. There is so much information out now on how writing rooms work as well as an awareness of story-rooms, the showrunner, spec scripts and original material. It wasn’t the case when I started out, so the idea that you could do this for a living didn’t occur to everybody. I did an undergrad in creative writing at UVic and found that I really liked drama writing. At the time I thought I might want to be a playwright. BC Film, which is now Creative BC had a program back then, which they’ve recently rebooted, called the BC Professional Writing Internship. I had applied for it and then had to go out into the world and find a showrunner who was willing to mentor me. If I could find somebody to say yes, BC Film would pay me a small salary for 20 weeks to hang out and shadow an intern with writers. I wrote to Paul Haggis on Due South and Chris Carter on The X-Files. The person that reached out to me was Marlene Matthews, who was the head writer for The Road To Avonlea. That was in Toronto and they were doing their final season. She didn’t know me at all and so I mailed her a letter outlining who I was and what the mentorship was all about, offering my services and a writing sample. For some reason, she said yes so I packed up the car and drove to Toronto. For the next 20 weeks I interned at the production office of Road To Avonlea. I learned on the fly and was shadowing the existing script coordinator and learning how to do that entry-level job, how to be a producers assistant, how script distribution worked, what rewrites entailed and what kind they had and how fast they had to get them out and why and everything. When the show was coming to an end, Kevin Sullivan was starting up his next show and moved the script coordinator to the new show to start it up, so I filled her position because I was there, I knew the job and was already trained. I was in the right place at the right time.”


“Do you find the process quite different from those days?”

“There are some pretty big changes in which you can now email scripts as opposed to putting hard copy scripts into an envelop and onto a Fed Ex plane in time to be flown to LA.  It’s also much easier for aspiring writers to get their hands on sample scripts and talk to professional writers through twitter. There is also a proliferation of screenwriting training in the world now compared to when I was growing up as well. There so many schools pumping out writers onto the scene just in BC so there really isn’t enough work to support all those people. It’s very competitive. I don’t think it would be enough to be an undergrad degree in Creative Writing now. I think you would need to have, not only killer samples but you’d also have to do advanced training through the Canadian Film Center in Toronto or the PSP here in Vancouver and get that next level training in how to navigate and behave/what’s expected inside a TV writing room. You can’t learn those things in university until you’re in it because you just don’t know. Its really important to get out there and make connections and get in touch with people doing the same kind of work you’d like to be doing and let them know you’re keen on working. If you can find people to read your work and give you feedback, that can only help. I think you have to be further along in your development as a screenwriter to get in now than was the case when I got in.”


“Have you been in a writing room where they’ve brought in new writers?”

“Over the years I’ve worked with lots and lots of different writers and different rooms. I have worked on multiple seasons of a television show where we kept mainly the same writers. Writers get busy between seasons that they make other commitments. In the US they can afford to put a hold on writers while they wait to see if their show has been green-lit for another season. Here, nobody can afford to hold writers and we all have to make a living. Then you have to find new writers.”


“How do you go about finding new writers?”

“Certainly it’s a small tight knit community here in Canada. We’ve got about 2500 members in the Writers Guild of Canada so at this point I already know a lot of writers I’d like to work with. It really depends on what kind of show it is. For example, this is a procedural with lots of investigative twists and turns. Who are the writers I know and want to work with that have experience on procedurals. There’s also the producers that want to introduce you to some exciting writers they think might be a really good fit for the room. Then there’s the agents that inundate you with their clients they think would be good for your show. The networks sometimes have ideas of who might be great for a project as well. When you staff a room you staff with all different levels. You’re looking for different things from different people. You want a really senior experienced strong number two that you know can keep running the room when you have to step out and take meetings and do other jobs of the showrunner. You’re also looking for that junior writer that you want to give a shot to, because all of us, whatever our story remember what it was like when we were first breaking in so we’re always ready for that person that is keen and well positioned and ready for that first break. Those people are usually on somebody’s radar somewhere. You start to keep a list.”


“Would that list include writers of film or writers trained in television writing?”

“If we were looking for a writers assistant or script coordinator, it’s possible that we would take on someone that’s only written short films or features but want to be in television. If we were talking about staff writers, they’d definitely have to have television samples. We prefer to have someone with writing credits most times.”


“Would you bring in a doctor to help in the case of writing a medical show and the terminology?”

“Yes, we’d have consultants for that. Any show like that we would definitely hire at least one consultant. We’d bring them in, ask them questions and get scenarios from them. They’d then read our work to make sure it sounds authentic. We don’t necessarily have to hire a doctor writer or a lawyer writer but they certainly exist. I know a few ex lawyers turned TV writers.”



“I know you’ve written on many shows, such as Arctic Air, Endgame, Code Name Eternity, Blood Ties, Motive, Ransom. Are there specific topics/genres that attract you?”

“I really like one our crime drama. Motive was one of the highlights of my career. I loved working on it. I’ve also had some great experiences working on half-hour children’s shows too. I’m pretty open to a wide variety. I’m interested in character journeys and exciting new approaches to storytelling/new worlds. I really don’t like to close myself off from any possibility.”


“Considering your career in writing has primarily revolved around TV writing, would you consider writing a feature film?”

“I did do the National Screen Institute Feature First Program with a feature that I wrote. It has never been produced and it was a very good learning experience but I’m pretty happy in TV and not really looking to make a change.”


“I’ve heard about how much some writers will get paid for a feature film but I’m not familiar with the salary of a TV writer. Would you be able to shed some light on that?”

“It really varies because it depends on your experience as a writer and your agents negotiating power. Your agent will negotiate a rate that will essentially become your quote for your next job. Over the years and with more experience you get, the more valuable you become and your salary should reflect that. When you’re writing on a television series writers get paid a weekly salary for showing up and doing their job in the room, being story editors, giving notes and participating in everything. They also get paid separately for the script that has your name on it. So in addition to your weekly fee you get your script fee. You’ll get paid in four installments; signing your contract, delivering your outline, delivering your first draft and delivering your second draft. If and when that particular episode goes to camera you’ll also get a production fee, which is a percentage of the budget for the episode. That’s the Canadian model but it’s a little different in the US.”


“If somebody wasn’t a TV writer but had a great concept for a TV show, what type of advice would you offer them?”

“Keep writing and keep reading all the time. When you reach the point where your writing is strong and clear and you know what you’re doing you’ll want to get an agent. An agent will give you credibility and they will know of opportunities before you will. They also represent the showrunners who need to staff those writing rooms.


“Is it more difficult to find an agent in Canada?”

“No, there are a number of really good agents in Canada but also you don’t have to be limited. You certainly can have an American agent, I do. He is in California but he reps a number of Canadians working in Canada. He knows our industry as well as his own. You don’t have to be in the same city as your agent. In fact, in some ways its better to have an agent who’s at the center of what’s going on.”


“When you’re writing episodic TV, would the character arcs be shorter due to smaller roles?”

“It really depends on the nature of the show. Some shows are heavily serialized, meaning their storylines connect episode to episode and you watch them in order. It seems to be the way things are going, with binge watching on Netflix. People are really investing in these characters and want to see them go on this journey. If we’re talking about traditional network procedurals, there tends to be less character growth because the episodes are traditionally meant to be stand-alone episodes and are often aired out of order. We’re in a really exciting time as television writers. I sort of equate it to rich novels that you can take 6 or 8 or 10 episodes to really dig in deep and tell richer stories across the episodes.”


“Hard work and dedication seems to be what will get you to a professional level and a career in this industry. I’m sure you really appreciate it that much more once you’ve reached that level of success.”

“That is so true, you really do. When I mentioned how competitive this program is to get into and the level of talent that I saw in those applications, I was blown away and am very confident that we could fill this program easily for the next five years. I’m pretty excited at the level of talent just in this province in terms of new voices and emerging writers.”


In closing, Sarah adds,

“I think it’s a real exciting time because the world is so hungry for fresh content. My advice to writers would be to just keep writing, keep polishing and honing your work, keep coming up with new ideas, keep connecting with other writers and reading other scripts. Keep feeding your brain, experiencing the world and feeding your writing. If you keep going and keep practicing, there are so many people out there that are hungry for new stuff.”   


We can’t thank Sarah enough for taking time out of her busy schedule and giving us the goods on the PSP and television writing. If this article has helped to clear up some of the misconceptions of television writing, you can thank Sarah Dodd for that. We certainly did.        


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