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I spent more than 20 years working as a journalist before having what my family still describes as a midlife crisis. And maybe it was. In 2016, with little warning, I quit my job and moved from Chicago to L.A. with a mission to live out my college dream and break into Hollywood. Make no little plans, right?
Starting a new career in any field presents its challenges, but becoming a TV writer and producer is a different kind of beast. There’s no game plan that guarantees a win. I got my foot in the door as a production assistant on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, and then I landed a writers assistant gig on Showtime’s The Chi.
By 2018, I was on an upward trajectory — I had co-written a script for The Chi and subsequently secured a staff writer position on USA’s Suits spinoff, Pearson — but one lesson I quickly learned is that this is a relationship business. In the dozen or so “coffee meetings” I talked my way into while trying to find the right entry point, I’d hear people mention other writers, producers, directors or studio executives with the description, “We came up together.” It was clear they both celebrated and commiserated with peers with whom they shared their climb. I needed that, and The Producers Guild Power of Diversity Master Workshop supplied it in spades.
The 11 participants in my class came from all walks of life — a seasoned documentarian, two professors, a reality show casting producer, a Fulbright scholar, a budding movie director, a writers assistant, feature film writers and producers — and we were all comrades in arms. The workshop’s setup fostered an unparalleled spirit of camaraderie and collaboration.
I was assigned two PGA-member mentors, Emmy-winning editor and producer Julie Janata and Alicia Agramonte, executive assistant to the CEO of Revelations Entertainment, who had distinctly different insights that I could draw from. These women understood and experienced the barriers many of us face in this industry and shared strategies on how to overcome them.
The workshop also excelled in getting me ready for the market. At every session, established professionals came in to speak on topics ranging from how to navigate the politics of a writers room to how to break down a script in terms of costs and scheduling. We met two evenings a week for two months, and the curriculum was tailored to suit our individual projects and skill levels. We were all required to submit weekly homework assignments and prepare for a midterm and final. It was very intense. Time management, especially for someone working full-time like me, was crucial.
One of the biggest benefits for me was the workshop’s crash course in pitching, a critical first step in getting any project made. I started as a stumbling, blundering mess — or at least that’s how I felt. But over time, I got better. I have since put my training to work in pitching both a feature film and a TV series to industry executives — including producers I met through the workshop. After all, it’s a relationship business.
While there is often more conversation about the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry than there are efforts to cure the problem, the Power of Diversity Master Workshop exemplifies inclusion as a solution. From the mentors who return year after year to nurture fresh voices to workshop co-chairs Sasheen Artis and Matt Johnson, who work to connect over 180 alumni to industry veterans, the Producers Guild of America forges new pathways to get more diverse projects made.
Ultimately, isn’t that what we need?
Applications for the Producers Guild Power of Diversity Master Workshop are due March 25 for the two-month 2019 edition, which begins June 3 and ends Aug. 1.
Sylvia Jones is currently a writer on season two of CBS All Access’ Tell Me a Story. She recently wrapped season one of USA’s Pearson and wrote the screenplay for Lifetime’s You Brought the Sunshine, a biopic of the Clark Sisters. Jones earned her first writing credit on season one of Showtime’s The Chi.
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