Breaking into the business

Robin Buda
5/28/08

Writers Mentoring Program provides opportunities

CANASTOTA, N.Y. - Ever wanted to be a writer for a hit television show? Had dreams of working with some of the best creative minds in the business? Well, look no further. The CBS Diversity Institute Writers Mentoring Program is just the ticket.

Its goal is to positively impact the presence of diverse writers throughout the entertainment industry and prepare hopeful writers for employment opportunities in television.

The focus is to provide networking opportunities for diverse writers. In its first four years, a total of 28 emerging writers of diverse backgrounds have graduated and 15 careers have been launched.

''CBS is committed to building and nurturing an environment that values diversity throughout the entire company, as well as the entertainment industry at large. CBS has been on the forefront of making diversity a reality through a wide array of initiatives targeted to writers, directors and actors including mentoring, workshops and talent showcases,'' said Josie Thomas, senior vice president of diversity for CBS, in the Diversity Institute's mission statement.

The program helps aspiring writers learn the unwritten rules of breaking in and moving up in the business; it is very hands-on.

''Each program participant gets a mentor from the executive ranks of CBS, CBS Paramount or The CW. The mentors help select the program participants and meet with them on a regular basis to give feedback on the scripts the participants are writing,'' she said.

''This ... builds relationships that are invaluable in breaking into the entertainment industry. ... The participants attend weekly seminars with industry leaders so that they get an inside perspective. Workshops allow participants to experience how a writers room works, how to prepare for and conduct a job interview, how to pitch a series idea to studio and network executives, look at new technologies, and hear personal experiences and advice from established writers, producers, agents and managers.''

Programs like this came about as a result of a partnership among minorities.

''I was part of a coalition, frustrated with the fact that we didn't see an American Indian on television,'' said well-known film and television actor, writer and producer Sonny Skyhawk, Sicangu Lakota and chairman of the Screen Actors Guild Taskforce on American Indians. ''Out of that frustration, we joined with other minorities. ... We joined hands with them and challenged the networks to be more minority-associative. ... Discrimination is a big word. It's a catch-all. And it's not a word they [television networks] want to hear. They don't want to be in the limelight.''

Members of this coalition sat down with representatives of several major television networks and cleared the air.

''In realizing this important goal [representing all races], CBS has forged important partnerships with many organizations throughout the industry. Diversity is best achieved through a collaborative spirit,'' Thomas said.

''We came to a memorandum of understanding,'' Skyhawk added. ''One of the agreements was to have access to address our concerns. We said, 'We want you to hire a senior VP person to address these issues.' Each network hired a director of diversity.''

Those directors were in charge of instilling diversity throughout each network. The coalition issued grades as to the progress each network showed in addressing the exclusion of minorities. The writing program is a direct result.

''It's opened the doors for our Native people to be a part of this industry. Our people have the same aspirations and career goals as anybody else. It's a positive to give young Indian people opportunities they may not have had,'' Skyhawk said.

The program has successfully advanced the careers of some of the writers - helping them land jobs as staff writers and writers assistants. Only one American Indian has graduated from the program. Currently a staff writer on a leading legal drama, she also teaches at a major university in Los Angeles and recently conducted a class for the current class at the writing program.

''Once graduated, our program participants remain in community with all our prior graduates. In fact, the first seminar meeting is with program graduates who talk about their experiences and give advice on how to get the most out of the program. Creative collaborations between our graduates are also happening,'' Thomas added, noting that she would like to reach out to other Natives, making them aware of this opportunity.

She feels the program is important because it gives participants a chance to meet and share ideas with working professionals in the entertainment industry.

''Proximity to people in decision-making roles constitutes the ladder to success in this industry. Moreover, the program is important to the entire industry because the new voices and new perspectives our graduates contribute to the industry will be heard by the entire viewing community.''

Skyhawk feels the writing program is a step in the right direction.

''Things are moving ahead. Maybe not as fast as we'd like, but, nevertheless, it's moving in the right direction. Are they doing enough? No. But it's a beginning.''

The program is establishing itself as a creative family - six years in the making - that maintains its connectivity in Hollywood.

The 2008 - 09 session runs from October through June. The application for the writing program must be postmarked no later than June 1.

CBS Diversity Institute offers four other components, including talent showcases, writers career workshops, actors career workshops and a directing initiative. For more information, visit www.cbsdiversity.com.

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