Everything you need to know about applying for the ABC Disney Writing Fellowship

Breaking into Hollywood is extremely difficult, and ask anyone...getting a creative job is even tougher. Luckily, there are systems in place that help new writers break into the biz, and this includes requiring shows to have a limited number of scripts be written by non-staff members, diversity programs, and writing fellowships. One of the most competitive fellowships to obtain is the Disney ABC Writing Fellowship. This program staffs newbie writers on an ABC or Disney television show for one year, pays a yearly salary of $50,000 with benefits, and offers opportunities for mentorship and representation. As you can probably tell, this fellowship is a BIG FUCKING DEAL. If other ways of breaking into TV writing such as working as a writers assistant or obtaining representation on your own has not worked out in the past, then the Disney ABC Writing Fellowship may be something you should explore.

This year's application to the Disney ABC Writing Fellowship closed in May, but hopefully this post will help aspiring TV writers with next year's application (provided that the application format will not change too drastically the following year.)

The  2014 application required  the following (blue is taken from the Disney ABC website and black is my commentary):
1) An original pilot script that captures the writer’s unique tone, style and point of view.
2) A spec script for a live-action cable, broadcast or streaming-service (e.g. Netflix, Amazon, etc…) series airing during the current television season. Applicants are encouraged to select a series that is well-established in at least its second season. The spec script should demonstrate the writer’s ability to adapt to an existing format while at the same time infusing a unique point of view and sensibility.
Material should tonally translate to the type of programming broadcast on DATG series. Both samples must be live-action content. Animation samples of any form arenot accepted.
I applied to the Fellowship in 2010 and the application was slightly different then. I only needed to submit one spec, and I submitted a Modern Family that was THE BOMB! I was so stoked that I made it to the next round, but to my horror, they asked for another spec and I was given a few days turnaround. I had a 2 1/2 Men spec that I had written while I was a screenwriting student at USC, but I knew it wasn't my best work. I submitted it anyway because I was desperate. There was no way that I could write another spec in the turnaround they gave me. Of course, I did not advance.

The point of the story is this: the first round of this application is asking for two scripts but if you are serious about wanting the fellowship, you better have several other television scripts on deck if you get the call or email. After all, the program's method of the few day turnaround was a great weed out of people who either couldn't write a new spec fast enough or who hadn't taken the time to write a ton of material.
3) Completed application and signed release forms for each script.
4) Résumé outlining chronological salaried employment (may include entertainment and
non-entertainment positions). Only list jobs or positions where compensation was received with the exception of entertainment industry internships and full-time volunteer work at non-profits.  Positions must have been held within the past 10 years (two pages or less).
5) Biography reflecting the applicant’s unique life experiences and personal stories (500 words or less).
The quality of your scripts is generally a good indicator of your talent and how dedicated you are to writing, and your resume and biography are good opportunities to showcase how dedicated you are to becoming a professional writer. As I discuss in the next section of "Who should enter", although industry experience is not required, your experience is a good indicator of how well you will do at the "professional" aspects of television writing, i.e. working in a writers room, politicking, networking, pitching, etc .
6) Letters of recommendation (optional) from entertainment industry professionals who have read the applicant’s material and can comment on the applicant’s ability. Letters from representation (e.g. agents, managers or attorneys) will not be accepted. Letters must be on letterhead and dated in the current calendar year. It is recommended that those signing recommendation letters include either a title or a brief introduction indicating their position or status. A maximum of two (2) recommendation letter(s) are strongly encouraged, but are not mandatory.
Although letters of recommendation are optional, I have a hunch that letters from high-level television writers will greatly push your application forward. It's an unfair advantage for a writer's assistant on a hit show who got a referral from the executive producer to compete against Billy from Kansas City who got his community college professor to write a letter, but you can't tell me you don't see the logic of who would be a smarter choice to get the fellowship? My advice: don't get mad about the inequality. Figure out what you can do to get your own advantage.

The website states the following criteria:
"Applicants must be able to legally work in the United States and be at least 21 years of age. Television production experience is not required, but strongly recommended. Past participants who entered the program with television production experience (e.g. writers’ assistant, script coordinator, etc…) have found that knowledge helpful in establishing a writing career. Those applying must submit a completed application and the following."
The website states that entertainment experience is not required. However, let's all just be realistic here. This opportunity staffs a writer to work on a professional show such as Scandal that has millions of viewers. This fellowship pays a legitimate salary. This fellowship receives thousands of entries a year. Do you think that they will really pick someone who seems casual about television writing or who is too inexperienced to handle the job? 

A similar opportunity that pops up in my mind is American Idol. American Idol is one of the biggest platforms that any singer can be on, and if a person is good, she doesn't even have to win to launch her career. Knowing this, would it be smart of her to get on the finalist stage and perform averagely because she hasn't built up enough experience entertaining audiences? Or would it be better for her to spend a few years perfecting her craft and then go on the show and blow everyone away? Like American Idol, the ABC Disney Fellowship shouldn't be looked at as just a job. It's the chance to springboard a career. 

If you want to be a television writer, you need to write television scripts and you need to write consistently and quickly. For the Disney ABC Fellowship, your arsenal should include TV specs and original pilots. The number one thing that will distinguish you in this application process is your writing sample so make sure that it is properly formatted, free of spelling and grammatical errors, matches the tone of the show if it's a spec, and is "A+" material. If your work is derivative (i.e. boring) or if your work does not match the show, then keep writing. Don't submit your "B" material when at least 100 others in the pack are submitting professional quality work and those 100 script writers probably have other "A+" quality scripts waiting as backups. Because there is so much competition, even the 100 great scripts have to compete with one another for 8 slots. Keep this in mind and act accordingly. 

To reach your "A" game as a writer and to show ABC/Disney and Hollywood in general that you are a serious aspiring TV writer, you can do the following:
  • Take writing classes. This will help you meet other writers and get feedback on your work. Plus, this will not only teach you more about writing but it will acclimate you to the workshop-style that is similar to a professional writers room.  Do you need a screenwriting degree? Not necessarily. It doesn't hurt because it shows how serious you are about writing, but degrees do not trump talent. If you can get away with taking writing classes at theaters or community colleges, then go for it! Learning is learning. 
  • Get a television-related job, preferably in Los Angeles or New York. This is the best way to see what the business is actually like and whether or not it is something you want to do long term. It's also a great way to network, and you know the saying: "It's all about who you know." If you can't land an industry job (it doesn't have to be writing-related), try to get an internship. If that doesn't seem likely, try to find independent work. Sometimes those independent gigs can lead to meeting more people who can eventually get you a professional gig. Don't be afraid to take anything you can get as long as the gig is a learning opportunity. If you're just being used as a coffee errand boy and the people you are working with have nothing to teach you, then walk away!
  • Most of all, keep trying and keep a good attitude. There are no overnight successes. Many of the people who you see as successful in their field actually worked on their craft for years. If television writing is something you want to do, you have to somehow also show that kind of dedication. 
After the application, you usually get a phone interview and you may or may not be asked to submit more samples. After that, if you are chosen as a finalist, you are invited to a mixer, and this is not just any old let's-drink-and-chat kind of affair. At this mixer, you will be judged, and it can make or break whether or not they give you the fellowship! Information about the mixer is not found on the Disney ABC website, but the heads of the program do talk about it if you ever have a chance to make it to one of their informational sessions. 

So anyway…what happens at the mixer? The structure of past mixers reminds me slightly of The Bachelor. A bunch of desperate candidates are forced in a room with Disney ABC executives, and they are given a short amount of time to mingle and wow those executives with their smarts, graciousness, and ability to be interesting but not annoying. If you need further visual examples of a lopsided mixer, watch an episode of The Bachelor, an ABC show. 
Fight for your moment to shine, writers!
Does the idea of the mixer sound terrible to you? Do you clam up at the idea of wowing strangers or setting yourself a part from the pack? Sadly, this is the hard reality that I learned as a writer living in Los Angeles… if you can't sell yourself, there are other writers who both can write and wow a room. If you want to be a television writer, you got to learn how to turn on that charm switch. This mixer, no matter how foreign of an idea it is to most, is the program's way of seeing who has the personality to have longevity in the TV writing game. 

The idea of television writing sounds glamorous, but the reality of the job is this: it's a competitive, seasonal occupation and thus does not guarantee stability; the work is generally only located in Los Angeles or New York City; it's a job that requires one to write quality quickly and to write content that matches what one's boss wants; and unlike other writing jobs, TV writing is a team effort. As a television writer, you will spend the majority of your life in a room with the same small group of people. Think about the writers room in 30 Rock. 
If this is the life you want, then you better keep writing!
If after reading everything I've shared with you, you are still interested in applying next year, then I lovingly tip my imaginary hat to you. You are closer to achieving your dream, and I'd like to hear about your process in the comments below or on Twitter!

Good luck!