Four Alumni on Why You Should Apply for the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program
By Emily Gagne ● April 24, 2018 14:00
The deadline to apply for the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program, a full-time, five-month program for TV writers that delivers a team-based approach to series writing, is fast approaching. If you’re still unsure whether you should apply this year, or if this is the right program for you, can we introduce you to four people who may be able to convince you?
We recently spoke with alumni Adam Higgs, Rachel Langer, Michelle Ricci and Hayden Simpson about their experience in the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program. Read on to find out what lessons they learned and contacts they gained during the program, as well as details on the amazing industry opportunities that followed.
WHAT WERE YOUR BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM YOUR TIME IN THE BELL MEDIA PRIME TIME TV PROGRAM?
ADAM HIGGS: I had such an incredible experience working in a room with a showrunner and my fellow residents, and it prepared me for every subsequent room I’ve been in. I met my agent [through the CFC], who I still work with today and is a good friend. I made invaluable contacts that led to my first pilot sale and so many gigs since. I got an executable plan to accomplish my goals.
In essence, I got a career thanks to the CFC. But more importantly, I made lifelong friends with the other residents. These are people whom I love dearly, people whom I spend Christmas and share stories about jobs and life with.
RACHEL LANGER: The biggest lesson I learned was that it takes a lot of layers to be useful in a writers’ room. Getting the chance to be in a functioning story room was an invaluable experience.
The other major lesson I came away with is that writing is 90 per cent persistence. It’s a grind! You come in thinking that it’s magical and creative and fulfilling in every moment, but it’s really a lot of work. What comes through that persistence, and the value you find in the work is where the true magic is. The Prime Time Program puts you through the paces in such a way where you’ll either rise to that challenge, or you won’t. It’s such a necessary thing to learn early on.
MICHELLE RICCI: The TV program is the best career accelerator in the country, and arguably in a class by itself in the world. It gives its participants direct access to showrunners, producers and networks, as well as a platform for pitching directly to those in a position to hire. What can take years to achieve, the CFC provides in a matter of months.
But what I think was even more valuable for me, in hindsight, was the degree of confidence the program instilled in me. [After the program] I knew I could handle a story room and notes, I knew I could contribute in an important and unique way, and I knew I could actually forge a career for myself doing what I loved. Confidence is hard-won in any creative industry, and having people who believed in me unconditionally was everything.
HAYDEN SIMPSON: The poetic answer is I walked away with more confidence in my writing, a sense of direction and momentum in my career. But I literally left the program with a solid sample that got me an agent and a wide network of industry contacts. And gout.
A still from CBC series Burden of Truth, which Hayden Simpson worked on.
HOW DID THE PROGRAM PREPARE YOU FOR WORKING IN STORY ROOMS?
AH: There are very few programs that put you in a real writers’ room. This is one of them. It allows you to understand how to pitch stories, build on other’s ideas, collaborate, give feedback, bond with your colleagues, break ideas, talk character arcs, and so on. There’s really no [better] way to prepare for this stuff than by doing it.
RL: I think you often underestimate the amount of time and energy that’s required to do what we do as writers. It’s not just pitching ideas—it’s listening, it’s critical thinking, it’s knowing the flow and energy patterns of the story room, it’s learning to lend your voice to someone else’s vision. It’s also learning to multitask and support your showrunner however you can. The program teaches you that you need to find your own spot and function within the room, and use it to add value.
MR: The program gives you a safe space to figure out your place in a room, with unconditional support and a real-life showrunner to explain how it all goes down in the real world. When I got to my first real-life story room, I wasn’t afraid to express my opinion, and I had all kinds of advice from working writers in my back pocket for the various situations I began to encounter. It made it much less stressful, and my integration into a pre-existing room that much more successful.
HS: The program gave me the confidence and experience to hit the ground running on the first season of Burden of Truth. It’s a crash course in story room dynamics because a TV writer actually spends most of their time sitting in a room and talking.
More importantly, though, the program taught me how to dispassionately deal with feedback. Part of the job is putting you and your heart onto the page, so it’s tough not to take it personally if someone hates your work. But the other part of the job—the crappy part—is taking notes, which is never fun. The most important lesson I learned was not to fight notes, but to look at what they’re really saying about my work. It was often the note behind the note that showed me where I needed to improve my craft.
A still from Syfy series Ghost Wars, which Rachel Langer worked on.
IS THERE SOMETHING SPECIFIC YOU LEARNED IN THE PROGRAM THAT YOU USED/USE WHEN WORKING ON SERIES LIKE SCORPION (Adam); GHOST WARS, REBOOT: THE GUARDIAN CODE AND THIS LIFE (Rachel); MURDOCH MYSTERIES AND FRANKIE DRAKE MYSTERIES (Michelle); AND BURDEN OF TRUTH (Hayden)?
AH: It’s hard to single out any one thing. Being a TV writer means building on your skills in every room you’re in. Those early days working at the CFC on Orphan Black helped prepare me for [Republic of Doyle], and that in turn [prepared me for] Haven, and then Scorpion and so on.
RL: Don’t panic! Although I have still done my fair share of panicking on all of those shows, the program helped me to expand my capacity to withstand the pressure cooker.
On This Life, there was a moment where we realized that the end of the episode I had just turned in needed to be the beginning. The showrunner looked at me and said, ‘Can you do that in three days?’ I said yes. And I did. Though there was a fair bit of stress eating in there, I knew I had the capacity to get it done.
There were times during the program where I thought, ‘I can’t do that this quickly!’ But generally you can. It might not be gold, but copper is a workable start.
MR: Writing is often a solitary enterprise, but TV writing is the exact opposite. Collaboration is key and having the experience of a real story room in a safe environment like the CFC taught me the best idea should always win, and to appreciate and use the skills of others to augment my own. We’re all in it together, and the more a room and a production can feel like a team all working toward a common vision, the better the show will be.
HS: [Working] with Executive Producer in Residence, Karen Walton, gave me my first taste in writing a serialized show. Learning to adapt and adjust my script as the story evolved in the room was a huge asset on BoT. With things constantly in flux and your script suddenly no longer making sense, you’re forced to find fixes fast.
Even learning how to serve a showrunner is a useful skill. My job as a junior writer is to make the showrunner’s job easier, which begins with delivering a script on time. The program’s blistering pace got me battle-ready for the practicalities of writing for production.
A still from CBC series Frankie Drake Mysteries, which was co-created my Michelle Ricci.
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO APPLY FOR THE PROGRAM?
AH: All through my time at the University of BC (UBC)—going to events, chatting with guests, meeting writers—everyone spoke so highly of the CFC. I did my research and realized that this was THE program for TV writers in Canada. It quickly became a goal of mine to go to the CFC in hopes of taking another step forward [towards] my dream of becoming a TV writer.
RL: So many people I’ve admired had come through the program, [so] it seemed like a no-brainer to apply. I didn’t expect to get accepted, but I am so thrilled that I did.
MR: The CFC seemed like the best kind of prep school, [featuring] a practical approach that wasn’t all reading books and talking about theories, but actually doing the work. And it was exactly what was promised, and so much more than I could have expected.
HS: I was looking for guidance and direction with my career and the program came highly recommended. I learned how to write in a vacuum, how to write scripts in my spare hours before and after work and on weekends. But more than anything, I wanted to work with a group of writers who were at the same point in their careers.
A still from This Life, which Rachel Langer worked on with alumnus Joseph Kay.
HAVE YOU COLLABORATED WITH OTHER CFC ALUMNI (FROM THE BELL MEDIA PRIME TIME TV PROGRAM OR OTHERWISE) SINCE COMPLETING THE PROGRAM?
AH: Too many to list. The CFC has produced wonderful talent in all manner of positions: actors, composers, directors, editors, writers, network execs, etc. The TV program especially—it is such a stamp of approval. When, myself, or my friends are looking to hire new writers, we call the CFC.
RL: I am currently developing a project with Joseph Kay, who was my showrunner on This Life, and is an alumnus of both the Prime Time Program and the Showrunner Bootcamp.
MR: The industry is full of CFC alumni, so yes, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many and look forward to working with many more.
HS: On Burden of Truth alone, I have worked with CFC alumni Shannon Masters, Lynne Cody, Eric Putzer, Felicia Brooker and Julia Holdway. And I co-wrote an episode of Burden of Truth with my fellow alumna and third-favourite person Laura Good.
After six-exhausting months in the Prime Time Program, [Laura and I] immediately found ourselves working together again. Could we have used a break from each other? Probably. But we further cemented our collaborative spirit forged in the program, writing an episode of television that makes me proud. And we’re continuing our creative partnership in the development of an original series.
A still from CBS series Scorpion, which Adam Higgs worked on.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING TV WRITERS?
AH: Read as many scripts as you can and write as many scripts as you can. It’s the fastest way to get better.
Also, be aware that TV is a collaborative medium. It’s the beauty of it. You need to learn how to both give and take notes and ideas. Writing groups and workshops can help develop these muscles.
RL: Don’t be afraid of the grind. You can’t escape it. Never stop writing, no matter what else is going on in your life.
And get out there! Meeting people is so important. It often feels like playing the long game, but I promise it pays off.
MR: Almost everything in life comes down to luck and timing. But what most people don’t see in the good luck of others is the enormous amount of preparation that goes into being ready to take advantage of the luck and timing.
So write, and write some more, and don’t give up. Apply to the CFC. If you don’t get in, apply again.
HS: The obvious answer is WRITE. Every day write something that comes from your heart. It’s the most efficient way to improve your skills. Absolutely study the craft by reading scripts and watching shows, but you have to write to be a writer.
And meet people. Get out there, introduce yourself and build relationships with other writers. They’re the people you’re going to be working with. And they’re often the ones that are going to hire you. Don’t be phony or sycophantic. Be genuine, honest, open and humble. Just don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Writers have a good nose for sniffing that out.
And never be afraid to ask for advice. Every writer has had help along away and most are very happy and willing to pay it forward.
A still from Orphan Black, which was developed through the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program.
WHY WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE PEOPLE TO APPLY FOR THE PROGRAM?
AH: It’s the best. There’s really nothing like it in the world. It allows you access to a writers’ room and all the business contacts. If you want to write television, you should want to participate in this program.
RL: Whenever I’m discussing the program with new writers I tell them that there are many ways into the industry, but the Prime Time Program is a fast track. There are no guarantees in this business, but this program opens more doors than any other program I’ve come across. Once they’re open, you just have to have the guts to walk through them.
MR: You have nothing to lose by applying and everything to gain. You’ll meet the entire industry while you’re learning to apply your talent to the unique construct of a story room. You’ll gain confidence, experience, contacts and friends.
As [I said] above, if you don’t get in, apply again. It’s not the only way into the industry, but it’s arguably the best way.
HS: If you’re a good writer, the CFC can make you great. I encourage anyone who is confident in their writing and ready to take some big steps with their career.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. There are long hours and a long commute. But it’s the best opportunity to improve your craft, make great connections and commit your life full-time to your passion.