Industry Pro: TV Writer/Producer Alicia Kirk

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Alicia Kirk at Her Desk - Criminal Minds

Treating your writing career as a small business might be a unique idea, but it has informed profile subject Alicia Kirk’s path in the television world and empowered her in a business where it can seem like, unless you are on top of the heap, you have no power at all. From her entry into television through her ascent up the writing staff ranks, Alicia has always kept one eye on the road, ready for when the unpredictable world of network television throws another curve in her path. Readers are wise to take that lesson with them for thier own entertainment careers.

Current position:  Producer on “Criminal Minds” (CBS)

College & degree:  I have a BFA in screenwriting from USC.

Internship: The summer after my junior year in college I interned at a small production company called Persistent Pictures.  While working there, I met my first lit manager.

First job in the entertainment industry: My first job was writing BAMBI II for Disney.  Animation writing was so much harder and more rewarding than I expected. 

What made you want to be a TV writer?  I’ve been a TV junkie my entire life and I love the medium, both “great” TV and “bad” TV.  I always wanted to be a TV writer, but the opportunities I got right out of college were in features and at that time, I was just trying to get a job– any job. 

After a few years writing features that were never produced, I realized I really wanted to see scripts get made. In television, we are always working on ideas that will get produced very soon.  Within a few weeks of writing a script, I’m talking to a director about locations, budget, casting, etc. For me, the process of production is as fun as the writing part. When I realized writing for TV would allow me to be part of producing scripts I’d written I became totally focused on getting into TV and staying there as long as possible. 

What made you think you’d be good at writing for TV? I really enjoy the collaborative process of filmmaking.  I love working with other artists who are the best at what they do and being inspired by other writers, as well as directors, DP’s, casting, costume, set design, producing, etc. In television, there is a lot of collaboration, both in the writers’ room and during the production process, and I thought I’d have a lot to bring to the table both creatively and as a producer. 

Big break: I’d been working on a feature script with Heather Graham’s company for two years when her first television show got picked up. She helped me get a meeting with the showrunner. Getting the job on that show was my big break into TV. That first staff writer job is the hardest to get and I had been trying for years to break in to no avail. I’d been working in features and wasn’t inside the TV world.  Without those contacts, becoming a TV writer seemed nearly impossible. Getting a staff writer job on Heather’s show was the biggest break of my career to this day.

Eureka moment (when you realized you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently, etc.): When I realized that I am my own business. Instead of feeling like my future employment relies on luck or the whim of a powerful player, it was really empowering to understand that I make my own product that I try to sell to clients. My business does not have the same security that working for a giant corporation does, but it does have profit participation and great potential for growth. This realization empowered me greatly at a time when I felt powerless about my future. It motivated me to work my ass off, finish a script, and start another one… and another after that. I still believe this kind of empowered thinking is responsible for whatever success I’ve achieved and will achieve in the future.

Best advice you ever got: There are two pieces of advice that I’ve never forgotten and have helped me through tough times-

1.) Every single person in this town wakes up every morning and wants a great script. Actors, producers, directors, and executives are always looking for great written material. If the pages are great, then not a lot else matters, so stay focused on writing great stuff and don’t get lost or feel defeated by “networking.” Just put your ass in the chair and write.

2.) The only people I know who are not doing what they want to do are the people that quit. This is an entrepreneurial business and sometimes things aren’t going well and you must regroup and change strategy but you have to keep going.  Do not give up.

Career path: After I graduated from college I worked as a tutor and a nanny in order to work as few hours as possible (though of course, thus I also made as little money as possible) in order to have time to write scripts. For me, working outside the business was very helpful because I had a flexible schedule and also because, for me, reading scripts was really depressing and often demoralizing.  I could never figure out why one script would sell and another one wouldn’t, and my writing would get affected by my insecurity. This isn’t true for everyone, but when I was just starting out, it was important to focus mostly on writing and having a survival job that let me write as many scripts as possible.

I think this paid off immensely and helped me get occasional writing jobs in features until my big break into television, but later on I realized that the most important thing about that time in my career was that it prepared me to write professionally when the time came, I’d worked for five years on nothing else but the craft of writing and re-writing. In television, there is no time to wait for inspiration; ideas need to get pitched & notes listened to & scripts written on a deadline.

Since I was hired in television, I’ve written a new original pilot almost every year in order to keep my work fresh and be ready for staffing season which can come unexpectedly- even while on a big show that seems like it’s got a few more years in it.  The week “Without a Trace” was canceled, we were #11 in the ratings. The business can change on a dime but being consistent in keeping up with material helps a lot when riding out unexpected waves. 

Describe a typical work day in your current position: I get to work around 9am to futz around on the internet, returnAlicia Kirk at Board - Criminal Minds emails, chat with co-workers and assistants and then I’m ready to get down to business by 10. We have a full day of the writers’ room Monday, Wednesday, and Friday where we work as a group on the episodes that are getting ready to go to outline. Tuesdays and Thursdays we work on writing our scripts, outlines, and boards for developing episodes. 

It’s a very collaborative atmosphere that values each writer’s individual process so we also meet in smaller groups to work on each other’s episodes at all stages of the process- board, outline, and script.

Worst job (or day) in entertainment industry: My worst job was working in an environment run on insecurity and fear. I do very poorly in those environments because it’s hard to get invested when the job is more about politics than about making a great show. I didn’t realize it at the time, but ultimately it was a very important learning experience.  If I can, I’ll try to avoid that kind of environment in the future.

Best job (or day) in entertainment industry: The best day ever is any day an episode of mine (on any show I’ve ever worked on) starts pre-production. Concept meetings, location scouts, casting concept meetings… I love it all, especially the first day of prep. Every single, time it reminds me of being a little kid that wanted to get into the movie business and, on the first day of prep, it seems really crazy and incredible that I’m actually doing it.

Best thing about your current job: Great leadership. At any workplace the tone is set from the top down and, in a creative business, this is even truer. A truly great leader is decisive while valuing others’ input. When I feel valued I feel invested, that makes me enjoy the work I’m doing. 

Worst thing about your current job: So far really loving it, I honestly can’t think of anything. Yet.

Brush with greatness (can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do): The first celebrity I ever worked with was Heather Graham and I was pleased that she was incredibly kind, generous, and joyful. Years later I looked back on that experience and became surprised in retrospect, as since then I’ve met many people with her level of success and fame that did not hold on to the love of doing an artistic craft for a living.  Every time I think of my experience working with Heather, it reminds me that if I ever stop loving this then it’s time to get out. This business is outrageously fun and fulfilling, and if we’re lucky enough to be part of it then we owe it to ourselves and each other to be kind and most importantly, enjoy it.

Secret of your success/advice to the newbie: Write. A lot. And read Stephen King’s book, “On Writing.” He says some of the most helpful things I’ve ever heard and a lot of them, I say to myself as a mantra when I’m unsure of the future in this unpredictable business.  He has a lot of great advice and says it much more succinctly than I could.

Next move:  I’d like to focus on making great episodes of a show I adore for now and then develop my own ideas in a few years. I’d like to get more experience and learn from my current bosses before venturing out with my own pilot. My hope is that if I develop when I’m ready the process will be taken seriously and I’ll have the support I need to do it as well as I can.

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About JennyYM

Jenny Yerrick Martin is a veteran entertainment hiring executive with 20+ years in film, television, and music. She created yourindustryinsider.com to give students, recent grads and others a true picture of the layout of the industry, and how to break in, transition to a new area, or achieve more success on their current path.

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  • Brian

    August 4, 2010 at 8:28 am

    Thank you, YII, for this very insightful interview with Alicia Kirk! I am working on transitioning into writing for TV and found her journey and advice quite helpful!

  • Elise

    August 4, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    An excellent article about my absolute favorite writer ever!

  • Matt

    August 4, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Very helpful and inspirational interview. Wishing first commenter Brian the best of luck in his quest — see you there, Brian!

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