KELLY EDWARDS is the veteran producer and creative executive who has worked with every major Hollywood studio. Mentored by legendary director Garry Marshall at Disney and famed producer Laura Ziskin at Sony, Edwards has served as a comedy executive at Fox and headed up UPN's comedy division. Her book THE EXECUTIVE CHAIR: A Writer's Guide to TV Series Development is brand new from Michael Wiese Productions. We spoke recently about social protocols, navigating Hollywood, and breaking into and staying in the industry.
Order Kelly's book here.
Dave Watson: First of all, congratulations on your book. Your journey through the entertainment industry is uniquely yours. How did this book come about?
Kelly Edwards: As you see from the book, I outline what that journey was, and how every single opportunity I’ve ever had, came from a hookup from a friend. I used to scoff at the term “It’s who you know.” But my entire career is the perfect example of that.
I happened to connect with writing coach Jen Grisanti at some event and she recommended I meet Claire Terry who runs the Rocaberti Writers Retreat. Through Rocaberti, I met Kathie Fong-Yoneda who said, “You should meet Ken Lee who works for Michael Wiese Productions. I think you should write a book.” I got a call from Ken two days later. He said, “How would you like to write a book?” And we were off to the races. It was an unlikely chain of events. But here I am, now an author.
DW: The book starts with a section called Laying the Groundwork. This always seems important in navigating the system and getting your story made. Why?
KE: I always think you need to know the rules of the road about the sort of business you’re getting into. You need to know how things get bought and what the development cycle season is. You have to do your research before you enter into it. I say all the time, “Meet people where they are.” You need to know what was a precursor to streaming and when to pitch your show. If you’re pitching to the broadcast networks, you’re not going to go in December. No one’s going to buy in December or January. In July or August, they will buy. If you don’t know that, you’re going to miss your mark.
DW: So, timing seems key.
KE: Absolutely. We’re seeing the sun setting on network TV. Not that they’re going to go away, but they are changing and evolving. You need to know how they are changing so you can find your audience. You also have to take a look at where those audiences have migrated to. At one point there were the three big networks, then there were four, then five, then cable and premium cable. You have to see what audiences the networks are going after. Where you’ll pitch your male-driven drama or female-driven drama, or your comedy. If you’re looking for a younger audience, you’re going to go to the CW or Freeform.
It takes so much time just to create a pitch, taking it to the wrong place is a waste. I pitched a few ideas earlier this year and it’s exhausting. It was really hard to do on Zoom. So why not take your best shot at the best place that will actually be open and receptive to your ideas.
DW: You also have a chapter called, "Let's Do Lunch." I thought back to the memoir, You’ll never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.
KE: Yes! Great book!.
DW: These meetings seem key in Hollywood. What's this section about? Manners and social skills seem perennially important in Hollywood.
KE: This is not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s just information people outside the industry don’t usually get until they are on the inside. The idea for this book came out of the fact that I go to lots of festivals and conferences where I meet emerging artists. Because I came from both film and TV, and was a producer, and now I’m writer on Our Kind Of People, I have a very comprehensive, 360 degree-view of the industry and I’ve seen how it works, heard those insider conversations, and been privy to the intricacies of the industry.
When you send your resume to a company, it goes through an online portal. They do that for legal reasons. Usually when those things work in your favor, there’s another connection that has been made. Your resume is noticed because you’ve put in keywords that are also in the job description, such as “digital.” They search for those things. I’ve worked next to HR in the diversity space, and there are those little, tiny secrets and I keep thinking, “Why don’t we let people know these secrets? Why don’t we let them know how to follow up in a less-annoying way?”
This industry thrives on new voices. How are we going to get those voices into the tent? You have to make it easier. Let’s lower the barrier to entry and let new people in. Let’s make sure everyone has an easier shot than they do now.
When I got into this business right after college, I was like a stranger in a strange land. When people talked about lunch, I thought, “Why should we do lunch? We’re talking on the phone.” Then I realized, you do lunch to get to know people and form a working relationship with them that will last decades. You will run into these same people at events for the rest of your life. Everybody you start with, you end up with.
The important thing is to establish those relationships early, then develop and foster them.
DW: It almost sounds like a growth mindset. You have to keep growing.
KE: You have to keep your relationships up. You will be playing in this sandbox for a very long time. Whether you’re doing breakfast, lunch, cocktails, or whatever, there are also protocols for those. When you’re going to have lunch with someone much higher up the ladder than you, you want to go to them, show up early, and get a table. They also might cancel on you a few times and you can’t take that personally. Why not give people this information in advance?
DW: Yes, buy that book! Social skills and manners and hierarchy seem big in the food chain.
KE: Those of us who grew up outside the industry didn’t talk about these things around the dinner table. Those who did have a leg up on the rest of us. I always go back to the Paltrows. They knew the rules of the road. It was handed down. They understand the system. When I first got into town, I heard the phrases “Left word,” and “Returning.” I didn’t know how those words were supposed to be a sentence that made sense to me.
I came from a family of dentists, so I had no knowledge to draw upon. I had to learn it the hard way, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to.
DW: Are some of the insider rules changing? Are some elastic?
KE: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing. The rules are changing. The way the content is being discussed is different. When you’re looking at a streamer, they’re no longer using act breaks. We now talk about how to get people to hit the button for the next episode in a way we never did before. In the old days, creating serialized content was discouraged. Those kinds of changes are interesting and necessary.
I say in the book that early on in a relationship, you shouldn’t text. Some people in the business are on the old school side of things and prefer a phone call. We prefer an email that’s not too long and spell-checked.
One of my pet peeves is when people email me and they say, “Let me know when…” I throw those emails away right away. That person doesn’t understand that I don’t work for them. That it’s on them to follow up with me, not me to follow up with them. If you ping me every few months with something of value -- recommend a book I might like, or send me an article, or say, “Loved your post,” then we’re forming a relationship.
People who are annoying get kicked to the curb really quickly. You have to find a way to keep us engaged.
DW: Your book reads part memoir. And in it, you tell a story about being authentic and personal in your work and encourage people to do the same. Do writers who do those kinds of things succeed?
KE: I would say yes, 100% of the time. Write the story only you can tell. Make it authentic and unique to your experience.
The first thing I went out with I wrote right after the election. I was in a super-emotional state, and I put down on paper exactly how I was feeling. I was so distraught and screaming in my head all the time. I poured my heart out onto the page and people really responded. I still get calls from friends asking, “Whatever happened to that script?”
There are a thousand ways to get into this business, but the personal story is the most impactful way to break in as a writer. People will hear your voice the more personal your writing is.
DW: The perspective of executives is also important. Is it akin to a manager's perspective versus that of an employee (someone who "shows up" or merely "goes" to work?) It seems vital to gain this perspective in order to succeed with developing a TV series.
KE: Everyone wants a sale, but even more important than the sale is that they get to know you and want to ask you back. They may or may not buy that particular project, but they might buy something in the future if they like being in the room with you, One sale is one sale, but many sales, and a relationship that goes on, may keep you going in this business.
DW: What's next?
KE: Well, I’m on the show right now and love it. It’s just life changing. I feel so blessed and fortunate to be the writer’s room. I’m working with such a talented staff who is so supportive. The show will be on Fox. It’s a Lee Daniels production. Karin Gist is running the room.
Personally, I have this novel I’ve been working on. I decided to do something as a departure for me. I started writing it in January, It’s dark, like Stephen King. and now I’m 30,000 words into it. I’ll be posting my progress online on my website.
DW: What's your favorite cinematic moment?
KE: I’ll give you one that is probably one of my favorite moments, and mind you, I don’t think in pictures, I think in words. I think about what the words look like on the page and when it comes to life on the screen, I’m always completely baffled about how that happened. I love moments that are surprising, and hit you in the gut, and give you that little feeling you’re going on a roller coaster.
There’s a moment at the end of Heaven Can Wait, when Julie Christie and Warren Beatty, have fallen in love and then his character is killed. And at a certain point, he’s reincarnated. But Julie Christie doesn’t know this. And he doesn’t remember her and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. And as they’re walking out of the stadium, the lights go out and he says something to her, and she realizes that he’s been reincarnated into the body of a quarterback. The lights come up and she says, “You’re the quarterback,” and you think, “Oh my god! There is hope for these two people!” There isn’t even any kissing, but it is the most romantic, satisfying, fulfilling moment on screen. My heart just soared. Those are the moments, the ones that come after the climax, that pull it all together.
Clip: Heaven Can Wait
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.