‘Empire’: Inside The Writer’s Room

Screenwriters panel on script development and Cookie's quips

(Image: File)
(Image: File)

Fox’s musical drama,”Empire“, is not only a fan favorite among TV viewers, but also a cultural television phenomenon and record breaker.  Week after week it has increased its ratings. In fact, “its season finale drew more than 17 million viewers and saw a 70% increase in ratings since its premier. The best results for any new series on any broadcast network in a decade,” noted Black Enterprise SVP and chief content officer, Derek T. Dingle, at the session Empire Talks Back: Inside the Writers Room, which was held at the American Black Film Festival in New York, June 12-14.  Dingle further noted that “Empire” has something in common with Black Enterprise, in that it is not only about a black family and black family business, which you rarely get to see on television— much less in a scripted series. What’s more, it is a show that is watched in real-time, meaning people aren’t waiting to see it on DVR.

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Presented by FOX/HBCU Media Alliance, the panel included four staffers of “Empire’s” diverse—race, gender, sexual orientation, and background—writer’s room, discussing how they develop the story lines that captivate viewers each week.

While it appears timely, mirroring current societal issues, the episodes have actually been written months in advance. “We wrote the first season in a vacuum, it was pretty much done writing the first season when the show first aired in January,” explained story editor Joshua Allen, an actor and playwright.

Beyond dealing with the issue of homophobia, one of the main characters suffers from bipolar disorder. Mental illness is not something that the black community likes to address directly, said co-producer and writer, Eric Heywood. “It wasn’t about grabbing a hot topic or headline and making it into a story, Andre’s condition was there from the first episode, which sparked conversation the more we delved into it,” adds Heywood, a former music video producer.

The writer’s room can be like a war room, where writers speak up, out, and about issues that are important to them. They fight for their stories, but know when to back down and fight another day. The panelists all chime that “Empire” co-creator and producer, Lee Daniels, like’s the audacity of the show, citing the “bib” moment” on season 1, episode 2. The bottom line: it is a soap, it is drama, it is entertainment.

The writers were quick to credit to Tarij P. Henson for coming up with some of her own infamous zingers on the show, from ‘Boo Boo Kitty’ to ‘Shut up Dora.’ So, her adlibs make it onto the show. Henson has credited her father for her quick-wit.

The writers also admitted that Twitter is also an inspiration for real dialogue, even adding that it is important to support projects by people of color on Twitter, as a powerful social medium. Hollywood executives and advertisers are paying attention to Twitter.

Here are some inside tips from “Empire’s” writers:

1. Apply to network writing programs: Every network has a writing program, including, NBC, Warner Bros, Disney, HBO, and FOX, where you get to workshop scripts.  However, for Fox’s Writers Intensive, you have be referred by an agent for Fox, a showruuner, or a group like the Organization of Black Screenwriters. Also, you have to have a script, preferably a full script or a spec. It is important to make sure that you have a portfolio. You have to have some experience compared to ABC’s writers program, which is designed for more new writers.

2. Transitioning into screenwriting: You have to be constantly working on your craft. Write all the time. It sounds very basic. But you don’t want to be in a position where someone says “Show me what you got, or let me see a sample of your work,” and you say “Uh, I have to get back to you.” You want to have something ready to  hand someone at anytime.  You have to move to LA. Keep in mind that shows are hiring year-round. Some networks have three pilot seasons.

3. Working as a team: Apply to a a writers program or an intensive, as a writing team. Your essentially representing two heads for the price of one. When it comes to getting an agent it can be tricky. So, get the job first and then try to get an agent to represent you both.

4. Having a good spec script: Reading fan fiction of a show is generally a “no-no.” It is a slippery slope in trying to give a writer on a show a script of an episode that you have written for that show. There are rules and legal issues. What if, coincidentally, what you wrote suddenly appeared on the show? Also, drop aspiring from your resume–you are either a writer or you are not.

5. Most important skills: As a writer you need determination, dedication, and tenacity.