There are lots of screenwriters out there. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Most of them have dreams of taking one of the screenplays they have written to Hollywood and selling it, thus establishing themselves as a professional screenwriter and opening avenues to sell more scripts, Diablo Cody style. The fact is that this is rarely the way things go. Certainly having a feature screenplay or 20 to show to people is great. Sometimes new writers (and by new, I mean new to Hollywood) do sell completely original works to studios and get them made into films. It does happen, it’s just not what a writer should bank on. The bottom line is that even for even the most purist of screenwriters, having a teleplay or two in your portfolio is essential.
The most obvious reason for this is that there are simply more jobs writing for TV than there are writing for movies. A single show might have a staff of 3-5 writers (or more) as well as hiring a certain quota of freelance writers.
Another thing to consider is that because it is so tough to get a feature made as your first foray into Hollywood, it is much more pragmatic to consider your portfolio as writing samples. Having feature length screenplays in your portfolio demonstrates your creativity and knowledge of the long form. It shows a manager, agent or development exec that you have the ability to write 120 pages that are entirely your own creation. It shows that you have imagination, vision and the knowledge of the craft to put together a full length movie if need be. The teleplays in your portfolio demonstrate something entirely different, but equally important. They show that you have the ability to write with given parameters. As we covered before, most screenwriting jobs in television. The other two most available jobs as a writer are either as a rewriter or a writer for hire. Most of the time the way it works is you are given a log line or a treatment and are asked to make it into a screenplay. This is writing with a preset number of rules. If you are not able to adapt your writing to these rules, you are no good as a writer for hire. Teleplays display your ability to take a preconceived set of characters and parameters and adapt to write for them in a new and fresh way.
There are two different schools of thought regarding what shows a writer should write specs for. Some say that, obviously, you write for shows you want to work on. This is the most logical stance as you demonstrate to the writers/showrunners of the show that you can write for their characters specifically. However, others argue that it is not smart to turn write specs for the shows you are trying to write for. The reason for this is that the writers/showrunners for a show will almost inevitably be unimpressed with your attempt to write for their show. They are the experts on that show. You are writing for characters that they work with everyday. Nobody knows that show better than its own writers so the idea of submitting to them a script for their own show is not only ludicrous but insulting. You have a much better chance of impressing them if you write a great spec for another show that they are not necessarily the experts on. Then they know that you have the ability to take existing characters and adapt your own writing style to their specific and predefined voices.
There are writers out there that think that writing for TV is below them. They think that writing for film is a pure art form and television is just the hacky cousin to that. Forty years ago they may have been right, but the age of the formulaic sitcom is gone. Cable television, HBO and Showtime have raised the bar in a big way and the networks have answered back. Some the best, most talented writers working in the industry today work in the world of television. The shows run the gamut from action to drama to comedy, long format to short format to miniseries. The thing that is consistent is that almost everything has left behind the episodic format that allowed for freelance work to be the norm. They are all ongoing storylines that allow for complex and interesting character development which then, in turn, draws in some of the most talented and ambitious writers. The Office, LOST, Entourage, The Sopranos, The Daily Show, Battlestar Galactica, 30 Rock. These Emmy nominated shows are home to some of the best writing out there today.
“...when people ask what the turning point was for me as a young writer I always tell them it was winning at the AFF. It's what opened the door for us, and we've been moving on-ward and upward ever since.
Now, we're working on the job of a lifetime. Yes, life is good. We're eternally thankful to the AFF and the springboard it gave us...it made us respected when we were lowly PA's. It made us legitimate in the eyes of the biggest agencies in town. It made possible everything else we've done. “ – Stephen Scaia (Stephen Scaia and Matthew Federman won the TV Drama category in 2003 for their spec for The West Wing entitled The Second Law of Thermodynamics)
“A few years ago, I was a judge in the teleplay competition and was so impressed by the winning entry that I had my agent read it. A few weeks later, the winner had an agent at UTA and has been a working writer ever since. It can happen. So polish your "Office" or "Nurse Betty" or "Mad Men" until it's blindingly good and enter it. You never know.” – Jim Dautrieve (King of the Hill)