On a recent fall evening, Correne Kristiansen, a student in UCLA's new course in TV Development, paced the linoleum hall outside the classroom. Her lips moved silently as she prepared for the midterm -- a practice pitch before a panel of industry pros for an original dramatic television series. Some of her fellow students were outside, smoking; others gathered for a last-minute consultation with their pitch partners.
They had been told that the average industry executive hears 400 pitches a season. They had six minutes. They had been taught that passion was the key.
Soon the room would grow warm with bright, excited voices doing their best to sell ideas about, say, an out-of-work guy who opens a weekend brothel in his loft, astronauts in love and on a mission to Mars, or maybe "The Wonder Years" meets "Head of the Class" with a "How I Met Your Mother" subplot.
A new breed of media student, these people see opportunity in the exploding, competitive world of television and want all the help they can get -- no matter how nervous it makes them. Responding to the demand, UCLA this year has added several new television courses, such as TV Development, taught by Touchstone's vice president of drama, Channing Dungey. The class aims to shape showrunners -- the creator-writer and producer behind a series.
According to Robert Rosen, dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, the field has become increasingly attractive as cable and series television has improved in quality, and work opportunities have multiplied through a dizzying array of channels and new technologies. Students now "see possibilities for dramatic programming as sophisticated in many instances far more so than the area of motion pictures," Rosen said.
The students in Dungey's class are in their 20s and 30s and represent a fraction of those who had applied for admission. Some already hold internships or part-time jobs in the industry.
Their professional aims vary.
Television is the "primary medium of our time," said Byron Hudson, a student who wants to participate in "cultural dialogue." He described his pitch as "a 'Northern Exposure'-esque character-driven dramedy." Because movies are getting dumb and dumber, he said, television is where he can "push the envelope."
Sebastian Matthews hopes to create a groundbreaking series like "Lost" or "Heroes." "There's something very special about telling your favorite stories to 14 million people at once," he said.
As he sat at a table with friends waiting for class to begin, he said he suspected that more than a grade might be at stake that evening. "It's a big opportunity," he said, referring to the panelists who would be judging his idea -- a story about a ladies' man who runs a business to help less successful guys win the girls of their dreams. "If I put myself in the shoes of an executive and I'm here amongst creative young people and somebody has a great idea ... then why wouldn't I keep in touch?"
Only amateurs are afraid someone might actually steal their ideas, he said. Still, he had registered his idea with the Writers Guild.
Kristiansen, a former attorney who interns at Touchstone and produces a comedy show in Beverly Hills, wants to create a hit sitcom. Considering the amount of television she consumes, she said, "There's no job in the world for which I am better qualified."
For their midterm, the students appeared to have followed the advice in one of their textbooks to dress as if going to a backyard barbecue: Casual, but nicer than they usually dress for class. They were paired in random teams, each with a "showrunner" and a "development executive" to make their pitches. They drew numbers to determine their order and when it was their turn, sat facing the panelists -- Jennifer Turner, vice president, drama programming, NBC Universal Television Studio; Jocelyn Diaz, vice president, drama development, ABC Television Network; and Daniel Pipski, senior vice president, production, LivePlanet.
Despite a long day, the panelists listened attentively to each student, took notes, asked questions and offered gentle advice.
The students experimented with a variety of suggested approaches, including starting with a logline ("If Boston's underground syndicate doesn't kill him, law school will,") explaining how they wrote what they knew ("Before I had to prove to the INS that I was legitimately married to a nonresident immigrant, I was unable to relate to the people involved in immigration politics,") or sound effects ("Mary is sitting on a huge skyscraper. Below her is a dog furiously barking at her. Bark! Bark! Bark! Splat! Mary's body has just quieted his bark.")
Loretta Ramos, a "development executive" whose role was to introduce the "showrunner" and make him look good, began with an optimistic prediction about the weekend brothel idea, called "Lofty Expectations." "We think that precious demographic of twenty- and thirtysomethings will tune in week after week to see one of their own try to get ahead in that very American way: pure, unashamed capitalism," she said.
The judges took a dim view. "I've been to screenings for movies with a brothel element and those are horrible screenings," Pipski said. "Most of America doesn't want to see it."
On the other hand, they liked a story about a Boston law student who decides to start an Internet porn site. And they really liked "Mission to Mars," about a new generation of space explorers with a very tangled back story. ("He doesn't want to go to Mars. He just wants Karen.")
Drawing position No. 7, Kristiansen took a breath and launched into her idea: a corrupt prosecutor, faced with his own mortality, decides to reopen his past cases and seek justice for those he had wronged.
In a key scene, the attorney learns he has cancer. "He leans against the wall outside the hospital, unable to walk, near tears. Finally someone stops and asks him if he needs help," she said. It turns out to be a homeless beggar the attorney had dismissed earlier. Kristiansen's voice broke and her eyes welled up.
"Sorry!" she said with a little laugh. "It's a powerful scene."
The judges smiled indulgently. After all, series television is, by definition, high pressure. Lesson learned.