Tawnya Benavides Bhattacharya: “Don’t sweat the commission”

Get a business manager! — Some of us are great at doing our accounts and taxes and invoicing and all that. But some of us… not so much! It’s math, it’s stressful, it’s a lot of work! So, when I bit the bullet and got a business manager, it was a total game changer. Yes, it costs […]

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Get a business manager! — Some of us are great at doing our accounts and taxes and invoicing and all that. But some of us… not so much! It’s math, it’s stressful, it’s a lot of work! So, when I bit the bullet and got a business manager, it was a total game changer. Yes, it costs money, but it’s worth it. You have other things to do!

As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Tawnya Benavides Bhattacharya.

Tawnya Benavides Bhattacharya is both a TV writer — currently a co-executive producer on Salsa (Apple) — and the founder of Script Anatomy, the leading TV writing school in the country.

From a small farming town in Washington, she came to LA without any money or show business connections. And TV can be a tough industry for writers of color, particularly women. As she struggled to break in, she taught screenwriting on the side. But for Tawnya, teaching was not just a paycheck, but a passion, a way of giving back and creating a community that emerging writers like her needed.

She launched Script Anatomy in 2011, just as her own writing career was getting started. Her goal: To use her experience of building a career in TV, to help other writers do the same. And as her writing career has bloomed, so Script Anatomy has grown, bringing diverse new voices to our screens year after year.

Today, Tawnya and her writing partner Ali Laventhol, are on the verge of becoming showrunners. Their credits include A Million Little Things (ABC), Ginny & Georgia (Netflix), Perception (TNT) and many more.

And Script Anatomy is a force in this industry, with 26 instructors (all working writers), all teaching a curriculum that Tawnya devised. And it has the most successful alumni of any television writing school in the country (47 fellowships since 2017, some of them showrunners). The Script Anatomy method has been brought to the Disney/ABC Writing Program, the Producer’s Guild (PGA) Power of Diversity Workshop, the Austin Film Festival, to name a few.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in a little farming town in Eastern Washington, predominantly Latinx. Nothing much happens there but the town parade. It’s real… quiet. And from a young age, I was desperate to get out and live in the big city, for all the culture and life and opportunity. Through Vanity Fair Magazine and television, I just knew there was more to life, and I figured if I could just make it to college in Seattle, that would be a start.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I wanted to be an actress at first. I studied drama and playwrighting at Cornish College of the Arts, and then I came to LA to, you know, “make it”! But I couldn’t break in, so I started writing instead and taking courses wherever I could, working jobs at hair salons and shops. I started out thinking I would write something for myself — the old Sylvester Stallone/Rocky story, but then realized I much preferred writing. After taking a two-year program, I was asked to teach screenwriting for the company, and that side gig became a passion for me. Plus, I truly believe that teaching makes you a better writer. It’s also a way to build a network, which everyone needs in this business, especially in LA. That’s why I didn’t give up teaching when I got my first writing job — I did the opposite: I started my own school. I wanted Script Anatomy to be the mentor that I always wanted coming up. At first, I was the only teacher, with a handful of students. But if you care about your students, they do well. And they spread the word. That’s how Script Anatomy came to have a life of its own.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I like to think that it hasn’t happened yet 😉 But honestly, when I started it was before #MeToo and #TimesUp, and it’s been just fascinating to see how those movements have changed, and are continuing to change our industry. Particularly from the perspective of a two-woman writing team, and as the founder of a women-owned screenwriting school. It’s been a long time coming, and we’re by no means at the finish line, but the change is happening — I see it everywhere.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

On my first job we sometimes ate in the room together. A handful of us were eating and talking and I told them a hysterical story I had just read by Jill Soloway about an obnoxious famous person. Then, an upper level writer came in, heard the story, and became very offended because she knew that famous person personally and insisted that this famous person wasn’t “like that.” It was as if the upper level writer thought I was spreading gossip. This was a published story! But it did teach me that you have to be careful because ultimately Hollywood is a small town and you don’t know who other people know. So, proceed with caution!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have a couple of stories. One in India, and one in LA.

I lived in India for two years because of my husband’s work. And despite it being an enriching experience on many levels, leaving LA to live halfway across the world felt like I was entering a parallel universe and my goals and dreams had died on the plane ride over! A few months in it got to me, I had a mini-meltdown. There were tears. OK, there was some ugly-crying. And a friend of mine took me to lunch the next day — he’s a successful whiskey importer, I describe him as the Indian Joe Pesci.

Anyway, when I told him how I felt so far from my goals in life, he had two questions: 1) What’s stopping you? And 2) What are you doing to activate the situation?

I don’t know why but those questions really struck a chord. Maybe it was because, in India, it can be incredibly difficult for someone to rise up if they haven’t already been handed huge advantages. But I lived in America, where with enough tenacity, drive and faith you could do anything, right? So, why hadn’t I activated my situation? I realized that I had told myself no a lot and that my responsibility was to stay focused, to say yes and to go for it rather than psych myself out or convince myself why I couldn’t achieve something. The Indian Joe Pesci made me realize that I have opportunities that many people don’t — I just need to “activate the situation.” Block out the negative. Take action. Move forward. You’ll get there!

But then I returned to LA — and I want to say that, truly, it takes a village. Some honorable mentions are definitely the NBC Writers on the Verge Program, that launched my writing career — that program was how we got our first manager, agent and subsequently, our first staff writing job. I am forever grateful to Karen Horne and Jen Grisanti who ran that program at the time we did it in 2010/2011.

And I’m a part of this amazing group of Latinx women put together by the formidable talented powerhouse, Tanya Saracho, the creator of VIDA on Starz. We’re called The Untitled Latinx Project. These women are everything. While we all already had our starts, we continue to support each other, share information, meet up and reach for our goals. We’re committed to helping Latinx writers in this business, to increase our representation in this industry, get our stories told! Script Anatomy is now offering a scholarship to Latinx Writers Assistants, to help get their work in shape to get staffed as writers.

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of failure?

As a TV writer there is simply no success without failure. Real talk! You will go for many jobs and not get them, you will pitch many shows that don’t sell. But you just cannot have the wins without the “no’s”. No one can. So, think of it this way — since you have no choice you may as well embrace the “no’s”, and try to stop seeing them as failures at all. They’re just a part of the journey. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to sting, of course it is — but try to love that sting. Love that pain. Because it means you’re getting somewhere. Every “failure” is a step on the road to success. So, really, it’s not “failure” at all. Sounds cliché, but it’s true! Just remember that those who never feel that sting of “failure”, they don’t make it.

What drives you to get up everyday and work in TV and Film? What change do you want to see in the industry going forward?

I love story. I love collaboration. I love that in this business, one script, one job can change your life. And this is such an exciting time in television! When I broke in, in 2011, there was no Hulu, Amazon, HBO Max, Epix and so on. You had to staff on Network Television or hope to get a job on a cable light channel. At the time, Netflix had just started doing TV with House of Cards and getting on a pristine network like HBO or Showtime was not easy. Everyone wanted those jobs. Now there are more job opportunities and more varied content.

The change I want to see is diversity. And it is happening, there is progress. As a person of color, it’s beyond exciting that diversity is no longer just a buzzword, but we are genuinely starting to see complexions, cultures and characters that we had not seen on our screens before.

But we still have a long way to go. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been offered to supervise a show where the writer is white and wrote a show about people of color — as though writers of color are just optics. But we’re much more than that, we have stories to tell.

That’s the change that Script Anatomy is a part of — to bring more writers of color into this industry and actually sell shows and get them on the air! One of the great joys of Script Anatomy is developing new diverse voices and watching them flourish in the industry — our results are on the air. We have some exciting plans lined up, scholarships and partnerships. There’s nothing more exciting than being a part of positive change.

You have such impressive work. What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Where do you see yourself heading from here?

Script Anatomy is now worldwide. We have clients from Iceland, India, Australia, India, England, Paris, Luxembourg and all over Europe. We’d love to have a Script Anatomy incubator and production company in time, and that’s something we’re working to create.

As a writer, I’m really excited about the project I’m on now, currently titled “Salsa” for Apple. I’m not sure how much I can say but it is based on real people and events in the 60s and 70s in Spanish Harlem, which was such a turbulent and electric time in youth culture and politics. It’s a small room with very talented and creative people who are all lovely. I’m passionate about the people and the content and I’m learning something about a certain movement in the music world during a very progressive and political time. I hope Ali and I create and run our own shows and have our own production company.

We are very interested in looking at diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture and our youth growing up today?

One important reason is simply fairness — in a just society people of color are given equal opportunities in all aspects of life, and the entertainment industry is no exception.

Secondly, it makes business sense. It’s not show-friends, right? And there’s money to be made here, in new stories, new faces, fresh ideas.

But most importantly of all, our culture is who we are — as a society, as a country, as human beings. Joan Didion’s line about “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” says it all — stories are how we understand our lives, how we see ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, and most importantly, our opponents, people we think of as “other”, whether in terms of skin color, religion, sexuality, whatever it is.

This is a deeply divided country — and world — and the entertainment industry is a powerful lens through which we see that world. I believe that diversity in our industry can transform, enlarge and enrich our vision of ourselves. It can foster empathy, bring us together, heal our divisions, and quite literally, create a better world. It might sound crazy, but I’ve always believed that. Art matters!

No one knows this more than young people. They grow up in a culture and it shapes their world view in profound ways. Imagine a culture that valued black and brown stories on a par with white stories — what kind of a revolutionary impact that could have on an entire generation. This is such an exciting time!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. “Don’t sweat the commission”.

When you start out it’s easy to think, “but I already have an agent, do I really need a manager?” Because you’re fretting about all that commission you’ll end up paying. But 10% of nothing is nothing! It didn’t take me long to figure that out, but I’d recommend to everyone who’s just starting — this is a tough business, so get a full team to build your career if you can.

2. “Get a business manager!”

Some of us are great at doing our accounts and taxes and invoicing and all that. But some of us… not so much! It’s math, it’s stressful, it’s a lot of work! So, when I bit the bullet and got a business manager, it was a total game changer. Yes, it costs money, but it’s worth it. You have other things to do!

3. “You don’t need an MBA to run a business”.

When I started Script Anatomy, I didn’t see myself as a businesswoman because I didn’t have the degrees, the certificate on the wall. But it’s OK! You can learn on the job, and you can find the help you need along the way (like a business manager!). All you need is passion.

4. “Even Matt Weiner has been rewritten.”

It’s going to happen. Deal with it.

5. “You do you.”

There’s always going to be someone who has what you want, and someone who wants what you have. Everyone’s career advances at a different pace. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get where you’re going. Be grateful for where you are and move forward on your own path. That’s difficult to do when you’re ambitious, but it’s important.

Can you share with our readers any self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Please share a story for each one if you can.

Mind — I meditate pretty regularly. I think anyone who spends time in a writers room can relate! I also read a lot. It’s audiobooks all the time, in bed, in the bath, making breakfast. It’s a great way to escape. So is a good cocktail!

Body — I try to get a good walk in first thing, or I get on my elliptical or do my yoga on the deck before sitting in my seat all day. But the best thing I’ve done for my body recently is get a massage gun! Aaaah….

Heart — It’s all about connecting with the people you love. Friends, family, and fur babies. I also love going to the theater where I’m inspired. I go with another writer friend of mine — we are each other’s dates.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s not a famous quote but I always remember it: Where you are now is not indicative of where you will be in the future. It’s a reminder that both good and bad things come and go

You are a person of huge influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Daily acts of kindness and paying it forward. The world would be a better place.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Reese Witherspoon. She’s just a consummate artist and businesswoman, who really carries the torch for what she cares about. Such a positive and inspirational role model!

Are you on social media? How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter — @tbhattacharya

Instagram — @tawnya_benavides_bhattacharya

This was so informative, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Thank you so much — this was fun!

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