Is there a big difference between being a film writer and a TV writer? Do you pretty much only do one or the other?
Increasingly, many writers work in both film and TV, either simultaneously or at different phases in their careers. Good writing is good writing, so the likelihood is that if someone is a good film writer, she’ll be a good TV writer, and vice-versa. But there are some important differences between the two mediums.
Writing for series television means following a prescribed format, whether it’s a sitcom or a one-hour drama. There are true act breaks to allow for commercials, a limited number of recurring characters and sets, and an overall mandate about what kinds of stories can happen. Television writing is generally collaborative, with a group of writers contributing to that week’s script, under the supervision of a producer called the "showrunner." The pace of television writing is much, much faster than film writing, because there’s a continuous need to keep up with production. In many ways, being a TV writer is like having a real job, because you’re working office hours — although they’re often quite long office hours.
Writing for film has far fewer limits on structure, storyline, characters and tone. It’s also a much more solitary endeavor, because aside from occasional producer note, you’re off doing the work by yourself on your own timetable. Some writers thrive in that freedom, while others become paralyzed by indecision. Usually, a film writer is paid per draft, rather than per week as a TV writer is, so dawdling can be costly.
There are other important differences between film and TV work. In television, you see your work on screen every week. In film, you’re lucky if you see it on screen once a year.
On film, you get to use your characters for two hours. On TV, you get to use them for a hundred hours or more over the lifetime of the show.
In film, the writer has very little say in the final execution of the work. In television, the writer supercedes the director.
Now, true confession time. After the success of GO, I created and ran a one-hour drama on the WB network. While the circumstances and personalities surrounding that show were uniquely unpleasant, even in the best of situations, I could never, ever see myself running a television series again. While any project, film or TV, is going to involve some compromises, television is nothing but compromises: not enough time, not enough money, not enough energy to fight the same battle for the 43rd time. And if you’re writing a show about cops, then by default you’re not getting to write that space epic you’ve always dreamed about. So you’re compromising your own aspirations as well.
I have friends who truly enjoy their work in television, and manage to pull off a film career as well, so it can be done. But in answer to your question, Alex, some people are better off doing one or the other.