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Cannell visits NATAS in Atlanta

by Craig Tollis

ATLANTA, September 14, 2006—Stephen J. Cannell dropped in to the Bear Rock Cafe at Peachtree Battle as part of the NATAS Professional Development series. Cannell was invited to bring NATAS members and visitors the benefit of his experience as the creator, producer, and writer of around 40 successful television series including The Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and The Commish.

Cannell was upbeat and engaging, personally introducing himself to attendees before his presentation. At the insistence of the audience, he began with a brief recap of his early struggle with dyslexia.

Ironically, the man whose image would became famous unloading a script page from his typewriter in his company's logo would start out by failing three grades at school, including kindergarten. Cannell squeaked through college, identifying professors who wouldn't penalize him for his learning differences. When one of his papers received an ominous teacher's marking, come to my office after hours, he was certain it was another rejection. Instead, this insightful professor saw through the crackled veneer of his dyslexic compositions and declared him one of the best creative writing students he'd ever had. This teacher's influential message: whatever it takes, don't give up.

It took five years of writing five hours a day, compiling a collection of stories and honing his skills, before Cannell got his "big break." He was working at his dad's chain of furniture stores by day, writing by night, when his agent called in a favor and hooked him up with the frustrated producers of the police series, Adam 12. They were seeking story ideas for a particularly difficult episode, and needed them fast. Most of the competing screenwriters failed to meet the studio's submission deadline, and Cannell was asked to turn his concept into a script. They loved it and later hired him as a staff writer for the show, and the studio.

Cannell perfected his script-writing skills in the Hollywood system, but after eight years as a staff writer he was ready to move on. Risking his career and financial future, he went after his dream of creating an independent production company.

A rapid success, Cannell Studios boasted at its height around 2,500 employees and turned out over 1,000 episodes of some of the world's most popular TV series. Cannell was not just a master of the episodic format with great sense for dialogue, he had also taken his dad's advice from the furniture store days-- creating a positive work environment that sought out, encouraged, and rewarded creativity from his people.

Later, as changing FCC regulations on program ownership made independent producers less competitive, Cannell sold the company and switched tracks. He is now producing independent films, making occasional on-screen appearances, and following up on another old dream, writing novels, where his success has continued.

Having covered his bio, Cannell gave the audience a chance to benefit from his experience with a brief Q&A. His number one secret to success? Over-producing. You don't have to be a genius to succeed, Mr. Cannell explained. If you can do more, more reliably, than your competition, people will notice and you'll make a desirable reputation.

So, interjected an audience member, it's all about relationships? Of course!, Cannell acknowledged, focusing on the positive in that assertion. You need to be trusted. It's not enough to have talent. You need to be somebody others want to work with. You must have the flexibility to take suggestions, to take criticism, to make revisions.

Cannell gave two primary pieces of advice to aspiring writers and series creators. First, find an agent who believes in you. Don't just go after somebody you think might be influential. A person who believes in you will work much more effectively for your success.

Second, Cannell suggested a two-pronged approach. Go after your dream, he said. Put your ideas together. Send them to an agent. Have them submitted to a studio. No one can tell you that success is impossible. But have a Plan B. Look for a path to your goal: work on others' projects, write episodes for existing series, develop your skills, make connections. Look for practical ways to move forward, even if the steps are small. Dream big, but look for the path that will put the probability of success on your side. It worked for him.

Stephen J. Cannell produces and acts in independent film and television projects and is the author of a series of successful novels. His most recent, White Sister, is currently available online and in book stores. Set in unpredictable and sometimes violent world of Los Angeles gangsta-rap and hip-hop music producers, it is the latest in his Shane Scully detective series.

NATAS, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, is a professional organization for the television industry, which presents the Emmy Awards both nationally and regionally. The NATAS Southeast Chapter holds regular meetings including its Professional Development Series, which provides opportunities for networking, professional education and career development.

For more info:

Stephen J. Cannell's official web site:
NATAS Southeast Chapter: