From screenwriting competition to 'Claws' writer to film fest panelist
Update: Since our initial story on Darrin back in February, he’s come full circle – going from screenwriting applicant at the American Black Film Festival to one of this year’s featured panelists at the 2019 festival. But how did he do it? Check out his "Cinder-fella" story below:
Many people aspire to one day make it to Hollywood – dreaming of red carpets, seeing their name in lights, or working on set as an actor or even in the writers’ room. Darrin Dortch managed to make his dream a reality, landing a gig as a staff writer on the hit TNT series “Claws.”
Dortch’s Cinder-fella story begins in St. Louis, Mo., where he always dreamed of working in television and film. He pursued his passion in college, graduating from Webster University in 2006 with a degree in film production. After college, he worked a number of odd jobs, including retail, grocery stores, and a stint at a bank – an experience that ultimately led him to where he is today. Dortch eventually made the decision many aspiring actors and writers make – moving to Los Angeles in 2008.
He worked as an assets specialist at Deluxe Digital Studios before landing a position at Paramount Pictures as a digital archives coordinator and years later, a digital mastering project manager. During his eight years at Paramount, Dortch was tenacious in the pursuit of his dreams, joining a writer’s group and writing around 20 TV spec, pilots, and features scripts. He also started entering his work in screenwriting competitions and participating in various TV writing workshops.
In 2017, Dortch submitted a pilot script, resume, and essay into a TV writing competition held by the American Black Film Festival (ABFF). ABFF launched the contest to shine a spotlight on diverse writers in comedy and drama writing. Dortch submitted a comedy pilot script called “Short Changed.”
“I developed ‘Short Changed’ some years back. It’s about my experiences working in banking in St. Louis. It's basically about a struggling journalist trying to be famous, but he’s stuck working in this low rent bank and all of the hijinks and fun and ratchetness takes off from there,” Dortch explained.
But Dortch doesn’t get “shortchanged” at the festival. He had a full circle moment – winning for the comedy script based on his stint at the bank and taking home the top honor, including a cash prize, a trip to the festival in Miami, and a chance to sit down with executives from the company.
The chance to meet with executives from a major television network came with absolutely no guarantees. So, while at the festival, Dortch met with and got the business cards of executives from many networks and movie studios – all with the promise of “once you get back to LA, let’s do lunch.” The typical Hollywood lines.
“The execs were very honest and said there's no guarantees,” Dortch recalled. “It will be up to you to follow up and make something of it."
That’s exactly what he did, following up with every single person who handed him a business card. His drive, along with some help from his former manager, led him to meetings, those promised lunches and phone calls with production companies, networks, and studios. In January of 2018, Dortch signed with his first agency, while keeping his eyes on another prize – “Claws.”
One of the people Dortch met while in Miami at the festival was Jennifer Williams, forging a relationship with the director for global inclusion and diversity.
“He used the right amount of tenacity and persistence to stay on our radar and always kept me updated on the progress he was making in his career,” said Williams.
“Hiring Darrin wasn’t just a no-brainer, it was essential and non-negotiable. Voices like his are rare indeed.”
It’s Williams who convinced “Claws” creator and executive producer Eliot Laurence and showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois to take a meeting with Dortch, despite explaining they were not interested in staff writers for season two – especially a new writer.
“I was a fan of ‘Claws’ from the jump. I had watched the first season and really liked it. I remember telling my former agents and managers, if this gets a season two, this would actually be my number one choice for staffing because the show is really fun, it's quirky, it's very ratchet, and it just has a really good cast. I love it,” said Dortch.
Then, this past summer on a random Wednesday following a short but very productive meeting with Laurence and Barrois, Dortch got the phone call he’d been waiting for – landing a job as one of the writers for the show’s upcoming third season. He quit his job at Paramount two days later – with no regrets.
“After reading his searingly funny sample, hiring Dortch wasn’t just a no-brainer, it was essential and non-negotiable,” explained Laurence on the reason he hired Dortch. “Voices like his are rare indeed. It’s been fun to watch him grow both in the writers’ room and on set.”
Barrios echoed Laurence’s sentiments. "Darrin is an amazing storyteller. His voice popped on the page,” she said. “You knew when reading his script, he had something to say and was a keen observer of the world. The nuance and confidence you would usually see in an upper-level writer was there. His gifts were undeniable and when he walked out of the room, we knew he would be a tremendous addition to the staff.”
“Write. Write, write, write!”
In just his first stint as a professional television writer, Dortch is making his presence on the set known. He’s been given an opportunity to write an entire episode by himself on the upcoming season. Laurence supervised Dortch’s episode and showed him the ropes on set.
Despite just landing his first writing gig, we asked Dortch what advice he’d give to aspiring writers looking to follow in his footsteps.
“Write. Write, write, write. I cannot stress that enough. I think it's important for anybody that wants to be a writer to know you must write your scripts, you must get notes, you must take the feedback and revise… and write, rewrite, rewrite,” he said. “You're always writing and you're always rewriting. I would also tell people get in a writer's group, take some workshops, and just hone your craft.”
And what advice does Dortch have for the company?
“I really hope the company continues to support writers of color because I know there are so many people out there like me who just need a chance. I hope they find more people like me who have a voice that the world needs to hear,” said Dortch.
So, what’s next for the now seasoned writer?
“My own projects are about to hit the marketplace. ‘Short Changed’ is a project that obviously I'm really excited about. I also have two other pilots that will eventually go out to buyers as well. I am developing two more pilots, and I'm slowly working on a few feature scripts, too,” said Dortch. “One day I want to run my own show. I love creating and I enjoy being a leader and managing people. And of course, I want to start my own production company, so I can write, produce, and direct television and film.”
This summer, Dortch will have another full circle moment, returning to ABFF, this time as one of the panel speakers.
“I'll be on a ‘Claws’ panel with Janine and Elliot, and we’ll be sharing my story and talking about the show, as well. I’m excited to not only share my story but to meet everybody and just see if I can be of help to the people at the festival,” he said.
“Claws” third season premiered on Sunday, June 9. Check out new episodes every Sunday on TNT. Check your local listings for times.
In our efforts to promote equality in the workplace, we work with organizations dedicated to diversity in media and journalism including ABFF (American Black Film Festival), the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications.
TIDBITS WITH DARRIN DORTCH
How long have you have been with the company? I've worked on TNT's "Claws" for the past six months, but I've been affiliated with the company since May 2017. That's when I was informed about my ABFF award win.
What’s the most interesting part of your job? I get to create outrageous stories and jokes!
Because of what I do, WarnerMedia… will be able to entertain millions of people for years to come.
What does innovation mean to you and how do you incorporate it into your role? Innovation is about bringing something fresh to the table. When I interviewed to be on "Claws," my show runner told me that the show needed a bold new voice. And that's exactly what I've incorporated into my role.
What is the most memorable moment you’ve had working here? I have had many memorable moments while working with the company. Many of those moments have taken place in the "Claws" writers’ room, but I won't be discussing any of those because I'd like to keep my job. Seriously though, my most memorable moment thus far is being on set with the remarkable cast and crew of "Claws."
Which colleague has been your greatest mentor or had the biggest influence on your career? Multiple colleagues have been mentors and have had big influences on my career. So, it's unfair that I only name one. All I can say is Jennifer Williams is a saint, and she was instrumental in getting me my job on "Claws." In addition, Jen Kim, Olivia Morris, Janine Sherman Barrois, and my boy, Eliot Laurence, have been the biggest champions of my writing and their support has truly skyrocketed my career. I am so honored to know all five of these people.
What is your favorite show and why? C'mon now! Are y'all trying to get me fired? I have to say "Claws." Real talk. I was a fan before I worked on the show, and I'm an even bigger fan now that I write for the show. There's nothing else on TV quite like it. The tone of the show is just so unique.
Tell us about something interesting you do in your free time. Does my answer have to be family-friendly? I'm kidding! Listen, I like to cook and bake. My dad was an excellent caterer and my mom can cook and bake her ass off. I like to make well-seasoned, crispy, oven-baked chicken. And I can make a strawberry cake from scratch. I make one for my best friend's birthday almost every year.
What is the best thing about working here? Well, I do love my "Claws" paycheck, but honestly, I've built some lifelong relationships. I know it sounds cliché, but the people are the best thing. I am truly blessed to have all of these people in my corner.