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How to Pick a Winning Emmy Submission? Let Go of Ego

Emmy contenders need to choose the right category — and even genre

There's only one hard-and-fast rule of Emmy submissions: Set your ego aside.

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That might sound counterintuitive in a process that's about rewarding rich and famous people for doing their jobs exceptionally well. But as Emmy contenders submit their best work this week, those who have been through the process told TheWrap, again and again, that flexibility is key.

Not just about what episode to submit. Entrants also need to be open-minded about what category to enter. And even what genre.

And they should listen to the publicists, network executives and countless others who are sometimes better judges of their best work than they are.

Also read: How David Benioff and D.B. Weiss Brought 'Game of Thrones' to Life

“An objective third party has won many an Emmy for actors and producers — if they can check their egos at the door,” said Richard Licata, NBC’s executive vice president of communications, who has also handled Emmy campaigns for Fox, HBO and Showtime, including the one that earned Edie Falco her win for "Nurse Jackie."

Part of his job is being blunt with talent.

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"We have suggested, ‘Maybe that’s not the best episode for you,'" he said, without mentioning specific actors. "'All you’re doing in it is crying, and it doesn’t show your gifts throughout the season.’”

The decision to enter "Nurse Jackie" as a comedy rather than a drama in 2010 was one of the great moments in Emmy strategizing and led to Falco's win in the lead comedic actress category.

She all but admitted that her pill-popping nurse could just as easily have been considered a dramatic character when she said in her self-effacing acceptance speech: “I’m not funny!” (But she was funny. She was even funny when she won three dramatic Emmys for "The Sopranos," a drama that sometimes felt like ink-black comedy.)

This year, "Game of Thrones" star Peter Dinklage is demonstrating similar savvy. With many of his former castmates' characters killed off, he is essentially the lead actor on the HBO fantasy series. (And the funniest.) But he has chosen to again submit in the supporting dramatic actor category after winning it last year.

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He would have faced fierce competition as a lead actor nominee against the likes of three-time "Breaking Bad" winner Bryan Cranston. In the supporting category, Dinklage is the man to beat.

Contenders in the outstanding series categories have until Friday, the overall Emmy submission deadline, to choose their six episodes. Actors, however, don’t need to choose their episodes until after they’re nominated. Other categories have different deadlines.

While Emmy nominations are made based on an entire season of work, winners are chosen in most categories by special panels who view their submissions — single episodes in most categories, and six episodes in outstanding-series fields. For miniseries contenders, all of the installments count as one entry, whether the miniseries lasts four hours or 12.

Most contenders and advisors are well aware of near-winners who might have taken home a prize with a better approach — like "Roseanne" also-ran John Goodman, and, most famously, Susan Lucci, who lost 18 times before finally landing a Daytime Emmy.

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"You have to exert shrewdness and sometimes deviousness,” said Tom O’Neil, founder of the awards-tracking website Gold Derby. “It’s shocking to me how many contenders are ignorant of the process and don’t think through their submissions.”

Also read: Jimmy Kimmel Hosting Emmys for First Time 

Both Goodman and Lucci, O’Neil said, were notorious for choosing the wrong episode each year. Lucci, for example, tended to favor big, bombastic performances over the types that usually win. O'Neil says voters favor actors who demonstrate range, impact and empathy in a role — like Cranston, who has won three times for playing a chemistry teacher who becomes a meth kingpin on "Breaking Bad"

Ideally, said Licata, an actor, network and studio come to a collaborative decision, as they did on Mariska Hargitay’s performance this year on “Father’s Shadow,” an episode of NBC’s "Law & Order: SVU." All agreed the episode, in which she shares a grim secret with a young hostage taker, should be her submission as she seeks another nomination in the lead dramatic actress category.

But when egos clash, the results can be disastrous for Emmy dreams.

Shows sometimes suffer in the best drama or comedy category because a producer submits episodes he or she directed, even if others were better, Licata said. And staff writers sometimes find their hopes dashed by their bosses – who have aspirations of their own.

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"Showrunners have control over the scripts, and they often save the most emotional, Emmy-worthy story ideas for themselves,” said one veteran writer who asked not to be identified.

For Greg Yaitanes, a former executive producer and director on "House" who won a directing Emmy for the series in 2008, the award was a surprise, not a plan. He nearly entered the directing category for an episode of "Damages" that he helmed. But he decided at the last minute to submit the "House" episode because of the buzz surrounding it.

“I went for what I thought was a Hail Mary,” he said. But the "House" episode, “House’s Head,” went on to beat the pilots for "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Damages," as well an episode of "Boston Legal."

"It was like the 'Rocky' story," he said.

He’s hoping for a sequel. Yaitanes, who is now showrunner on Cinemax’s upcoming "Banshee," is entering the drama directing category this year with an episode from the final season of  "House."

Entrants say they set out to create the best television they can, without thinking about Emmys. 

“We really don’t think of Emmys when we’re doing our work,” says "Walking Dead" showrunner Glen Mazzara, who is entering the series in the outstanding drama category this year. “We just concentrate on telling the best story that we can.”

One reason not to think about Emmys early on, he says, is that predictions have a way of backfiring. On past shows he’s worked on, writers have occasionally said, even before an episode began shooting, that it felt like a winner.

“I’ve heard that one a lot,” Mazara said. “And then when you say, ‘I thought that was your Emmy episode,’ they never laugh back.”