Creating a Series Pilot—Newcomers Welcome
One of the most exciting recent trends in the field of screenwriting has to do with television series development, and this trend is largely the result of three seemingly unrelated things: homegrown Web videos, the Writers Guild strike of 2007, and the current economic recession.
In the world of television programming, it used to be a waste of a new screenwriter's time to develop ideas for an original fiction series. True, almost any writer could land pitch meetings with actual development executives at networks, studios, or production companies, but what was the point? After coffee and a gathering of somewhat creative minds, the executive would invariably respond by passing on the neophyte's project. The quality of the pitch was not a factor. In a business that yields a success rate of one or two hit shows for every thousand pitched,1 few television executives would consider risking their job by backing unproven talent. They would still take the pitch meetings—as part of demonstrating productivity to their superiors and sometimes just to be courteous—and they would even spring for the coffee, but that was as far as the new writer got. ("Sorry, we're moving in a different creative direction"; "I love it, but my boss just doesn't get it"; "If you can get [top box-office star of the day] to play the lead, we're in!")
True, writing a pilot script was not always a waste of time. Some television producers like to use fully original work to gauge a person's talent when doling out episode assignments or hiring staff writers. But those producers are few, and many still want to see a traditional spec script (e.g., a typical episode of an existing series) before offering up a job. Bottom line—the rules of the television-development game were such that new writers were better off just writing spec episode samples if they wanted to get a foot in the door.
But then the world of television programming began to undergo important changes, and suddenly doors started to open for unproven talent.
In 2005, three ex-PayPal employees launched an Internet site called YouTube, a central viewing site for homegrown videos posted on the Internet, and millions of people started tuning in to watch. It did not matter that often the production quality of these videos was poor and the content inconsistent, because much of the material was fresh and relatable and very entertaining. Plus, the offerings were pleasing examples of this newish thing called digital media, in an era when all things digital and Web-related were becoming the rage.
Commercial television networks took notice, impressed—or more likely, stunned—to realize that many of these videos drew a huge audience despite having been produced by amateurs, and at a fraction of the cost of a typical television episode. Executives and producers tuned in to the new medium, revised their assumptions about what constitutes watchable [End Page 56] video, and began experimenting with the development of series projects spawned by the Web. (Ironically, this has often resulted in fresh Web ideas being forced into ill-fitting, traditional, prime-time television molds, as happened with failed series "Quarterlife" [2007; Gorman] and "Shit My Dad Says" [2010-11; Hale.])
Then in 2007, in what might seem like an unrelated event, the Writers Guild of America went on strike for fourteen weeks, partly to lobby for fair compensation related to the creation of digital content. The networks and studios had anticipated the move and had prepared for the worst by earlier stockpiling scripts and reducing development goals (Gentile). As the strike progressed with little promise of a quick resolution, the companies responded by cutting development budgets even further and canceling a number of production and talent overhead deals, as allowed by the force majeure provisions that are standard in such agreements (Grossman).
At the same time, the recession hit the US economy, including the segment involved in making television shows, causing the networks to slash expenses even further. NBC led the pack; anticipating the turndown, it cut production budgets by $750 million and eliminated seven hundred jobs in 2006, and it later announced plans to cut another $500 million in 2009 (Hibberd).
So what do YouTube, a writers' strike, and the recession have to do with how television series are developed? Not only did the last two have an immediate impact on writers and producers whose deals and jobs were suddenly eliminated as a result of budget trimming, the widespread cutbacks gradually morphed into long-term belt-tightening. The networks and studios discovered, or rediscovered, that they did not really need to spend so heavily every television season to mount a successful program schedule. They did not need as many employees, projects, and talent deals as previously thought, so temporary cutbacks became permanent, and many high-priced creatives found themselves unemployed or underemployed.
But then came the good news and the link to YouTube: in their continuing drive to reduce development costs, and in response to the high viewing levels generated by the new wave of homegrown videos, the old-boy (television) networks threw open their doors and began to actively develop series ideas created by new writers. New writers are cheap, they will do rewrite after rewrite for free, they produce their own pilots for pennies, and most important, new writers are cheap!
Series Development Today
Flash forward to the present, and it is clear that the industry has embraced this new talent pool and taken steps to nurture it and exploit it. Several networks and large production companies have created or refocused talent-discovery programs in an effort to identify gifted new writers and producers and perhaps unearth the next big television series idea. One example involves a joint venture between Fox Broadcasting and the New York Television Festival: in 2008, the two companies launched the annual FOX-NYTVF Comedy Script Contest, a competition in which twenty-five finalists have their sitcom scripts evaluated by the network, with the winning writer or writers receiving $25,000 and a development deal ("Fox-NYTVF"). Another example involves global producer Fremantle-Media: in 2010, it launched a "Talent Discovery and Development Program" aimed at college students about to graduate and designed to "identify emerging content creators, who demonstrate strong potential to develop new entertainment program ideas" ("FremantleMedia" 1).
In a related development, Internet screen-writing contests—bearing names such as Inktip, Scriptapalooza, Page, and Talentville—gained in size, credibility, and number as they encouraged new writers to enter television pilot scripts and produced pilots into competition. Winners might take home prizes, representation, and maybe even a script deal, but there is that matter of the entry fee to consider.
We have gone from the successful FX series It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-), the pilot for which was reportedly shot on a basic camcorder for $200 ("It's Always"), to the previously [End Page 57] mentioned Shit My Dad Says, a short-lived CBS series that was based on a popular Twitter account, to Lisa Kudrow's Web series, Web Therapy, which premiered as a half-hour ShowTime series in 2011 and was picked up for 2012 (O'Connell). Though it is still as difficult as ever to sell a pilot script or land a production order, today's Web producers and new screenwriters are now among those who have a shot at launching an original network series. And contrary to past practice, today's new writers are urged to include original pilot scripts in their work portfolios. (In a related trend, and an unfortunate irony, most agents and managers are now more interested in representing a new writer's pilot project than the writer himself. Rather than sign a promising writer as a client, these representatives will instead only agree to proceed via what has long been referred to as a "hip pocket" deal, meaning that if the representative can sell the project, he or she will negotiate the terms and take a commission and later may or may not agree to take the writer on as a client.)
Easier Said Than Written
Of course, though it is exciting that new talent finally has a place in series development, creating a television show is still far easier said than done. Although one might hope to shortcut the development process by pitching concepts before investing the time needed to create full-fledged pilot scripts, unless a pitch involves a reality program, executives want to see complete scripts rather than mere concepts, pages of sample scenes, or series format documents.2
Adding to the challenge, a pilot script must accomplish far more than the typical spec episode script. In the same time that you are given to tell an episode's story, you also have to introduce fresh characters in a new setting; establish the show's time frame, narrative style, themes, and dramatic structure; tell a compelling story; and show proof that the series has legs (i.e., the potential to run for many—perhaps eighty or more—episodes). You are throwing lots of information at your readers, but you still need to so hook them that they finish the script and want more. And you need to accomplish all of this without drawing attention to your efforts or overwriting the story.
One of the most important decisions the writer must make is whether to open the series with a "premise pilot" or a "typical-episode pilot." The first type launches a series by showing the event or circumstances that spawn the show's overall premise. The classic sitcom My Favorite Martian (1963-66) provides an example, using a story hook that was repeated in the 1986 pilot for the sitcom Alf: In the opening episode, an alien crash-lands on Earth, creates some degree of havoc, and is nearly discovered by people who would turn him in to the authorities if given the chance. The pilot story ends with a sympathetic Earthling agreeing to let the alien move into his, the human's, house. One can guess how future episodes of the series will play out: the poor homeowner will suffer a never-ending series of misadventures as he tries to keep his new pal from doing crazy things and being discovered.
Such premise pilots feature the central hook of the series, so the writer has plenty to work with when sorting out the pilot story. However, they do a poor job of showing network executives and an audience what typical episodes will be like in the future, since that alien will not be crash-landing onto Earth every week. Accordingly, most executives and producers prefer to see a typical-episode pilot, a half hour that plays just like episodes 17, 52, and 89 of the series might (August). In this type of pilot, when the new characters and the show's setting are introduced, the script provides very little exposition to establish who or what is on the screen. Instead, the pilot just dives right into a typical story for the series, and the audience either starts relating to the characters or not.
Another primary decision, at least for those who are creating an original sitcom, is whether to write the series as a single-camera or a multi-camera show. (Almost all drama series are shot in the single-camera format.) Although financial considerations and production trends play a part in this decision—multi-camera series [End Page 58] usually are less expensive to produce and generate more revenues in aftermarket sales, but many consider single-camera shows to be a higher art form (Schneider)—this decision is most dependent on what will best serve the series premise. Single-camera shows, such as My Name Is Earl (2005-09), 30 Rock (2006-), and Modern Family (2009-), typically feature a couple of home-base sets but are otherwise shot at a variety of locations, allowing the show to go beyond the standard living room, office, and bar settings that audiences have seen so many times before. If a show's stories are best launched or developed across different settings, and if it is important that the stories seem as realistic as possible, single-camera is considered the better choice (Surette).
Multi-camera shows such as Cheers (1982- 93), Two and a Half Men (2003-), and Whitney (2011-) are shot mostly on several permanent sets and only occasionally include new locations. They tend to feature fewer, talkier scenes and less character movement, and they perhaps trade an appearance of realism for the comforting sense of familiar surroundings (Levine). Being cheaper to produce, this format is currently very popular with network executives; if a show's stories can be mostly told in just a few settings, multi-camera production is deemed the better choice.
Other primary distinctions between pilot scripts and episode spec scripts include the need to create a new story universe that will regularly force characters into close proximity (to generate conflict) and the importance of establishing character appeal early in the pilot episode. (Main characters do not have to be likable or admirable; consider the conniving louts in It's Always Sunny, brutal Al Swearengen of Deadwood (2004-06), and serial killer Dexter (2006-). But they must at least have some sort of drive—a sense of purpose, a unique skill, a hidden soft side, a personal code, or a passion for something or someone—that draws viewers back for the second episode.)
And though one might think that the greatest challenge in writing a pilot script involves shoveling mountains of exposition into the story, ironically, the opposite is true. As much as the writer, especially an inexperienced writer, is dying to share all of the character backstories, relationship baggage, and life's little details that make his or her proposed series unique, today's audiences do not need or want to see all of that, all at once. Consider the pilot, a premise pilot, that launched the hit series Lost (2004-10): The first episode opens on a man in a suit, lying in grass, bruised and distressed. A dog approaches and runs past. The man staggers to his feet and stumbles through jungle. He finds a pristine beach and hears screams. And then he sees the wrecked plane. What caused the crash? Where are the characters located? When is this happening? The audience that tuned in for the premiere did not know—and did not resent not knowing—even as critical as these details were, because modern viewers are amazingly story-savvy; having already watched thousands of hours of film and television entertainment, they are perfectly happy to fill in blanks and assume connections, or to expectantly await answers to tantalizing riddles. Though it might seem counterintuitive, the lesson here is a familiar one: in a pilot script, as in any story, exposition should be delivered only as it is needed, and less is always more.
Though recent trends in Web video consumption and industry belt-tightening have combined to open series-development doors to unproven talent, the process of pitching an original series remains particularly challenging to newcomers. Unless one is already an established writer-producer or has been a senior writer on a successful series, it is extremely unlikely that pitching directly to a network—the ultimate buyer—will result in a sale. Instead, many new writers attempt to recruit an established series producer as a partner first, to add credibility to their project, and then that producer usually assumes the primary role in pitching to the networks. Or the writer might try to interest an agent or manager in the project, [End Page 59] who then might pull in an established producer or attach other talent to the project, or not, and then assist the writer in setting up network pitches. (Or the representative may not assist in the pitches and may instead just lend his or her endorsement while leaving the writer and any partners to do all of that work.) Other times, a new writer's producer partner or the writer's representative might pitch a studio or other financing entity before going in to pitch the networks, to give the project the added sales appeal of having a deficit-financing partner already in place (Douglas 41-48).3
In addition to opening series-development doors for new writers, the popularity of homegrown Web videos has contributed to another, related trend: Today, at least on the "unscripted," reality TV side of the business, many of the network and studio executives who previously frowned on amateur productions now expect to see a video presentation when receiving a series pitch. If the producer selling the series is not already an established heavyweight—and sometimes even if he is—these buyers want to see a brief visual sample of the concept, a "sizzle reel," to show how the series would actually look and to provide a measure of the seller's ability to deliver a quality production. Although screenwriters who are developing a scripted (fiction) series usually are not expected to provide this in a pitch, a would-be producer already attached to a scripted project might be.
A sizzle reel, a selling tool that has been used for decades, can take different forms depending on the needs of the project. In a helpful posting at the Producer's Guild of America Web site, recommended reading for anyone interested in this subject, series producer Dan Abrams describes options that include the following:
"Rip-o-matic": [A video compiled] from existing footage from other sources. . . . Note that doing this without permission from the copyright holders is technically illegal. . . .
"Talent Sizzle": Instead of pitching the show, this kind of tape focuses exclusively on the talent/subjects. . . .
"Standard Sizzle": An extended promo like a movie trailer which showcases the talent/ subjects involved, an overview of the show and gives a specific sense of the creative direction/vision. . . .
"Presentation Tape": A bit like the "standard sizzle" but likely also with full scenes if not full segments/acts to present how the show will actually look. . . .(2)
Noting that today's development executives expect to see sizzle reels included in pitches for unscripted series, an increasing number of writers and producers of scripted series now include a video component in their pitches, either to compensate for a lack of industry credentials or just to add sales appeal (Douglas 40-41). If one has the means to produce a high-quality video, there is little question that a few tightly edited clips or expertly shot sample scenes can add excitement to a pitch. Unfortunately, many writers lack the expertise and resources needed to create a professional-looking sizzle reel and so will be at a great disadvantage if this trend continues and executives come to expect video in every scripted-series pitch.
Hollywood's Short Memory
In the entertainment industry, it seems that everything is cyclical. Experts declare that comedy is dead, and then a Cosby Show (1984-92) or a Two and a Half Men comes along, and suddenly funny is back in style. Multi-camera production fades out of favor and is deemed a musty relic, and then someone points out its cost savings, and suddenly development executives cannot get enough of the format. Given Hollywood's famously short memory, history suggests that once the current economic recession passes, talent fees will reinflate, and development deals will again multiply as buyers compete for the services of top creatives.
Will an economic upturn mean that new writers and producers will once again be excluded from the series development process? Could they cycle out of favor too? This is conceivable if a string of the shows they create fail one after [End Page 60] the other, because development executives are well known for quickly abandoning genres and practices that lose money. But these executives are also the ones with that famously short memory, so it seems likely that newcomers will continue to have a role in series development for a long time to come.
Evan Smith is a professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School and the author of Writing Television Sitcoms (Perigee/Penguin, 2009).
1. Given that program pitches are delivered both formally and in passing, and that entertainment companies consider development records proprietary information, it is impossible to provide accurate figures on how many series are pitched or put into script development each year. However, FilmLA, an organization that coordinates location permits for filmed productions, reports that 169 broadcast and cable pilots were produced in the 2010-11 television season (Lindgren, Sokoloski, and Sandru 1). Of the pilots produced each year, a variable portion actually air, and of these, few receive subsequent pickups, and even fewer achieve commercial success.
2. A "series format" is a ten- to twenty-page document that describes a proposed series by offering elements such as a premise summary, pilot episode summary, character descriptions, springboards for future episodes, talent credentials, budget estimate, and so on. More functional and less interesting than a pilot script, these documents are best suited to pitching nonfiction programs.
3. The license fees that a network pays for the right to air episodes of a series often do not cover the entire cost of the program's production. In those cases, the show's producers or the network will recruit a studio or other entity to "deficit finance" the series, meaning that the second company covers the gap in production costs in exchange for having the right to exploit the series via aftermarket distribution.