Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How to Create a TV Show, Part 1: Spec Pilots Are Nutty

It used to be that only TV veterans ever tried to create new TV shows from scratch.

If you wanted to get started in TV writing, you had to first write a “spec” (short for “speculative”) episode of an existing show.  If the showrunner for that show or (more often) a similar show liked your script, they would hire you for a staff writing position.  After you put in a few years, and mastered the form, you could pitch the network your own ideas for a new show.  If they liked an idea, they would help you develop a “pilot” script for the first episode of the series.  If they were happy with how that script turned out, you would shoot a pilot episode.  If they liked the pilot, and they had a place for it on their schedule, they would “order it to series”. 

In reality, that system has barely changed: it’s still virtually unheard of for someone without a lot of screenwriting experience to sell a pilot.  Nevertheless, these days, in addition to a “spec episode” of an existing show, every would-be TV writer is also expected to write at least one “spec pilot” for their own show.

Why are you writing a “spec pilot” if the studios have no interest if buying one from an untested writer?  Who knows?  Here are some guesses:
  • It’s a way of raising the bar, and really testing you right off the bat. Writing pilots is hard, and it shows you’re truly a master of the TV form. 
  • It shows that you can create, and not just mimic.    
  • If I may be cynical, it gives producers another chance to play the big-shot, and talk about all the big stuff they’ll do for you in the future (your own show!) if only you play ball in the meantime…
But who are we to question why?  Let’s create a TV show that no one will buy!  After all, it does teach you the form.  So let’s get started!  First, you have to answer several questions:
  • Drama, comedy, or in between?
  • For comedies: Three camera, one camera, or in between
  • Network, cable, or in between?
  • Serialized, episodic, or in between?
  • Premise pilot, center cut, or in between?
We’ll tackle these questions in chunks, starting tomorrow, but first let’s address one more question that you’re not allowed to ask:
  • Normal-length or extra-length pilot?
The answer is: normal-length.  Yes, lots of great pilots have been extra-length: “Alias” was 90 minutes, “ER” was two hours…  Hell, “Battlestar Galactica” started with a 5 hour miniseries!  But all of those shows were created by veterans with proven track records.  

The whole point of writing a spec pilot it to show that you know how to play by the rules and work within limits.  As soon as you remove one of those limits, you fail. 

Okay, off we go...


j.s. said...

I know MADMEN is the exception, not the rule, but in a way I think it's the model, at least attitudinally, for anyone writing a spec TV pilot. If the odds are so long and no one's ever going to make it anyway, then you might as well not half-ass it. Follow the rules and fit the form, sure, but also put your whole soul into it just like you would if you were writing something for yourself to direct.

I've read a number of overly calculated pilots by established writers trying to get on the TV bandwagon and they hit all the right notes except the most crucial one, the passion and originality that's going to hook an audience for good and keep them coming back for anywhere from 50-100 hours or more.

If you're passionate about crime scene investigation, well that's great too, and you're lucky that your taste happens to be more commercial. But if your heart is set on advertising guys in the 1960s and you have an endless well of fascinating stories to tell about them, write that. Who knows? Maybe it will take you a long time to develop. But you also just might get stuck with the best consolation prize ever, a job on a show like THE SOPRANOS.

Matt Bird said...

Absolutely, 'Mad Men' was a brilliant spec, and you're right, one thing it shows is that the primary purpose of a spec is to get a staff job on another show, so you might as well be audacious.

(Nevertheless, I'm going to spend this first half of this project advising various ways to hedge your bets, then switch in the second half to pointing out why it pays to be audacious.)

Matt Bird said...

It occurs to me that the Mad Men pilot is also an interesting example of how to do a backdoor two-hour pilot. The shocking reveal at the end (to us but not the character) is that this lothario has a heretofore unsuspected family at home that's been out-of-sight and out-of-mind throughout the pilot. This turns the second episode into the second half of the pilot, where we meet the rest of the major characters.

j.s. said...

And it also sets up this work/home disconnect that will prove to be one of the central themes of the show (because it was also one of the era itself).

I know Weiner taught his own MAD MEN pilot as an example in a rewriting class at USC, but I don't know how much (if any) of the family stuff was in the original-original draft. Do you, Matt?

Matt Bird said...

I don't think it changed much in the years it took to get made, but how could he sell the show without introducing Betty yet? I've always wondered that. Did he just tell the prospective networks, "If you want to find out what his home life is like, you just have to buy the show"?