Tuesday, September 06, 2011
It used to be, writers the networks liked would come in and pitch ideas. The nets would buy seemingly the best ones over a four month period. Scripts would come in, presumably the best ones would get chosen for production, and the best pilots got on the air. That system has been bastardized by networks now owning studios and selecting mostly their own product over outside ideas, a sprinkling of commitments (usually to producers who already have a hit show on that network), and there are non-writing pod producers making sales because of close relationships to network executives. But still, the framework of writers selling ideas remains the basic template.
Not this year though. This season (at least from what I hear and read), there are way more package deals going in – generally involving a hot feature director or screenwriter or piece of talent. And there is a lot more bidding for projects among the networks. Bidding wars always up the ante and in this case networks have been obliged to give production commitments and/or agree to large penalties if the projects don’t make it to series. Now the penalties are often fool’s gold. Networks back out of them routinely. They roll over a commitment or find some other compensation, and writers and studios rarely hold their feet to the fire because they want to be in business with the network in the future.
But the production commitments, those are huge. Why? Because the networks only make a finite number of pilots and that number has been dwindling for years. So if a network say is only going to make ten dramas and four of them are already spoken for, the odds of you getting your pilot greenlit based just on a script are greatly reduced.
And probably one of those four projects turns in a script that is a piece of shit. Feature people generally think TV is a breeze only to discover the hard way that constructing and writing a good television pilot is a holy bitch.
Here’s what I don’t understand: great pilots are rare. No one really knows what they want. Everyone is shooting at moving targets. Budgets are shrinking and as I said, networks are now making fewer pilots. So against that landscape, why limit your options even further? Why handcuff yourself with commitments? How many times have we seen crazed bidding wars for Sundance Festival can’t-miss winning movies that ultimately bombed at the boxoffice. And those were finished products. These are just ideas, with elements attached.
I’ve read some of the comedy premises for these 2012 projects that are so hot and they’re ideas like a journalist gets laid off and winds up working in a mall or a recently divorced parent tries to adjust to being single again. Wow! The execution better be through the roof because we've seen 45,000 variations of those two premises (in the last three years alone).
Yes, there is an argument to be made for locking up the best talent available (or what you perceive as the best talent available) and some of these deals could work out great. But I worry that there are too many of them, too many put pilots, and networks might find themselves behind the eight ball. A writer comes up with a brilliant fresh idea but the network has spent its allotted budget. A writer writes a dynamite script but the last production slot has to go to a commitment, even though it’s not as good. So at the end of the day, if the commitment pilot is a train wreck, you have to also ask yourself – how many other potentially good pilots did you have to pass on to make this mess?
All I’m saying to the networks is this: save some room. The development season is only a month old. Don’t be in such a rush to fill your slate.
And writers – get busy on your specs. Because when those high profile projects of today turn in their scripts in January, there is going to be a lot of penalty renegotiating and put pilot postponements. The winner of the next bidding war frenzy could be you.
Later today I will have an announcement about a free teleseminar I will be conducting about sitcom writing. Check back later for the details.
By Ken Levine at 5:59 AM