Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A follow-up to yesterday's post on Spec Scripts

Yesterday’s post on which spec script to write has generated a number of good questions and comments so I thought I’d serve ‘em while they’re hot.

Vivian Darkbloom is up first.

I am writing a sitcom pilot and have a question about the number of acts for the script. Some shows have two acts (e.g., "30 Rock," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Friends"), whereas others have three (e.g., "New Girl," "2 Broke Girls," "Community").

What are your thoughts on writing a pilot with two acts versus three? Is it just a matter of personal preference?

Your call, Viv. Whatever format allows you to best tell your story. But generally that means the two-act structure. Shows went to a three-act format not as a way of improving storytelling. They did so because the networks want to sprinkle their heavy commercial load around without causing too much tune-out. But where best to schedule GoDaddy.com, Lexus, Cialis, Miller Lite, Disney Cruises, Pepsi, and seventeen WHITNEY promos is not your concern.  


From Paul:

Ken, what do you think about writing a spec for an animated show like Archer?

I think it’s great IF you want to get a job on an animated show. But you shouldn't let a spec ARCHER be your overall writing sample submitted to live-action shows.

I have no idea whether you can write MODERN FAMILY based on a FAMILY GUY.

The best solution: write two specs – one for animated shows and one for live. Cover your bases.

And having written both I would encourage young writers to consider adding animation to your arsenal. Especially if your strong suit is jokes. There’s less of a burden on character development and story in animation, but you better really bring the funny.

A reader suggested that animation studios don't consider material from outsiders.  I don't agree.  Maybe in his studio and if so, they're idiots because they're shortchanging themselves talent. 

Bob Ross has an ageism question.

...Speaking of writers over forty, is it possible to get your first writing job if you are over forty?

I won't blow sunshine up your skirt.  It’s harder.

But not impossible. The good news is when you submit your script you never have to list your age. If the spec knocks people out you’ll get work.  The odds aren't great but much better than if you wanted to join the NBA at 40.

KingCooky weighed in with:

My style is more drama. I've recently written a Mad Men spec. Any thoughts if this is over done like Modern Family?

My next project will probably be Boardwalk Empire and possibly Boss. Any other ideas on great drama shows I should pay attention to?

Also, I try to stay away from the law/CSI stuff as i think shows like are also overdone. 

Drama is not my field but I would instinctively agree that procedurals are not ideal for specs unless you hope to get hired by a procedural.

To me the problem with dramas is that so many of them are episodic.  How do you write a MAD MEN when you don't even know what year the next season will be set in? 

I would pick a show that best fits your sensibilities.  Are you a SONS OF ANARCHY fan?  THE GOOD WIFE?  FRINGE?  ONCE UPON A TIME?   BOARDWALK EMPIRE?  The styles are so different. 

I suppose I would pick the show you feel you know the best and try to write as self-contained episode as you can. 

But I worry about BOSS simply because not many people have seen it.  On the other hand, there sure won't be a glut of them.

DyHrdMET wonders:

Could producers rip off elements of your spec script? has that happened before? 

When a spec script is submitted by an agent it's with the understanding that the studio is no longer liable if a similarity of the script finds its way into an episode.  Without that protection studios would never read anybody's script.   Does stealing from spec scripts occur?  I'm sure it does but in my experience, I've never seen it.  More often specs will stumble upon an upcoming storyline or beat that was already in the works.   

On the other hand, I have seen instances where a studio will buy a spec because they like the story, even if they don't like the writing.

You may think your story is completely unique and original and the truth is a producer gets fifteen specs that all have the same story.  

And trust me,  if a producer has to rely on spec scripts for story notions he won't be in the business very long. 

From Chris:

After you get work on various shows, do you/would you write any more specs? I've always thought I'd do that if there would be shows out there that I would really like.

That does happen. And the truth is, if you’re a working writer on a show that’s not well thought-of in the community, writing a spec may be the only way you graduate to a better show. So swallow your pride. The best example of this was on CHEERS. Peter Casey & David Lee were not just writers on THE JEFFERSONS, they were the showrunners. But to get a CHEERS assignment they had to suck it up and write a spec CHEERS. They did, it impressed the Charles Brothers, and the rest, as they say, is profit.

Have you ever done that?

Not specs for existing shows, but I’ve had to write a lot of specs. When my partner and I were on MASH we wanted to break into features. No one would hire us without a spec screenplay. Our agent would argue that we write a movie-caliber show every week, but they still wanted to see how we did in longform. So we wrote a spec, which got us our first assignment (VOLUNTEERS).

When I went off to do baseball, David tried to get feature work alone. Same story. They only knew him as a member of a team. So he (and later I) had to write a spec screenplay solo.

Now, had we said, “We’ve won Emmys, WGA awards, and we're known at the 20th commissary and barbershop. We’re not going to write on spec” then my guess is we’d have no movie career, either together or separately.  And today we couldn't get into the 20th barbershop if we had a note from George Clooney.

Now here are a couple of comments from yesterday worth re-posting:


From Anonymous Reader:

Ken,

As someone who works for the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship (a great program for aspiring writers, btw!), let me just tell you that the glut IS "Modern Family".

Used to be "The Office", the "30 Rock", but making your script stand out amongst hundreds of "Modern Familys" is going to be an uphill battle for sure.

I imagine the situation must be the same at agencies.

Personally, I'd advise against it.

Good to know. What follows is a GREAT comment by David Schwartz. I could not agree with him more.

Here's a suggestion that I think is very valuable (and one I wish I knew years ago). It is important that even after you write your spec scripts and secure an agent that YOU KEEP WRITING! When I started writing specs in the early 1980's my partner and I wrote a couple of good scripts that landed us an agent, and then we stopped writing. Our attitude was, "We've now written our scripts, it's time for our agent to get us work." We felt that our next assignment should be a paying one. In contrast, at the same time, our agent had another writer that wanted to write for Family Ties. We were told that this writer wrote a Family Ties script practically EVERY WEEK and submitted it to the show. After a couple of months of this, the producers took notice! I believe this writer was Michael J. Weithorn who went on to an incredibly successful career (starting with Family Ties). The point I'm making, is that while you may not be able to write a script every week, persistence is more likely to pay off than inertia. If I had my writing career to do over again, the one thing I'd do differently would be to write more scripts, and then write more scripts after that. First, I'd have gotten better, and second, I'm pretty sure I'd have impressed the producers with my perseverance.

Thanks, David. That letter should come with every scriptwriting computer program and cup of coffee at Starbucks. The more you write, the better you will become and the more opportunities you will have for success.

As always, good luck to everybody!!!

15 comments:

colleen cunha said...

As someone currently working on a Happy Endings spec and a comedy pilot, your last few posts have been greatly insightful.

Just wanted to share my appreciation!

Roger Owen Green said...

Off topic, which group of potential bidders of the LA Dodgers would you prefer, and why?

jwj170104 said...

Thanks for sharing, I have no interest (or talent) in writing scripts but I'm facinated by the process and enjoy reading about it.

David Schwartz said...

Thanks for the praise, Ken. I look back on my days trying to break into sitcom writing during the 80's and reflect on my efforts, accomplishments and sometimes, my supidity. Like the time Peter Casey was gracious enough to read a script I'd worked on and give notes. Here's a guy who's a showrunner and acclaimed writer, and after getting his notes I decided I KNEW BETTER and didn't rework the script. What was I thinking? My common sense must have taken the day off that week. Even if I didn't agree with his notes at the time (ah, the joys of being youthful and stubborn), did I not think to myself, "This guy's a showrunner and could possibly GIVE ME WORK?" Just thinking about it makes me wince. Anyway, looking at the big picture I've had a pretty successful writing career (in spite of myself sometimes), but it's so interesting to look back at the small choices that may have made a large impact.

Gnasche said...

I'm taking a slightly different approach. I'm actually making my original pilot comedy in animation software (basically pre-viz software), using voice actors. I figure this is a much better way to get noticed...but it sure takes a long time to make. Set design, cinematography, lighting, sound design...I'm spending all my time learning about things other than writing.

SeanK said...

Ken,
This is for a Friday question: You’ve mentioned a couple of times doing an un-credited re-write for Jewel of the Nile. I’m curious about that, mainly as it pertains to the ability to add it to your resume. Assuming only known writers would be asked to do a re-write, I suspect there’s enough Kevin Bacon-esque connections that it would be easily verified should it come up. But, well, does it come up? Why was it un-credited (your call or theirs)?

jbryant said...

David Schwartz: I have a similar story. In the mid-90s, the supervising producer of a top ten drama series suggested I team up with a friend of mine and write a one-hour spec as a writing sample. The idea was that he'd give us notes and help us get it into shape so we could land one of the few open assignments on his show (a fledgling team having a better shot than a solo newbie).

So my friend and I wrote the spec and turned it in. The producer called me within a few days and spent two hours going over the script with a fine-tooth comb, making suggestions both detailed and general, mostly of a practical nature, designed to set our work apart from the average wannabe and land that assignment.

I was thrilled -- great notes, and pretty simple to execute. I called my co-writer and told him everything. Instead of being thrilled, he was incensed. Who the hell was this producer to tell us how to write? He refused to do the rewrite. Since we had written it together, I couldn't just do the rewrite, take his name off and pass it off as my own. So that was the end of that.

David S said...

Here's a question:

You mentioned earlier that at the end of the day, it's best to have two sample scripts: One spec, and one original pilot.

If I have a spec that I wrote by myself, and an original piece I wrote with a partner, are there any problems that arise with both of these being part of the same submission package to an agent, producer, etc. (either submitting as an individual, or as a team?)

Frank said...

Very informative follow-up!

DyHrdMET said...

just one thought on your follow up comment -- i would think that writing a spec script is a good exercise to keep the mind sharp, even if you're not hurting for work.

Paul Duca said...

I realized I have a Friday question, thanks to Me TV...why was it determined that B.J. Hunnicut needed a 2-part episode to introduce him, but only a single episode for Sherman Potter?

Johnny Walker said...

A great series of posts. Thanks for them!

Bill White said...

On the Animation question: While MANY of the people at the studios I worked at have been idiots, I understand why they frowned on using outside writers. Most writers who are not cartoonists don't think of the visuals when they write, so you end up with 2 characters standing around a room talking, which is boring in animation. On the best animated pieces, the visuals and story are developed at the same time. Often a formal script for the actors to read isn't written up until after the storyboard is finished.

Admittedly, I have never worked on any of the prime-time animated sitcoms like, THE SIMPSONS or FAMILY GUY. I'm sure on shows like that, that are more like traditional sitcoms, "regular" writers work as well, if not better, than cartoonists.

Ken, even though you basically called me an idiot, I love the blog and will continue to read it. If I ever get my own show produced, I will even read your spec script.

Norman Epstein said...

Dear Ken,

I remember you from my days as the GSM at KMPC from '76 - '84. I am a good friend of your father, Cliff. You have really made a good name for yourself in comedy and Sports Broadcasting. You replaced an old friend, Dave Niehaus. I am sure he would be proud of the work you are doing.

I spent many years in radio as VP/GM of KLAC/KZLA and also XTRA and KOST FM.

After radio I started a travel marketing company called Travel Related Marketing. I am also developing word games for the iphone and the ipad. If you like word games, I think you will love my newest game, "Vowel Movement". It is a cross between Boggle and Scrabble with several strategic differences. My new game has been approved by Apple.

Here is the link: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vowel-movement/id495500647?ls=1&mt=8

I think it is the best new word game since "words with friends". You can challenge other players on Facebook or via email.

There is much strategy in the game in which you make words from 2-6 letters long (there is a QU tile) on a 25 grid square.

There are 50 alphabet letters and 4 wild tiles. The wild tiles and vowels can be moved at any time. The consonants can not be moved once you hit play.

Try it, it's fun and challenging, but not too hard.

Continued success
.

Sincerely,

Norman Epstein

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