I'm talking about the more important “Should you write a premise pilot?” dilemma? Last week I discussed the pros and cons of premise pilots vs. typical episode-pilots.
Bill Taub submitted a comment that’s worth re-posting and discussing. First off, Bill Taub is a terrific writer. His credits range from comedies like BARNEY MILLER and NEWHART to dramas like HILL STREET BLUES and DALLAS. He teaches a pilot writing class at UCLA that I cannot recommend highly enough. If you want to learn how to write a pilot, this is your guy.
What follows is an email debate between us based on my post and his reaction. He's in purple and I'm in black.
Here’s what Bill originally wrote:
Dear Ken -- we both go back a long way -- but I sincerely hope my UCLA Spec Pilot Writing Class which starts in a month doesn't read this. I am a strong advocate of the prototypical episode pilot and think many series fail because they were bought off of premise pilots. Without going too far back into the archives, let's start with last week -- REVOLUTION premiered -- the set up was in the first sequence then it jumped to 15 years later, which is where the series lies. I can tell much more clearly whether I'm going to like the series or not from this approach.
LAST RESORT aired tonight (Thursday) -- and is a premise pilot. I have much less of an idea what the series is.
A perfect example of what I don't like about premise pilots was a couple seasons back there was a series called 'OUTSOURCED' -- the premise pilot was about this guy being downsized out of a job and ultimately ending with him having to go to India and work as the fish out of water at a telemarketing firm. The premise pilot ended and I had no idea what the series was going to be -- neither did a lot of other folks.
As one who runs a Spec Pilot workshop I have suggested what I call the hybrid -- the premise is built into the pilot script taking up as little time as possible -- no more than twenty percent -- and the rest of the time is a typical episode. And the set-up doesn't have to come at the beginning -- it can be flashbacks or whatever throughout the pilot.
As I tell my students, the premise pilot is going to come down to a one minute montage behind opening credits -- so, if you absolutely have to, write that montage -- then write a typical episode. Figuring out what the series is going to be is a lot harder to me than writing the set-up. This way somebody reading just the spec pilot will know the broad strokes of the set-up and also be able to envision a typical episode.
I could go on -- but this might be better as a discussion.
Thanks though for arguing the other side -- it's helped me become focus even more clearly on my approach!
You make some excellent points and I don’t disagree. Ideally, a typical episode is best and gives a better idea of what the series will be like every week. If you have a pilot idea where that works, great. Do it. You don’t have to read on. Go get a snack.
But if your pilot is difficult to easily and quickly explain, to do a lot of exposition or flashbacks or a compressed montage can get cumbersome. Especially for inexperienced pilot writers.
And my feeling about spec pilots is this:
It’s first and foremost a writing sample.
The chances of actually selling your pilot are very remote. I’m just being realistic. But if your pilot shows you off to have a fresh voice, an interesting vision, a flair for comedy – whatever your strength – then it’s a success regardless of whether it follows HOW I MET YOUR MET YOUR MOTHER once PARTNERS is mercifully cancelled.
Consider the reader (i.e. the person you need to impress). I always assume she has a stack of pilots. (In this case, I’m also assuming it’s a she but it can just as easily be a he.) She’s barraged with concepts, and settings, and every script has multiple characters. It’s hard enough to keep them straight. And there’s an Alex in every one and half are girls. (There’s also a Kevin. In one he’s the dad, in another he’s the best friend, in another he’s the ex – you get the idea.)
I advise young writers to make your pilot as clear as possible and as easy for the reader as possible. Starting a show as a typical episode but then through backstory, asking the reader to catch up to the premise, often makes it a harder read.
Bill offers a great solution if the pilot will accommodate it – the “hybrid” -- a very quick prologue to set up the premise and then segue into a typical episode. If you can do that, head for the snack bar.
But remember, in the first three pages of a spec pilot the writer has to set up the situation, introduce you to characters, establish their relationships, start a story, create a tone, and be dazzlingly funny. That’s a lot to do under ideal circumstances. Now add cleverly weaving in the premise via some device or form of exposition. The project might just collapse under its own weight.
Look, the bottom line is the pilot idea itself dictates everything. Some pilots require detailed premise episodes, some can be explained in two lines, and some are just self-evident. Premise pilots have their minuses (as I mentioned in my original piece), but especially for young writers – your job is just to write the best, most impressive script you can and if a premise pilot best services your particular idea, don’t shy away from it. Yes, it may not give the best indication of what subsequent episodes would be like, but the truth is there probably won’t be subsequent episodes. Sell YOU.
OKAY KEN, you inviolate slut.
I think I can hone in on our basic difference from which everything else flows. You maintain:
Look, the bottom line is the pilot idea itself dictates everything.
I don’t believe that for a minute. I think a series is all about execution. Yes, I want to start with a unique and original idea – but even if I don’t – even if I’m starting with something as ‘low concept’ as ‘Brothers and Sisters’, how I execute it can be the difference between success and failure.
The idea is going to be grasped in one episode – the execution is the template, the recipe, that will drive the series for hopefully 100 episodes. Which is more important???
I often have my students take their idea and think of executing it differently from the way they suggested, just to let them see the options they have. How the idea can change.
I could take a high concept like ‘Neighbors’ and say, okay, an unsuspecting family moves into a community of space aliens who look human. I can name several different executions of that right off the bat. From single camera sitcom, to multiple camera sitcom, to serious sci-fi, to animated.
I can take Sherlock Holmes and execute it as a period piece, a comedy, an animated series, or as CBS is now doing as a contemporary male-female procedural. And, by the way, the pilot for Elementary which aired Thursday was a prototypical episode. They were teamed up and onto a case before I could sit down.
Any idea can be executed any number of different ways. It doesn’t dictate anything. When I used to teach my episodic t.v. workshop I would give the class a set-up – f’rinstance, a guy walks in with explosives wrapped around his waist threatening to blow himself up, and I’d have them execute it as a ‘Law & Order’, a ‘House’, a ‘My Name Is Earl’ or maybe a ‘M.A.S.H.’ or ‘Cheers’ – whatever, that are distinctly different. The idea is the idea – the execution is the key.
If I were a network executive that’s what I’d want to see.
Since we’re doing spec pilot scripts rather than pitching – I give the reader/buyer the basics of the set-up then focus on execution. And, quite frankly, I believe the harder of the two tasks.
Spec pilots have become a mandatory part of a portfolio if you want to do television – which amuses me, because until “Desperate Housewives”, a spec pilot that saved a network, nobody cared about them.
And now, they’re being used not just to sell – but writers are being staffed on existing shows because of their spec pilots.
Larry David, David Kelley, Ryan Murphy, David Shore, Dan Harmon, Aaron Sorkin, Christopher Lloyd, these are a few of the writers setting the standard for unique execution.
The bottom line, for me is, it’s all about execution.
Back to you, Ken...:-)
I think we agree more than disagree. I’m totally with you that it’s all about the execution. But execution is a different topic. That’s “how well” you write your pilot, and whole courses can be devoted to that (y’know, like the one you teach). And yes, you should write the pilot you can execute the best, not the one that’s the greatest coolest idea ever. Again, it’s all about selling YOU.
That’s a great exercise you have where students take different approaches on the same concept. There are always options and that’s a lesson we writers can never re-learn enough. But all I’m saying is, in the most practical sense – consider your reader. And in this case it's not a network executive; it's an agent or manager or producer or studio exec. Take the approach that will make it the easiest for them to get on board and be knocked out by your script. They won’t laugh at your great jokes if they’re confused. So once you’ve considered all the options, if in your particular case a premise pilot would be the best way to showcase your project and you then I say go for it.
Even though it’s my blog, I’d like to have Bill have the final word.
My goal is both. The greatest coolest idea ever -- executed brilliantly. I can't separate them out. When it comes to my class, I insist on an 'Episode 6' pilot. The series template/recipe. I don't deal with Premise pilots.
For the last word I'll say -- Thank you!
Another highly respected writer checks in. Earl Pomerantz, in his blog this morning addresses this debate. It's well worth hopping over there to see what he has to say. Here's Earl article.