Wednesday, June 25, 2014
And if their pilot gets on the air and becomes a hit they see weekly “created by” royalties and often own a piece of the show in syndication.
Now let’s say the pilot script has been greenlit. And it’s a multi-camera sitcom. Here’s the typical process for that genre: The script is rehearsed every day followed by a runthrough. The showrunner and his staff go back to the room and do the necessary rewriting, often staying late into the night because a new script must be on the stage the next morning at 9:00. And you think Jack Bauer faces pressure. But there is a staff. The showrunner doesn’t have to do it himself.
Same is true for a pilot, except the stakes are way higher and there is no staff. It’s just the guy who wrote the pilot. Understandably, he could use some help at this point. Back in the fabulous ‘80s there was money budgeted for other writers to come in and help out. I think I lived for two years on failed Cheech Marin pilots alone.
Studios stopped paying consultants. So the pilot writer would ask his writer friends to help out as a favor. Instead of big paydays we would get lovely gifts. For years this system has been in place. I’ve helped out on many a pilot and when I’ve had a pilot myself I’ve been able to call in one helluva cavalry. I’m still more than happy to come in and pitch deep into the night if a friend has a pilot on the stage.
But a new trend has emerged. Pilot writers have begun to ask friends to come in and help punch up the script before it goes to the studio and network. To me, this is taking advantage. It’s one thing to help out during actual production when it’s crunch time, but the pilot writer is being paid a bundle and I’m supposed to help write the script for an iPad Mini? And not even the model that gets 3G?
On the one hand, it puts me in an awkward position. I don’t want to be an asshole and say no, but at the same time I resent being put in that position. I’ve said yes once or twice in the past. From now on it’s no.
Also, isn’t this practice somewhat unethical? If I’m a network and I receive a script with your name on it, it’s fair to assume this represents your work. My decision as to whether to make the pilot could be based on my faith that you can deliver scripts of this caliber every week should I pick up your show. But if all the best jokes and nice moments and inventive story turns were written by a ghost staff, I’m basing my decision on false pretenses.
And lastly, where’s the original writer’s pride of authorship? If you don’t believe in your work and stand by your work, why are you taking the money?
One writer friend was asked to help out on a first draft and arrived to find ten other people also sitting there. The pilot writer then tried to send groups of them off into separate rooms to rewrite the scenes. Unconscionable! My friend balked, as well he should.
There is such an overlay of fear in the business these days. It governs almost every decision. A pilot going into production used to begin with a table read where the cast sat around a table and read the script aloud. Now studios are so afraid of the network’s reaction that they have pre-table reads. And pre-pre table reads. Similarly, networks must approve everything, from the wardrobe to set dressing to actors who have only one line. Experienced showrunners can’t be trusted to pick out a lamp.
And this paralyzing fear has now filtered down to writers… and some studios that encourage this practice of assembling back up writers. I’m sure they reason that other pilots are doing it so they need to do it as well to compete. To that I say ‘so what?’ I can’t control the competition. I have no idea what sweetheart deals have been made or which projects will get priority based on relationships. All I can do is turn out the best script I possibly can. It may not go but at least I can sleep at night.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM