Tuesday, January 20, 2015

What I look for in a spec pilot

A few years ago, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for a major network. The development executive was new to the job. We turned in our first draft and heard he was very happy with it. Instead of going to the network for notes we would just do a conference call. The notes would be minimal. All the stuff that’s music to writers’ ears.

At the appointed time he got on the phone and was hugely complimentary. “It’s amazing how you guys introduced the premise and characters and set up the story and it all flowed, it never felt forced. We learned a lot about the characters along the way, and you got it all in in 46 pages.”

I know the appropriate answer would have been thank you and leave it at that. But for some reason I couldn’t do that. What I said instead was this:

“Thank you. That’s great to hear. But… that’s the job. We were just fulfilling the assignment. All of your pilots should come back like that. If not, you’re hiring the wrong writers.”

He laughed and said I was probably right.

The point is, there is a level of craft that should go into pilots. Setting up the premise, introducing the characters, seamlessly weaving in the exposition, setting the tone, being funny, letting the audience know the direction the show will go in – these are REQUIREMENTS.

The trick is to do all of that and have the jokes be better, the characters more original, and the story more inventive than the other well-crafted pilots. What sets one pilot script above the others should be inspiration not professionalism.

Young writers today are being told to write pilots as their specs. The industry is looking for exciting new voices.

What am I looking for when I read a spec pilot? Exciting new voices are nice, but first I’m trying to determine if this person even has a clue. The basics have to be there. Can this person tell a story? Are his characters well-drawn? Are their actions properly motivated? Are the jokes organic to the characters and tone? Do the jokes move the story along?   If a writer can accomplish all that and have a fresh outlook that is genuinely funny then he’s hit a home run. But if the execution is amateurish the exciting “voice” gets lost.

Learn the basics.

Master the craft of pilot writing. Yes, they're difficult and the process is time consuming and frustrating. But the good news is you’re competing with lots of people out there whose scripts are a hopeless mess. When I told that network executive to hire better writers, I was referring to YOU.

Best of luck.


rockgolf said...

Okay, dumb question time, why are you reading spec pilots? Do other writers hire you to review them or jazz them up?

And follow-up, what's the best spec pilot you read that networks turned down.

Scooter Schechtman said...

So "Requirements" was the name of the pilot?

Carol said...

Friday Question:

If someone came to you and offered you the Network Suit Job would you take it, or would you be afraid it would suck all the joy out of the business for you?

Would you WANT to be the guy who accepts/rejects shows?

jcs said...

May I inquire what happened to your pilot? Did the support from the network last?

Chris said...

I "second" rockgolf's question: what's the best spec pilot you read that networks turned down?

Ken Levine said...

What happened to that pilot -- the head of the network thought it felt more like the type of pilot that would appear on another network so passed.

Best spec script I've read? I'm saving that for a Friday Question. I know -- aren't I a tease?

Johnny Walker said...

More great advice. I love these posts. It's interesting because THE WIRE doesn't have ANY of these traits... but, of course, David Simon was attempting something new, and had a relationship with HBO, so they knew he wasn't just bad at his job. He also produced more scripts so they could start to see how the show was going to grow as it went along.

If he'd just submitted it to a network, I'm sure it would have (understandably) looked terrible to them!

One of the most recent good spec scripts I read was the one for NEW GIRL. It wasn't perfect, it needed some work, but it flowed great, was very funny, and had a unique and interesting voice throughout.

MikeN said...

> the head of the network thought it felt more like the type of pilot that would appear on another network so passed.

Reading your description earlier about how you like to get a few overall shots, I thought of USA.

Eli Pasic said...

Hello, Ken! What very often happens to me when I start writing is I freeze up and can't figure out which direction to take the thing in. Could it be that I'm thinking too much and pre-judging the work in my head? Could it be that I haven't done enough "prep" work (as in the character work you talked about in your last post)? I just get so overwhelmed with the possibilities that I can't decide which is best and end up foolishly paralyzing myself. Do you have any advice or experiences of your own on how to overcome (or better yet, avoid) this issue that I'm sure every writer goes through... and goes through, and goes through?

Bill Taub said...

The biggest laugh I got was when you said 'all scripts should be like yours'...I love it! Don't know if you include this, but it's really important a pilot should also represent a typical episode. More than just set-up. The last pilot i watched was 'Empire' -- you were in it from the beginning!

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

This is a cool blog you got here.
Wow, it's starting to be the blog I read often.

Well done Sir.

And your writing is awesome.

Thank you for your amazing leadership.


Scooter Schechtman said...

Arjan's right. Without Ken's leadership we couldn't have gotten through the Golden Globes Death March.

Anonymous said...


Please explain that comment.


Scooter Schechtman said...

Golden Globes was an award show which was reviewed here.

Anonymous said...

Okay thanks.
BTW , thanks to Mr Levine, I decided to market my TV specs in 2015. I got 4. All R-rated and gritty and very cool-noir. The positive vibe of Ken Levine made me work diligently. I have to be successful. I will.

Thanks Mr. Levine.


Unknown said...

Hey Ken, I know this might seem a little off topic, but I'm doing research for a spec pilot. Do you have any Barney Miller scripts? I'm not having much luck on the net finding one. You can fb message me if you've got one. Thanks, Glenn Farrington

MikeK.Pa. said...

Wow. What a great week. TWO Natalie Wood photos in one week. Can never get enough of her. Love seeing them; hate that she's no longer with us.

I know there are a slew of how-to books on TV sitcom writing, but you should really think about doing one - either solo or with your partner. I think it would really stand out among the rest if it's anywhere near the level of your blog.