Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best Of: 2015 -- What I look for in a spec pilot

Thus concludes my year-a-day look back at ten years of blogging.  Here's a post from earlier this year.  A popular feature has been advice to young writers who will thank me someday when they win an Emmy.  Next January I begin teaching a graduate course in pilot writing at UCLA.  Here are the kinds of points I'll be stressing:

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.


Stephen Marks said...

I love Ken's work but I'm beginning to wonder if there wasn't 3 men on that boat anchored off of Catalina Island in '74

Ken: "Oh my god what happened?"

RJ: "It was an it?"

Ken: "Shouldn't we call the police?"

CW: "Forget it Ken, its Chinatown!"

Peter said...

A nice quickfire Friday Question:

What is hands down the worst movie you've ever sat through?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Ken, I'm curious (and this isn't really a Friday question, just spitballing here), but what's your personal and professional opinion on the whole one page equals one minute of screen time rule of scriptwriting? So many different writers and sources seem to teeter back and forth on the matter, some saying that the rule should be strictly enforced, while others say it doesn't really matter so long as the content of the script is timed precisely - I've even heard one opinion saying that one page equaling one minute really only works for drama, but because comedy has more going for it in terms of action and dialogue that it requires two pages a minute.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Good luck with the class next semester. I'm looking forward to hearing about some of your experiences in it. Hard to believe we're coming up on 34th anniversary of Natalie Wood's death. Still hurts.

Mighty Dyckerson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

We know, MD, we know, but you keep posting here, anyway.