Thursday, January 26, 2006

If you have a pilot...

If you have a comedy pilot in development with one of the major networks here’s probably where you are today.

You sold the idea in September. It used to be you would then construct a story, go in and pitch it to the network two weeks later, work out any kinks with them and then go write your draft.

Now networks want a detailed outline. That means you spend two weeks constructing the story, a week to write the detailed outline, three weeks getting notes from your non-writing producers (“pods”), studio, and network, revising the outline, re-submitting it, waiting another week for everyone’s reaction, and finally getting it approved.

Two months.

You write the first draft. Takes about a month. It always takes longer writing a pilot. You have to discover the characters, feel your way along, and try to jam in story turns that really don’t work but the network/studio/pod wants.

Once you finish the draft I suggest you read it over and enjoy. It might be the last time you recognize it. You submit it to the studio and your pod. Before they even read it a notes call is arranged. There will be notes, that’s a given. Three days go by, you’re lucky if you hear from anyone with at least a reaction. Then comes the conference call. You’re on with seven people -- four execs named David and three junior execs named Stacy.

You get your notes and do another draft. Either the process repeats, or you’re given just a few “polish” notes (one pod started giving us stage direction notes at this time – yeah, he really saved the show), and then your script is submitted to the network. A notes call is immediately arranged. You may think the script is perfect and your studio/pod may think it’s perfect but sight unseen the network knows they will have some problems.

If you’re lucky your agent gets a reaction call. Or the studio or pod. On super rare occasions the network will actually call you, the writer and creator of the show. Usually they dialed by mistake.

This conference call features eleven people – one more David and three Katies. These are the network notes but the lower tier (development department) notes. Once these are done to all eleven peoples’ satisfaction it goes up the ladder, usually to the middle tier VP’s. Writing a pilot is like playing Super Mario Brothers.

Another call. More notes. The script goes back in to the network where it finally is kicked upstairs to the man who will be making the ultimate greenlight decision. All you've accomplished with these previous notes is perhaps this middle tier will send it along with their “recommendation”. Sometimes the man making the decision is only vaguely aware that this project exists. Sometimes he doesn't put a lot of stock in his staff's recommendations. Your future is in his hands.

And that brings us to today. The script is in. You wait. Fox, for example, commissioned 110 scripts this season. They may make thirty pilots (comedy and drama). There may be commitments and penalties attached to certain projects which give them a leg up. Projects from the studio owned by the network have an advantage. Sometimes networks double and triple develop – there may be two other pilots with the exact same arena as yours. One network last year even had two pilots with the same title. Other considerations: their needs, where can your show go, what could they pair it with, do they owe anyone favors, how expensive would the show be, and oh yeah – do they like it?

Suddenly you are in the cone of silence. You call your agent, you call the studio, you call your pod, the studio calls your agent, the agent calls another agent, your pod calls his wife, you call another studio, the studio calls your pod’s wife. You hear rumors. They like it. You gave them just what they ordered (that’s usually the kiss of death). “He” still hasn’t read it. They want to talk to casting. They’re waiting for a few more things to come in. It’s his nephew’s bar mitzah.

And eventually word comes down that a few projects have gotten picked up. Uh oh. Fewer slots. Why haven’t they called you yet? What does this mean? The mind games begin. The phone calls continue.

Hopefully you’ll hear Monday morning. Or maybe not. Which generally means bad news, horrible news. But it could not mean anything at all.

Enjoy your weekend.


H. L. Shepherd said...

Hi Mr. Levine:

Great article, thanks for posting. I imagine the red tap you have to cut through to get to TV or Movie execs leaves ones pair of scissors very dull. Actually, I have already had to throw out seven pairs and I haven't even seen the inside of any studio, agency, or prod conference room. {SIGH}

I know, I have plenty more to get through. Hmm perhaps a sharpener would help. In any case, thank you for posting, it's nice to be aware of the stress you must go through to get to that point. Congrats on your success, your industry experience is inspiring.

Mind if I borrow your sharpener?


By Ken Levine said...

People and critics (two different species) are forever crying that sitcoms today are bland and familiar. If they knew the process they might better understand.

Anonymous said...

From the outside looking in (or, rather, jumping up to see over the fence), I'd love to be in your predicament. I know, I know, be careful what you wish for...

But despite the frustrations you keep at it. What keeps you playing the game?

By Ken Levine said...

I will answer in tomorrow's post.

Asa said...

Good luck. Sounds unpleasant. What makes it worth it, creating or getting the exposure?

- A

Anonymous said...

The Super Mario Bros. reference doesn't actually make sense. Perhaps you meant some other videogame? (Donkey Kong, most likely.)

By Ken Levine said...

The Super Mario Brothers reference was in regards to all the various levels you have to go through. You pass through one you move up to the next.

Anonymous said...

Ahh. It seemed like you were trying to directly play on "ladder". Super Mario Brothers is more of a forward-moving, rather than upward-moving game.

I still think Donkey Kong would be a better comparison: A big gorilla throwing barrels down at you, which you have to dodge or jump over as you climb ramps and ladders to get to the top -- only to have to do it all over again.

Anonymous said...

Funny article, and well-written. I enjoyed it!