Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Friday Question of the Week

From Gareth:

When writing a spec pilot, how big should the budget be? I realize spec pilots are almost never filmed, so strictly speaking they don't have budgets. But presumably a spec that would be insanely expensive to film would be frowned upon - it would show you didn't understand the TV business. On the other hand, real pilots are getting pricey these days. So, how expensive can your pilot look, and how does that influence how it's written?

In general, it’s a good idea to not make your pilot too ambitious. If special state-of-the-art special effects are required to sell your ending chances are you’re dead. If the reader opens your script and the first page describes the final battle scene from BRAVEHEART he won’t get to page two. If Julia Roberts is required to have a heart-to-heart with your lead don’t be disappointed if your pilot doesn’t go.

Keep your perspective budgets within reason. It does show a greater understanding of the business. And will be easier to film should you get lucky.

Obviously the arena of your pilot will somewhat determine your budget parameters. If you write a sci-fi pilot set in space it’s going to be more expensive than a comedy about a guy in a studio apartment who has agoraphobia.

It’s generally a good idea not to have too large a cast list – both for the expense and the confusion factor. Readers prefer not having to keep seventeen characters straight in their heads. I helped out on a pilot once about two large families brought together by marriage (think BRADY BUNCH times three). Sitting around the table trying to fix this script I had no fucking idea who anybody was, what family they were with, how old they were, and then to make matters worse Alex and Sam were girls and Jamey and Dana were boys.

When David and I wrote our first script it was a spec pilot set in college (I know – how very original). We were clueless. We didn’t even know from outlines so we just started writing. I had bought an old ODD COUPLE script from a used Hollywood bookstore and we used that as our guide. At one point I asked David what page we were on. He said 35 and I noted that “they start wrapping it up here pretty quick.” So we stopped, took ten minutes to think of an ending. The university’s computer system would blow up causing mass confusion and a blizzard of IBM punch cards. We wrote it and fifteen minutes later we were done and in the car heading to El Torito’s to get margaritas and celebrate. I think it would have cost $20,000,000 to stage that scene in 1973. And we’d want to be reimbursed for the margaritas. Needless to say, our script didn’t sell.

The best pilots feature the best characters and most interesting situations. Million dollar ideas sell, not million dollar budgets.

Our exploding computer scene was pretty funny though.

Thanks for the questions. Keep 'em coming.


Weasel said...

"IBM punchcards".

I had to think about that one for a minute.

Hey, ironically I was just on my way to catch Mike Myers tonight, and I just happened to check into your blog.

Thanks. I owe you 13 dollars.

Anonymous said...

Keeping budget in mind is always a good idea. I know a gentleman who worked on Sanford and Son for a while (this was way back in the 70s, kids). Now this was a show produced on videotape, and probably 98% of it took place on one of three sets: the Sanford kitchen, the Sanford living room, or the yard just outside the living room. They very, very rarely taped outside the studio. An occasional big-name guest star (Lena Horne, f'rinstance), but mostly the series regulars and guest supporting players, as needed. Nevertheless, my friend told me that it wasn't at all unusual for them to get scripts submitted that called for six brand new sets, location shooting, and a special guest role that absolutely had to be filled by Billy Dee Williams. Needless to say, those folks didn't make their big break there.

Anonymous said...

On the other end of the scale there's the pilot for "Lost" that would put most big screen movies to shame. I heard it cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000,000 to make. Imagine if they didn't pick it up. And it didn't even have exploding computers.

By Ken Levine said...

Re LOST: Yes,it had a huge budget and the ABC exec who greenlighted it got fired. Then the show premiered and was a big hit.

But this question related to spec pilots, not commitments to producers who have a proven track record.

Anonymous said...

In regards to LOST, even if you're a big fan like me, don't go out and write such an ambitious and complex 15-character ensemble show. It's a shocker that the show is still on the air, not that it's bad (because it's not bad at all -- it's awesome), but because it's mostly what executives try so hard NOT to let on television.
And there won't be a show like Lost for a while.
They tried with Heroes, but it went through the Executive filtering system and... came out as expected. Of course, having a showrunner who has no idea how his show works doesn't help make it any better, either.

Bitter Animator said...

I have a Friday question -

Is it all worth it?

I mean, making television shows. We provide mild diversion for the masses. Is it worth it? Really?

I can't help feeling the ad-subsidised model of television has taken all value from television. People see it as 'free'. It has no value.

Are they wrong?

I guess at least you have the good sense not to make television one frame at a time, unlike the animation loons.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, those animators sure are stupid cun... very foolish.

I wanted to be an animator once, but then I realised it took a really long time to do good animation... only to see shows like South Park, Family Guy and *shudder* Drawn Together sweep the fucking BOARD when it comes to poor animation.

And people love those shows anyway.

Maybe I'm the stupid cunt.

Bitter Animator said...

Nah, you got it right the first time, Sephim.

Dana King said...

Be nice now. Lots of boys are names Dana. This one's 6'1" and 245.

By Ken Levine said...

I have nothing against the name Dana. It's just that some names that do go both ways are more associated with one of those ways. There are men named Leslie, women named Alex, the Mariners' third baseman is named Adrian. And I'm just saying to creates a level of confusion that can be avoided.

Cap'n Bob said...

Down south I went to school with guys named Carol and Beverly. You wonder what their parents were thinking.

I wish they'd made that show with the exploding IBM cards. My first job with the Civil Service was keypunching those bastards, thousands per day. One time a recruiter talked my boss into setting up a data base using those cards--for people from Hawaii. After a few hundred names like Haaoui Walkenoka, 245 Mankowalahoni Street, Oahu, I just started pecking out whatever came into my head. We never got that task again.

Anonymous said...

Re:Re: Lost Yes I know you were referencing spec scripts, but you also referenced making them so they don't blow budgets, and I provided an extreme example the other way(after all, the pilot had to have a script even it was commisionned without one). It also helps to spend 10 million if your name is J.J. Abrams and have his reputation. Worked out well for everyone except that poor ABC President(who also greenlit Desperate Housewives).

Anonymous said...

I don't think it cost $20,000,000 when they filmed that scene for the end of DESK SET with Tracy & Hepburn.

By Ken Levine said...

I didn't know about Desk Set but if that's true that just makes the script too expensive AND not even original. What a great first effort!

Anonymous said...

My agoraphobia pilot is registered with the WGA, so don't try anything funny, buster.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for answering. That's a good point about the cast size. I notice a lot of shows have very small casts in the pilot but add more characters later.