Thursday, April 21, 2011

Some thoughts on pilot writing

At first you’ll read this and think, “Oh Christ! This guy’s just tooting his own horn again.” Read on. You’ll see that I’m not.

Several years ago my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for one of the major networks. A conference call was arranged for us to get second draft notes. The VP of Comedy Development was a young guy, fairly new to the job. He started the conversation by saying there were very few notes. I liked him already. And then he went on and on about how amazing our script was. I’m paraphrasing now but I swear this is pretty close.

“This script has such a nice flow. I can’t believe you guys introduced all these characters, set up the premise, told a very clever story, and made it really funny all the way through. The jokes all advance the story, and you did all this in just 45 pages. Wow!”

Needless to say, that was lovely to hear but I couldn’t stop thinking –

Uh, isn’t that the job?!

We didn’t reinvent the form. That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to turn in. That’s what they’re PAYING you for. We weren’t amazing. We were just being professional. What were the other pilots like that he received?

By the time a network approves a writer to do a pilot, generally that writer has had several years of experience working on staff and doing script assignments. He should be seasoned enough and skillful enough to weave in all those elements that the Comedy Development VP listed.

I was certainly flattered by his reaction but would have been more flattered if he had said, “You guys have some wonderfully fresh ideas in here. You’ve created characters I’ve never seen before.” That holds more weight to me than we got everything in in 45 pages.

Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?

My advice to network development departments: If you can’t get a polished well-written draft from the people you’ve hired to write your pilots then get different people.

Hire the writers who do strive for fresh new ideas and whose high standard of execution is just a given.


SoulHonky said...

What ever happened to that pilot?

Just judging the TV shows that actually get made, experience doesn't always equate quality. It's nice to think that people who've been there before will know what to do but it doesn't seem like a given.

Horaceco said...

I've got a question for your friday roundup. Cheers just started streaming on Netflix, and I'm a souple of episodes into the second season. Watching season 1, I couldn't beleive how plain they made Shelley Long look. I was head over heals for her when I was in college, and I just couldn't see why. Then, as soon as she starts going out with Sam, they transform her into the hottie I remember. Was this done on purpose, or did Cheers get a new wardrobe and makeup staff?

Warren Z said...

Bit of a novice question here, Ken - was the pilot hour long or half hour? I ask because I'm in the process of editing my half hour pilot and I'm looking for a page count target.


Anonymous said...

The more you work in this business, the more it'll drive you nuts. My partner and I checked out the pilot scripts on the deadline "hot" list, and not only are the ideas old (which is fine, if they're well executed), but they're not well executed. Clunky pipe, not starting the story fast enough, lame act breaks, etc. ZZZZ.

The problem is that these execs fall in love with "hip," "young" writers who have not yet learned their craft. And by being rewarded so early, they have no incentive to improve. Nor any clue that they need to. Although they're brought in for "fresh perspectives," they're way more likely to write clammy "no caffiene for you" jokes than a seasoned writer would.

Hollywoodaholic said...

@Warren Z

That's mostly likely an hour show, using the page per minute count, and knocking off 15 minutes for commercials. Half hour scripts come in at 30 or below. But there are exceptions if the show is all fast-paced dialogue. "Moonlighting" scripts often went near 100 pages for an hour. Still, more likely go by the page per minute, minus commercial time. Hope this helps.

By Ken Levine said...

45 pages was for a half-hour multi-camera pilot. Single-camera scripts are in the 30s.

Warren Z said...


Thanks! Either way, more babies to kill

Retro Blog said...

I wish there was a blog to suggest stories that would make wonderful television. Unfortunately my stories are already written and exist in books by some of my favorite authors and this gets messy. Having said that:

I wish that
Dream workds would tackle several adventure pics;
A) The Dragons of Pern. Anne McCaffrey isn't going to live forever you know.
B) Dreamsnake Vonda McIntyre HUgo award 1979.
C) War Prize. Vaughn. A tale of several societies, tribal warriors, smallish kingdoms.

All of these books need special effects outfits. If I had 300 million bucks....

James said...

"Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?"

To answer that, yes.

I'm pretty convinced they don't know the difference between bad and good. Let's face it, their world is hype and demographics.

I find it interesting how different meetings are with a showrunner than with the execs or production entity.

One is about story, the other is about marketing and potential audience.

BigTed said...

Once you've got the basics down -- there are six attractive 30ish people living in the city (say, a married couple, a dating couple and two singles), all of whom are very different types but good friends for some reason, and they all have romantic/sex/work/life issues involving other attractive people, and they all get together in a bar, a coffeehouse or someone's living room to discuss it all during the hours of free time they somehow have each day -- what else is left but jokes and casting?

(I'm kidding, but it really does seem like that's all the networks are producing these days.)

Mark said...

This sounds like the reaction of someone who has heard people talk about the "craft of storytelling" but has never been exposed to it before.

Ref said...

Really, Ken? If we didn't ENJOY the sound of your horn, do you think we'd be reading this blog?

cshel said...

Good point Big Ted.

I actually liked the NBC show PERFECT COUPLES and I'm really sad it got cancelled. Then they add a similar show, only with boring people and stupid writing, called HAPPY ENDINGS. WTF?!

And I know I need to move on, but I still lament the cancellations of both PUSHING DAISIES and BETTER OFF TED. That's what happens to shows outside the box.

Carson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carson said...

@Warren Z

I see that Ken answered your question, but I though I'd give you the link to a site where a ton of pilot and regular episode scripts are for multi-cam & single-cam sitcoms and even dramas. I think it may help you with your pacing to have an idea of where a good place is to put your act breaks:

Also, for clarification for @Hollywoodaholic:

Single camera shows (both comedies and dramas) are actually 40 second pages, not minute pages. A drama pilot should be between 50 to 70-odd pages in length. Pilots scripts are almost always longer than a regular episode because you have to set up the world you've created. In future scripts you don't have to describe places they've already been or people we've already met in the pilot.

Warren Z said...

Thanks, Carson!