Tuesday, September 06, 2011

My thoughts on the pilot season so far (one month into it)

I’ll be very interested to see how this pilot season shakes out. So far it’s been very different from other pilot seasons.

It used to be, writers the networks liked would come in and pitch ideas. The nets would buy seemingly the best ones over a four month period. Scripts would come in, presumably the best ones would get chosen for production, and the best pilots got on the air. That system has been bastardized by networks now owning studios and selecting mostly their own product over outside ideas, a sprinkling of commitments (usually to producers who already have a hit show on that network), and there are non-writing pod producers making sales because of close relationships to network executives. But still, the framework of writers selling ideas remains the basic template.

Not this year though. This season (at least from what I hear and read), there are way more package deals going in – generally involving a hot feature director or screenwriter or piece of talent. And there is a lot more bidding for projects among the networks. Bidding wars always up the ante and in this case networks have been obliged to give production commitments and/or agree to large penalties if the projects don’t make it to series. Now the penalties are often fool’s gold. Networks back out of them routinely. They roll over a commitment or find some other compensation, and writers and studios rarely hold their feet to the fire because they want to be in business with the network in the future.

But the production commitments, those are huge. Why? Because the networks only make a finite number of pilots and that number has been dwindling for years. So if a network say is only going to make ten dramas and four of them are already spoken for, the odds of you getting your pilot greenlit based just on a script are greatly reduced.

And probably one of those four projects turns in a script that is a piece of shit. Feature people generally think TV is a breeze only to discover the hard way that constructing and writing a good television pilot is a holy bitch.

Here’s what I don’t understand: great pilots are rare. No one really knows what they want. Everyone is shooting at moving targets. Budgets are shrinking and as I said, networks are now making fewer pilots. So against that landscape, why limit your options even further? Why handcuff yourself with commitments? How many times have we seen crazed bidding wars for Sundance Festival can’t-miss winning movies that ultimately bombed at the boxoffice. And those were finished products. These are just ideas, with elements attached.

I’ve read some of the comedy premises for these 2012 projects that are so hot and they’re ideas like a journalist gets laid off and winds up working in a mall or a recently divorced parent tries to adjust to being single again. Wow! The execution better be through the roof because we've seen 45,000 variations of those two premises (in the last three years alone). 

Yes, there is an argument to be made for locking up the best talent available (or what you perceive as the best talent available) and some of these deals could work out great. But I worry that there are too many of them, too many put pilots, and networks might find themselves behind the eight ball. A writer comes up with a brilliant fresh idea but the network has spent its allotted budget. A writer writes a dynamite script but the last production slot has to go to a commitment, even though it’s not as good. So at the end of the day, if the commitment pilot is a train wreck, you have to also ask yourself – how many other potentially good pilots did you have to pass on to make this mess?

All I’m saying to the networks is this: save some room. The development season is only a month old. Don’t be in such a rush to fill your slate.

And writers – get busy on your specs. Because when those high profile projects of today turn in their scripts in January, there is going to be a lot of penalty renegotiating and put pilot postponements. The winner of the next bidding war frenzy could be you.

Later today I will have an announcement about a free teleseminar I will be conducting about sitcom writing.  Check back later for the details.  


David Schwartz said...

Someone with vision and power at a network could completely turn around the entire system. Grant Tinker in the 80's, etc. Just one person who understands what quality shows (and people) look like and has the power to greenlight material could turn any network into a powerhouse. Problem is, it seems that no one has that kind of power these days. As long as everything at the networks are done by committee, we're going to get the same watered down, lackluster concepts year after year. Same thing for sitcoms. A strong show runner with a vision can also keep a show on track and help protect it from the "helpers" at the network who want to throw in their two cents. I heard a story about how the reason Seinfeld was able to keep its edge and quality during its early years, is that when the network tried to water down the scripts, Jerry said something to the effect of, "I have a very nice career as a stand up comic and I am happy to go back to that if we can't do the show the way we believe it should be done." Without that confidence in what they were doing, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David could have been screwed around with by nameless "improvers" and never been able to do the stand-out show Seinfeld was. We need to find more individuals (both in creative and decision making) who have the power and guts to stand by their instincts.

Chris said...

Here's one for friday: Why would a writer get a consulting producer and a written by credit in the same episode of a show?

Mara Brock Akil got it on 1x21 of Cougar Town.

Zack said...

Where do you go to see the list of pilots that were picked up? I would love to get an idea of what premises are catching the networks' eyes.

Kevin Rubio said...


I've asked this question, but it was a while ago and I'm not sure if it was answered. Considering today's topic, I thought I'd ask again. Hopefully you can impart some sage advice.

I once heard some very comforting and needed advice from "Everybody Loves Raymond" producer, Philip Rosenthal. He said essentially, "Make the show you want to make. They're going to cancel you anyways."

I've been both fortunate and unfortunate to have several projects go thought the development process. There are always heated, passionate exchanges that one has during this process. There are compromises (some for the good, some not) but everything is done in the hope of getting a show on the air.

If your lucky, you actually end up with something less than what you started with. I know this is the process, and I accept this. What I hate is network executives who give notes (however necessary and well intentioned) but ultimately have no culpability, and thus suffer no repercussion from their "advice" and opinions.

Here's my question: "Should exec be culpable?" "Should names be named?"

I ask, because I believe that if they had a stake in the process, they might actually make more of an informed opinion.

I know I'm dreaming, but what do you want from me? I work in a dream factory.

Nic Schweitzer said...

Friday Question: How do you feel, both personally and as a writer, about almost all the shows that NBC just put on a few months ago getting canceled?

Also, is there any chance Sorkin will appear again? Thanks!

Johnny Walker said...

What's the argument for NOT having culpability, Kevin?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

It seems to me that there's a job with less security than being a writer, and that's being a network executive.

How long does a studio or network president last in the job anyway? As far as I know, they only last long enough for a project to flop.

jbryant said...

Kevin: The exec would probably just say, "I know this didn't turn out well, but can you imagine how bad it would've been WITHOUT my notes?" :)

Anonymous said...

Zack, not sure what Ken would say, but this is a pretty good resource that is user-friendly:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

In all these complaints about the networks, though, there's the counter-example of the Kings, who have apparently been advised very well by CBS (which they've said interviews recommended among other things that instead of placing the big Kalinda reveal mid-season 1 they give the relationships time to develop and delay it until later - end season 2 - when it would have far greater impact.