Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday Questions

Everything you ever wanted to know about show business (if what you ever wanted to know is in these four Friday Questions.)

Robert Pierce gets us started:

Ken, what is your opinion of pilot script competitions such as NYTVF's (New York Television Festival)Fox Comedy Script Contest? Do you think they are a valuable tool for those who are out of the industry to use to break into the business or do you believe otherwise? Seeing as how they only guarantee that the winner is given the opportunity to make a pilot, and after learning how the pilot process works from you, would you suggest a more direct route to the networks, and if so, how?

When trying to break in, the goal is to get recognized and distinguish yourself -- anyway you can other than sleeping with people.   Placing high in writing competitions is a great way to do that. Forget the prize money – just being able to write a cover letter to major agencies and saying you won a big script competition will definitely get their attention.

Also, entering contests does not have to be your only plan of attack. If you have direct contacts at shows or networks then by all means, pursue those avenues too.

Malinda Hackett asks:

I'm almost finished writing a spec script I plan on using to enter the tv writing fellowships. There's just one problem. The show I wrote a spec for used my idea in their season finale. I don't have time to write another script before the fellowship deadlines. What should I do? Will it look like I stole the idea?

You should be okay. This happens quite often. Plus, I imagine your story structue and jokes are disparate enough from the original that it won’t look like you just lifted it outright. And maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe the person reading and judging will not have seen the original.  Or he did see the original but thought your presentation was better. 

When you write a script and then learn the show is doing the same story it’s frustrating as hell but means that you’re thinking along the same lines as the producers… and that’s an encouraging sign. Good luck.

KryptonSite queries:

Mr. Levine, did you ever work on a pilot that was massively retooled?

I talked it about it recently, the first pilot we ever did, THE BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY got retooled, although I believe violated is a more accurate word. But that pilot was taken completely out of our hands. All the pilots that we wrote and produced stayed very close to the original draft all the way through production. Not that there weren’t casting changes and rewriting along the way, but we always have a strong sense going in of what the theme is, and if you have that compass you can generally keep your story on track.

The problems come when you start making big sweeping changes during pilot production. Now sometimes those are deemed necessary because what you have is bombing, but often these major decisions come out of desperation and although they may address one problem they usually create three others. And suddenly you’re four days into production, you’ve made the married brother now a bachelor, you’ve turned the parents into two neighbors, switched the workplace from a museum gift shop to a meat packing plant, made the show more kid friendly, and now you have no fucking clue what the show is about and what you could possibly do for episode two. I’ve helped out on a few shows like that and the end result was never pretty.

And finally, from Norm Garr:

In "light" of the firing of the head coach at Rutger's for the way he treated players and the video tape that was released, as a Director/Show Runner, have you seen such "abuse" on the set, in meetings, etc. over-the-years with actors, crew, etc.

Personally, no. But it does exist. There have been some showrunners who are verbally abusive to their staffs – yelling, belittling, ruling by fear.  Not my style.

There are some directors who yell and have tantrums. Not my style either.   I won’t allow it on my sets and once fired a director for screaming at his crew.

But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve worked with – from stars to gofers – are consummate professionals who take great pride in their work.

Seems to me there is a lot more screaming at underlings and making unreasonable demands at talent agencies. Agents often put their assistants, trainees, and interns through hell. See the movie SWIMMING WITH SHARKS.

I know one agency trainee who dropped out and joined the Marines because the Drill Sergeants treated him nicer.

What’s your question? Leave it in the comments section. Thanks.


Jenny&Brian said...

I'd watch a kid-friendly show that takes place in a meat-packing plant.

Matthew Reed said...

I've read many times about how a television show was ruined by bad decisions forced on the creative team by the network. Are there any stories about the network insisting upon a creative change that turned out to improve the show?

Ken said...

Hi Ken,

Ken here. For my first shot at a pilot, I'm considering taking the web pilot/YouTube/8-10 minutes per episode route in lieu of writing with networks in mind. Obvious differences notwithstanding, I'm wondering which you think is more beneficial for a portfolio, and whether a web pilot can help shore up an agent.

(It's worth noting that said web pilot *wouldn't* be shot à la guy with handheld camera that he got on sale from Radioshack. I, fortunately, have access to a decent production crew.)


The Curmudgeon said...

I know one agency trainee who dropped out and joined the Marines because the Drill Sergeants treated him nicer.

That's a funny, funny line -- only I believe they're called Drill Instructors in the Marines.

Regardless... I have this vision of the recruit weathering a DI's pungent blast with equanimity, prompting an even more profane outburst -- which the recruit again weathers calmly -- and then, just as the DI's head is about to explode, the recruit explains why he is unperturbed: "Larry Winkleman used to talk to his puppy like this before he came to the agency in the morning. You should have heard him when his coffee was too cold."

The DI is played by R. Lee Ermey. Assuming his head does not explode (no budget for special effects), what should his (eventual) reaction be? (Obviously, he should pause here for as long as possible before responding....)

Maybe the next line should be the recruit's, too: "If there's nothing else, sir, I'll be on my way."

404 said...

You made me laugh out loud with that, Curmudgeon. Well done.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Hey Ken, I'm sure you're sick of me asking questions by now, but another one has crossed my mind: what is the process of going about making the opening and end titles for a show? Mainly, I've noticed some shows will use clips or footage in the titles that don't appear till a few episodes or more into the series, and I know you have to have X-amount of episodes "in the can" before they'll start actually airing the show... so in cases like that, do they not even do any titles until they have the clips they want, then retroactively paste them onto previous episodes, or what?

Mark Roman said...


The Mantra used to be that if you were over 40 that you were too old to write for a sitcom.

I've seen numerous writers stand by those words and said the only way to be 40 on the show it to Create The Show.

Does this theory still carry any weight or has this changed?


(Come see the Isotopes)

Cap'n Bob said...

Alas, R. Lee Ermey is dead.

Cap'n Bob said...

Wait! Ermey has made an amazing recovery. He's alive.

chuckcd said...

To answer one of my own Friday questions about Zero Hour...

Airing update! ABC's showing all 13 eps of Zero Hour starting Sat. June 15th at 8pm! Set your DVR's and clear your summer schedules! Whohoo!

worzel said...

What is the brand of shirt that Sam Malone (Ted Danson) wear on Cheers

gottacook said...

"Are there any stories about the network insisting upon a creative change that turned out to improve the show?"

In 1964-65, NBC rejected the first Star Trek pilot, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Pike, and ordered a second pilot (shot a year later with Shatner in the lead). NBC decided that a Star Trek primarily oriented toward action-adventure would be more likely to succeed than a cerebral version of the show, which is what the first pilot "The Cage" represented.

Whether this resulted in an "improved" series is debatable, but in terms of commercial viability, it was probably the right call.

Andrea Laura said...

Information is pretty good and impressed me a lot. This article is quite in-depth and gives a good overview of the topic.


Muzza said...

I'd like to add a little weight to Ken's recommendation on entering script writing comps. I received a call from a network this week (I'm in Australia so it doesn't really count), and their comment to me was that my reference in a query letter to my script placing as a semi-finalist in a recent US-based pilot writing comp had been the deciding factor in her follow up. I would recommend researching the comp first, however. There are an awful lot, and a few appear to be Mickey Mouse money-spinners. Try to determine which ones progress to recognition.

Ron P. said...


There's obviously been a lot of spinoffs... some successful... others not so much. But has there even been a prequel ? And would something like that work ?

Brian Phillips said...

gottacook said...

"Are there any stories about the network insisting upon a creative change that turned out to improve the show?"

I brought this up some time ago (and was corrected, too!) in this blog forum.

Read this entry:

Unknown said...


Thank you for the information and advice. I'll be sending in one of my original pilots to the NYTVF in a couple of weeks when the contest starts.


Thanks for the advice too. I've been weary of the smaller, less known, $50 - $100 USD competitions. I can't quite understand why the "prize" (which is typically $5,000 - $7,500), is important. Now, don't get me wrong, I'd take the money, I'd just rather have the recognition first.