Wednesday, June 25, 2014

At some point you've got to be a WRITER

A writer is hired to write a comedy pilot. He is paid a lot of money. More than a regular script. But pilots are much tougher. You have to establish the premise, introduce the characters, set the comic tone, lay in a good story, give an indication of where the series might be going, seamlessly work in all the network and studio notes, and be hilariously funny – all in 22 minutes. It’s not for the faint of heart. But like I said, pilot writers are well compensated.

And if their pilot gets on the air and becomes a hit they see weekly “created by” royalties and often own a piece of the show in syndication.

Now let’s say the pilot script has been greenlit. And it’s a multi-camera sitcom. Here’s the typical process for that genre: The script is rehearsed every day followed by a runthrough. The showrunner and his staff go back to the room and do the necessary rewriting, often staying late into the night because a new script must be on the stage the next morning at 9:00. And you think Jack Bauer faces pressure. But there is a staff. The showrunner doesn’t have to do it himself.

Same is true for a pilot, except the stakes are way higher and there is no staff. It’s just the guy who wrote the pilot. Understandably, he could use some help at this point. Back in the fabulous ‘80s there was money budgeted for other writers to come in and help out. I think I lived for two years on failed Cheech Marin pilots alone.

Studios stopped paying consultants. So the pilot writer would ask his writer friends to help out as a favor. Instead of big paydays we would get lovely gifts. For years this system has been in place. I’ve helped out on many a pilot and when I’ve had a pilot myself I’ve been able to call in one helluva cavalry. I’m still more than happy to come in and pitch deep into the night if a friend has a pilot on the stage.

But a new trend has emerged. Pilot writers have begun to ask friends to come in and help punch up the script before it goes to the studio and network. To me, this is taking advantage. It’s one thing to help out during actual production when it’s crunch time, but the pilot writer is being paid a bundle and I’m supposed to help write the script for an iPad Mini? And not even the model that gets 3G?

On the one hand, it puts me in an awkward position. I don’t want to be an asshole and say no, but at the same time I resent being put in that position. I’ve said yes once or twice in the past. From now on it’s no.

Also, isn’t this practice somewhat unethical? If I’m a network and I receive a script with your name on it, it’s fair to assume this represents your work. My decision as to whether to make the pilot could be based on my faith that you can deliver scripts of this caliber every week should I pick up your show. But if all the best jokes and nice moments and inventive story turns were written by a ghost staff, I’m basing my decision on false pretenses.

And lastly, where’s the original writer’s pride of authorship? If you don’t believe in your work and stand by your work, why are you taking the money?

One writer friend was asked to help out on a first draft and arrived to find ten other people also sitting there. The pilot writer then tried to send groups of them off into separate rooms to rewrite the scenes. Unconscionable! My friend balked, as well he should.

There is such an overlay of fear in the business these days. It governs almost every decision. A pilot going into production used to begin with a table read where the cast sat around a table and read the script aloud. Now studios are so afraid of the network’s reaction that they have pre-table reads. And pre-pre table reads. Similarly, networks must approve everything, from the wardrobe to set dressing to actors who have only one line. Experienced showrunners can’t be trusted to pick out a lamp.

And this paralyzing fear has now filtered down to writers… and some studios that encourage this practice of assembling back up writers. I’m sure they reason that other pilots are doing it so they need to do it as well to compete. To that I say ‘so what?’ I can’t control the competition. I have no idea what sweetheart deals have been made or which projects will get priority based on relationships. All I can do is turn out the best script I possibly can. It may not go but at least I can sleep at night.

James L. Brooks has a great line. “At some point you’ve got to become a WRITER.”   The first draft is the only time the writer truly has command over his project.  Don't give that up.  Own it.   Or give me $50,000 for the day and I'll be the writer. 


RockGolf said...

Where's the big screen TV you promised me for polishing up your first draft of this blog?

Dana King said...

I see a similar phenomenon with novelists, where the current trend is to pay for an editor before even sending the book off to an agent. At some point a writer has to send out his or her best effort. It's good enough, or it isn't. Get over it.

Stephen Robinson said...

I'm always impressed by the "art of the pilot." Shows I've later enjoyed have had pilots I didn't (SEINFELD is one example), but my favorite shows have had amazing pilots (TAXI, CHEERS, FRASIER, FRIENDS to name but a few).

CHEERS even had two great pilots in a way. The first Kirstie Alley episode feels like the start of a new series -- in fact, Sam's failed relationship that prompted him to sell the bar offscreen could all just be backstory. The same wirh FRASIER. You can really come into it without ever gaving seen an episode of CHEERS.

Rod said...

Friday Question--Have you ever directed a hald hour comedy that did not involve a studio audience and multi cameras? It seems to be popular right now, with Modern Family, The Middle, and The Goldbergs, to name 3. Thanks

Ryan Leong said...

Narcissists are happy to take credit for someone else's work. I think they're cheating not only the person who did the actual work but themselves as well. But they don't care.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

It is near impossible to fit as much content as you can into 21 minutes worth of show, and have it all flow smoothly and make sense... I can't imagine how difficult it would be now that half-hour programs are reportedly going to be reduced now to 17-19 minutes.E

Johnny Walker said...

Yeesh, this is lame. It's one thing to help a buddy out in a squeeze, it's entirely another to become a member of their unpaid, unsung staff.

It's actually pretty annoying that studios managed to sidestep footing the bill in the first place, when there WAS a genuine need for consultants.

Side note: If anyone hasn't heard of DIFFICULT MEN, the recent book about the golden era of TV drama that we're living in, I HIGHLY suggest giving it a go. I'm only 50% through at the moment, but already I'm convinced it's one of the best books I've read this year. In fact, it might be one of the best books I've ever read about anything.

That's lofty praise, I know, but the author does a fantastic job of revealing the complex dynamics behind the explosion of high quality drama we've witnessed over the past decade or so. As well as TV production itself, the personalities behind this revolution, as well as offering thoughtful insight into shows themselves (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc. etc.).

Going in I thought it was going to be a Peter Biskind style muck-fest, but instead it's a serious piece of engaging journalism with no small amount of integrity. The author (Brett Martin) manages to reveal, explore, and most importantly, offer understanding, into the darkest recesses of the big showrunner's personalities. Some of these characters are unquestionably VERY difficult people, but, much like the shows this book centers on, there are no simple heroes and villains, just a forthright and revealing expose of a very interesting era in television, spearheaded by some very complicated people.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution

And no, I'm not connected with this book in any way :)

Dana Michaels said...

Well said, Ken (of course). I love your attitude and courage to speak up about doing "the write thing."

Gerry said...

That's a brutal story, Ken. I believe you've written before about how the network intrudes even to selecting wardrobe and props.

Do you at some point feel like just a pair of hands? Is the situation likely to improve when old habits give way to new practices that then propagate through the industry?

I don't know how it could get worse, but could it?

But I'm Not Bitter said...

"...pilot writers are well compensated.
And if their pilot gets on the air and becomes a hit they see weekly “created by” royalties and often own a piece of the show in syndication."

Unless it is animated.*

Animated series' pilot writers get paid the same one-time low script fee as they do for any other animated series' script, and never see another penny.**

*for anywhere but Fox primetime
**same as for any other animated series' script

Beth Rivers said...

I am what they call an "emerging TV writer". I have given EXTENSIVE notes and plot points to other paid TV writers on their pilots. For free. I help as much as I can in hopes that their pilots can go to series and then I'll be hired on their staff. I thought everyone did this. Where do you draw the line? Isn't it normal to have your friends/writers group/significant other read your work and give feedback before you turn it in? what about all these paid consultants out there? great post. I really enjoy your blog and I'm so glad you brought this up. thank you!

Anonymous said...

Friday Question - I recently watched "Mr. Birchum", Adam Carollas rejected animated pilot about a cranky wood-shop teacher, at only 10 minutes it really packs a punch, it's "watched two times in a row without checking my phone" sort of good, well, see for yourself on YouTube.

The question is what happenes to those 90% of pilots that are filmed but are never picked up, are they really just shelved? The mentioned "Mr. Birchum" cost FOX a million to do! They can't be just flushing millions and millions down the drain?

Are pilots ever revisited, or sold back to the creators or whatever...

And now back to watching my German bootleg copies of "Almost Perfect", which was translated to "Two singles in a double bed".
Title pic:

Speaking of, will the remaining four episodes of Big Wave Dave's ever see the light of day? Thanks.

Johnny Walker said...

Those 10 minutes of animation cost $1 million? How is that possible?

I can see why this wasn't picked up. It was funny, but it didn't have any story whatsoever. It was almost like a (funny) episode of Beavis and Butthead (which is somewhat ironic given that it also resembles King of the Hill in terms of visuals and setup).

Wow. $1 million.