Thursday, April 13, 2017

My single most asked question

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that is (a) the most frequently asked, and (b) worth an entire post. So here goes.

Janine asks:

Hi! Big fan! So I'm 17 and I really feel like I have the ability to write my own sitcom, this may be a stupid question but once I have a finished screenplay of my pilot, how do I actually go about getting it on air?

The sad truth is, Janine, it’s next to impossible. But that doesn’t mean the script can’t help launch your career.  So read on. 

First, it’s very difficult to get networks or studios to even read unsolicited material. They’re protecting themselves against lawsuits. And even if you’re lucky enough to get an agent or manager, networks generally won’t consider original material from writers who don’t have a track record. But hang in there because there is good news later in this post. 

It’s possible that a producer will respond to your pilot and he can get it up the food chain and possibly into production. But, in a case like that he will probably offer to just buy the script from you, pay you off, and then he will own it outright. He will then hire established writers to run with your show.

Is that a good thing? Well, considering how few shows get on the air and become hits, yes. You could walk away with $5000 or $10,000 and the project could go nowhere. You come out smelling like a rose. But what if it turns out to be that rare exception? What if it turns out to be the next FRIENDS? Everyone will make a fortune but you.  Yes, it's a problem but a nice problem to have. 

Now comes the good news part.

You can make the pilot yourself. You could shoot it on your iPhone. If you could find ways to make it for very little money (use actor friends, edit off your laptop, film it in your house or a location owned by a friend) you can put it up on YouTube. If it’s good it might get noticed. BROAD CITY began as a web series. Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson created and starred in it. A few years later Comedy Central came calling. So Ilana and Abbi completely skipped the network submission process. There are other examples as well. And even if a network doesn’t want to pick up your pilot, if you’ve impressed them they might be willing to consider something else, or putting you on staff of a series.

The other good news: Original pilots are now what everyone demands as a writing sample. So you may not get your pilot produced, but the script could be your golden ticket to staff work. Networks tend to only work with writers who have had a few years of experience. (Well, that or actors who have no experience and don’t know the first thing about writing a pilot but the network wants to be in business with them. That’s another way to get your script produced, Janine. Become a star.)

If you think of your pilot as a writing sample then anything good that happens to it beyond that is gravy.

But I would tell you this: Your next pilot script is going to be better than this one. And the one after will be better than both of them. If I were you I would concentrate most of my time and effort on writing more scripts. The better you are as a writer the better your chances of grabbing that brass ring.

Good luck to Janine and all the Janines out there.


Wally said...

Highlight, italicize and bold that last part about the next script and the one after.It's the most important part. Yet, most writers (of all ages) will still ignore it, unfortunately

VP81955 said...

A dozen years ago, I was Janine. I came up with a sitcom idea, taking two of my favorite series and their themes (or so I hoped) -- blending the wit of "Frasier" with the whimsy of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." (Don't laugh. Its first season, with Nell Scovell as showrunner, was excellent; after she left, "Sabrina" was still fun, but not quite as interesting.)

My proposed series, titled "Under Your Spell," dealt with a twentysomething male witch (his status is kept secret from non-witches, of course) hired as a staff writer of a new TV series, "Under Her Spell," about a female witch who works on Wall Street. He's there to make sure the show paints witches (who in this universe are generally benevolent) in a positive, non-stereotypical light. The lead character's life revolves around his move to Hollywood from Philadelphia, the show -- including a pompous hotshot Harvard showrunner antagonist, its befuddled and ambitious star, and the lead's office confidante, a receptionist who's a witch and moonlights singing jazz at LA clubs -- as well as his family, including an older sister witch who works at a Santa Monica newspaper ("Witches make the best copy editors," she says).

I created a bible and first-season story arc, wrote six episodes, sent copies to WGAw for protection...and got nowhere with it. To be fair, unbeknownst to me, Nora Ephron's film version of "Bewitched" came on the market a few months later -- but even if that mediocre movie had never existed, I lacked the industry connections to have made "Under Your Spell" a success, and in retrospect, it probably wasn't that good. Nevertheless, it was a good learning experience and helped me hone my skills, though at this stage of my life I'm more interested in writing features than TV.

Greg said...

The last 2 shows i worked out started like that. And then they did 6 season each.

Dave Wrighteous said...

GREAT post, Ken and VERY helpful.
I am a Janine too.

Jahn Ghalt said...

One comment of a technical nature. Within the last five years I attended a lecture at a local film festival - by one of the film makers. He suggested that a DSLR, not expensive, with video capability (30 frames and 1080p was/is common) would be sufficient for a film feature.

Surely that would work better (and look better) than a smartphone?

Egbert said...


Since she is 17, would you recommend to this wannabe writer a specific university or two to attend along with the proper degree path or activities (student newspaper) to join which may lead to connections with writers such as yourself who teach at colleges?

Do Hollywood production companies recruit entry level writing positions from universities ?

Do studios/networks have internships for college students looking for writing careers ?

Just asking.

Wally said...


not anymore. phones have come too far. but, that is a fairly recent advancement. tangerine was shot entirely on a phone (so the story goes). that said, if you don't have a good cinematographer it may be glaring. and, as the other story goes, if it's funny/good, they don't care what it looks like. i'm sure broad city used mostly natural light and locations 'as is', put 99% of the effort into the characters/writing & nobody cared (but i don't know that for sure).

VP81955 said...

To Egbert: I would guess the Ivies have the edge. They always do.

Cap'n Bob said...

No mention of an agent. Should she try to get one?

Charles H Bryan said...

Because I'm a contrarian:

Ken, have you ever known anyone who had a career as a writer, even a mid length career, who got into it as a fluke? And, moreover, never really loved it, but was good enough that they kept getting work? Extra points if, at some point, they became a goat rancher or some such and couldn't have been happier?

It's a long shot, I know.

Tom Galloway said...

VP81955: Well, certainly Harvard and the Lampoon if you want to write for the Simpsons (btw, have they set a record for most "producers" in the opening credits yet?). And I know the various Ivies have alumni networking groups in LA.

But, and this may be very out of date and not even my field, but I always heard good things about USC, and to a lesser degree UCLA, as having both strong screenwriting programs and the opportunity to make a huge number of useful contacts and connections. The latter helped by folk working in the biz either teaching a course or guest lecturing.

Pallas said...

I'm sure there's lots of great colleges that can help you get connection in the TV industry, but they aren't necessarily worth 100k of debt for the opportunity. So you really have to weigh opportunity costs if your parents aren't wealthy enough to pay for your education. You can still make a nice portfolio piece at a community college or with your home pc.

CRL said...

Send it to Netflix. They buy everything.

Andy Rose said...

@Tom Galloway: I think the record for top-line credits has to go to Modern Family, reportedly because they have two separate creative teams that work in parallel. The last time I watched a full episode a couple of years ago, I counted 11 people who were credited as either an Exective Producer or Co-Executive Producer.

Wally said...

@ Cap'n Bob
No. Agents rarely want to deal with you unless you have a deal on the table. Manager *maybe* as they are more about grooming a career and long term focus. And, of course, that still requires a portfolio of strong scripts that have been through the feedback cycle and re-written several times over to find & polish your voice.