Thursday, August 31, 2017

Transitioning from TV writing to features

Earl Pomerantz, in his fine blog you should be reading, has an interesting theory as to why so few TV writers seem to make a successful transition to screenwriters. Since I’ve been lucky enough to have dabbled in both he wondered if I might have any thoughts on the subject.

First off, I don’t disagree with anything he said. So there goes the heated debate right there. Sorry. We’d be terrible panelists on CROSSFIRE.

Earl contends that screenwriting is a different animal, with different requirements and rhythms. (I believe he’s also focusing on sitcom writers.) He gives a great example. Learning badminton then playing tennis. One is all wrist; the other is all arm. (In my case it’s all whiff so the transition was easy.)

If I’m interpreting Earl correctly, he goes on to say that the more you’ve mastered one genre the harder it is to switch to another. He also knocks Seth MacFarlane so again, we are on the same page.

I would just add to Earl’s argument although the business keeps changing so fast that by the time you get to the end of this post it might change again and everything I’ve said is obsolete.

But I believe a major factor is that TV writers have it better in TV and know it.

A little history: Back in my day (the Pleistocene Era), it was extremely hard to jump from sitcoms to features. TV writers were considered second-class citizens. David Isaacs and I wanted to make that jump and movie producers and execs would demand a spec screenplay even though we were the head writers of MASH. If you can write MASH you can probably handle HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO. But they insisted on a spec. And the spec better not be “sitcommy.” (They better not see you using your wrist.) So we did that, wrote a very dark comedy about a Kent State-type student riot and that led to feature work.

But now (or at least two paragraphs ago), there is less of a divide between the TV and feature side. Partly because specs are no longer just writing samples. You can actually sell them. If someone pays you $500,000 for your screenplay you’re officially in the club. Also, TV has risen in stature to where the quality is often better than what you see on the silver screen. Even the differing screen sizes are no longer a factor. People watch way more movies on TV and computer screens than in the local Cineplex. Supergirl is just as large as Superman.

So there’s more acceptance.

But also more frustration. In TV you serve it while it’s hot. In movies everything takes forever. And then generally doesn’t happen. People spend an entire career writing movies that never get made. How exasperating is that?

For as little respect as TV writers get, feature scribes get less. In TV you can rise to the level of showrunner. You can set the creative vision. You make final decisions. In movies it will always be the director and/or producer. Even if you’re Aaron Sorkin (who now is directing).

Here’s the reality of Hollywood screenwriting: You do a lot of pro bono work these days. Movie pitches and rewrite pitches aren’t just an overview of the idea. It’s now the whole movie, outlined in detail with jokes, trailer moments, and even proposals for the poster and slogan. Writers toil for months for free just to get a turn at bat. And if you get an assignment you’re in for years of notes and endless rewrites. Most of these end with your script being taken away from you and rewritten by someone else. Earl mentions how the Charles Brothers only did one feature. That’s because (a) someone rewrote their draft, (b) the director changed things, and (c) they wrote other screenplays that never got made. Once you’ve created CHEERS you don’t need that aggravation. (And by the way, their draft of PUSHING TIN was only 1000% better than what made it to the screen.)

So I think a big reason TV writers don’t transition to films is because it’s a step down (despite the Oscar hype). There is more money, buyers, production, and control in television. And you don’t have to spend two years of your life writing BAD MOMS 7.


Stephen Robinson said...

It still bugs me that Woody Allen would knock TV during a time when Norman Lear and later the Charles Brothers were producing well-written gems with truly compelling characters. Were their duds on TV? Sure, but painting *all* of TV as idiotic because of them is as lazy, I think, as painting all of cinema as idiotic because of the *many* duds produced in that medium.

The second season finale of CHEERS is simultaneously hilarious and tragic. I'm blown away whenever I watch it.

Ben said...

I have a friend who co-wrote the script for one of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels and who loves to complain to people who don't realize he's joking that the film's director completely lost all the subtleties and fine points of characterization that were in the screenplay.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Ideally, you want to be able to transition between both mediums. Allan Heinberg is a very good recent example of a writer with a lenghty TV resumé (including PARTY OF FIVE, SEX AND THE CITY and GREY'S ANATOMY) and he's just managed to write a very, very successful WONDER WOMAN feature film. That being said, he hasn't left television either, as he's currently producing a crime drama called THE CATCH.

Mike McCann said...

While they weren't comedy scribes, but Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky, with solid TV roots, made some great and important movies. Of course, their careers began when TV was the experimental medium for new, up-and-coming talent.

James Van Hise said...

You mention Seth McFarlane. He has a lot of TV work (he's successful enough that he can make jokes on his shows about things precious to Fox News) but his film A Million Ways To Die In The West would have been better served had it been more "sit-comy" as the jokes were too often few and far between as it was a comedy where ten minutes would go by with nothing funny happening even though characters were talking all the time. One had the feeling he recognized this and therefore had the scene when a character craps in a cowboy hat and the scene goes on, and on, and on and is never funny, just "I can't believe he's doing this" kind of "humor."

Peter said...

Ben, I love the Friday the 13th movies. Pure unadulterated cheesy 80s slasher fun. Which sequel did he co-write?

The Friday the 13th flicks have a lot of awesomely gory kills.

What do you mean I sound warped?! That's the whole point of slasher movies! Kills, thrills and blood spills!

blinky said...

TV has been better than movies for a long time. Compare THE TUTORS tv series to the big screens THE OTHER BOLYN GIRL. It is like comparing The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to the cliff notes version. You just can't tell a complex story very well in a movie. Well, maybe 3 movies, like The Lord of the Rings. But imaging The Game of Thrones movie.

Diane D. said...

I couldn't agree more with Stephen Robinson. To fans of that show who are truly invested in the characters, they are laughing uproariously as their hearts are breaking. I'm not a writer, but I would think they live for such reactions.

Ben said...


I'll have to ask him and report back to you. He's told me but I don't remember.


Mike said...

Stewart Stern, my dear late writing mentor who wrote the screenplay for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, the teleplay for SYBIL, among others, who was Hollywood royalty being the nephew of Adolph Zukor, held TV comedy writers in the highest regard. He would admonish students who put down the art form. He said that half hour comedy writing is the hardest writing there is. Maybe putting it down was a side effect of the story that held TV as a medium in less regard than film, maybe because of what broadcast quality videotape looked like back in the 80s and before compared to film. Whatever, moot now.

VincentS said...

You mention that screenwriters today are expected to mark the trailer moments in their scripts. I personally find that fascinating. When I write a script I sometimes envision what the trailer will look like and, although I don't specifically write scenes with the trailer in mind - I am able to select which scenes could be in it. In fact, I am currently plannig a trailer for a screenplay I have written to be put on Kickstarter. I think it's fun to do that.

E. Yarber said...

I was in a situation where the Producer brought in a new writer for a feature screenplay simply because he thought he could exploit his connection to a very popular sitcom, and immediately put him at the top of the prospectus with the series highlighted.

I asked, "Did he create the series? What season did he join? Did he actually write stories or was one of 27 writers in the room pitching jokes?"

Turned out the guy was quickly let go. He couldn't bring anything to the script and the project died. Just because Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart were geniuses who could adapt to any form doesn't mean everyone is as flexible.

In the end, it comes down to the individual.

MikeN said...

Eduardo, I think The Catch has been cancelled.

Carl said...

Seth Macfarlane was hugely successful on TV and then made his movie "Ted", which earned millions too.

Clarissa said...

Ken, we all love your ranting and snarkiness. Roseanne and Seth MacFarlane seem to be your favorite.

We have had posts on Roseanne but no single dedicated post on Seth. Come on Ken, give us a post, where you really rip into Seth :D :D :D

Nick Danger said...

Um. That Kent State dark comedy sounds AMAZING. Is there any way we could talk you into posting a PDF of the script for your readers to enjoy/study/weep over?

Greg Thompson said...

I remember how disappointing PUSHING TIN was. It's good to learn the Charles Bros. originally wrote something better (though their sole credit on the movie remains). In a related vein, I've always wished those guys would do another show. It doesn't look likely at this point, does it?

Pseudonym said...

I'm reminded of a joke, which I possibly read in one of Syd Field's books.

A studio exec, a producer, and a director all sit down for lunch. The waiter brings soup. The studio exec tastes it and says to the producer: "Hey, this is amazing! You've got to try this soup!"

The producer tastes it and turns to the director and says: "Wow, that's the best soup I've ever had! You've really got to have some!"

The director tastes it and says to the other two: "You're right! This is the most delicious soup I've ever tasted! But you know what would make it even better? Let's all piss in it!"