Today’s question comes from Denise D., who writes…
Chad– How would you define a one-sheet for a TV pilot? Does it include backstory? Also, is it better to pitch the pilot or write it?
Let’s take these questions one at a time…
1) How would you define a one-sheet for a TV pilot? Does it include backstory?
First of all, it’s VERY IMPORTANT to note… I never (repeat: NEVER) use a
one-sheet as part of an actual pitch. I don’t leave it behind. I
don’t send it to execs or producers. I don’t submit it to agencies. A
pitch should (almost always) be only a pitch, strong enough to stand as
the presentation you give in the room (there are some VERY rare exceptions… mostly in reality TV).
I do, however, like to write one-pages as a personal exercise… they help me think about how to organize my thoughts, present my series, make important ideas digestible and entertaining, etc.
But I would NOT give the one-sheet to any exec or producer.
Having said that, let’s get to your actual question…
I think of a one-sheet as a short description of the series, its world, and its regular characters… all on one page. I’m not sure there are any hard-and-fast rules to it, but I think you want to convey these important pieces of information:
A) The world of the story… not only where the show lives geographically (a small town in Washington, an inner-city cafe, a suburban barbershop, etc.), but also the show’s tone and how how it “sees” its world. This is probably even more important than the physical location; after all, “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “According to Jim” might look very similar on paper– they’re both half-hour multi-camera family comedies from the father’s POV– but Jim and Ray, and their respective storytellers, see the world COMPLETELY differently– and this is what’s important to the show. Most likely, your tone and perspective will come across in your one-sheet’s writing; you won’t have to actually describe your show’s tone or feel.
B) 1-2 sentences about each main character… who they are as individuals, as well as how they relate to each other. This doesn’t just mean mentioning that Ross and Monica Geller are brother and sister, but quickly illustrating how that relationship actually works. Charlie and Alan on “Two and a Half Men,” for instance, are siblings… but their relationship more often reflects a freewheeling husband and a fastidious wife.
C) The kinds of stories your show will tell – Some of this info may come through as you define your world and its characters. If you were writing about “CSI,” for example, describing the world of the lab, the detectives’ unique kind of forensic science, etc. would probably lead to an organic telling or illustration of the types of mysteries they’re solving. Similarly, if you’re talking about Alan and Charlie’s characters, it would probably be natural to give some quick examples of how their relationship spawns conflict, story, and comedic situations. Having said that, it may also be helpful to succinctly detail (in 1-2 sentences or less) some quick story examples. However you do it, the purpose is not to outline where the show might go or what direction it might take, it’s to illustrate for readers and buyers the kinds of stories this series will tell– tonally, narratively, emotionally, etc.
2) is it better to pitch the pilot or write it?
There’s a lot of debate about this. Most pilots are sold and bought on pitch… but they’re pitched by veteran TV writers or showrunners. It’s VERY tough– and by “very tough” I mean, “let’s just say impossible”– for a newbie writer, someone who’s never written on staff or produced a show, to sell something on pitch.
So in that case… the answer would seem to be: “write it.”
However, it’s also very tough– and by “very tough” I mean, “let’s just say ALMOST impossible”– for a newbie writer to sell a spec pilot. (See my Monday post to Jennifer.)
So why are you writing it at all?…
The best use of a spec pilot– and this is a popular use these days– is as a writing sample to help you get meetings and jobs. Most showrunners hiring their staff want to see spec scripts and original material– which, these days, often takes the form of a spec pilot.
So now you’re saying, “Yeah, but I REALLY want to sell and make this pilot! What do I do?”
Probably the best way to get your show sold and made is to either…
A) Become a successful enough TV writer/producer that networks and studios are willing– and hopefully eager– to buy product from you.
B) Partner with a successful TV writer/producer who has the experience, knowledge, talent, and muscle to help get your project sold and made. This is usually an upper level writer or non-writing producer (think Shonda Rhimes, John Wells, Mitch Hurwitz, Tom Spezialy, Joel Surnow, etc.)… which means: 1) You probably need to have a personal relationship with that person in order to get them involved, and 2) You need to figure out if you want that partner to fully write the project for you, supervise you as you write it, co-write it, etc. And your hopes or expectations of your partner may affect who will or won’t be willing to partner with you; some people may want to write the whole thing… others may be willing to supervise your own writing… and still others may expect to be an active writer with you. Since you’ll probably already have a relationship with any writer/producer you’d get involved with, you may already have a sense of how that person will want to work.
Anyway, Denise… hope this answers your questions. Good luck with the pilot– lemme know how it goes!