Welcome to 2009, and the first blog post of the new year!
Today’s reader question was emailed from Ronke, an entertainment journalist who would like to transition into writing scripted television. Ronke is originally from the east coast, but moved her family to L.A. several years ago in hopes of breaking into TV. After a year of running into roadblocks (“I circulated a few comedy specs I wrote to a Warner Bros executive I met through a friend, and he always ripped my work to shreds. Poor development, not high enough stakes, things that defied plausibility… I have thick skin, but having scripts I thought were perfect cut down to size kinda hurt after awhile.”), Ronke and her husband headed back east, where they currently live.
Now… a few years later… much of Ronke’s time is spent taking care of her new son, yet she is still “anxious to develop a pilot, based on an idea I have and some other original writing. Not necessarily to produce but to complete and revise as writing samples.” So Ronke finds herself asking today’s question, which is…
“Do you believe I should pursue this route?”
Well, Ronke, I think this is a complicated question, compounded by three important issues…
• Should you write a spec pilot?
• With a young child at home, is writing a spec pilot the best creative route to pursue?
• You don’t live in L.A.
ISSUE #1 – WRITING THE SPEC PILOT
Traditionally, spec pilots have been a dead end… execs and producers used to never read or buy them, and showrunners rarely liked reading them. In the past few years, however—due in large part to the success of Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, which was a spec pilot—things have started turning around… in a big way. David E. Kelley, Aaron Sorkin, and David Crane have all sold spec pilots and gotten them on the way. This fall, a friend of mine just coming off his first staff writing project sold a spec pilot to USA. I know other low-level writers who have sold spec pilots to ABC Family, USA, Sony… all over town. So the market for spec pilots is definitely hotter than it ever has been… and if it doesn’t sell, it certainly can—as you astutely point out—make a great sample. In fact, many showrunners would rather read an original pilot as a sample than a spec of an existing show! So while it hasn’t been a conventional route, writing a spec pilot has suddenly became the “in” thing to do for aspiring and low-level TV writers.
(A caveat: I think it’s important note that while networks and studios have definitely been much more open to accepting, and even buying, spec pilots, only a handful have actually made it to air… and these tend to come only from seasoned writers and producers. So I think it’s wise to write a spec pilot less with the hope of selling it, and more with the hope of using it as a strong calling card… and if it ends up selling—great!)
(Also, if you CLICK HERE, you can read my interview last winter with Spelling executive Jen Grisanti, in which she talks about spec pilots…)
ISSUE #2 – WITH A YOUNG CHILD, IS WRITING A SPEC PILOT THE BEST CREATE ROUTE TO PURSUE?
This, Ronke, is probably a question only you—as the master of your time and energy—can answer. What I will say is this: pursuing a career in TV writing takes a monumental amount of time and energy. It’s not about just writing one spec pilot and throwing it into the sea, hoping someone will bite. It’s about generating a constant stream of new material… not only so your work can remain fresh and current, but because once you’re an actual working TV writer, this is what you’ll be required to do: churn out new scripts, scenes, and stories day after day after day.
In fact, if a producer, exec, or agent happens to read your spec pilot and love it, their first question—no matter how good it is—will be: “What else do you have?” And you should not only be able to hand them another script or two, but you should be able to say, “I’m also working on a spec Criminal Minds,” or “I’m in the middle of rewriting a feature.” SOMETHING.
So do you, as a stay-at-home parent, have the time and energy necessary to make the commitment this career path—both now and down the road—will demand? I have no idea. I’m NOT a parent (yet), and there are many days when TV seems to suck the life out of me. Not only because it’s a massive amount of work… even when you’re not working (maybe ESPECIALLY when you’re not working)… because you’re writing and writing and writing… and for what? No one’s paying you (yet), and you’re churning out work on the prayer that you’ll soon get another job… and while you hope and believe you WILL get another job, it’s still no fun to be in that void.
Having said that, look at someone like J.K. Rowling, a single welfare mom who somehow found the time to scribble the manuscript for Harry Potter while riding the bus or on coffee breaks. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that J.K. Rowling couldn’t have written Harry Potter UNLESS she was a single welfare mom who had just lost her own mother… that somehow the adversity and pressure of her situation fueled her—became her escape, her therapist, her outlet, her creative spring—and that at another time in her life Harry Potter would’ve emerged a very different (possibly inferior) book.
So is a spec pilot the best way to express yourself creatively right now? I don’t know. I think it depends on you, your idea, and how your story wants to be told. Only you can find this answer.
ISSUE #3 – NOT LIVING IN L.A.
This, I think, is actually the bigger challenge for you to overcome. For better or worse, most mainstream American television is produced in only one city… Los Angeles. And if you’re not here, it’s tough—border-line impossible, really—to break in. And for all the talk about how the Internet is creating new opportunities for producers “anywhere” to get noticed… that’s not really happening. Sure, we’ve read a handful of Cinderella stories in the papers, but those are mostly anomalies, and it’s very difficult to plan—or get advice on—how to be an anomaly.
Obviously, you can write from anywhere, but when it comes to TV, being a good writer is only half the battle. Most people in television are hired because they have pre-existing relationships… whether they’re taking a job as a PA, showrunner, mid-level producer, agent, or exec. And without being in LA… literally working and living here… it’s VERY hard to form those connections. It’s also tough to stay in touch with what’s going on in the industry: what’s selling, what’s not, what networks and studios are looking for, etc.
So if I’m being honest, Ronke—and, frankly, I hate being honest—I think pursuing a TV career from outside LA is a massively uphill battle. I don’t want to say it’s a fool’s errand, because people have done it (like Sam Greene, who shot a spec pilot for American Body Shop in Arizona and mailed it cold to Comedy Central… who picked it up and put it on the air), but it’s very, very, very, very tough.
Having said that… if you have a story burning inside you, you MUST put it on paper in whatever form it wants to be told: pilot, novel, poem, play, opera… you’ll do yourself no favors by trying to shoehorn a pilot idea into a novel (or a novel
idea into a pilot) because you’re trying to anticipate the best career move. THE BEST CAREER MOVE IS WRITING THE BEST THING YOU POSSIBLY CAN… and if it’s good, it WILL get noticed… no matter where you live.
Having said THIS… if your ultimate goal is to work in TV, and you’re not in L.A., there are some non-TV ways you can create work and attract L.A.’s TV eyes. Write and produce a successful Internet series. Make a short film that goes to festivals. Finance and shoot an independent film. Mount a stage play. Write a serialized online novel. Self-publish a comic book. Do stand-up comedy.
I’m not saying any of these are the right path for your or your project… but I AM saying that unlike many other mediums, television is, unfortunately, L.A.-centric. Yet other mediums aren’t. And if you write something stellar in another medium… something that garners a lot of attention… it’s often easier to attract Hollywood’s TV eyes that way than by writing a spec pilot from outside L.A. and casting it into the ether.
Anyway, Ronke… I can’t make the final decision on whether or not writing a pilot is your best career path. But I hope some of this has helped shed some light on your options.
My final thought, just to sum up, is this: pursuing a TV career from outside L.A. is a Herculean task… yet the best way to go about it is to trust your creative instincts and write the BEST PIECE YOU CAN. If, in your heart of hearts, you know your story is a spec pilot… then you must write a spec pilot. But if it’s a short story… or a graphic novel… or a skit… or a one-woman show… then heed that notion and write whatever the story wants itself to be.
Hope this helps… and when your show’s debuting on TV later this year, I expect a personal invitation to the premiere party!