Today��s reader question comes from Merik, who writes…
“I have been writing my second feature script and I am half way through. As I got to page 60, I realized that this script would make a great cable (HBO) pilot, and would make a great series. I have read some of your Script Notes, which have clarified that my script does meet the Pilot standard. With that being said, should I complete the first few episodes before giving it to my lawyer to reach out to HBO...? I know where it would go, but… what is expected of me when trying to sell a pilot script that is complete? How much do I need to have thought through, and how many episodes should I write before trying to reach out to HBO and sell the series...?”
Well, first of all, Merik—thanks so much for reading Script Notes, and I’m glad you’ve found it helpful!
As for how much of the future series to pitch or write, the general rule is: NOT MUCH... and JUST ENOUGH.
Allow me to clarify...
Very often, when pitching a TV show, it’s hurtful to the pitch and the project’s sale-ability to have too many of the subsequent episodes set in stone. Network execs—even at writer-friendly HBO—like to have input into where a series is headed and how it develops. This isn’t because they’re controlling or myopic, it’s because they hopefully know or have a sense of what works best (and what doesn’t) for their network.
Also, series rarely play out the way you may plan or anticipate. No matter how brilliant you think your future episodes and stories may be, I can almost guarantee that—when it’s all said and done—they won’t actually happen the way you envision them. This is because new series are so tender, and there are so many unpredictable variables, that it’s always hard to execute your vision just as you see it. The first several episodes of any TV series are often experiments, with writers, actors, and directors trying various things to see what works, and series often take on a life of their own.
I’m not saying this to discourage you from thinking about where your series is headed. You should ABSOLUTELY think about where your story is headed… because at some point, if the network likes your script, they ARE going to want to talk about where you see it going. I’m simply saying you want to be strategic in what you present and how you present it, because networks don’t want to think you’re locked into something that may not ultimately come to fruition. TV shows are fluid and evolving, and networks want (and need) to work with people who can adapt quickly.
So what do you do?...
Some writers include short paragraphs (maybe five to ten) summarizing “sample” story ideas, the kinds of stories the should could tell. If you’d like to include with those stories your vision for the future of the series… go for it!
Other writers let the pilot stand on its own and wait for the network to ask for future story ideas later (which, if they like the pilot script, they always do).
Basically, whenever and however you feel it's most appropriate, the idea is to let networks know where the series COULD go... the kinds of stories you see it telling... without saying "this is where my series WILL or MUST go."
So my advice…?
If you’re basically submitting this pilot cold and unsolicited, even through a lawyer, go ahead and include some extra story ideas. It can’t hurt… and you’re only going to get one shot to impress your readers—so hit them with everything you’ve got. (But again—keep the stories very short… and only send in a page or two total.)
The one thing I would absolutely NOT do is write extra scripts. They
will NEVER get read. And—honestly?—they’ll probably make you come
across as over-eager and naïve, not knowing how the TV development
process works… and that will be a turnoff. (After all, nothing is more set in stone than an actual script.)
(Also, a hint: many people say—especially with sitcoms or character-driven shows—that the first several episodes are simply the pilot revisited. This doesn’t mean you should repeat the pilot exactly, it simply means that as the show struggles to get on its feet, you spend the first few episodes re-examining and reinforcing the core cast’s central relationships and conflicts. This not only helps buttress the show’s main relationships, it helps audiences, producers, writers, and execs understand what kinds of stories this show tells, how it works narratively and tonally.)
Anyway, Merik, I hope this helps… and let me know what happens!
For the rest of you, if you have thoughts, comments, criticisms, or your own questions, please feel free to post them in the comments section below… or email me at WDScriptNotes@FWPubs.com.