Monday, August 27, 2007

Blue Monday

Greetings, gentle readers! It's not really a blue monday. I've just decided to start naming the posts after song titles and that's the first one that popped into my brain. You'll know things are bad when I title a post "Bright Ambassadors of Morning," or "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," or "Small Furry Animals Gathered in a Cave Grooving With a Pick." The latter works only once in charades, by the way.

Things are tres busy this week, what with meetings and us writing a freelance script for the new CBS show, "Moonlight." Ah, TeeVee, you cruel mistress... you have a heart after all! We are indeed writing a script for the aforementioned show, working with some friends and some cool new folks. This should be a kick-ass episode and if the TeeVee gods are smiling, the show will catch on, people will like it, and we'll actually have something AIR on television. That would be nice for a change.

David Bishop liked an exchange in "Malice" between Eliza and Nico. I have a very soft spot for this pilot, so I appreciate the comment. Thanks!

Very Readable Bill -- who is indeed very readable -- had an interesting question. How am I spreading myself this thin? And for the love of Jesu, why?? Well, we do it because we love. TO PAY OUR BILLS! I just think the business is changing and the old way of going into pilot season with one idea is going by the wayside. Mostly, everything's been done. There's little anyone can do to shock an executive with a totally fresh and new idea. The word this pilot season is, idea before writer. Which means that the execs aren't going to be swayed by Big Feature Auteur (THEIR word, not mine) waltzing in to pull some lame, too-expensive-to-produce-weekly idea out of his ass. This year, it's supposed to be about the idea. So that should level the playing field, right?

Of COURSE that's not right. Where have you been?!?!?

The studios still have to take into account their deals. Usually, the first pitches heard are those by writers who have deals at the studios. These aren't necessarily PODs, but co-execs and E.P.s on shows who have a pilot deal written into their contract. In order to justify this expense, the studios need to set these pilots up. Then the free-for-all begins.

This is an interminably long, roundabout way of saying that it's gotten harder and harder to shop one idea around town. If all the studios and networks care about is idea and not vision and execution, well... the TeeVee business becomes more disposable. Ideas can come from anywhere. Showrunners, and people who can create shows, can't. And shouldn't. It becomes, in essence, the feature business.

Gosh, you exclaim. You can't seriously be saying that writing doesn't matter in features, can you?? No, of course it matters. But unfortunately, it doesn't drive that end of the business. In features, the only thing that will get you in there is the idea. In TeeVee, it has been different in the past. I feel that it's changing, and I don't think that's a good thing. Writing TeeVee is different than writing features, on many levels. If the studios and networks are only going to rely solely on ideas, yeah, it means they won't bask in the glow of those Big Feature Auteurs but it also removes the substance and relies only on style. Then you get TeeVee shows that aren't sustainable. There needs to be a balance, and I'm worried the pendulum is swinging too far the other way.

Um. Was that a "yes or no" question?

Very Readable Bill has also read "Gloria." Yay, VRB! There are three of us now! Seriously, people, GO READ IT.

I added some rockin' links for y'all to ponder: Clark's blog (of course I remember you, Clark!), Will Dixon's blog, and blogs from Will Shetterly, Emma Bull and Nick Sagan. Will and Emma are primarily novelists (insanely talented ones, at that, who both have new books out right now). They've also done TeeVee. But they're way better off in the book world. Seriously. We should all be that better off. Nick writes novels and TeeVee and ilm (or if not at present, HE SHOULD START DOING THAT AGAIN, DAMMIT!).

And, some links. Just goofy weird shit, is all.

Disney characters acting unnaturally.
Charlie goes to Candy Mountain.

There will be another post presently, as Hell Week continues! And I want to actually check out the blogs I'm linking to. Seems like there's a lot of cool stuff swirling about.

np - The Devastations, "Yes, U." A bit different from the first one... I think it's growing on me.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk

Augh! Stupid week. We pitched our show to a studio that will remain unnamed. The pitch went well. Our producers loved it. It's so totally a show. The studio, though? Didn't love it. Actually, the guy who was taking notes didn't take them accurately. He got the show wrong. So either he wasn't paying attention (and I got the impression that he wasn't), or they just never had any interest in buying a pitch from us. Which makes me wonder about what's happening at the studios now. Not that every studio should sink to their knees when we walk into the room -- while that would be nice, but it's far from realistic. But it seems like there's more pressure on the studios than there is on the networks. Especially this studio, where there hasn't been the huge turnover there has at the sister network. So maybe they're due.

And let's just, for a minute, talk about the role of an executive. It's to find a reason to pass. So think about that. A writer comes in with an idea they're passionately committed to, and they're pitching to someone who is only looking for a reason to say no, so he doesn't have to justify saying yes. Because if you only say no, you're going to be right more often than you're going to be wrong. In other words, you won't be called on that no, unless you passed on Desperate Housewives and that wound up getting you fired, but only AFTER the show was a massive hit. But if you say yes... that means the possibility of shelling out money, and shareholders like to hang onto their money. So there's a lot more fear out there on the studio side right now. We haven't gone into a network yet so I don't know if they're as scared, but it feels like a network gets more of a chance to be caught up in the enthusiasm of the pitch. That's what happened to us last year, where PODs and studios weren't interested but the one network we pitched to loved the pitch.

What you learn when you pitch something for the first time is what you did right and what you did wrong. Hearing the pitch, watching the reactions of the executives (even if one of them isn't paying any attention), may make you want to revise the pitch. We did this last year and it paid off. We felt, with this pitch, that there were some opportunities to make adjustments so that when we pitch it next, it'll rock even more. But there's also a danger to second-guess yourself after a pitch, or let your agent second-guess you. Do not do this. Don't make any rash decisions right after the pitch, or after the executive passes. Just because they pass doesn't mean your idea sucks. It's just not right for that executive. It may actually be right for another exec at that studio, too. You never know. But if you're not happy with the pitch or the show, trust me... they won't be happy, either.

So we like our pitch and we'll like it even more with a few adjustments. One thing we're going to do is personalize it more towards the executives. You'd like to think that you don't have to perform for these people, that they're professionals who can just hear a story and know if it's good, but remember that they're taking pitches non-stop. Having taken pitches before, I feel their pain. So we're going to jazz it up some. Because nobody's done an idea like this before. We're hoping that this time, it works to our advantage. There's nothing like selling a show called, oh, say, HEROES back in 2001, only to see the latest incarnation treated like the second coming of drama. And wouldn't you think that a pilot called Heroes would be a good sample for a show of the exact same name and premise?

You'd be WRONG.

Anyway. It's just getting harder and harder to get to the buyers -- the networks. Because you have to go through PODs and studios and that means you have to impress up to six people before you even get to the network. Do you know how hard it is to make six people ADORE your pitch? It's almost impossible. This explains why most of the pilots that have been sold so far are from writer deals. These writers go directly into the studio and since the studio is already paying them to develop, they're predisposed to liking the pitch. If they don't hate it, they'll take it into their sister network first. A studio is going to fight much more for a writer on a deal than they are for, well, us. So it's a much harder hill to climb than it's been in the past. We used to just go pitch to the studio execs who liked us, then go into networks. Ah, the good old days! Of course, now there's a catch-22: you need a deal, but the only way to get one is to be a high level writer on a show, or get a show on the air. Which you can't do without a deal... blah, blah, blah.

You might be wondering, gentle readers, what goes on in one of these meetings. Lotsa stuff. You do the small talk banter, which is shorter if you already know the person you're pitching to. Some producers and execs like to get to know you some, or they'll tell you what their company does and what they're looking for. They're usually prepared for what you're pitching, if it's later in the season. If it's right at the beginning, though, they may want to hear the areas or loglines before hearing the pitch. There are some producers and execs who will immediately put the kibosh on an area. That's actually a good thing. There's nothing more disheartening than pitching your little heart out only to have them say at the end, "Yeah, we're not doing any vampire turtle shows this year." Then why didn't you effing say so when you heard the logline??? If you're like us, you have a quatrillion ideas and keep coming up with more throughout the season. If you're the writer who puts everything behind one idea, let me shake your hand. I don't know how you do it. I like to have a few primary ideas, depending on the producer or exec, and some back-ups... JUST in case.

To me, the most important things about pitching a show are:
The premise: this should be clean and easy to grok. You shouldn't have to spend more than thirty seconds pitching your premise. And the rest of your pitch should only expand on that premise. A premise doesn't have to be high concept and in fact, a high concept premise does NOT guarantee that your show is clean and easy to do every week. Most high concept TeeVee premises are minefields of complexity. That is NOT good in TeeVee. The simpler the better. Chuck, for example: An underachiever downloads the NSA database into his head. See? Simple. A very clean premise makes for a show that's easier to do every week. But then there are the shows with too many rules. Pushing Daisies: a pie-maker has the ability to bring people back from the dead with one touch, but if he doesn't touch the person within sixty seconds, somebody nearby dies... and if he DOES bring somebody back to life and they're alive longer than sixty seconds, the pie-maker can never touch them again or they die for good. AAAAUUUGH! HOW ARE THEY BREAKING THIS SHOW EVERY WEEK? Well. Apparently, that's a bit of a problem.

The characters: they must rock. As simple as that. They need to make sense for the premise. An example would be the X-Files. Mulder's the believer. Scully's the skeptic. She's sent to keep an eye on him, but winds up having his back. Simple, right? Iconic, even. And they fit the premise. Your characters should feel like individuals. You should know their backstories, what got them into this predicament, why the show is about THEM, and how they react to what's happening to them. Arcs for characters are an excellent idea. Tell the executives where you want to take these characters. Know their voices, and incorporate them into the pitch.

The engine: this will be referred to as the franchise. What that really means is, what happens every week? How is this a TeeVee show? Based on most shows that get ordered, nobody gives two shits about the engine. I see these pilots and go, "Erm, what is episode two? How is this sustainable?" What I really want to know is, how are these writers snowing the executives???? When you go in to pitch, have episode ideas. You don't have to have a ton. Just enough to show them that you've thought about it. Have episodes that showcase your meat-and-potatoes episode, and episodes that are more off-center or surprising. Again, X-Files is a good example. There were the mythology episodes that dealt with the aliens and conspiracy, and the standalone episodes. By the way? Standalone is, sadly, the best word an executive can hear. If your show is more serialized (hey -- how are you selling a serialized show in this climate???), know where your story is going to go.

The world: this is especially important when you're pitching a show that doesn't take place in our mundane, everyday existence. Pitching a genre show? KNOW YOUR WORLD. And the rules for your show. Does your show have a visual style? Know what that is.

Make it fun: if you're not enthusiastic, they won't be, either. You can start your pitch with a short paragraph of why this is the Coolest Show Ever. And yeah, you need to believe that it is. They need to know that you are the only person who can do this show. That you were born to do it.

For me, the most fun part of the pitch is after the formal pitch is over and they start asking questions. Don't panic if you don't know the answers. If you know your show well enough, the answers will come to you. This is an opportunity for you to show how on the ball you are and how well you know the world and the characters.

Then just sit back and wait for the checks, my friends!

If you have a deal. If not, well... you're fucked.

Heh.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hell Week!

Starting Monday, we've got a meeting a day all week. It feels like development season is cranking up. The studios seem to have just realized that holy CRAP, Labor Day's coming up! MUST BUY PROJECTS! I didn't think it was possible, but this year's even more fucked up than last year. Networks haven't bought a lot yet but the stories about pitching are pretty much the same across the board. Nobody wants to commit to anything. I think part of that is because of the mess that the fall season has become. More shows are in trouble at more networks than ever before. The networks and studios don't have any faith in the product they're putting on in the fall. They can't even pretend they do, because we've all heard the rumors. And you know what? Big effing surprise. The shows they bought are pilots, not TeeVee shows. They constantly order shows that don't have engines. There's a lot of firing of showrunners and actors going on. Too much. The main reason television works -- a vision -- is being excised from the process. So new showrunners are stumbling around in the dark, being forced to start from scratch with a show they didn't conceive.

Think about the best shows you've seen. They can all be traced to a singular vision, can't they? All I see with the fall season is TeeVee by committee, which has never worked. The show I'm enjoying the most right now is Mad Men and boy, does that have a singular vision. It's also got a complex, not always likeable lead character. This isn't something you get with a committee. Every episode of this show is a dark little gem. In episode three, we got to see the three different generations and how they saw each other. A WWII vet, a Korean war vet, and somebody who didn't serve. They don't understand each other at all, which is relayed in a brilliant piece of dialogue delivered by the underrated John Slattery. And last week, we learned more about Don's past. The last scene with his brother was one of the most complex, dark scenes I've seen on American TeeVee in a long-ass time. Once again, I'm going to mention Keith Maillard's book "Gloria." If you're liking Mad Men (AND YOU SHOULD BE), read it.

I have now seen four episodes of Jekyll. I don't want to watch the last two because then there won't be any left! Each episode, I say "They'd never let us do this on American TeeVee." I mean, there's no way, especially episode four. NO. WAY. While I love the desperate duality of Tom Jackman, the character who's truly staggering is Claire. I mean, SERIOUSLY. She fucking kicks
ASS. This is NOT the character you expect.

Both Mad Men and Jekyll are driven by singular visions. Mad Men gives me some hope for American TeeVee, although it doesn't mean you can do a period show. You can't. Nobody wants them. They don't test well in Malaysia.

I put up a bunch of links! One blog post that really got to me is Ken Levine's, about Treva Silverman. If you have any interest in TeeVee history, go read.

And here's an awesome YouTube clip. Pete Doherty in line for "Be Here Now." Which was released TEN YEARS AGO. TEN. JESUS. Anyway, Pete's about four in this clip. He looks wonderfully healthy and he's not nsurprisingly, witty.

I'm trying to make the posts shorter but more frequent. Let's see if that works!

np - Richard Hawley, "Lady's Bridge." I have also heard the new Stereophonics. It's pretty good! A bit of a throwback for them, which I appreciate after not liking the last few.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sidebar!

I've been playing with Blogger a little and added some links to the sidebar. I think it actually worked! I'd love to add more so if anyone has links to their own blogs or sites -- or just cool, random shit you love -- let me know and I'll sidebar them.

And Blogger, thanks for treating me like a total HTML idiot. I couldn't have done it otherwise.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Crack the Code

We've been extra busy lately! Because of the wacky development schedule (i.e., there is none), it's impossible to predict when the buying season is. And because of the added layer writers have to go through to get to the networks, everything's been pushed later. The extra layer, if I haven't mentioned it before, is the POD layer. POD refers to producers with overall development deals. What that means is, a studio pays a non-writing producer (think Bruckheimer, only a zillion more of them) to develop pitches with writers. So writers have to go pitch to PODs first and then, if the producer likes your idea, you go pitch to studios. Then, if the studio likes it, you go pitch to networks. This is now an almost mandatory step that makes the buying season later and later. The problem, as I see it, is that many of these PODs have new shows on the air. So they have to focus on getting those shows up and running before they can hear pitches.

We used to sell pilots to networks near the beginning of August. But now, we're meeting with producers. And with the growing prominence of cable, any actual buying season has really been shot to hell. Although these PODs have deals with studios, they do not have deals with networks. A studio can go anywhere, network or cable. So a POD might not necessarily give a shit about the network buying season. This complicates matters. Because a lot of people -- writers and especially agents -- are still locked into the old way of doing things, which is that you go to networks first. But when you see how the networks handle the new shows, it makes sense not to leave cable out of the loop. I would rather get to do my show the way I want on SciFi than get cancelled on a network.

Anyway, we've been really busy choosing from our vast storehouse of pilot ideas (heh) and then pitching them to producers. What's nice is, we finally decided on three ideas and we really feel that we're in the zeitgeist. We may not actually be ahead of it this time! We've had producers liking different ideas, which is also good. We're also pitching a great pilot with two fantastic producers who totally get it. We're hoping to get studio meetings soon. And we're still working on features and whatnot.

We also found out what a few of the networks are looking for. Great, right? We can tailor shit right to 'em! ABC is looking for "blue sky" shows. And NBC is looking for shows that don't have anything to do with death.

Now, go figure out what to pitch them. I DARE YOU.

NBC, for its desire to stay away from death, just bought a show about cops who police demons, vampires and werewolves. Maybe they just mean actual human death. Huh. I just don't know WHAT to think. But I do know this -- that show already aired. It was called Special Unit 2, and it was on UPN. I know writers who sold that same pilot several seasons ago. So I'm wondering, maybe there's something unique about it, you know? There must be some special twist that I don't know about. Because otherwise, how the hell would a network buy that show? I know they like ideas that are familiar, but SERIOUSLY. It doesn't get more familiar than that. I'd be really interested to find out from the writer exactly how the show was pitched. Because I'm not seeing it. Fox also bought a supernatural show, a drama they're fast-tracking in case of a strike. It's a show about three families in three different time periods who live in the same haunted house.

I don't know how this show was pitched either, or the particulars. It's an intriguing idea, until you think about sitting down in the writer's room on day one and trying to break these stories. Sometimes, shows that seem to have the clearest, most elegant concepts are bitches to break. Shows with gimmicks just don't work. Simple is better. Okay, maybe not as simple as the paranormal cop show, but you get the point.

The fact that these shows were sold might give one hope that genre television is on the comeback. What's funny is, a lot of people have been referencing The X-Files lately. Not as in, "We're looking for that show," but like, "Man, don't you miss that show?" I'm wondering if people are looking at the pilots they're hearing, the shows that are already in trouble for fall and the graveyard of TeeVee we've seen since X-Files went off the air and getting nostalgic. Finally, heads are clearing. Right? Aren't they? I don't know. But we have to think so. If you believe in a show, you have to believe in your ability to tell the story and you have to believe that the person hearing it will love it. Otherwise, there's just no point.

But this is a business, and the people hearing your pitches are in the middle of hell week. They've got shows for fall that they're still dealing with and they've got a bazillion pitches lined up all day, every day. They'll be nice, and they'll try their best to listen and pay attention and get your enthusiasm. But they're human, and that won't always happen.

So it comes back to you, the writer. The only purity that exists in this business is when a writer has an idea, and creates a world out of that idea. The one thing I can assure you of is, everybody will have an opinion of that idea. Some opinions -- notes, really -- will be helpful, and you should not dismiss them out of hand. But it's very hard to destroy the purity of that moment of creation and throw it out there for tired, scared, busy people who simply don't have the time or the energy to understand and appreciate the purity of your idea. They're gonna hear the logline and if you're lucky, they'll listen past that. Maybe it'll be what they're looking for -- one of sixty drama pilot scripts that network will develop this year. But mostly, it won't be quite up their alley.

It's easy for us, the writers, to bag on the executives and the producers. There are some lousy ones. But there are some terrific ones, too, people who are just as genuinely enthusiastic as you. But while you can always fall back on your creativity, they have to think of the business end of it, sometimes exclusively. And sometimes, your project will suffer. I know what you're going to say, gentle readers -- writers have to consider the business end of it, too. Yes, that's true. However. It's easy to get caught up in it, to second guess your idea because it's not saleable enough. It's easy to listen to people who tell you that, too. And hey, we all do it, and we'll all continue to do it. But when you're working on a pilot pitch, all you have to do is answer one question: Is this a show you could work on for five years?

That's really all it comes down to.

Jesus, I don't know what the crap this maudlin post is about!

Dave mentioned an unfortunate Michael Bay story about developing Friday the 13th. Yeah... this shit just gets stuck in development hell because there's no deadline for it. They can develop a movie for fucking EVER. And then the things suck anyway. The movies that seem to work are usually left alone. The ones that don't? Well, the idiot American moviegoer will see them anyway, which is why crap like Rush Hour makes money. Whatevs. Stupid moviegoers. Demand better entertainment! This is a business! If you don't go see this shit, they'll stop making it.

Poldevia wanted to know what genre spec to write. That is indeed an interesting question!! I don't see people writing a lot of genre specs. There isn't much on that would work as a sample. You can't write a Battlestar Galactica. DO NOT WRITE ONE OF THESE. Although I read one that knocked my socks off, an executive either isn't going to read it or doesn't watch the show. This does you no good. Supernatural isn't a bad sample. Even if an exec isn't familiar with the show, it's a pretty standalone set-up. Standalone ALWAYS helps you, because your spec will be useable longer than it will for an ever-changing serialized show. Do not write a Dr. Who. Trust me on that. Bad idea.

Jesus, what else is on? Eureka? Hmm. I don't know about that one. I think the show's pretty tough to write so unless you really have a handle on it, I wouldn't go there. It's also risky because of the Sci-Fi Channel angle. Most execs have no idea what's on SciFi. SciFi also just premiered Flash Gordon. I admire the attempt and I worked with the writer on a show years ago. I'm not sure it totally works for me. But I have to say, it's Canadian content and it only feels like that occasionally. The lead is okay; it's Flash freakin' Gordon, so he's not loaded with personality anyway. Dale is played by Gina Holden, who was also in Lifetime's Blood Ties. I really like her. Dale's a totally different character than the character she played on Blood Ties. If you didn't catch that show (most people didn't -- it's on Lifetime, for God's sake), you might want to take a look. I think it's on iTunes. I actually thought it was pretty fun! Canadian content, but REALLY well cast and the episodes were fun. The show's based on Tanya Huff's books, which are also fun. I think it's interesting that the most fun, engaging genre show on now is a Canadian content show on Lifetime.

It'll be interesting to see if anything hits this fall. There's a LOT of genre -- Pushing Daisies, Reaper, Bionic Woman, Moonlight, Sarah Connor Chronicles, New Amsterdam (pushed to midseason, but everything's midseason on Fox anyway), Eli Stone... I feel like I'm leaving something out. Anyway, one of those is bound to hit. Well. You'd think so. If, say, Bionic Woman hits right out of the gate and doesn't fall off too much for three episodes, I'd take a look at writing one of those. It's always good to be the first one.

I do recommend writing a spec pilot if you want to work in genre. I know, I said not to right away but try expanding your horizons a bit with the specs. Write something character-driven, something that has a bit of humor, like Psych or Dexter (why aren't there more of these?) something along those lines. A spec like that can cover a lot of shows. You've got your character, your procedural, your humor. And then write a spec genre pilot. They're A LOT easier to write than pitch. They're very tough to pitch, because you're doing more than you are in a pitch about lawyers. You're world-building, and when you pitch you have to be VERY clear about the rules. When we sold Heroes, most of our concentration went towards that. If an exec has even one question, your pitch may not make it up the ladder. So consider a genre pilot, coupled with a show spec that's a little out of left field.

If we sell a genre pilot this year, I'll tell you how we pitched it. If we don't sell one, well... obviously, we need to go back to the drawing board on how to pitch them.

I think I figured out how to put our pilots on the internets. I put up four PDFs. Real Life is a newish pilot that we're tinkering with. It's a spec with some genre elements. Storyteller was a show we sold to Lifetime a few years back. Dan Brown's horrid tome hadn't come out yet and we did it first anway. Town Called Malice is the most recent. Not genre at all -- we describe it as the anti-Gilmore Girls. I've always wanted to do something music-based. This is one of those pilots that, if people don't like it (I'm talking to YOU, Mark Gordon development person!), I don't care. They're wrong. And then there's Utopia, which we wrote for Paramount a few years ago. I love this pilot, too. We totally have a whole series worked out for it. It's sort of an update of The Prisoner. I hope somebody who reads this blog (and isn't my writing partner!) will recognize where the names came from. WITHOUT GOOGLING THEM! I hope you enjoy these scripts, y 'all.

Go here, and tell me if it works:

The Box

Until next time, gentle readers...

np - Sea Wolf, "Leaves in the River." They're from L.A. AND THEY'RE AWESOME!