PrimeTime: Hot Specs … Hot Lunches … and Pesky Brits

Today’s first e-mail comes from Jason, who writes …

I want to write a spec of FX’s The League, but it’s an unscripted/outlined/highly improved show. Is it acceptable to write a spec script for a show that is unscripted or will I be laughed out of every agency in town?

Well, Jason — the good news is: you absolutely will NOT be “laughed out” of the room for writing a show that’s unscripted or highly improvised.

While these shows may not use traditional writing processes (although most are much more written than they appear to be), they still tell stories and have characters with distinct, unique voices … and this is what’s important. A few years ago, for instance, Curb Your Enthusiasm was one of the most widely specced shows in Hollywood. And one of the hot scripts making the rounds this last staffing season was a spec script of Jersey Shore!

To spec or not to spec ... that is the question.

The bad news: I don’t know how use-able The League is as a spec script; I’m not sure it’s widely enough watched or followed by people in the industry. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it; it simply means you should be aware that there may many people who won’t read it or appreciate it.

In fact, because I’ve received a lot of questions lately about what shows to spec (like Anthony’s June 20th post about wanting to spec Breaking Bad), I decided to do a little informal survey this week. I asked three studio execs what current shows they felt were speccable. (I promised the execs I’d keep them anonymous, but they all work for major TV studios.

Here are the shows they suggested:*

Dramas

  • The Good Wife — It’s procedural, but with strong characters. Great for a spec.
  • Justified
  • True Blood
  • Royal Pains (USA) — One exec called this “the new House,” adding that while some execs may not be super-familiar with it, it’s a creative show that looks like it’ll be on the air for a while.
  • White Collar (USA) — Like Royal Pains, some people may not be familiar with it, so it’s a bit riskier … but still a good spec.

FYI, ironically, one exec suggested Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men, The Mentalist, and Castle … while others have specifically said NOT to spec these shows … these shows are too old and tired. Someone also suggested AMC’s The Killing — but this show is so serialized I wouldn’t recommend it (or even know how to spec it).

Comedy

  • Modern Family
  • Glee
  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Parks & Recreation
  • 30 Rock
  • Community
  • Raising Hope

*Not every exec agreed on these shows, but each show was mentioned by at least one exec. And as I mentioned above, some execs totally contradicted each other!

Now, Jason and Anthony — obviously, neither of the shows you wanted to spec, The League and Breaking Bad, are on this list. Should that deter you? … That’s up to you. Three things to consider …

  1. The shows listed above are the opinions of only three execs … although they’re probably fairly representative of many execs, producers, and agents.
  2. Spec pilots seem to be much hotter than sample specs right now. While spec pilots rarely sell (although it happens more now than in a pre-Desperate Housewives world), they’re very much in vogue as writing samples. Some people still read specs … and writing specs is probably the best way to learn the form of TV-writing … but spec pilots are no longer anathema like they were a few years ago.

Most importantly …

I believe you always have to write whatever you’re most passionate about.

If you're not writing with blood, you're not really writing.

So if you love Breaking Bad … or The League … or The Killing … and you have a story for one of those shows clawing its way out of you … WRITE THAT.

It may never be the most widely read spec in town, but if you pour your heart and soul into it, it’ll blow away anyone who does read it.

And a beautifully written spec of The League … or Grey’s Anatomy … or Jersey Shore … will take you much farther than a mediocre spec of a hot show like Modern Family.

Question #2 …

The next question comes from Ian, who writes in response to my June 28th column, “How Do I Get an Agent? – Part Two,” in which I advocate taking people to lunch as a terrific networking tool …

Where do you find this magical money to pay for people’s lunches? I honestly don’t understand that part. And doing all that work just to get rejected … it’s very depressing. I think you should at least know your work is at a certain level before showing it to someone like an agent. Otherwise, why are you showing someone in the first place?

First of all, Lee, I completely agree with your second statement.

You should definitely “know your work is at a certain level before showing it to someone like an agent.”

In fact, I think one of the biggest mistakes made by newbies and aspirants is that they show their work too early … WAY too early.

While it’s fine to show early scripts and drafts to friends, family, or trusted advisers (especially if you’re looking for constructive feedback), you shouldn’t be showing your work to agents, producers, executives, managers, or showrunners until you feel 110 percent certain it’s at a professional level.

And how do you know it’s at a professional level? …

If you're not reading this much... you're probably not writing that much.

Well, in addition to writing constantly … you should be reading constantly: produced screenplays, produced teleplays, whatever your medium. (As well as short stories, novels, articles, and any other form of storytelling you can get your hands on.)

Thanks to the Internet these days, it’s super-easy to find scripts at websites like the Internet Movie Script Database and Script City.

(You can also go to my website, ChadGervich.com, and click on “Resources & Links.” Under “Got Scripts?”, you’ll find other great sources for finding, buying, and reading screenplays and teleplays.)

Study scripts from your favorite recent movies or TV shows … and compare them to yours.

If you want to grab an agent or executive’s attention, your script doesn’t need to be as good as these professional scripts …

It needs to be BETTER than these professional scripts. (Which it can be … it just takes hundreds of hours of hard, grueling work — which is what writing’s about!)

As for your first question:

Where do you find this magical money to pay for people’s lunches? I honestly don’t understand that part.

Uh … it’s not that hard to understand …

YOU HAVE A JOB.

And if you don’t have one now … GO GET ONE. Preferably in the industry.

(Here are some past posts I’ve written that should help you: Getting Your First Job in the Industry and How To Break in If You’re Not in L.A.)

Also, you don’t need to take people to expensive restaurants. I wouldn’t suggest McDonald’s, but find a quiet, inexpensive cafe where you can sit, talk, listen, and get to know each other. If you can’t afford lunch, take people to drinks or coffee.

And if you really can’t afford taking people to lunch … or a latte … or a beer … get creative! If you meet an agent’s assistant you’d like to know better, and you discover you each love puppies, take your dogs to the dog park together! If you’re fitness buffs, go hiking. Invite him/her to a business party you’re attending.

Your next power lunch.

The goal isn’t to dazzle someone with a fancy meal; it’s to get to know them, to listen to and respect their story, to start a relationship. And that can be done anywhere.

Also, speaking of lunch …

TED — thank you so much for your invite to lunch beautifully done, I might add!

Unfortunately, while I’m always up for a free lunch, I’m about to head back into production … which means late nights and no lunches for the next many weeks or months.

Also, for what it’s worth — although I probably speak for most people — I rarely go to lunch with people I haven’t met personally, or who haven’t been referred to me through a personal connection. Not because you’re not a super nice guy — you seem great — but because, sadly, I just don’t have time to go to lunch with everyone I’d like to!

But if we ever meet in person … either through work, or at a conference, class, or festival … maybe we can set it up!

And now, our final question …

This question comes from Lee, who posted in response to my July 4th column, “More of Your Agent Questions… Answered!”:

You seem to only write for Americans, there’s a whole big world out there beyond your borders.

I live and write in England, tried to get a work visa for the U.S. but couldn’t. I take trips to L.A. whenever I can but that costs a hell of a lot of money. If you had any advice for non-U.S. citizens, it would be helpful.

Lee, you are absolutely right; there is a whole big world beyond our borders.

Unfortunately, I’ve never worked in it … so I’d be no more qualified to give you advice on breaking into the English entertainment industry than you would be to advise me on breaking into, say, the Montana real estate market.

However, here are some great resources that do offer advice, articles, and insight on breaking into the U.K. industry:

  • The Writers Guild of Great Britain – England’s labor union covering “writers in TV, radio, theatre, books, poetry, film, online and video games.” Their website offers some great articles, podcasts, and other resources.
  • Film London – The official agency designed to promote and support London’s film and TV industry.
  • Scriptwriting in the U.K. – Blog and podcast from British screenwriter Danny Stack.
  • TwelvePoint.com – An online magazine for European screenwriters.
  • ScreenDaily – Based in London, this is a European news service offering news and updates about the global film industry.
  • British Film Institute – While it’s a bit academic, BFI offers a terrific archive of movies, books, and magazines … as well as many educational opportunities for those interested in film, TV, etc.
  • Sight and Sound – The magazine of the British Film Institute; although this offers mostly feature stories, reviews, etc., they can also steer you to U.K. contests and resources.
  • MovieScope – A British magazine focusing on the global film industry, from London to Hollywood and around the world.

Anyway, thanks again for all the great comments, questions, and e-mails — don’t stop! And for those of you who have submitted questions that haven’t yet been answered, don’t worry — they’re coming!

In the meantime, please feel free to post questions and responses in the Comments section below … or e-mail me at chad@chadgervich.com … or Tweet me @chadgervich … or post on Facebook.

See you next week!

7 thoughts on “PrimeTime: Hot Specs … Hot Lunches … and Pesky Brits

  1. Marv-Boogie

    Lee, As a fellow “Pesky” Brit, I understand your frustration first hand.

    I am currently in LA and have a number of very real projects happening out here (Film and TV), all without a manager or an agent.

    How did I do it? Cue first drum roll purleeese…

    HARD WORK AND HUSTLE.

    I work on the law of six degrees of separation. Talk to family, friends and see if somebody knows somebody, who knows Spielberg. If not, try and put yourself in those circles that can help. Come to LA, got to coffee shops, meet other writers, get on twitter, Facebook, yahoo groups etc.

    But beware…

    It may all come to nothing if… Second drum roll please…

    YOUR WORK IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

    You may think you have the best idea for a TV/Movie ever, but without execution, it’s just “Vapour-paper” (That’s MY saying, registered with both the LOC and WGA, so I’ll sue yo asses. LOL)

    But I digress.

    Read as many produced screenplays/teleplays a possible and seriously ask yourself this question. “Is my work as good (if not better), than material that gets produced in Hollywood?” And here’s why…

    Drum roll numero, tres…

    Once you have made connections, you will probably only get one shot at getting something read by a producer, so you have to make sure it’s your best.

    Good luck and get networking.

  2. Lee

    Pesky Brit here! Thanks for the info, but I meant foreigners can’t move to LA so do you have any advice for them in breaking into the American industry. Thought you might have come across people who’ve done it. I’d much rather be getting a suntan than being rained on!

  3. Rey Borge

    Hey Chad well maybe I can get lucky and have lunch with you just wondering If i write a pilot for presentation and sale how long does it have to be?

  4. Chad Gervich

    Michael–

    You’re right… I probably do make it sound easier-said-than-done (in this post) to land an industry job.

    The point is: there is no “magical money” to pay for people’s lunches; you pay for people’s lunches the same way everyone pays for lunches… BY HAVING A JOB, LIKE EVERY GROWN-UP IN THE COUNTRY (or, right now, like only 90.8 percent of them).

    And if you can’t get an industry job, get SOME job, ANY job. Work as a street-sweeper, a receptionist, a lifeguard, a dog-walker. Work two jobs if you have to! (And all the while, be SEARCHING for an industry job.)

    And rather than spending your free cash on going to the movies, or having wi-fi in your house, or buying new clothes, or taking your kids to Disneyland, or having a huge cable package… INVEST IT in your future by taking people to lunch or drinks and building relationships.

    I’m not saying it’s easy to work two jobs, or save your money, or give up other “necessities” in order to take assistants or execs to lunch… you just have to decide what’s important to you.

    Are you willing to give up, say, air conditioning in order to have “networking/lunch money?” Are you willing to stop going on dates… or move to a smaller apartment… or have no social life… or work 18 hours a day?

    Maybe you are… maybe you’re not… each person has to answer those questions for himself.

    But I find that when most people (not all, but most) say, “I can’t afford this,” they actually mean “I don’t WANT to afford this.”

    They mean, “I’d LIKE to be able to do the things necessary to pursue this as a career… but not enough to give up HBO… or taking my girlfriend to nice restaurants… or live in a crappier apartment.”

    In other words, they mean, “I would like to pursue writing as a career… but only while sacrificing AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE.”

    But this is an industry– like starting a business or launching a career in any industry– that takes extreme risk and sacrifice.

    You can not– and will not– and don’t deserve to– succeed if you’re not willing to man up and take the steps and make the sacrifices necessary to reach your goal.

    That doesn’t mean everyone is REQUIRED to give up their house… or their family… or their friends… or their cable package… but it DOES mean that everyone is required to churn out extremely good work WHILE BUILDING THEIR PROFESSIONAL NETWORK.

    So if you can build your network, taking people to lunches and drinks, without affecting your lifestyle– GREAT!!!

    But if not, you have to decide: how badly do you want this?

    If you want it… really, truly WANT it… you have to make it possible for you to do the things necessary.

    Or, as I said in my October 29th post…

    FIGURE IT THE FUCK OUT.

    (http://www.scriptmag.com/2010/10/29/primetime-juggling-writing-and-a-job-figure-it-out/)

    CG

  5. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Chad,

    While I agree completely with you, there is one big elephant in the room in regards to your suggesting someone get a job if they need money – an entry level job, and ESPECIALLY entry level jobs in the industry (if you can remember back that far), hardly pay enough to live and drive in LA – much less take other people ‘out to drinks’ (which they should do). I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment – and yes, if they’re going to want to achieve their dreams they should go out on a limb to pursue them – but sometimes it’s hardly feasible financially. Just wanted to add that to the discussion, because you make it seem like an easy thing in the column.

  6. Melva G. Bennett

    Dear Chad,
    Thanks for the links to sources for scripts. I’m such a newbie that I’ve only read 2 or 3 movie scripts online, and I have yet to find a source for television shows I’ve actually seen. (Eventually, I hope to break the code that allows the lady at the local library to understand what I want from the reference section. It’s a work in progress.)

    I always enjoy your articles.

    Thank you for your time.

    Melva Bennett
    El Lago, TX

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