PRIMETIME: How Can I Get My Pilot From Chicago To L.A.?

Today’s question comes from Marissa, who writes…

I live in Chicago, but have a script for a TV show involving a [particular kind of business].  It’s a comedy. How can I send it out to LA… do I need an agent?

Great question, Marissa… and I want to say—before I answer—that I’m about to sound like an asshole.  But I’m going to be an honest asshole, so bear with me.  The way to get your script to L.A. is…

YOU DON’T.

If you want to get your pilot into the hands of producers, agents, or executives in Los Angeles, the best thing you can do… no, the only thing you can do… is MOVE TO LOS ANGELES.

Aspiring writers across the country—even talented writers—hate hearing that, but it’s the truth.  I know you can find script consultants, books, seminars, or podunk literary agents who tell you otherwise, but THOSE PEOPLE ARE LYING.

I also know you can also find a tiny handful of stories about people who sold TV pilots while they weren’t in Los Angeles: Sam Greene selling American Body Shop to Comedy Central, or Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton getting It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia to FX.

And sure, those stories are true… but they’re massive, one-in-a-billion flukes.  (For the record—I encourage anyone to figure out a way to be a fluke.  If you can find a creative way to circumvent the system, I say go for it… but no one can teach you how to do that.  And anyone who says they can is full of it.)

Here’s why you need to be in L.A…

1) Networks and studios don’t typically buy TV pilots or ideas from newbies.  First of all, most TV shows aren’t sold as pilot scripts; they’re sold as pitches.  Over the past few years (thanks largely to the success of Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives), studios and networks have been buying more spec pilots… but most never make it to air—and the handful that do tend to come from highly experienced writer/producers like Aaron Sorkin (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) or David Crane and Jeff Klarik (The Class).

Desperate Housewives cast photo poster

When Marc Cherry sold his spec script for "Desperate Housewives" in 2003, it opened the door for numerous other spec sales. But that doesn't mean it's easy

Secondly, most projects purchased by networks and studios—whether specs or pitches—come from experienced writers and producers.  Most are from seasoned veterans, but even USA’s A Legal Mind pilot, by low-level staff writer Aaron Korsh, came from someone who had spent years in the industry.  There are two reasons for this…

Reason #1 – Show concepts themselves are almost worthless.  I obviously haven’t read your script, Marissa, but I can promise you that whatever your concept, it’s already been bought, sold, developed, and tried—probably several times by multiple networks, studios, and producers.  Which does not mean it’s a bad idea.  It simply means that in television, unlike in film, the concept itself is far less important than the person executing the concept.  Look at The Mentalist and Psych; on paper, these are nearly identical ideas… but the creators of those shows, Bruno Heller and Steve Franks, each have such unique visions that the shows themselves are impossible to confuse.

More importantly, most networks and studios want to buy shows from established showrunners.  This is because running a TV show involves much more than just telling stories and writing scripts.  Showrunners oversee every facet of production: props, casting, lighting, set design, interacting with marketing people, music, everything.  And it takes years of experience to be able to do this.  Occasionally, inexperienced creators partner with veteran showrunners, but if you’re not already a working TV writer, you probably need a close personal relationship with the showrunner.

Reason #2 – Networks and studios rarely buy from strangers.  Because of the above reasons, networks and studios tend to buy shows from people they know, or people they’ve worked with, or people who have spent time working in the trenches of TV.  After all, if you’re going to hand $50 million to someone to produce a season of television, you need to know they can deliver.  And this means they’re not only a talented, competent writer, but they understand the practical and creative rules of television… which means being an experienced writer.

2) TV is a business, and like all businesses, it has its own rules, processes, and players… and you need to be in the business to learn them.  For example, most broadcast networks only buy new shows during a specific time of year—”Development Season,” which typically lasts from July-ish to October-ish.  So if you’re hoping to sell your script to a broadcast network/studio (NBC, ABC, CW, FOX, CBS), this year is already gone.

More importantly, for all the reasons just discussed, TV is an industry based almost entirely on networking and relationships.  Agent sign writers they already know, execs buy projects from old friends, showrunners staff their assistants.  So if you want to be in the mix, you need to be out here forming those relationships.

So, Marissa, if you truly believe in this project and want to get it on the air, I have two pieces of advice…

1)  Move to L.A. and get a job in the industry. Your ultimate goal is to land on the staff of a TV show, which means you’ll probably start as a show’s P.A… work your way over to Writers P.A… get bumped up to Writers Assistant… and then, hopefully, get promoted to Staff Writer.  (This process usually takes a minimum of 4-5 years.  But I know people who have been assistants for 9-10 years before finally staffing.)

Along the way, you’ll meet writers, assistants, executives, agents, producers, and showrunners who can help you.  They’ll read your scripts, offer suggestions, introduce you to other helpful people.  But without this network of contacts and allies, it’s almost impossible to sell something.

2)  Write something else! If you want to be a professional TV writer, you’ll need not just one great script… but several.  Most writers need two kinds of scripts: original material (like a pilot, which you already have, or even stage plays, screenplays, sketches, etc.) and spec scripts, which are your own sample episodes of shows already on the air.  You can’t sell these scripts, but you can use them as

writing samples, calling cards.  So if you want to break into half-hour comedies, write your own Modern Family script, or a Big Bang Theory, or How I Met Your Mother.

Plus, the more you write, the better you’ll become.  I promise you… no matter how brilliant your current pilot script is—your next one will be better.  And the one after that will be even better!

So while I know none of this is what you were hoping to hear, don’t give up… just re-strategize!  If you can’t get out to L.A. immediately, start your next script… and then the next… and then the next… so when you do get out here, you’re armed with the best TV scripts this town has ever seen!

Also, at the risk of sounding self-promotional, check out Small Screen, Big Picture: A Writer’s Guide to the TV Business, my book which goes into great (but reader-friendly) detail about how the TV industry works and how to break in as a writer.  It’ll teach you everything you need to know… and why most writers fail.  (I’m not doing this to push the book—I think, especially in your case, it’ll be a useful resource.)

In the mean time, thanks for the question—and keep reading!  And if the rest of you have questions, email me at chad@chadgervich.com.  Talk to you next time!

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4 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: How Can I Get My Pilot From Chicago To L.A.?

  1. Jamie Dakis

    I see the valid points of both sides. I too believe in the NEW and Upcoming youth of Hollywood, while at the same time trust the Older and Professional greats that made Hollywood one of the greatest producers of entertainment throughout the world.
    Having said this I now want to thank Chad for his expert answer.

  2. Charlie

    Billy Joe, I believe Chad was answering Marissa’s question about the reality of working in the industry from outside of Los Angeles. And to that end he was being quite accurate in assessing what’s she’s facing if she wants to work in the industry as it’s currently constituted.
    If you look at Chad’s previous blog, he always encouraged people to be independent filmmakers, to put their stories on youtube — to try and find other ways to get content out there. His advice here doesn’t fly in the face of that at all. The truth is if you want to work in hollywood, you have to move here. If you want to create content and find an audience that gets your vision you can do that from any part of the world. These aren’t two mutually exclusive possibilities. There’s validity to both models. People want to know what it takes to make it in the industry as it is just as much as they want to find ways to change things.

  3. billy joe

    It’s people like you CHAD who continue the current industry model. To all aspiring story tellers: be brave, be different, be creative. You’re not in this business because you’re ordinary. You’re exceptional, act like it. Think of new ways to get your ideas out there. Its increasingly affordable to learn, and practice these things. The old “Hollywood” is scared of the new wave of “do it yourself” artists. We are the next generation of filmmakers and story tellers with skills to edit, write, shoot AND distribute our own work. Keep writing, keep creating and keep dreaming. The change is coming, we need your ideas.

  4. John Morey

    This was a nice, refreshing article. As someone in the TV business as a writer I can attest that he is spot on. You have to be here in LA. And you have to work in the business. And even then it is damn hard to get in to pitch something and even harder to get something sold.

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