PrimeTime: Should I Shoot My Pilot on Spec?

Today’s email comes from Zain, who writes:

If I have the actors and resources to make a low-budget DVD of my pilot and I submit that with my pilot script, is that better than submitting just the script?  I feel like it would give the producer/agent/manager a better idea of how the show would look in its final stage. Also, it might be refreshing and enjoyable to watch a DVD after reading screenplays for hours on end every day.

Great question, Zain. People ask this a lot, and while it seems like shooting your pilot on spec, doing your own low-budget production, should help make a sale, it almost always never works.  In fact, it almost hurts.  Here’s why …

First, low-budget productions usually look like … well … low-budget productions.

You want your pilot to look as good as it possibly can.

They look hastily shot, have amateur actors, poor lighting, bad sound, sloppy editing.

So if you have a brilliant spec pilot script, and you then shoot it with limited resources and money, you run the risk of ruining what may have been beautiful on the page.  And if someone watches your poorly shot pilot and rejects it, you can’t then turn around and say, “Well, I know you didn’t like that, but why not read the script it was shot from?”

After all, you’re a WRITER.  Your job is to use writing to convey exactly what you want the reader to see, think, hear, feel.  If you think shooting something will do a better job of conveying this than the script alone … you haven’t written a very strong script.  (Which is why they say, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.”)

Plus, keep this in mind: Every year, networks shoot about 100 pilots (collectively).  These are professionally shot, designed, acted, and edited.  Most of these never make it to series … and while that may not be because of their production values, the point is, even professionally produced pilots have only a slim chance of advancing … so shooting an amateur pilot is already putting it far, far behind its pack of competitors.

And sadly, almost every time I hear someone say, “Trust me — I have a real lighting guy,” or “I have the sound people from Avatar,” or “Everyone I’m hiring is a trained professional,” the final product still winds up looking — at best — a few notches above a student film.  This isn’t a knock on the talent of low-budget filmmakers — many are truly talented — it’s a testament to how freaking hard it is to make something look good … and to how many people underestimate that.

Also, I know everyone likes to say, “Well, they shot the pilot for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia themselves.” And that’s true.  But while that show has been enormously successful for its creators and FX, that show is also a huge anomaly. In the last decade, networks have commissioned thousands of pilot scripts, shot hundreds of pilots, and greenlit countless series; It’s Always Sunny is the only show to come from a pre-shot pilot. (Actually, Comedy Central’s American Body Shop also came from pre-shot pilot, but it barely lasted a season and no one really knows about it.)

Secondly, it seems easy to say, “If networks don’t like the cast … or the sets … we can change that later.”

It’s much easier to change things now, before something’s (literally) set in stone.

But once something is shot, it feels set in stone.  After all, you’ve made what is — or what’s supposed to be — a final product, and that’s how execs, managers, agents, and producers see it: as final.  So while recasting, rebuilding, or reshooting may seem like obvious, easy choices, it’s usually too late. Besides, if you want people to look past production choices to see the strength of your script … why’d you bother shooting it in the first place? Stories, characters, styles, and sensibilities are much more malleable earlier in the creative process, and networks and studios like to be creatively involved and invested … which is why most shows are bought or sold on pitch (or, occasionally, as scripts), rather than being pre-shot.

Now, there are a few times when “having tape,” something produced and viewable, can help:

Reality shows often use “sizzle reels” — short scenes or trailers showing off a reality concept’s cast, concept, or sensibility. To learn more about this, check out my May 9th post, “How Should I Prep a Reality Pitch?”

Other projects, both scripted and reality, that hinge on a specific piece of talent — say, a particular stand-up comic or host — sometimes use “tape” to show off that person’s personality.  When I was an exec, and we would pitch sitcom ideas developed around comics, we’d often show buyers a short stand-up clip so they could see the comic’s point of view, sense of humor, on-camera persona, etc.  But this is different than shooting an entire pilot or presentation.

So my advice to you, Zain, is …

NO — shooting your pilot won’t help you sell it.

What will help you sell it is having an amazing script that proves you’re a phenomenal writer with a unique voice and a bottomless well of stories. And if you don’t have an amazing script, a well-produced pilot isn’t going to fool anyone.

If you’re a phenomenal writer, you’re a phenomenal writer … and writers prove that by WRITING.

So rather than spending your time, energy, and resources trying to produce a pilot, I’d spend them writing something new.

Write a second pilot … or a spec script of your favorite show … or a stageplay.  Even if you think your current pilot is the best pilot ever written — and perhaps you’re right — your job isn’t to write one great pilot and sell it … it’s to keep writing better material … to grow into a better, stronger, funnier, more thoughtful writer.

Only this — not producing your own pilot — will convince people you’re a special voice worth investing in.

Thanks again for writing, Zain … and if you — or anyone else — has more questions, thoughts, or comments, please post them in the Comments section below, Tweet me @chadgervich, or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

8 thoughts on “PrimeTime: Should I Shoot My Pilot on Spec?

  1. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    Gray– yes, you’re right… but as you point out, there’s a difference between Rob Thomas, a hugely successful showrunner and producer, shooting a pilot on spec, and unknowns trying to break in…

  2. Gray Jones

    Hey Chad,

    great article as always. I fully agree on every point, and I do second what you mention in the comments — showcase short films or webisodes can indeed prove very successful at catching people’s attention.

    One clarification — Party Down was also shot on spec, at creator Rob Thomas’s house, and then shopped around town and sold to series.

    The caveat — Rob used his Veronica Mars crew to do it, and he and they clearly knew how to put a great show together.

    Hope this helps,
    G.

  3. Chad Gervich

    Hey, Marian–

    Thanks for the comment, and I actually totally agree with you (and Garant & Lennon). But there’s a difference between shooting a short to post on the Internet, submit to festivals, or use as a calling card and shooting an actual pilot to try and SELL.

    Networks don’t usually buy pre-produced pilots… it literally never happens… it’s just not how they function.

    But agents, managers, and even execs DO respond to well-produced work.

    I would always encourage you to produce something as a showcase or a calling card– but again, that’s different than selling it. If a network sees an Internet video, play, or short they love, they’ll more likely make a “development deal” with the creator… not acquire the work as an actual pilot.

    So YES– by all means, MAKE SOMETHING. As artists and writers, I think it’s imperative. Just understand why you’re making it… and know that if you want to sell a SERIES, independently producing the pilot is not the most direct, efficient, savvy, or probable path.

    (FYI– I also encourage you to make something just for the sake of making something beautiful and profound… art for art’s sake. It doesn’t have to be for commercial gain; it can be purely for your own– or your audience’s pleasure. But again, just know why you’re making it.)

    CG

  4. Marian

    Writing Movies for Fun and Profit (Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon), Page 5: “Yes you need an angent. And to get one these days, you must be creative. Simply sending out your script is perhaps the LEAST likely way to get one. Sending out your script unsolicited is about as appealing to agents as a cold call from a discount butt sandwich company. A method that will have a much higher success rate would be to write a short script, funny, scary, or touching, and SHOOT IT. Get it up on YouTube or FunnyorDie (or the hundred other sites like those). BE CREATIVE. Do a reading, put up your play, enter a screenwriting competition. Try ANYTHING. You will have to. But the absolute fastest way is to HAVE SOMETHING PRODUCED. Something concrete they can point to and say, “There’s talent.” Even if it’s thirty seconds long and only on the internet, a finished product gives you a huge advantage over a script on paper. If you know any actors, take a class at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles; you will meet tons of actors. Remember, the movie software that comes FREE on any Mac computer has better editing programs than ever existed for most of the history of the movie industry. If Orson Welles were alive today, he would be thrilled and amazed at the moviemaking power of a flip camera and the simplest laptop computer.”

    So, at least if you want to get an agent (and obviously you have to), it sounds like a good idea to shoot something. 😉

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