PRIMETIME: Using CAPS in a Spec Script… and How Ready Should a Sizzle Reel Be Before Pitching?

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So to kick off this week: an apology and a CORRECTION…

Busted.

A couple weeks ago, I posted about this weekend’s (June 4-5) Great American Pitchfest… and said you could use my name to get a $50 discount on registration.  Unfortunately, I misunderstood the discount, so here’s how it actually works.

By using my name, you can get a $50 discount on a specific package, normally priced at $375, for only $325. (It won’t get you a discount on higher-priced packages, like the Bronze, Silver, or Gold—sorry!)  This special package includes:

  • A pass to the Pitchfest (on Sunday, June 5)
  • A lunch ticket
  • A copy of the Executive Directory
  • And, of course, you’ll receive admittance to the all the conference’s free classes, seminars, panels, and discussion on Saturday, June 4 (where I’ll be giving a 90-minute seminar on pitching TV shows)

To receive the special discounted package, simply click HERE and select the “Friends of the Pitchfest” package, then enter my name when prompted.  Sorry for the confusion, folks… totally my bad!… and I hope to see you at the Pitchfest next weekend! (And if you have any questions, problems, or concerns, please feel free to email the Pitchfest producers at info@pitchfest.com.)

Now, onto this week’s questions:

We have two interesting questions this week…

The first comes from Mike, who cites this online discussion about using CAPS in a spec script. Mike writes…

That’s a couple of years old, but I was wondering if you’d comment on the idea that use of caps for sound effects (and important objects and such) in a spec is the “sign of a newbie who isn’t keeping up on the current trends.” Is that true? Is that still a trend? Is this something I need to be concerned about before I submit my spec to something like the WB Writer’s Workshop?

Well, first of all, Mike, I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule. No producer or executive will read your script and say, “His story’s compelling and his characters are riveting… but he doesn’t understand the use of caps in a script. He’s clearly not ready for the big-time.”

Your job, as a writer, is to tell a story so fully and deftly that your reader is not only absorbed in the world, but she also experiences, emotionally, exactly what you want her to experience, when you want her to experience it.

So if your use of caps distracts in any way—yes, you’re using them wrong.

On the other hand, sometimes you need caps to spotlight sound effects or objects that are essential to the story.

Imagine, for instance, you’re trying to show a character lost along a lonely country road.  You write…

EXT. COUNTRY ROAD – NIGHT
               Emma opens her eyes. Moonlight glistens on the snow. Wind
               whips through the naked trees. An owl hoots. Somewhere in the
               distance, a truck rumbles down the gravel road.

None of those details is important in and of itself; they all work together to create a general feeling of loneliness. So using caps, like in this next example, would probably distract from that effect…

EXT. COUNTRY ROAD – NIGHT
               Emma opens her eyes. MOONLIGHT glistens on the snow. Wind
               WHIPS through the naked TREES. An owl HOOTS. Somewhere in the
               distance, a truck RUMBLES down the gravel road.

Suddenly, those same words, capped, grab our attention and direct it toward specific things—the hooting owl, the rumbling truck, etc.—things that seem to carry special importance, but don’t… so the caps are distracting and annoying.

However, if we need to direct our readers’ attention to something specific, caps can be very helpful, like in this example…

EXT. COUNTRY ROAD – NIGHT
               Emma opens her eyes. Moonlight glistens on the snow. Wind
               whips through the naked trees. An owl HOOTS.

               Emma looks up, and there it sits… perched on a branch above
               her…  the GOLDEN OWL… clutching the wizard's bracelet in its
               talons.

Now those capped words are used to direct our attention to necessary things… just as Emma’s attention is pulled to those same things within the story.

Thus, while there’s no carved-in-stone rule, I think caps are okay if used sparingly and to good effect. So as you write, ask yourself: are you using caps to heighten moments that would also feel “heightened” to characters in your story?  Do your caps help recreate the emotional experience of the narrative?

If not, they’re probably superfluous.  But if they help the storytelling, I think they’re fine.

Our next question comes from Evelyn, who asks (paraphrased and rewritten a bit):

I have a reality show idea I believe is ready for a pitch, but how ready should be demo reel, or trailer, be when verbally pitching?  I don’t want to put together a crew to produce, shoot, and edit a demo reel showcasing my piece of talent, only to have them sitting around, hoping to get paid, while we wait for an answer about the pitch.  Basically, how long do most companies take before requesting a sizzle reel or demo?

Well, Evelyn, a couple things to straighten out…

No production company or network will “request” a sizzle reel or demo; you must go into the pitch with a fully produced, ready-to-go sizzle.

If you’re pitching to a network and they like the pitch, as well as your piece of talent, they may want to shoot a pilot before committing to picking up the series… but they’ll need to see a sizzle in order to make this decision.

If you’re pitching to a production company (which often happens before pitching a network), they may suggest redoing the sizzle—shooting new footage, re-editing, etc.—before taking the pitch to a network, but you’ll still need your own well-produced demo to get them on board.

piggy bank hammer coins change cash

How most producers fund their sizzle reels.

So you must go into your first pitch with a fully-produced sizzle reel.  Which usually means you must convince your crew to work for free… or fund them out of your own pocket.

In fact, even if you sell your project and get paid, no network or production company will reimburse you for expenses spent on the sizzle reel.  If you’re making a demo to help yourself pitch networks and production companies, those are expenditures you’re shouldering yourself in hopes of making a sale. (You can tell your sizzle reel crew they’re working on deferred pay, but when this pay finally comes, it’ll be out of your own pocket… not the project’s budget.)

In other words, this is the price of doing business.

Having said that… many people are willing to help out their friends, working for free on sizzles and demos in hopes of being brought on once the project goes to pilot or series.

A few years ago, a partner and I produced a sizzle reel around a fun cast of characters. We enlisted some professional friends to help put it together—a line producer, a cameraman, a sound guy, an editor—and sold the concept to a very successful, high-profile production company.

The production company wanted to expand the sizzle into a presentation (a low-budget, scaled-back version of an actual pilot) before taking it to a network, but they were only willing to invest a few hundred dollars.

We “hired” a slightly larger crew—three or four cameramen, sound guys, editors, production assistants, etc.  None of them got paid, but they worked for meals and the hope they’d be hired if the project went to series.

Unfortunately, the series never made it to air… so nobody—including ourselves—ever made a cent. But that’s normal in the lawless world of reality TV.

So Point #1: If you need to a sizzle reel to pitch to networks or production companies, you’ll need to produce it yourself, funding it on your own or convincing people to work for free. Now…

How long do most companies take before deciding whether or not to move forward?…

This could happen instantaneously… or take months.  It truly depends on each network, their needs, their internal processes, and a million factors out of your control. But here are some things that affect a network’s decision-making…

  • How much do they like the specific project?
  • Is the project compatible with, or even too similar to, other projects currently in development?
  • What are the network’s specific needs? (You might have a project that seems perfect for, say, Food Network… but they may be looking  specifically for a show about Chinese food… or vegan cooking… or a companion to a specific show, like Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives or Cupcakes Wars. You may have a great show, but if it’s not exactly what they need right now… it won’t sell.)
  • Does the project fit with the network’s  brand… and are there any re-branding efforts underway?
  • How expensive is this project? Does it fit in the budget range of most of the network’s shows?
  • How much money is left in the network’s yearly or quarterly development budget?
  • How badly does the network want to be in business with this particular producer? (Sometimes networks buy inappropriate projects simply to be in business with a coveted producer. Likewise, they may pass on seemingly appropriate projects if they don’t have confidence in the producing team.)
  • Is the network stable internally? Have their been recent executive shifts and changes… or are there changes impending? (Often when a new regime of execs come in, they’ll discard or back-burner the old regimes projects… even projects that seemed promising.)
skeleton on bench

At this point, they’re probably not going to buy your show.

When we pitched Foody Call to Style Network, they bought it in the room.  We pitched the show, and Ted Harbert—then the president of E! and Style—ended the meeting by saying, “Let’s do it!”  It was wonderful; a few weeks later, we were shooting a pilot.

I’ve also been on plenty of pitches where the executives pass in the room, turning down the idea because it’s too stale, not right for their network, too similar to other ideas, etc. This, quite honestly, is what usually happens.

Last summer, however, some partners and I—all writers and producers on successful shows—pitched a comedy/reality show to another network… and we heard nothing for almost eight months. Our agents checked in periodically, and this winter, the network finally gave us an official “no.”

Similarly, some other friends recently had a series picked up t a major network… after waiting almost two years.  It was a talent-based show, so—like you—they produced a sizzle reel (on their own) for the initial pitch. After considering it for months, the network finally commissioned a full pilot.  They shot the pilot… waited another several months… and finally got the green light last month.

Having said all that… things usually happen quicker. If a network is enthusiastic about something, they want to move while they’re excited… and before a competitor snatches it up. A hot property can often prompt a decision within a few hours or days. The longer you go without hearing a decision, the smaller your odds of making a sale.

Personally, I think once you’ve waited a week with no real movement or conversation, you’re probably dead in the water.

Anyway, guys—thanks so much for your questions, and I hope these answers help!

chad-gervich-photo-1_creatorGet more advice from Chad in his books and classes available at The Writers Store

One thought on “PRIMETIME: Using CAPS in a Spec Script… and How Ready Should a Sizzle Reel Be Before Pitching?

  1. Anthony Falcon

    Hey Chad,

    You’ve been extremely helpful, and I know this doesn’t really have anything to do with the said current article, but I have some questions and I don’t really know a different way to get a hold of you. All my questions are in regard to creating a spec of a currently running series for a writing portfolio.

    I want to spec a currently running series that hasn’t been around for super long but it still popular, and I want it to be a show that I am passionate about. I want this so I have a quality writing sample of a show, the kind of show I’d be interested in working on but not this show in particular. The show I am thinking of is “Breaking Bad,” which was listed earlier this year as a good show to spec on this website.

    1) This show, although they have some standalone storylines, is really a serialized show. Each episode holds a single story with a four act structure but is always do to the last episode and will affect the future episode. You can’t just insert any episode in at any time any place, since it’s a serialized show. So, how exactly do you spec a show such as this — is it better to think ahead of something that may happen in the future and spec that, or to spec a previous storyline, and go a different route with the outcome.

    2) When working on a series such as this, do I need to introduce all the characters as in a pilot. For example Jesse Pinkman is a regular character on the show, do I introduce him as if the reader does not know this character, or do I pretend that my reader will know the characters of the show.

    3) Is there anywhere to go to actually get copies of scripts you are looking at creating a spec of? I would love to use the actual locations that are used in the current scripts, and really have a feel not just of the characters from an audience perspective but from a writing style as well.

    4) Basically, do I write a spec of a show as if I was a writer on the show, working with the same crew, cast, and writers on the show, or do I do it as if creating a pilot, putting in as much info as possible about who people are and making sure they know everything going on?

    5) I seem to find some shows, sitcoms in particular, that use a tv format in the writing, and then I’ve seen some sitcoms that are written just like a feature film format, yet I’m told to make sure I’m writing in the proper format. How do I do that if I’m seeing both in the market place?

    Anthony

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