PrimeTime: Wanna Be A Writer? Get In the Game or Go Home. (Also: Comedy Writing Programs and Pilot Page Counts.)

Today’s first question comes from Rey, who writes

If I write a pilot for presentation and sale, how long does it have to be?

Too long for a half-hour single-cam?

This actually depends on the kind of script you’re writing, Rey: single cam, multi-cam, half-hour, drama, etc. But here are the basic rules of thumb:

HALF-HOUR SINGLE-CAM: 30 pages (These are shows like Modern Family, Parks & Recreation, Raising Hope, etc. While 30 pages is a good number to shoot for, if you can keep it tighter … say, 27-29 pages … I think that behooves you. If necessary, you can also go a tiny bit longer, but I wouldn’t go over 34 or 35 pages.) HALF-HOUR MULTI-CAM: 45-50 pages (Shows like Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, Friends, etc. While they’re half-hour shows, like single-camera shows, they’re double-spaced … so they end up a little longer.) ONE-HOUR DRAMAS: 55-60 pages (CSI: NY, Burn Notice, Bones, etc.) In my last post, I linked to some good resources for finding scripts online, and you can usually find some produced pilot scripts to study and use as a guide.

The next question comes from Jerry, who e-mails:

I’m mainly interested in working on sitcoms and sketch comedies. I realize moving to L.A. to get a job in the industry and start meeting people […] would be best, but I’ve already made plans to move to Chicago, [where] I will be […] signing up for the Comedy Writing Program at The Second City. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on these programs and whether they’re helpful for aspiring comedy/TV writers?

Well, Jerry, it depends on the program. Many are bogus … the industry is filled with worthless classes, workshops, and “academies” run or taught by unqualified hacks. But some are excellent. And, fortunately for you, Second City is one of the best … and has long been a feeding ground for Saturday Night Live. Here are some other troupes and workshops that have great reputations. (They’re in various cities, and many have branches across the country, so you’ll have to look into each one.) I haven’t taken classes at all of these specifically, but I hear good things …

Today’s final question …

… comes from Billie, who posted in response to my July 4th blog, where I discuss how ineffectual it is to contact agents via query letter, call, or unsolicited submission. Billie writes:

I know what you’re saying is right, Chad, because I’ve sent many query letters and they’ve probably ended up in the trash can since no one has responded. Right now, I’m having trouble justifying in my mind why I’ve spent so much money on books and classes to learn the craft, not to mention paying professional readers to critique my scripts, when I neither live in Los Angeles nor know anyone in the profession who can help me. As the author of a book, could you give me a good reason to buy it when there’s zero chance of getting my script read? I’ve been told several times when writing to “step outside the box.” Well, in my humble opinion, it might behoove the industry to “step outside the box,” too, because with their narrow focus for writers they may be disregarding some potentially good materials. And especially since some of the movies being turned out aren’t doing well at the box office.

Well, Billie, first of all … I understand your frustration. And I hear laments like this ALL THE TIME, so you’re not alone. Having said that, “not being alone” doesn’t necessarily make you RIGHT. (It also doesn’t make you wrong.) The truth is: to succeeding in Hollywood — like succeeding in any other industry, from selling shoes to flying airplanes to being a neurosurgeon — requires two things:

  1. Skill and talent — a mastery of craft
  2. The ability to understand and navigate the business

You need BOTH of these elements to succeed. Having only one will not cut it. After all, you might have a million professional relationships and understand the intricacies of show business better than Ari Emanuel or Bob Iger … but if you can’t tell a story, you won’t work as a TV writer. On the flip side, you might be the world’s greatest writer … but if you don’t understand the industry, and put yourself in a position to navigate it, you ALSO won’t be a TV writer. Now, I know writers hate hearing this. Writers want to believe if they work hard, study, and dream about it, they deserve a shot. Sadly, there’s often a difference between what we WANT to be true and what IS true. I like to use this analogy: Imagine you want to be a marine biologist. You go to college, get a Ph.D. in marine biology, and graduate top of your class. You continue to read every published article and journal, staying on top of each new development in the field … but you live in Nebraska. YOU ARE NOT A MARINE BIOLOGIST. You may be educated … you may be super-intelligent … you may be the most informed and passionate marine biology enthusiast in the world … but if you want to be a professional marine biologist, YOU MUST GO TO THE MARINE. You need to be where you can A) Do the work, but also where B) You can meet and interact with colleagues who can hire you, recommend you, consult and collaborate with you. So to get back to your specific questions, Billie, here’s why you’ve “spent so much money on books and classes,” as well as “paying professional readers to critique my scripts” …

It has made you a better writer.

In order to break in as a professional TV writer, you don’t need to be “pretty good.” You can’t afford to be “decent.” You have to be BETTER than most of the people who are ALREADY WORKING. After all, you’re not competing against the thousands of other wannabes submitting to contests, e-mailing query letters, showing up to pitchfests. Not only are most of these paths futile … 99.9 percent of those wannabe writers don’t have a fraction of the talent necessary to succeed. (This is why, as I said in my March 4th post, even winning a contest rarely boosts your career; most winning screenplays are still awful … and a long ways from being worthy of catching anyone’s attention.) The truth is: you’re competing against professional writers already working. The writers of Mad Men, The Office, Game of Thrones, Dexter, Burn Notice, Drop Dead Diva, Suits, Parks & Recreation, Wilfred, The C Word, The Big Bang Theory. These are the people you must be BETTER than … people who are spending eight to 15 hours a day, five to six days a week, writing. Theirs are the scripts buyers are comparing to yours. All those agents, executives, and producers you want to impress? … These are their standards. So every dollar you’ve spent … every book you’ve read … has gone toward helping you become that writer. You haven’t wasted a single penny; you’ve been LEARNING. But just as you’ve done what it takes to begin mastering the CRAFT, you also must do what it takes to master the BUSINESS.

If you wanted to be a marine biologist, you’d move to the marine. If you wanted to be a pilot, you’d go to flight school, network with airline execs or recruiters, live near an airport. If you wanted to be a doctor, you’d need to live in a town that has a clinic or hospital. (Sure — you could move to a village that doesn’t have a hospital or clinic and open your own, but you’d have to find financing, rent office space, buy equipment, hire staff, build a patient base. And while you can certainly do that, it’s neither the surest nor the easiest path … just like making an attention-grabbing film isn’t the easiest or surest path to breaking into Hollywood. You can do either, but they’re both long shots.) Now, if you don’t want to do those things, that’s fine, but then you have to accept a very real truth …

You do NOT want to do all the things necessary to have an actual TV-writing career.

… AND THAT’S OKAY. People get angry when I say that, as if I’m putting them down, but I’m not. What I’m saying is:

YOU HAVE THE POWER TO MAKE DECISIONS ABOUT YOUR LIFE.

And if you want to be a professional TV writer, you must make certain decisions … many of which may include certain sacrifices:

  • Yes — you need to live in Los Angeles.
  • Yes — you need to get a job in the industry.
  • Yes — you need to start networking with showrunners, execs, agents, producers.
  • Yes — you will probably spend years working as an assistant: fetching coffee, making copies, collating scripts, taking notes.

Now, many people will say, “I can’t move. I have a job … and a family … and a mortgage.” But what they mean is: “I don’t WANT to move.” After all, jobs can be left. Families can be moved. Houses can be sold. So when people say they “can’t” do it, they’re actually making a choice:

Becoming a TV writer is not important enough to them to uproot their family … or sell their house … or quit their job.

Welcome to Hollywood.

… AND THAT’S OKAY. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. You may even be a phenomenal writer… It just means there are more important things to you than being a professional writer. (And FYI — if you’re not ready to move today, fine … but find a job, or some way to be as intimately as involved as possible, in the industry wherever you are. I’ve written, numerous times, about ways to do this.) Now, you can bitch and moan about the myopia of the industry, and how it might “behoove the industry to ‘step outside the box,'” or how “they may be disregarding some potentially good materials.” And there is absolutely some truth in that. (There’s also some naivete.) But either way … come on — this is an INDUSTRY. And industries are massive, immobile behemoths that become entrenched ways of doing business.
How quickly has the oil industry changed? Or agriculture? Or the financial industry … which had a major implosion and still hasn’t really changed? Sure, these businesses have had minor evolutions, but for the most part, they do business as usual. Big industries tend to only change when there’s a massive revolution, like with the music industry. My point in all this? … You’re not gonna change the industry. So if you want to be part of the industry, you can CHOOSE to complain about the way things are and blame your lack of success on outside forces … or you can CHOOSE to educate yourself on the business, then put yourself in a position to navigate and attack it with the most informed, well-armed plan possible. …which, yes, means making sacrifices … but what thing worth doing DOESN’T require sacrifices?

You can also CHOOSE to try and change the industry, to start of a revolution that will overthrow the old ways of life. But — like the doctor who chooses to start his own practice rather than getting a job at a clinic or hospital — this is a long, risky, uncertain path. Some people, like Tyler Perry or Oprah Winfrey, have managed to make it work … but these people are massive exceptions to the rule. And I encourage everyone to be an exception … just know that’s what you’re doing: being an exception, a renegade, a rule-breaker. And most rule-breakers do NOT end up as Oprah Winfrey or Tyler Perry.

As for buying my book, Billie … I’ll be honest: maybe you shouldn’t. Small Screen, Big Picture details how the business works — how pitches are bought and sold, how shows are developed and produced, how networks schedule their airtime — and how writers can use this information to break in. It’s intended for people who are serious about doing what it takes to break into the industry … and want to be as informed as possible when they attack and navigate it. If you don’t want to do that, that’s fine … but then you probably don’t need the book. If, however, you’re serious about pursuing TV-writing as a career … where you’re willing to sacrifice, invest, make lifestyle and financial changes (just as you would if you decided to open a restaurant, or start a design firm, or start a shoe store), then I think you’d find Small Screen, Big Picture extremely valuable. (I think it’s also a fun read for people who are simply interested in how TV is made … but you sound like you’re beyond this.) Lastly, I’ll say this (again) … not wanting to do the things necessary to pursue a professional writing career doesn’t make you a less talented writer. I’ve known many writers– poets, short story writers, novelists, bloggers, playwrights, even journalists — who wrote simply for the sheer joy of it.

… AND THAT’S OKAY.

Many of these people are just as talented and passionate as today’s best working writers. They just choose not to pursue writing as a career.

Because if you’re going to pursue writing as a career, you must make the choice to treat it like a career.

Thanks again, everyone, for all the great questions! If you have more, please post them below, Tweet me @chadgervich, or e-mail me at chad@chadgervich.com.

21 thoughts on “PrimeTime: Wanna Be A Writer? Get In the Game or Go Home. (Also: Comedy Writing Programs and Pilot Page Counts.)

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  2. Bill M.

    I think it’s important to consider how important collaboration is in television and film. Just reading some of these bitter posts would raise a huge red flag on working together, regardless of your “talent”. It’s great if you’ve spent years locked away tweaking your perfect script and entering contests but it’s all for nothing if you can’t take criticism. You won’t find work if nobody wants to be in a room with you.

  3. R. Newell

    Hey there. Great stuff.

    Thanks.

    If I may…

    One thing that is constantly left out of this conversation is a fact that I usually inform my young, wide eyed acting students about the Biz… That the older we get, the further behind in the line we are, because of something not one single person can overcome…

    Nepotism.

    When kids of Suits, Producers, Writers, etc. who have made some dent in the business are constantly on a set growing up with understanding what is their Family Business, those of us in the hinterlands literally never can move forward. These kids are constantly able to cut in line. It has nothing to do with talent, connections, location, or anything else. We’re not related to the biz… Period.

    Stop buying books on formatting. Take some acting classes. Work behind a camera. Do community theatre. Become an Usher at a live or movie theatre. Listen to how every single person speaks, moves, and relates to others. Write out stories from your life, and tell them whenever you can… without using one single “um…”

    Then: Look at your shelf of DVD’s and, if you’re a 40+ codger like myself, VHS tapes, and realize that as a writer you are producing a consumable commodity, which no one will ever remember you for.

    Once you eat this crow, and you haven’t slit your wrists or thrown whatever your medium is of getting the words in your head to a form that is conveyable to others out the nearest orifice of your current dwelling, (ie: window, door, elevator shaft- and please let go of it lest you end up like Roz in LA Law,) Only then can you actually WRITE.

    Believe in yourself. Dream big. Never give up… but realistically; it will never happen. There are too many in line ahead of you.

    Instead, invest your time actually doing the work. We write because we must. Know that everything you write will be stolen, re-written, discarded, changed, and fucked with. (swear point.) Write witty replies on blogs and pretend you are more important than you are… then go eat your ramen, and write some more. I’m totally unemployed, have $8, and have a mom who after my beloved Pop passed, seen her devolve into a 16 year old “other woman”… but am I giving up?

    No.

    A 73 year old man just won an Oscar, stating his Pop said he was a late bloomer… Capice?

    I plan on ascending a set of stairs, (not Heavenly ones, mind you,) whether for a Tony, Emmy, Oscar, or Indy Spirit (mental registered symbols implied,) even if I have to do it in that contraption that Dr. Lechter used in Hannibal to off the detective… but it never will happen if I stop writing, every day.

    I’ve been borderline suicidal, am survivor of car accidents, been held up at gunpoint, had friends die of cancer, and held my father’s hand as the machines were turned off. I have to take meds to live, and yet am overqualified for most jobs because of my former life in the city, where I actually had a career… I’m pissed, sad, jealous, and constantly horny… so what do I do?

    Write. Like I am now… while waiting to figure out how to get a job in Cali-land, beg or borrow cash to get to LA, and reconnect with the purpose of storytelling that I have honed through all these experiences…

    After all… there are many folks who encourage me, have believed in me, and keep me alive, nurturing my personage, and keeping me afloat… because no matter the weather that keeps causing my stalk to wither, until my roots are dug up… I have to persevere.

    For my bud has yet to bloom.

    Peace & Love!

  4. Name

    As someone who has optioned 1 feature and 3 pilot scripts to 3 television networks over the past five years, I couldn’t agree with this more:

    “You do NOT want to do all the things necessary to have an actual TV-writing career.”

    All too often people think they can circumvent the toil that in necessary to actually sell their own scripts. Anyone can write a script, be it good or bad, but it’s the work that you have to put in to get that script sold, get meetings, etc. This is a dues paying industry, both literally and figuratively. There’s no way around it.

  5. Yvonne

    I really liked this article but there’s one question left. What do you suggest to non-US citizens who’d get deported after 3 months of living in LA? Do you tell them it’s only a bullshit excuse because they don’t want to move or do you borrow them a million dollars, so they can buy their green card?

    Thank you in advance for you insightful answer.

  6. Deborah

    Oh and another question – sorry – is there a music industry guru equivalent of you? My son could do with some “wake up and smell the coffee” advice for his band. Thanks v much.

  7. Deborah

    Hi Chad – great stuff – any pithy advice for British writers trying to get a script read over there? A month’s stay in LA any use, or is the whole hog or nothing? Cheers!

  8. Cassie

    Hey Chad,

    Can you recommend a book or 2 on how to break into the film industry? Film is my passion and I would like to pursue it in any way that I can.

    Thanks,
    Cassie

  9. A.

    To all, Thanks for your comments on my post. I by no means think that I’m better than all other screenwriters out there, including professional ones. I absolutely know that winning or doing well in contests is by no means an easy or practical way to get into the business. I have no problem with swearing, in fact I swear like a sailor in my writing and in my life — I just think that swearing and yelling constantly on a COOKING SHOW of all things, is more than a bit ridiculous. I freely admit that many contest winning scripts need A LOT of work, likely including mine. Some, I’m sure, are even “awful”. What made me angry was the HUGE generalization that “MOST” contest winning scripts are “AWFUL” I work my fucking ass off as a writer (see, I swore!), as do many who have done well in contests. I absolutely admit that I have tons to learn, as does EVERY screenwriter, professional or not. But for Mr. Gervich to imply that my writing, and that of other winners is awful, because he has read *some* stinky contest winners a)uses flawed logic, since he cannot possibly have read more than a TINY percentage of all contest winning scripts and b)runs the risk of being unneccesarily hurtful to hard working writers whose work he’s never read. I absolutely would not have been offended, had he said something like “Most of the contest winning scripts I’ve read need a lot of work.” That’s a statement that he could back up, and that would not be needlessly insulting. Anyway, thanks for reading, keep writing, and never stop getting better at your art/craft!

  10. Jana

    Chad,

    In a nutshell, thanks for the honesty and keeping it real. STRAIGHT no CHASER!!! I’m going to follow everything you said above and make it happen. Take care and continued success.

    Regards, Jana

  11. Lee

    Hi Chad, I really enjoy reading your articles, but you (and your fellow article writers) always bang on about how someone’s writing must be a super high quality and better than anything anyone else has ever written ever before. I sure everyone on here tries to do that, but then we notice that someone got paid to write something like Vampires Suck (A comedy with no jokes in it) that even got a cinematic release.

    Any chance of an explanation or an article on how to write crap and get paid for it!

    Cheers,

    Pesky Brit!

  12. Mike

    You know, I have to say one thing in defense of “A.”

    There IS a lot of crap and junk on TV. Lots of ways it could have gotten there. But, whatever the reason, it is still the same crap.

    I don’t think you can fill 200 channels with brilliant material 24/7.

    More interesting is that the crap that makes it to the air is still likely far better than what 95% of screenwriters produce. I once told a long experienced pro (a guy who can and does get Spielberg on the phone when needed) who first suggested I write: “I don’t want to be one of 10,000 people running around LA trying to peddle a script.”

    His response? “Really, there are only maybe 50 truly good ones at any one time, so the competition is not that great.”

  13. ace

    A, forgive my candor but you have an awful lot of issues which are seriously working against you.

    First of all, you’re way too sensitive. You need a tough skin for this business, which you don’t have.

    Second of all, you sound easily offended by swears and the like. Also not a good sign. This is a business full of 20-somethings, and mostly run by guys, and guess what? They swear. Get over it.

    Thirdly, you don’t understand how development works AT ALL, or else you would not assume that “a crappy movie” means that the script was “crappy.” You want to work in this business, but are completely ignorant of its inner workings? Um, big red flag.

    Fourth, the Nicholl is a great contest, and making the quarterfinals means you’re *on the right track* as an amateur. But, to be frank, what you are saying here is that several hundred scripts IN A CONTEST FOR AMATEURS are still better than yours. Yet you think you are a better writer than the pros?

  14. Marv-Boogie

    To A.
    Its easy understand your frustration and feelings regarding the comment about competitions and I can tell you categorically that Chad was not intending to belittle or be cruel to anyone. But here are some cold hard facts.

    MOST competitions will not get you a career in screenwriting.

    You can count on one hand how many competition winners have gone on to have careers.

    The writers working in TV ARE smart, intelligent and witty storytellers, but what appears on the screen is not necessarily what they orignally wrote.

    All film and TV scripts have to go through many “notes”, revisions and decision makers before they appear on the screen. (ask any writer who has received notes on a script).

    In TV, the showrunner has the ultimate say on a script and in many cases, the showrunner will re-write the ENTIRE episode and as a staff writer, you have no say in that decision.

    With all due respect, your post shows a little naïvety to the business and that’s okay, because the reality vs. the perception is completely different and it does not become clear until you work within it.

    Chad’s advice is clear; keep writing, get to LA, make contacts to build your network and if your work is of a high standard, someone will take notice.

  15. Mike

    I don’t have much interest in TV work, but, if I did, I would think I would HAVE to live in LA. It just seems a no brainer to the point of “how could you even ask the question?”

    As far as contests go, I haven’t seen any of these scripts, so I couldn’t say they are awful. But, winning a contest is better than nothing. But, that is maybe similar to saying a foot stool is closer to being like a mountain than a thimble.

    Winning the contest is good, but WHAT you do with that win is more important. If you use it as a confidence booster to push yourself self out into the flow of the business, that’s useful. If it makes you that much more willing to knock on a door, make contact with someone, etc., that’s good.

  16. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    @Chad

    Again, I think you’ve written a good article full of good information.

    I think one thing that should be mentioned to all writers reading this is that the necessity to live in LA to be a writer is MUCH more when it comes to TV than features. It’s the nature of the format.

    If you’re a feature writer, there are still avenues available that don’t involve living in LA, so don’t get discouraged if you currently can’t.

  17. A.

    This is in response to both your March article about contests and your comment in this article that most contest winning scripts are awful”. I have to say that I find what you’ve said about contest winners quite insulting — I see (well try to avoid) PLENTY of stuff on Network TV and in Theaters that does NOT employ witty, well-structured, emotionally moving story telling. Examples are movies green-lit solely in order to sell toys and cooking shows where the host gets “bleeped out” at least 3 times every five minutes, probably encouraged to swear and yell by the producers of the show. This CRAP is supposedly written/conceived/whatevered by “professionals” in the industry that are better storytellers than I am, even though my work has won multiple contests? Even though my work had made the quarterfinals of the Nicholl Competition? To imply that what I (and other contest winners) have accomplished is not worth a hill of beans is not only an INVALID GENERALIZATION, but also belittling and CRUEL.

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