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?
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 …
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:
- Skill and talent — a mastery of craft
- 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.
… 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.