PRIMETIME: What’s It Take to Greenlight a Serialized Drama?

Feliz Navidad!  I hope everyone’s having a great holiday!  I wanted to begin this post by responding to a couple more comments and questions sparked by my Dec. 4th post about living in L.A. and submitting to websites.

First up, Doug B., who writes…

If Hollywood is looking for new material and the people who are the professionals live and work in LA then where is all this new content?  I see a huge rut of not so good product and rehashes of movies produced in the last 20 years. Where is the originality? Not in LA it seems.

Well, Doug, the first thing you have to realize is that people creating fresh original scripts, ideas, and stories (i.e., writers and producers) are not the people who decide what actually gets made or distributed.  The people making those decisions are execs and bean-counters at networks, studios, and distribution companies, and they’re not necessarily looking for the most inventive concepts, they’re looking for concepts that will make money… which is why we get so many remakes, reboots, and adaptations.  (The belief being that if something has been successful once—as a TV show, novel, stage play, movie, whatever—it has a built-in audience and can be successful again.)

So don’t blame writers for a dearth of originality.  Aaron Sorkin and Dan Fogelman aren’t the ones suggesting live-action remakes of the Smurfs or big-screen versions of Petticoat Junction.  They, like most other professional screenwriters, are busy writing, developing, and pitching the most creative, engaging, thrilling stories they can; it’s just not their decision whether or not those creative stories get made.

William Shakespeare

Little known fact: he only wrote "Hamlet" to try to get a job writing "Care Bears 2."

Which brings me to another misunderstanding about screenwriting.

When you (and by “you” I mean “you as a professional screenwriter”) write a screenplay, you are NOT writing it to get it sold and produced.

Or, rather—you hope that it will sell and be produced, but the more likely scenario is that it acts as a stellar sample and lands you a writing assignment.

Most of the movies you see in the movie theater don’t exist because a writer wrote a script, sold it, and it got greenlit; they exist because a writer wrote a script that caught an executive’s eye… and, based on that script, the writer was hired to write something completely different—probably an idea that some corporate analysis suggested would be a huge box office draw.

So you might write the world’s greatest screenplay, the funniest, most inventive, most moving story ever… but then you get hired to script Yogi Bear 4, or Casablanca: Rick’s Revenge, or the big-screen adaptation of The Flying Nun (which is rushed into production because Lady Gaga signs on).

That’s not to say there aren’t writers pitching, selling, and writing hacky ideas… or some brilliant remakes and adaptations… or talented, passionate, well-intentioned executives… it’s just to say that if you’re going to criticize the quality of movies– which is totally legit; there are some serious stinkers out there– it helps to have an understanding of how those movies came into being, especially before blaming writers who– like yourself– are working hard to produce the most imaginative, captivating work possible.

Next, Dale Goldberg, who writes…

What are your thoughts on the growing film industry over here in Atlanta due to the big tax incentives there are to produce films here?

As Dale points out, new production facilities are popping up all over the country.  FOX’s recently canceled (and grossly underrated) series, The Good Guys, was shot entirely in Dallas, and Screen Gems and Panavision are both opening facilities in Dale’s hometown of Atlanta.

Well, Dale—I think these places offer terrific opportunities for crew people, actors, or anyone wanting to work in entertainment or meet entertainment professionals.  But these studios are simply production facilities, they’re not corporate offices where projects are bought and sold.  So they offer wonderful job opportunities and terrific access to filmmakers, crew folks, etc… which I would certainly take advantage of… but the real decision-makers still live in L.A.  And as a screenwriter trying to peddle scripts, land writing assignments, or staff on TV shows, these are the people  you ultimately need to meet.  But definitely connect with anyone you can  in Atlanta… take production jobs… nurture relationships with directors and producers you meet; these people can form the foundation of your professional network when you do finally make the leap to L.A.!

(The one place that is headquartered in Atlanta—and where I would definitely try to make some inroads—is Tyler Perry Studios.  Some Turner companies also have offices there, like TBS and TNT, but again—their real activity is in L.A.)

Dawn Ostroff CW

One of the most powerful execs in television... as long as she doesn't leave L.A.

And just to pound home the you-still-have-to-live-in-Los-Angeles concept… it was announced this week that Dawn Ostroff, president of the CW, is stepping down.  Why?…  She wants to move to New York with her husband and kids.  And while her corporate powers-that-be want her to stay on the job, they won’t let her do the job from NY. The TV world is in Los Angeles… and if Dawn can’t live in L.A., she has to resign from the job.  Obviously, both CBS and Time-Warner (joint owners of the CW) have New York offices, but TV shows are bought, sold, and developed in only one place, L.A., and those companies know that if you want to be in the mix, working professionally in the world of television, you have to be here.

So if—in today’s of telecommunicating and high-tech media—a network president (and the executive who literally built the CW from the ground up) can’t do her job from outside L.A… how can an aspiring writer, starting from scratch, expect to get anywhere?

Anyway, that’s just me being a grinch the day before Christmas.  (Although it’s still true.)  Now, moving on to this week’s email…

Today’s question comes from Corey; Corey recently attended a talk of mine where we spent some time discussing TV’s changing marketplace, and how the financials of TV affect the kinds of shows developed and produced.  Corey writes…

Given that heavily serialized TV shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica [typically] aren’t profitable because they don’t play well in syndication, how do these shows get made at all?  Is it the advent of DVD sales, and the popularity of box sets in particular?  Are the DVD profits great enough that a series can make its money back even without much syndication?  Or do you think we’re about to see tightly serialized shows start to vanish again?

First of all, Corey, you’re right in thinking that DVD profits can help offset the costs of TV production.  However, while home video sales have been growing over the past few years and decades, more recent studies suggest that—thanks to shows’ availability on the Internet and On Demand services—that growth may be slowing.  Nielsen, for example, reported a few months ago that sales of complete-season boxed sets were down 14 percent from a year earlier… a pretty sizeable chunk.

More importantly, TV series’ home video profits pale in comparison to the money generated by syndication.  To put this in perspective, Netflix pays ABC a license fee of over $100,000 per episode to distribute/rent DVDs of ABC’s shows.  This seems like a lot of money… until you realize that NCIS: Los Angeles was just syndicated to USA for a per-episode license fee of $2.35 million.  And this was only what the show pulled in for its first round of cable syndication; if it remains successful, it’ll continue on in cable and, hopefully, have several rounds of broadcast syndication, which can be much more lucrative.  (Two years ago, How I Met Your Mother sold to Lifetime for about $750,000 per episode… and to Fox’s local broadcast stations for approximately $3 million per episode!)

Thus, while home video sales can help, they come nowhere close to the profitability power of syndication.

What does this mean for the future of serialized TV shows like Lost, BSG, and The Event, which typically don’t fare well in syndication?…

Not much good.

One year after Lost exploded out of the gate for ABC, broadcast networks premiered almost ten new serialized shows.  Invasion, Threshold, Surface, What About Brian, The Bedford Diaries, Prison Break, Reunion, Sex, Love & Secrets… any of these sound familiar?  Most didn’t last a season.  This fall, broadcast networks debuted only four: My Generation, Lone Star, The Event, and Hellcats.

My Generation ABC fall 2010

The lost generation.

Lone Star and My Generation are already gone—the first two cancellations of the 2010-2011 season—and Hellcats is limping along on the CW (where it debuted lower than last year’s now-canceled Melrose… and has recently slipped even lower).  Only The Event opened strong with 11 million viewers… but it has lost about half since then; in fact, NBC has delayed the show’s midseason return till February 28th, and its producers are purportedly working on ways to end its storylines in May should the program not be renewed.  (My guess: none of these shows will be around next fall.)

None of this is unusual.  Serialized shows typically have a tougher time attracting and maintaining viewers than “standalone” shows; after all, if you don’t tune in at the beginning and watch every episode, it’s difficult to keep up.

So how do these shows get greenlit in the first place?

Well, networks are always hoping to find the next high-profile blockbuster like Lost or 24… so when they hear a concept that excites them, they want a reason to bite, a reason to believe it could be the next splashy blockbuster.

Secondly, most serialized shows come with a reliable pedigree, usually a big-name producer or a pre-existing property. Flashforward, for instance, came from sci-fi heavy-hitters Brannan Braga (a Star Trek veteran) and David Goyer (the Batman and Blade franchises).  The Event was created by Nick Wauters, who had written and produced on The 4400, Eureka and Medium.

Even “riskier” shows hedge their bets.  My Generation was based on a Swedish format, and creator Noah Hawley had written on Bones and The Unusuals (which he created). Lone Star came from relative newcomer Kyle Killen… but when it sold, Killen had just written a screenplay—The Beaver—which earned him a spot on the 2008 Black List (an annual list, compiled by agents and execs, of the industry’s best unproduced screenplays), making him a hot property in Hollywood (The Beaver was also directed by Jodie Foster and starred Mel Gibson; it hasn’t yet been released).

Lastly, even with the most serialized shows, execs push for more “standalone-ness.”  I had several friends who worked on 24, and they were constantly getting notes from the network and studio to give each episode as much “close-ended-ness” as possible.  Why?…  Standalone episodes—those that tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end—give viewers more satisfaction, keep audiences coming back, and are easier to syndicate.

So will we continue to see serialized shows?  Probably… although they’ll most likely find more success in cable, where networks like AMC and FX can more easily custom-design programming for niche audiences.

And what does this mean for aspirants and first-time creators?…

In my opinion, I’d suggest staying away from developing or pitching highly serialized shows.  They’re a nearly impossible sell, especially if you don’t have the track record or firepower of a Brannan Braga or J.J. Abrams.

As an up-and-comer creating your first shows, writing your first spec pilots, I’d focus on more standalone concepts, series where each episode tells a complete story: beginning, middle, and end.

This doesn’t mean, of course, your characters shouldn’t grow and evolve over time… or that you can’t have longer arcs spanning multiple episodes.  But if you’re playing with a concept which is inherently more serialized, I’d work hard at giving it some semblance of standalone-ness.   Think about NBC’s Ed; that show was primarily a quasi-comedic soap exploring Ed’s relationships with Carol, his friends, and the townspeople… yet each episode had a B or C-story involving Ed’s law firm; each week, he was given a quirky legal case he had to solve by the end of the episode, giving audiences some sense of closure and satisfaction.

In short: serials will always be with us, but if you’re hoping to make a sale, they’re not the surest path to success.

Hope this helps, Corey!  For the rest of you with questions or comments, please post them below or send them to chad@chadgervich.com.

In the mean time, have a great Christmas and a happy new year… I’ll be be back in two weeks!

3 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: What’s It Take to Greenlight a Serialized Drama?

  1. Pingback: Chad Gervich Will Make You Rich, Famous, and Successful in Scripted Television | Joke and Biagio

  2. Sam

    Nice post, Chad, especially the point about dawn ostroff. However it should be noted that Shakespeare wrote hamlet based on an earlier play (as was Romeo and Juliet with which shakespeare in love satirizes the remaking process so well). Once again, the dearth of creativity is not in the remake or the re-writing but in those non-writing entities “in charge” of both. If only THEY al l didn’t have to live in LA!

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