WRITERS’ ROOM 101: Writing Your Next TV Pilot

Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.

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I’m going to assume that the last television pilot you wrote was amazing. People loved it. There may have even been talk, at one point, about a network or studio being interested in buying it. Or maybe a hot actor attached themselves to the script for a brief period, or some name-recognizable showrunner called your agent clamoring to read it (okay, they had their assistant call, but still…).

In the end, all that talk and positive buzz probably went nowhere. If that’s the case, you shouldn’t take it personally – that’s exactly what happens with most pilots. But here’s the good news: pilot scripts, especially in the early years of your career as a television writer, can and often do serve more than one purpose. Even if that script never gets sold or produced, it can still work as the perfect calling card that leads directly to you getting hired on the staff of another show.

It wasn’t that long ago that spec scripts were the weapon of choice for writers seeking employment. But times have changed. Now that the airwaves are flooded with more shows than anyone can realistically keep up with, no one has enough time to keep their viewing habits current. What this means is, neither showrunners nor network executives can be certain that you really nailed your Good Wife or Walking Dead or Homeland or House of Cards spec script. Did you accurately capture the main character’s voice? Wasn’t one of the characters in your spec (which you just finished writing a few weeks ago) killed off/married/divorced/decapitated in last night’s episode, rendering your “A” story obsolete already? For those folks in the position to make hiring decisions, spec scripts started to raise more questions than they answered about an up-and-coming writer’s abilities.

And so, thanks to the cyclical nature of the industry, spec scripts have fallen out of favor for the most part. Some writing fellowship programs (the Disney/ABC Writing Program and the Warner Bros. Writers’ Workshop being two examples) still require at least one spec script as part of their initial submission package, but other than that, the overwhelming preference for writers seeking full-time employment has shifted to pilots.

Why? For two main reasons. First, pilots are a true representation of the writer’s actual voice. If you’ve written an awesome Leftovers or Scandal spec, all that tells the reader is that you’re skilled at mimicking Damon Lindelof’s or Shonda Rhimes’s voice. With a pilot, there’s frankly nothing for the writer to hide behind. It’s all you.

Secondly, as I alluded to above, pilots relieve the reader of having to be completely familiar with (and totally up-to-date on) a particular existing show. How would a showrunner know your Game of Thrones spec script is truly great if they happen to have never seen an episode? Or maybe they’re a couple of seasons behind, so they have no idea that you-know-who is dead and therefore not included in your script?

These are all unwanted distractions that your reader doesn’t want to waste any time wrestling with when they pick up your script and start reading – not when there are dozens of other writers all lined up for the same job. And so, pilots have become essential.

So as I said in the beginning, let’s assume you wrote a pilot, it was fantastic, and it got you a meeting or two which ultimately led to you getting staffed. Now what?

Time to write another pilot, that’s what.

Regardless of how well your current staffing job is going, it’s wise to set aside some time (at night after work, on weekends, whatever’s best for you) and start hammering out another pilot. The sad reality is, your employment on a show could abruptly end at any time, without notice, and sometimes through no fault of your own. Maybe the show you’re writing for gets cancelled. Maybe the showrunner has to make some painful budget cuts going into the back nine, and you’re among the writers that get “released” (Hollywood-speak for “fired”). Maybe you realize that you’re not a good fit for the show and want to leave. Anything can happen. And the pilot you wrote that got you your current job? Well, if your agent and/or manager are worth their salt, they’ve already papered the town with that script back when they were trying to find you this gig. And in most cases, they’re not able to re-submit the same writing sample to the same places again (unless there’s been a personnel change and the new executives haven’t read you yet). So you’ll need something new.

Long story short, on some level you should always be thinking about your next pilot. Being staffed is great, but no job lasts forever. Longtime readers of this blog will remember when I urged you to stay ready. Here’s your chance.

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