Specs v. Writing On Spec - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Q. As being a novice screenwriter, I felt confident to pitch four ideas for a TV show after reading your book. The production company told me they were interested.

Since shooting the new season had already begun and only counts 12 episodes per season, I decided to write two out of four, hoping this would get me participating in that very season. That did not happen. Writing contracts were signed that very week.

When I spoke to the producer a few weeks ago, he told me that communication had been a bit hazy. The production company is small and in the frantic situation surrounding the shooting… etc. However, they are still interested and my scripts would certainly be read and given consideration to be part of the next season.

The thing is that some major changes in recurring/ main characters have been made throughout the current season (information that was nót available when I wrote my two out of four).

The question is if I should rewrite my specs and delete and include the old and new characters of the show? This will improve the script because it is up to date. At the same time – as I am sending in the other two scripts as well now – this might up my chances because I feel that I can also make little changes to the old scripts that will improve them. On the other hand; this might not seem very professional or maybe even be explained as being a trifle uncertain about my own work.
I think you've done enough unpaid work.

If they like your writing, and your ideas, they should hire you to rewrite them.

A spec script is supposed to be a writing sample. What you're doing is writing for the show, on spec. The producer is not allowed to ask you to do that under the WGA.

When the producers read your scripts, even with old information in them, it should be obvious to them if you're a good enough writer for their show. It should also be obvious whether the stories you're bringing to the show will work on the show. At that point, they should either pay you (100% of the script fee) to rewrite your scripts into what they're looking for; or (if they like your ideas but not your writing) buy your scripts and rewrite them themselves.

Generally you should not write for a show on spec. Spec scripts are samples only. The producer or showrunner reads your samples; if they're good enough, you get to pitch. Then he listens to your pitches and decides whether or not he wants those stories in his show. If so, he hires you to write a script based on one of your pitches. That's how it's supposed to work.

Your way creates a lot of work for the writer with no guarantee that the producer likes your writing or seriously likes your pitches. You can lose a lot of time that way. Samples -- spec scripts -- are good for any show that has a few scripts available for free lancers. Your scripts are use-once-then-throw-away. And that's not a good use of your time.

I think you should stop writing for free for this show. Pick your best two scripts. Ask the producer to read them and tell you if you're on the money. If he wants to read the other two as is, that's fine too. But stop writing in a vacuum! You've done too much work already.

UPDATE: Tim writes
I didn't think that newbies could pitch actual episode ideas to production companies for current shows.
The way a free lancer gets a script almost always involves her pitching the show some story ideas first. The key first step is getting approved to come pitch. For example, back when I was a "baby writer," my agent sent my spec scripts to THE OUTER LIMITS. They dug the scripts and asked me to come in and pitch ideas. I came up with a batch of ideas and came in and pitched them. Had they approved an idea, I'd have been hired to go write the script. Even when you're established, should someone ask you to free lancer, you'll be asked to pitch a whack of ideas. The best reason shows have for hiring free lancers is precisely because they come in with fresh story ideas.

What shows don't do is have free lancers send in completed scripts. No one wants to read a completed script, and the odds are the script will be wrong in many crucial ways. Better for the showrunner to get a nugget of an idea that he can reshape into the vision he has of the show, and then send off the free lancer to go write it. And, obviously, much better for the writer not to have to write a spec first draft that will either get rejected out of hand, or have to be completely rewritten to fit the show.

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3 Comments:

The question confuses me a bit. It sounds, at first, as he is pitching an idea for a new show, but I don't think that's the case. I didn't think that newbies could pitch actual episode ideas to production companies for current shows. I'd never heard of that. From what I've been told, aspiring writers should write specs for other shows, as producers won't read specs for their own show.

By Blogger Tim W., at 3:52 PM  

Thanks for the reply, Alex. So I'm guessing in order to get in to a position to be able to pitch to a show, you need a) an agent and b) have written a spec for another show that will get their attention.

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:20 PM  

Yep.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:50 PM  

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