Q. Traditionally, established writers in Hollywood pitch a series to a
network and receive money to make a pilot.
However, as technology continues to enable more people everywhere to
produce their own films, some people make their own pilots.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia was picked up in this way. The
creator had a manager who got him meetings with networks, but he also
wrote/filmed/edited his own pilot ep with some actor friends. They
went into the pitch, played the tape and got offers.
Let's say that I actually did have an industry
connection that could get me these kind of meetings. Then let's say I
made a KILLER pilot episode on my own dime. If I was able to set up a
pitch meeting, would there be any benefit to keeping the produced
pilot a secret before going into the meeting?
Let me rephrase it another way. Is there any reason this produced
pilot should not be published on the web first, in an attempt to build
interest from the general public?
Or do networks want to feel they are
getting something "exclusive"? I suppose it is possible that something
could have support online and for them not to have seen it going into
It is extremely unlikely that someone outside a network could shoot a pilot that a network loved so much they bought it. Networks like to have a lot of input on a TV show. Script, showrunner, casting, director, they want to be involved in everything. They have very specific needs that you don't know about, and your pilot, even if it was a really good pilot in some abstract sense, probably won't satisfy them.
It is also extremely unlikely that you would get a show set up, as an outsider, any other way. The advantage to shooting your own pilot, assuming it is great, which is a huge assumption, is that someone will certainly watch a few seconds of something that's shot. If it's amazing, they'll keep watching, and if it stays amazing all the way through, people will pass it around.
If you can bring a show with a proven audience to a network, then a lot of gates will open for you. If you can make episodes of a webseries and get a big audience, then suddenly you don't have a naked idea. You have a proven product with a proven team. That's what Jane Espenson is trying to do with HUSBANDS. Of course you're competing with the mountain of product that gets uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day, but that's not necessarily a bigger obstacle than a network's portcullis. And on YouTube, no one cares that you're unknown, they just care if you're funny.
Making something is an unlikely way in the door, but so is every other way in the door. SOUTH PARK was essentially a pilot (actually a video Christmas card) that got picked up and turned into a series. These days it would probably go on YouTube, become a hit, and get picked up.
So, to your question: if you shoot a pilot and it's great, of course you're going to tell everyone you know. Great things get passed around. If it's not good, then throw it away and shoot something better.
I've become a great believer in actually shooting things, if you can put together a team with the right skills. Sure, it is much, much easier to write something than to write it and produce and direct it, or to write something than to write something and then find a great producer and director who'll put it on film for free. But if you can actually make something, you can get it out there tomorrow and see if anyone's interested. If enough people are, then you will have no trouble getting in the door.
Let's put it this way. I directed a vampire short that now has over 200,000 views. If it was part of a series pitch, how much stronger would my pitch be than the usual 6-8 pages of promises?
The New York Times has an article about how Netflix execs supposed knew before they launched House of Cards that it would be a hit. I think it's easy in hindsight, but just because people stream lots of David Fincher movies is no guarantee they'll like a David Fincher-helmed series, or even the next David Fincher movie.
But what is interesting about Netflix's model for HOUSE OF CARDS is that they have metrics. In the video game industry, we have rather elaborate metrics. On a given level of a multiplayer game, we can build a "heat map" of where players are spending most of their time -- every player, not just playtesters. That's because every player of a multiplayer game is on the game company's server, so the game company is getting a firehose of information which a smart designer with the right data miners can use to improve the gamer's experience.
Film doesn't have that yet. It's a lot of work to gauge audience demographics, let along which part of the screen they're looking at. You have to bring in focus groups, and some movies that focus test well flop, and some that focus test great soar, probably because people behave differently in focus groups than they do in real life.
Netflix knows a lot about its audience. It knows how long it takes for someone to stream the next movie, and what sort of movie that next movie is. Do people watch a slew of comedies, or do they watch a comedy and then an action movie? When do they stop watching certain movies or tv series?
Smart execs will be able to mine those data and discover truths about the audience experience. It will influence filmmakers and tv creators. There is a tendency among artists to dismiss whatever the execs have to say ("bean counters!"), but just because the interpretation of the data have in the past been wrong does not mean that new methods of mining data will be just as flakey. Technology gets better.
It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future, but there ought to be an interesting synergy between how easy it is becoming to make a cheap movie, and how much better systems are becoming available to match the audience with just the product they want.
THR has an insightful conversation with an Oscar voter. What I find interesting is all the factors that go into the votes. I've often noticed the Academy giving the envelope to an an actor for a less than brilliant performance, and figured it's because they feel he or she has earned an Oscar in general. (Often it's a brilliant comedian turning in an okay performance in a drama. Comedies almost never win.) Between an aging actor and a young one they'll tend to give the envelope to the aging actor because (a) the young actor will be back and (b) the Academy is a bunch of alter kockers. And after a few Oscars they'll raise the bar for an actor -- they can't be giving Jack Nicholson an Oscar every time, now, can they? (They don't do that for composers. How many Oscars does John Williams have, now?)
Anyway, the THR article pretty much confirms everything I've suspected about your basic Academy voter. Including that they take the voting pretty seriously, and have seen a surprising percentage of the material.
I keep hearing that traditional funding for indie films is getting harder and harder.
I'm not sure it was ever that easy, unless you count the moment right after video stores came in and you could put together almost any cheesy erotic thriller or teenagers-in-a-cabin-in-the-woods horror movie and make a direct-to-video movie. If you read Joe Camp's book about how he funded BENJI, the sleeper dog movie hit of 1974, he had a lot of trouble getting his movie made, and then more trouble getting it into theaters.
But word is that indie dramas are almost dead in North America; a distributor friend of mine told me not even to use the word when describing our current project. So, everybody's talking about crowdfunding.
Raising money from individual strangers is not new. When I was at Arama Entertainment as VP of Development a ways back, we worked with these financiers from Texas who had raised a lot of money speculating on ostrich farming. They had a "boiler room" full of guys who'd call dentists and tell them how much money they could make investing in ostriches. At the time, ostrich meat was selling at a premium. The meat tastes more like steak than chicken, but it's low fat. Ranchers were buying fertilized ostrich eggs for $300, while an actual ostrich was worth, say, a couple of thousand. Dentists are people who (a) have a biggish income and (b) really boring jobs. Our Texas friends were offering them an investment, but they were also offering them something to dream about other than problematic teeth.
Our Texas guys could see that the ostrich boom couldn't last; eventually there would be as many ostriches in Texas as anyone would possibly want to eat. So they decided to get into show business. They raised $600,000 for us, from dentists who would invest $5000 -- an amount they could afford to lose -- and thereby buy the right to tell people at cocktail parties that they were in show business. Because who wants to hear about teeth?
The way the boiler room works is there's a bunch of guys with long lists of presumably wealthy people, and they just call and call and call until they get someone on the hook. Think Glengarry Glen Ross. The boiler room takes a pretty hefty chunk of the money it raises, and passes the rest along to the filmmaker, who spend it to make a movie. The investors rarely get a profit, but, like buying a lottery ticket, they get to dream about being in the movies.
Crowdfunding takes that idea and puts it on the Internet, with some differences. Mostly, crowdfunding is not about your contributors hoping to make a profit. They are hoping to support the arts. And, they usually get some sort of "perk," from a thank-you on someone's Twitter feed, to an Executive Producer title on the film, to a t-shirt, to what have you. I give Vermont Public Radio $90, I get a nice mug. That sort of thing.
John Trigonis crowdfunded his short CERISE, and wrote a book about it called CROWDFUNDING FOR FILMMAKERS. It is a very in-depth book about how he did it, and how to do it right.
Unfortunately, and this is not at all the book's fault, my takeaway is: crowdfunding is a lousy way to raise money for filmmaking. There seems to be a huge amount of effort involved for very little reward. He spent two months intensively farming his contacts in order to raise $5000. He recounts in considerable detail how other would-be filmmakers leveraged their Twitter feeds, Facebook networks, Google Plus, etc., to raise similar amounts. He talks about how he contributed to one filmmaker who, in exchange for your $33 contribution, would mail you a vinyl LP from his personal collection. Other filmmakers will send you a "personalized sound" or work your chosen word into a song.
And it's not mostly strangers. It's mostly your friends. Trigonis even posted requests for money on his friends' Facebook walls.
If you're actually in show business, I think this would be a terrible idea. If you ask your friends for money, they will ask you for money. Everybody has a project. If 20 friends give me fifty bucks each, and then I give 20 friends fifty bucks, we're just moving the money around (and paying Indiegogo a rake). More importantly, I want friendship from my friends, not money. I'm happy to help my friends out -- help them get jobs, connect them, give them advice, feed them, pour liquor into them -- but if all they wanted was money from me, I think I'd feel dissed.
So crowdfunding involves (a) annoying the crap out of your friends (b) making it your full-time job (c) for really not all that much money.
I have seen slightly more respectable crowdfunding campaigns, but they're still for small amounts of money. Jane Espenson raised $60,000 for her web series HUSBANDS. My agent contributed to a crowdfunding campaign from David Fincher.
But these are Famous People. I am sure that if Joss Whedon wanted to raise a hundred grand for another Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along, he could do it at the drop of a hat (and a few dozen hours of work for his assistant).
But Joss Whedon could also write a hundred thousand dollar check without blinking, considering what he must have been paid to direct THE AVENGERS and what he will almost certainly get paid if he is interested in directing any future Avengers movies. And Jane Espenson can raise $60,000 by writing a television script.
Also, Joss Whedon can make a really great web short for a hundred thousand dollars, because what cinematographer isn't going to jump at the chance to do a favor for Joss Whedon?
I am always impressed by people who make a crowd-pleasing short for $5,000, or a film that is even releasable for $100,000. For people like that, crowdfunding is a possibility. I don't think you can count on raising anywhere near a million bucks, if that's what you need to make a professional quality movie.
Based on this book, I feel like for most people, crowdfunding is a financing source of last resort.
And that's not surprising. You're not asking people to invest in a film; there's no financial upside. You're asking for donations.
That said, this is a useful book, should you decide to go for it. It will give you a good sense of how much work, and what sort of work, you'll need to do in order to get your money. If you're not sure, it will let you know what you're in for. I am going to send it to a couple of people I'm working with who have brought up crowdfunding, so at least we're all on the same page about what it entails.
We're about nine episodes into HOUSE OF CARDS. That's the first series funded entirely by Netflix. They made an interesting decision to make all 13 episodes available immediately.
I find that decision surprising. While the idea appeals to those of us who like to binge on a series, they work on a subscription model. They're hoping HOUSE OF CARDS will be their "killer app," the must-see only-watch-it-here show that SOPRANOS was to HBO, and MAD MEN is to AMC. But if I can watch all 13 episodes in the first, free month, then why would I continue to pay the subscription? I imagine it's to get people into the store, the idea being they'll get used to Netflix. Maybe we will.
The series started promisingly. Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood is a sort of Richard III-like House Democratic Whip. When the President rewards his loyalty with a stab in the back, he sets out for revenge and ... something. The fun of the first five or so episodes is watching him maneuver to weaken the President while building himself up. He's ruthless, and charming in a wicked way.
Then the series starts to get mushy. Things start to go wrong for his plan. He stops being smart and Machiavellian. He starts being an ordinary politician who makes political and personal mistakes. And he actually seems to be doing his job, pushing his party's interests without actually serving his own ulterior motives.
(Nonspecific hints to where the series goes in the following; consider them spoilers if you will.)
Meanwhile, his wife has abandoned her Lady Macbeth-like support of her husband, which was so interesting in the first episode, and begun pursuing her own unfathomable plans, sabotaging one of her projects in favor of another, out of what seems to be no more than spite.
A series has to deliver the goods on its pilot. The pilot promised an arc of a wicked man outmaneuvering his unsuspecting opponents. The episodes I'm watching now seem to have abandoned that promise. Now I'm watching a political soap.
As a big WEST WING fan, I'm also a bit disappointed in the politics of the show. WEST WING had a raft of political consultants who actually worked in the White House. That's why it felt so accurate.
HOUSE OF CARDS feels like Beau Willimon, the writer, is making up stuff based on watching the news. Frank Underwood has currently hitched his wagon to the Pennsylvania governor race, where he's put forward a Congressman he knows is an alcoholic drug addict with a habit of frequenting prostitutes. The guy's 30 days into recovery. The Congressman has already sabotaged his own political future by acquiescing in the closing of a Navy yard in his own district, infuriating his core supporters, at Underwood's own insistence. His whole campaign depends on people believing that he's been sober for a year, when he has been sober only for a month. How could this plan possibly go wrong? It's not a chess move, it's a crazy gamble with no guaranteed benefit.
And no Congressman smart enough to get elected would betray his own constituency publicly. He would kick and scream in public about defending his Navy yard, and then he'd sell out his district privately, if he had to. Hearings are for posturing, and communicating with the public; all the deals are done behind the scenes.
If I'm watching a cop show, I want the cops to be smarter than me about cop stuff. If I'm watching a political show, I want the politicians to be smarter than me about politics. I hate stopping an episode in the middle to have to turn to Lisa and say, "The smart way they could have done this would be...."
I don't want to diss soaps. If someone wants to put a political soap on the air, that's fine. My problem is that the show didn't start as a soap, and now I'm unclear what I'm watching the show for. If you're writing a show, you should be clear why people are watching. If you're writing BREAKING BAD, I gather, people are watching so they can yell "Walter, no!" and "Jesse, think!" If you're writing a comedy about dumb people, then you should be thinking about dumb things they can do. My objection is that this is supposed to be a show about smart people who are good at what they do... and I'm not sure it is, any more.
UPDATE: Now having watched the full season (BIG SPOILERS), I still think Underwood's plan is incredibly reckless and unlikely. It depends entirely on fronting a drunk as a recovering drunk for a precise period of time, and then reliably pushing him off the wagon. I haven't had a lot of drunks in my life, thank goodness, but I am pretty sure you never know when an alcoholic will seriously get on the wagon, or what kind of stress will push him or her off.
I also think there's a danger in keeping the audience too firmly excluded from your main character's plot. Part of the fun of watching a wicked man plot is knowing what the plot is. If it seems like he's floundering, then what are you rooting for? Instead of suspense, you have surprise. As any Hitchcock fan will tell you, surprise gives you a momentary pleasure, while suspense can keep you going for as long as the storyteller likes.
And what the heck was up with the episode where Frank goes to his alma mater and gets drunk all episode long?
When you make short films with not always a complete crew, you learn exactly what all those jobs are for. On my first professional short, we didn't have an A.D. So as a director I had to stress about moving the crew along.
On my latest crew, we had a great AD and a terrific camera crew. We decided to skip having a costume designer, because the actors were just wearing their own clothes. So, we learned what costume designers do. Costume designers make sure that you do not put a black jacket on a girl with black hair. Costume designers also make sure that the pink blouse an actor is wearing does not clash with the burgundy walls.
It turns out that you can fix some of that in color correct. But not all of it.
(Color correct is a video post process where you can change the red/green/blue highlights/midtones/shadows in entire frames or in parts of frames. The software is amazingly sophisticated. Using dynamically generated mattes, you can brighten just someone's hair, or cool off just the highlights in someone's hair, or dim everything that's blue.)
When we chose our location, it came painted in bright Tuscan yellow and burgundy. Our first impulse was to paint it. Then we figured out some clever ways we could cover up the walls with boxes and things and the yellow wouldn't pop so much. It was one of those cases where our first instincts were correct. A lot of the yellow walls ended up not getting covered up, and there are frames with huge yellow in them.
We could have repainted, but it seemed like quite a chore to do it ourselves, and expensive to hire painters. In retrospect, we probably should have painted.
So moral of the story: if see something, say something. If, as a director, you see something you're not sure about, then it's probably not what you want, and you should insist on getting it changed. The "not sure" part is you not wanting to be a pain in the ass. But it is your job to ask for what you want (in a respectful way). Sometimes it may be too expensive to get what you want, but seriously consider pushing for it; it's possible as a director to be too nice a guy (or gal).
When I make up character names, I often check the Social Security site to make sure the names I'm picking reflect the age of the character. "Lisa" is going to sound like she's in her forties. "Chelsea" and "Madison" are probably in their late twenties.
Right now I'm writing a cop comedy set in Québec, so most of the characters are French Canadian. (Someone else will adapt it in French.) Québecois names, too, have changed over the years. Marcel is probably an older guy. Marie-France is probably younger. But to be much more precise, check out this fantastic collection of links sent me by my friend Martine, of Ni Vu Ni Connu: