How Real Should Your Spec Pilot Be?Complications Ensue
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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Q. I have an idea for a spec pilot that I think I could knock out of the park, but I'm concerned about commercial appeal and production logistics. It's set entirely in a specific Asian country, but with an international cast of characters. Do I need to worry about any of that in a spec pilot to be used as a writing sample? Will I seem out of touch with what the North American industry wants if I write something along these lines?
I assume you're not talking about a war series. Shows about Americans at war overseas (GENERATION KILL, M*A*S*H, OVER THERE, BAND OF BROTHERS, THE UNIT) obviously can work. (We'll see how ZOS works for Canadians -- it's about peacekeepers, natch. Malcolm MacRury's pilot script is superb.)

If you're intending your spec pilot as a writing sample -- say you're not yet at a point in your career where you need to seriously worry about whether you will actually sell your pilot-- then you have a little latitude. A show set overseas is a long shot, but it might stand out from the rest of the pile of reading, especially if you do knock it out of the park.

I would consider writing it if it has a really great hook and the venue enables you to tell fascinating, fresh stories. I would also make sure that it is convincing as a TV show in every other regard.
  • Is there a core cast that constitutes a "family" either of blood or of choice?
  • Is there a strong story motor? Do "stories walk in the door"?
  • Do the stories tend to unfold in a limited number of controllable venues?
Your lead pretty much has to be American and otherwise relatable since the setting is foreign. Ideally two of your leads are American.

I'm not sure you need to make this a cable show. War stories show up on both cable and on broadcast, so I am not sure that your Asian whatever can't be on broadcast. That determination has more to do with how niche your audience is. MAD MEN is cable because it's demanding serial drama set in 1962. (Quick, name some period shows on broadcast!) DEXTER is cable because it makes a serial killer lovable, and advertisers might balk at that.

If you care deeply about an idea, it's usually worth pursuing. It should be a good writing sample for you; and maybe you'll figure out how to make it more network-ready as you work on it. I say go for it.



Read William Goldman. He talks about how being too real can damage a movie because reality isn't always... realistic. So structure and "believability" should trump the "truth."

By Blogger Little Miss Nomad, at 12:02 PM  

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By Blogger Artstudio Sri Lanka, at 6:19 PM  

Maybe it's too obvious to mention, but LOST is set abroad and features an international cast. Granted, the two leads are American, and many (certainly not all) of the international players come from English-speaking countries. And the deserted island setting doesn't require the audience to "get used to" a different dominant culture. Still, I think it's fair to say that it at least proved that stories involving international casts and subtitles can find a mass audience.

By Blogger Dan In LA, at 8:24 PM  

American Dreams was on NBC for a few seasons. That's the most recent I can think of.

And I suppose That 70s Show doesn't count as drama. But yeah, Mad Men I don't really see happening on any network I've ever watched.

By Blogger Monsterbeard, at 10:04 PM  

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