Chad Gervich Interview, Part 4Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Crafty: Specs or spec pilots? If specs: many people want to know how you spec a show with a story arc. Do you stick your episode between two specific shows so it's part of the chronology? And if so do you include a page that says "the events in this script take place between episodes 5 and 6, where Jim and Pam are doing this" or "we don't know where the hatch leads yet" or whatever? Or do you constantly have to update your script?

Gervich: The standard rule used to be "specs"… and NEVER "spec pilots." But that's changing. Kind of.

Over the last few years, especially since the explosive success of Marc Cherry's spec pilot, "Desperate Housewives," execs and producers alike have been much more open to reading spec pilots. Many have even BOUGHT spec pilots… although most of the spec pilots that have sold have come from established writer-producers like Aaron Sorkin, David Crane, and David E. Kelley. Some younger writers HAVE sold spec pilots, yet almost none of them have been produced or made it to air. Having said that, many more execs and showrunners have still become more open to reading pilots as samples for staffing.

So two or three years ago, I'd say do NOT write a spec pilot. But today… If you have an idea for a killer pilot that you're dying to write, I say "write it"… just be honest with yourself about why you're writing it. If you're writing it to sell, know that the odds are incredibly slim. If you're writing it to have a calling card, a great sample, it's a much more viable endeavor.

As for the second part of the question… writing a spec for a show with a story arc… it's rarely a great idea to spec something that's highly serialized-- for this exact reason. I would never recommend that someone spec a "Lost" or a "Prison Break."

Of course, many shows with close-ended episodes, like "The Office" and "Private Practice," also have highly serialized threads and relationships. So how do you deal with those?... Well, the truth is… you don't. Kind of.

The trick to writing a great spec is to simultaneously make it current AND "evergreen"… which is, of course, easier said than done. For example, if you were writing a spec of this season's "The Office," you'd probably want to include some scenes and moments that reflect the current status of the Andy/Dwight/Angela triangle… but without making the relationship so specific that it can only work between episodes 3 and 4. You'd try to capture the ESSENCE of the relationships, not the microscopic chronological details.

Having said that… sometimes a show's relationships and stories DO change in ways that affect your spec, and when this happens--yeah… the best thing to do is to go in and update your script. This is one of the gritty realities of spec-writing… your spec is never quite finished--part of the game is the constant act of updating your script to make it as current as possible. (Which is another reason why it's best to tell a story that's "evergreen"--it makes your re-writing process much easier.)

Crafty: You say go to networking parties. But everyone who could actually hire you is too busy to go to networking parties, and they get invited to actual parties when they do have time. Is there a point to meeting other aspiring writers / directors / etc.?

Gervich: The point of networking parties is NOT to meet people above you. In fact, if that's your motivation for going to parties, you'll invariably wind up going nowhere except Disappoinment-ville. In fact, I think one of the biggest mistakes young aspirants make is thinking they should be networking with people higher up the food chain. The truth us…

You should be networking with people AT THE SAME LEVEL AS YOU (or, if possible, a notch or half-notch above you). Here's why…

People at the top do not have time--or a need--to meet you. They've got their hands full with much bigger financial, strategic, and creative issues… and if they're going to meet with writers, producers, or showrunners, they're going to meet with people at THEIR level, A-listers. Sure, a network VP wants to find the next hit show, but he wants to find if from Paul Scheuring or Shonda Rhimes or J.J. Abrams.

People LOWER on the food chain, however, like low-level creative execs and junior agents and even assistants, are DESPERATE to find fresh voices and writers… either someone to staff on a show or--if they're lucky--someone with a mind-blowing spec pilot. This is how low-level people get promoted… by delivering to their bosses a great piece of talent. So they're hungry to find you, love you, and pass you on to the bigwigs that can hire you. (Besides, look at it this way--you may meet Les Moonves at a party and ask him to read your script. He may even take it. But reading it is not going to be a priority… and it'll probably wind up, unread, at the bottom of Les Moonves's wastebasket. Yet if you meet Les Moonves's ASSISTANT, he's much more likely to read your script. And if he loves it and recommends it to his boss, who trusts him much more than he trusts some random stranger from a party, that script has a much better chance of getting read by Les Moonves himself.)

Also, people at the same level tend to rise through the ranks and help each other along the way. The friends you make as an assistant will somecday be writing on shows, directing features, and working as heads of networks or studios. So they may not be able to make decisions or hire you NOW, but as you progress together, eventually they WILL be able to… just as you'll be able to help them.

So to answer the question: yes--there is a HUGE point to attending networking functions, and to meeting EVERYONE you can… including fellow writers, directors, assistants, agents, and execs who will (hopefully) go on to great achievements that will help them help you in the not-too-distant future.

Crafty: Is film school any use, and if so, what? Is making a short film any use, and if so, what?

Gervich: This is a two-part question: film school and short films.

For Part One: Film School, I'm going to refer you back to a blog post on Script Notes

For Part Two: Short Films, I'm gonna say this:

Definitely! I believe any piece of work that shows off your talent is worth doing… anything of quality that will grab the attention of execs and producers. Having said that…

Short films are *probably* more helpful in the world of features (rather than television), where buyers are looking for writers and directors who can tell finite stories… and a solid short film is a great representation of that talent. Four years ago, for instance, Ari Sandel directed a funny short film called "West Bank Story," and it served as a great calling card to land him a job directing Vince Vaughn's full-length "Wild West Comedy Show."

(Again, this isn't to say short films can't be helpful in TV, but as a manager-friend once told me, "Write in the medium you want to write in. If you want to write movies, write a movie. If you want to write novels, write a novel." So while sometimes writing a killer short story will push forward your TV career, it's more likely that it'll help your fiction/prose career. Likewise, a short film is more helpful to a feature career than a TV career.)

At the very least, a powerful short film can put you on the radars of producers and execs… where you can start forming relationships that you'll maintain until you have something else to show: a new script, a pitch, or even another short.

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Thanks for another great interview, Alex...all the best for 2009!

By Blogger wcdixon, at 3:55 PM  

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