Getting Ahead of YourselfComplications Ensue
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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Q. I created a series, wrote the template, pilot, and came up with a dozen springboards for episodes. After submitting my show concept to two actors/producers (I checked them out IMDB) they optioned the idea for eight months. If the show gets picked up, how much control will I have ? Would it be rude for me to ask the Network for permission to hire the writers?
No, certainly not rude. It's understood that a newbie creator would like to work with an experienced showrunner who's on the same wavelength, who's going to try to bring the newbie up rather than sidelining her. Whether the network lets you interview potential showrunners depends on how you come across to them. If they think you're a sensible person, and they believe that part of what they're buying is your unique vision -- and not just a concept you happened to trip over -- then they'll want to keep you involved. The showrunner will probably not consult you much on the other writers, but if you're on the same page about what the show is, he'll have your vision in mind.

However, you need to go back and read your option agreement, which I am going to guess you signed without showing it to an agent or entertainment lawyer. Your contract determines what rights you have, including your right to continued involvement on your show. It should say that you'll have meaningful consultation on the showrunner; if you had a great negotiator it might even say you had veto over the showrunner. The contract should also say how many scripts you are guaranteed per season, that you have a guaranteed staff job with a guaranteed credit, that you keep the Created By credit, or a minimum of a shared Created By credit if the showrunner rewrites the pilot. It should contain a per-episode creative royalty, which could be a percentage of budget or a flat fee. It should include travel and living expenses if you're required to work away from home. And so on.

See, the option agreement is supposed to say "we have the right to buy your show, and if we do, here's what you get at that point." That's why option agreements take so ungodly long to negotiate. Long before a show I create is a real thing, before anyone is making money on it, my agent has to negotiate every detail of my package of compensation and credit. Because until I've signed the option, I have total control of my project. If they want it, they have to make me happy. After I've signed it, they may still want to keep me happy, but they don't have to.

All this is why you never, ever, ever negotiate your deal yourself.
Forgot to mention, I'm currently writing episode 5. The guys who optioned really liked my writing and told me to just keep on writing. I figure I'd write 13 and stop. If the show gets picked up, I was thinking, because of the economy, the order would be 6 episodes, 13 if were lucky , and 22 if we're extremely lucky
Stop writing scripts. Please.

Unless, that is, you're getting paid to write them. And I doubt you are, since they told you to " just keep on writing."

Getting a show made is striking the jackpot. It doesn't happen that often. Professional writers wax fat on staff jobs, but we survive on development deals. I spent all last year developing my pay cable show, writing draft after draft, running a story room, revising the season arcs, etc. If it doesn't go, I'll mourn, but my agent will still be very, very pleased with me.

You should not do any more new scripts until you are getting paid to write scripts.

Writing additional scripts also doesn't make sense creatively. No one at the network is going to read past episode 3 when they're deciding to pick up the show or not. In fact, most of them won't read past the pilot.

Moreover, the network may have different ideas about your show. TV development is collaborative. On NAKED JOSH, we started with a show about a freshman in college. The network asked us to age it up. We wound up with a show about a young professor. Imagine if we'd written five scripts about a freshman in college! Writing TV is a process of sending something to the network, getting feedback, and rewriting. For my pay cable series, I've written dozens of drafts of the first three scripts trying to nail "what the show is." The network hated one script (my bad) and I had to throw the entire thing out.

Don't get ahead of where your project is.

I would put all your energies into writing and rewriting the pilot. Make sure it is brilliant. Examine each line in it. Can you make that line smarter, more distinctive? Can you make the action sing? Writing is rewriting. Get real actors to read the script out loud at a table reading. (Maybe your actor producers can help there.)

Also, keep trying to improve the springboards, without actually writing the scripts. A great pilot with a great season arc document is all you need to sell a show to a network.

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