How Many Irons?Complications Ensue
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Here's an interesting question, from NO PANTS ISLAND:
Q. You sell your first script (or series concept, in my case).

But what if it stagnates? What if nothing happens to Series A, and the option fee rolls in every year for the next four, and that's it? Today, as I mulled over other projects I've sketched out or brainstormed, I wondered: just how many other ideas should I be trying to get out there? How many other things should I be working on?
The moment I sell or option something, or finish something on commission, the moment it's off my plate, I start working on the next thing. Or the thing I was working on before.

(I get grumpy when I'm not working on something or other.)

I generally try to work on our most commercial idea, i.e. whatever idea will most quickly result in my getting a check, adjusted for how big that paycheck might be if it comes.

Assuming I'm not being paid to write something, the next project I write might be, in order.

a. write up a 3-5 page TV pitch or 6-10 TV pitch bible from an idea

This generally takes priority because it doesn't take much time, and because getting a TV series set up is a much bigger deal than getting an indie film set up. In my case, indie feature: $50-70K script fee against potential $80-250K payday. Series: $20K pilot script+bible up to $120K of development fees, against potential $300K+ per year income stream.

If Lisa has a good idea (it's almost always Lisa), we'll suspend other spec work for a week or so to bang out the pitch bible. Nail those concepts down before they flit out of your mind. Don't let them escape!

b. write up a feature pitch from an idea

The market is currently terrible for indie features, and it's hard to get producers excited about a pitch -- even though, in Canada, they can take the pitch to Telefilm and get most of the money to have me write it.

I can also submit a feature pitch to a few Canadian government programs that pay writers to spec their own scripts.

If the feature "writes itself," the pitch might take a week.

c. spec a TV pilot

In the US, you usually have to go out with a spec pilot if you want to option or sell your series concept.
In Canada I can option a pitch bible to producers, who will look for development money from a network. But if I have a pitch bible that didn't get set up, but I still believe in the show, or if I have a concept I think won't pitch well, I'll write a spec pilot. That's what I'm in the middle of now.

I'm going to spend a couple months on a pilot, so I try to write all the pitches and get them out there before I invest that kind of time.

d. spec a feature

In the US, you almost always have to spec a feature as a first step; pitches won't get you anywhere unless you're a major name as a writer. Also, if you want to get on the lists of studio approved rewriters, you probably have to make a big spec sale.

I try to avoid speccing a feature because producers in Canada are so spectacularly uninterested in spec features. They seem to want to develop their own ideas from scratch, perhaps because that way they can share in Telefilm's development largesse. But if I love a concept enough, I might spec a feature, and that has sometimes paid off.

Speccing a feature might take a couple of months from concept to first draft, but it probably will take more time, and more drafts, to get it where it needs to be.

If you spec a feature, you won't get paid for it until the movie actually shoots. But you might get an option fee plus a rewrite out of it.

e. spec a series script

If you're not a known TV writer, particularly in the States, you need to bang out spec scripts as often as you can. I'd spend a month on a spec, probably; you could reasonably spend one or two.

(See other blog posts for why you shouldn't just write spec pilots if you're an emerging writer.)

Personally, I haven't written a spec episode since Sorkin was writing WEST WING. But most of the people who could hire me in this country already know me, my writing or my rep, well enough that they'll take my various (spec or commissioned) pilots as samples.

I tend to write a project to whatever point I think it's good to go out to producers. If it's a TV series idea that really depends on the writing, I'll go out with a pilot. If it's a concept-driven series idea that, really, any network exec can make a decision on at the bible stage, I go out at the bible stage.

So: how many projects should you have circulating? As many as you can, so long as they're all as good as you can reasonably make them. It's better to have a superb 6 page pitch out than a half-assed pilot. It's better to have one superb TV pitch and a spec feature you've rewritten the hell out of than one great idea, two uninspiring ideas, and three first draft features.

The number of projects you have out there will depend on (a) how fast you come up with new, good ideas (b) how fast you can write them up and (c) how long it takes the market to reject them or pick them up.

The more credits you have, the higher level access you have, the quicker they can reject you. I can take shows straight to the network and get my rejections right away. That tends to reduce my number of free-floating projects.

(I often don't, because I want to develop relationships with producers; and let's be honest, I hate those quickie rejections.)

Getting shows set up also reduces the number of free-floating projects.

We went out with literally a dozen ideas in the first six months of the year. Currently, one is optioned, one I'm speccing a pilot for, two are waiting on feature-writing grants, and the others are pinin' for the fjords. Some got close, some no one sparked to, a couple we pulled after we got lukewarm reactions, because we decided we hadn't quite nailed them after all. We'll go out with them again if we can figure out what they're missing. The pilot was something I wasn't feeling the heat from at the bible stage, so I pulled it and decided to spec it.

So the answer to the question is: as many as you are capable of getting out there... but don't send anything out that you can't be really proud of.
Q. Additionally, should I be giving the company I'm now building a relationship with first crack at whatever tidbits come out of my brain? Or should I be saving tidbits, putting them aside, and working on building Series A and only Series A, until such time as it becomes clear that Series A ain't going anywhere?
I rarely give the same company two things at once.

First, I want to create lots of relationships. When companies are looking for writers, they start with writers they're already in business with. I've got two series because I had something else optioned to the company.

Second, if they like one better, they'll focus on that, and backburner the one they like less. I don't want anything backburnered.

Third, it makes them feel I haven't given them something special. It makes them take me for granted.

Spread the love, baby!



Imagine my surprise when I went to read your blog today, and was reminded I had a neglected blog of my own!

Wow! Thanks for the incredibly detailed and thoughtful advice. I've been writing for almost ten years, but this was the first time I've really gone out with anything - and it was only because I had a gut feeling (and, as you recommended, was truly proud of it.) Not to mention, that the dissatisfaction I felt while staring down the nose of another McJob strongly outweighed any neurosis I had about finally getting my ass in gear and going after my dream.

I’ve already started packaging a few other things that I feel confident about, and on your advice (and the advice of a few others) will cast a broad net and “spread the love.” Thank you for spreading the knowledge, and providing great resources for all us newbies to refer to and learn from.

By Blogger Erin, at 3:32 AM  

Wow, that was a useful read.

I wonder: if you're a new writer, should you even be considering pitching bibles and treatments? It strikes me that you need to have whole specs each time for awhile. Am I wrong on this? Would having a couple of specs as samples be enough to let me send out other shows simply as pitches?

By Blogger Unknown, at 2:44 PM  

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