What's the process for submitting a tv script?
June 5, 2006 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I have here in front of me a completed pilot script for what could be the next big television show. What should I do with it?

1. Is there anything else that needs to be done (except for the pilot)? (charachter bios, etc.)

2. Where/to whom do I send it?

3. Would anyone like to read it (email in profile)?

Thanks for your help.
posted by matkline to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: character*
posted by matkline at 1:21 PM on June 5, 2006

You should write character bios, as well as a general description of the arc of the first season. And then you should send query letters to agents and production companies, asking if they would like you to send the script itself.

Of course, you should also register the script with the WGA.

Are you sure it's formatted properly? Did you write it with Final Draft?
posted by bingo at 1:40 PM on June 5, 2006

You need to get an agent. There is no point sending query letters to prodcos in the US as they will not read a script from an unrepresented writer.

In order to get an agent it will probably be necessary to write one or two spec scripts for a currently running show rather than trying to pitch a new one.

Most TV shows are set up on the basis of a pitch rather than a spec episode.
posted by unSane at 1:42 PM on June 5, 2006

Response by poster: also, we used Final Draft, so all should be up to standard
posted by matkline at 1:46 PM on June 5, 2006

NOT a wisecrack: Move to L.A., get an agent, write dozens more scripts, and expect that the pilot script you've got in front of you will eventually find use as a doorstop. There is not a single reputable producer, actor, director, show runner, etc. in all of L.A. who will look at an unsolicited pilot manuscript from an unrepped writer, particularly one who isn't even in L.A. Again, I'm not being snarky: it's simply a fact of the biz. There are literally thousands of writers out here who are trying to break into TV and film with dozens of scripts under their belts. You've got to be in L.A. in order to be in the game, and (with some exceptions) you've got to have an agent.

On preview: unSane is also correct about most pilots being set up on the basis of a pitch (I have friends trying to pitch a pilot right now). And not to sound like a broken record, but you can't get a pitch unless you're in L.A. and have an agent (or at least a track record and enough contacts in the biz to set up a pitch meeting yourself).
posted by scody at 1:48 PM on June 5, 2006

oh, and having a couple of good spec scripts for current shows, as unSane also says, is definitely essential to the getting-an-agent process. You want to demonstrate that you understand the structure, characters, rhythm, etc. of several different shows. Also, it's a good idea to pick shows that haven't been running forever or have recently gone off the air (so no "Simpsons," no "ER," no "That '70s Show").
posted by scody at 1:53 PM on June 5, 2006

Once upon a time, I would have told you it was utterly hopeless. For many years, the conventional route to selling a pilot was:

1. Write a sample script for an existing show, to prove that you can create interesting and entertaining stories in a universe created by another writer.

2. Use your sample script to get an agent, who would then submit the sample to show runners, one of whom might hire you as a staff writer on his show.

3. Spend a few years on that show, working your way up, so that you can get an on-the-job education in how a TV show-runner turns millions of dollars of somebody else's money into a professional quality show.

4. Work your way up to showrunner on this other person's show. Do a good job of running it.

5. Having proven that you can supervise a show, you are now in a position to sell your pilot script. Congratulations!

The good news for you is that a variety of factors have doubled or even tripled your odds of selling a pilot without going through this process.

The bad news is that your odds used to be 1 in a million. Now that they have doubled or tripled, they are 2 in a million or maybe even 3 in a million.

See, when a network buys a pilot from you, they aren't just buying words on a paper. They are also buying your ability to supervise a roomful of 10-20 other writers in turning out 20-25 scripts per year under stressful circumstances, and then supervise the hiring of directors, casting of actors, and everything else that is necessary to turn those scripts into professional-quality TV programs. They are betting huge amounts of money that you will be able to do this, and the stakes are high.

Now, as I mentioned, things have changed a little, and it is more common for networks to pair up a writer who has a brilliant script but no TV experience with an experienced showrunner. In pretty much every such case I know of, though, the inexperienced-in-TV writer was actually very experienced in another medium. So, another method of getting a pilot on the air is to establish yourself as a successful film writer or playwright.

A slightly less probable (but still theoretically possible) method is to turn your pilot into a short film that attracts a huge amount of buzz. This is how "South Park" got started--as a short film that became a huge underground hit in LA. On the other hand, this is the only TV show in the history of the business that I can think of that got started this way.

Note that this is all relating to the US TV market. The BBC is much more open to reading scripts from inexperienced writers--in fact, I believe they are required by British law to read everything that is sent in to them. Of course, this means that they get a huge volume of submissions--and most of them will be from British citizens, with an intuitive understanding of British life that an American (as I gather you are from your profile) will be at a severe disadvantage in trying to come up with something that will be relevant to the British TV viewer.

ON PREVIEW: What Unsane and Scody said. I would just add that "spec pilots" (as in, pilots sold off a script instead of a pitch) are becoming more common, but are highly unlikely to be bought from a completely inexperienced writer, which is why your odds are now 3 in a million instead of just 1.
posted by yankeefog at 1:54 PM on June 5, 2006 [3 favorites]

Read this book. If you don't want to, a summary of the best way to get your pilot produced.

1. Find a nice drawer and put your pilot script inside.
2. Watch television. Lots and lots of television. Take notes. Concentrate on understanding the plot structure underlying the shows you are watching -- the things that are common to every episode of every show. TV on DVD is a big help, esp. if you rent it or use Netflix.
3. Sign up for a screenwriting class, if you haven't taken one yet.
4. Find a show that has been on the air at least two years and is moderately successful. You should enjoy it, and become intimately familiar with its characters. Study the plots so you understand exactly what is an episode of this show.
5. Write a script for this show. You want to write an episode of your show. Do not write a script you want that happens to feature these characters; that is a fanfic. Write something that is an episode of your show. A good episode, but one that fits within the characters, dialogue style, and general story outline of an episode of your show.
6. Rewrite this script. Continue writing scripts until you have something that is suitable in both tone and quality to be an actual, produced television script.
7. When you have something good enough to produce, send it to the producers of that show and other shows that are similar. If you are very good, you may be called in to pitch an episode of this or another series.

Continue 6-7 until you have written an episode of a television show that has been aired.

8. Get on the staff of a television show. Show that you can work in the high-pressure environment, in tight schedules and budgets, with difficult stars, etc. Work on the staff of television shows until you have the credentials to impress a major television studio enough to fund your own show. You should have lots of producer credits under your belt by this time.

9. Convince a major studio executive to produce your show.

You have to understand that a television show costs millions of dollars, even a cheap one, and there are thousands of people like you. As the creator of the show, you would be the executive producer; they don't just hire executive producers off the street, even if their scripts are in good format. What you have done is a writing exercise. There are other ways to do this; for instance, you could get a Tony Award, win a Pulitzer Prize, write a bestselling novel, or get an Academy Award for screenwriting. But if you're not up to that, write spec scripts.
posted by graymouser at 1:56 PM on June 5, 2006

There is no point sending query letters to prodcos in the US as they will not read a script from an unrepresented writer.

This is not actually true. I'm not going to lie and say anything came of it, but I have gotten scripts read in exactly that way. They request it, you sign the waiver and send it in.

Yes, writing specs is the "accepted" way of going about it. But don't let anyone tell you what you can't do. There are a lot of people in LA (and elsewheree) who seem to live to discourage others from following their dreams. Ignore them. Always.

everybody finds their "in" in their own unique way.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:29 PM on June 5, 2006

There are a lot of people in LA (and elsewheree) who seem to live to discourage others from following their dreams. Ignore them. Always.

No one's discouraging anyone from following their dreams, merely pointing out that when it comes to the reality of Hollywood, there's a more complex (not to mention extremely competitive) process of turing those dreams into reality than just "write script, send out script, enjoy as script gets produced."
posted by scody at 2:39 PM on June 5, 2006

I would never discourage somebody from following their dreams.

In fact--especially for somebody like matkline, whom I infer is a college student and therefore probably pretty young--you'd be nuts not to give yourself the best chance you can of making your dream a reality. If you give it a shot and it doesn't work out, you'll always know you tried. If you never give it a shot, you'll always wonder what would have happened.

But what I've noticed is, when somebody's dream to be a writer, they don't get discouraged by being told about the depressing realities of the business; they resolve to overcome them.

The only people who get discouraged are those who only want to do it if it's easy. And if you only want to do something as long as it's easy, then it's not really your dream. At best, it's your fantasy.

By the way, Dr. Jimmy is right that there is no one way of breaking in. It's not like becoming a doctor, where there's a single path that everybody must take. But the method that scody, unSane, and I have outlined is the best way of increasing your odds. And if you take our advice and move to LA and start trying to break in, you'll also maximize your odds of finding one of those unusual other methods, too.
posted by yankeefog at 2:57 PM on June 5, 2006

I personally don't believe you have to move to LA. I didn't. I considered it for a while but by the time I was prepared to do it, my career had taken off enough that I didn't have to.

Upside to moving to LA: networking, and the sense that you're living in a company town. Total availability. The buzz in the air.

Downside to moving to LA: it can be incredibly depressing and soul destroying to realize how many other people are trying to make it, and how unsuccessful most of them are. Cost of living. General level of Hollywood bullshit. Getting your chain pulled constantly by execs.

Upside to living out of LA: no movie industry static. People are sane. You are not surrounded by people telling you how fantastic you are, or alternatively how fantastic they are. Cost of living.

Downsides to living out of LA: harder to make your mark. Trips to LA are a cost of doing business.
posted by unSane at 3:39 PM on June 5, 2006

drjimmy: I am curious as to what kinds of prodcos these are? I can't imagine that any shingle with a studio deal would do this. (It happens all the time outside Lalawood, I agree, though).
posted by unSane at 3:42 PM on June 5, 2006

Examples of shows that it would be good to write a pilot episode for right now:


Examples of shows that it would be risky to write a pilot episode for:

LAW AND ORDER (too long in the tooth, rumours it will be cancelled)
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (this has a long-form running narrative... you need a show which is self contained from episode to episode).

If you are pitching TV drama, the kind of thing that is being bought right now is LOST, PRISON BREAK, WITHOUT A TRACE, HOUSEWIVES, 24 etc. Generally quite high-concept with an episode to episode narrative. If you are an established writer then a spec pilot could work wonders for this kind of show. From an unknown... not so much.

The next person who reinvents the sitcom wins big.
posted by unSane at 3:48 PM on June 5, 2006

Push the lead down the stairs. Seduce his boyfriend in the pool.

No, wait, that's how to get the lead in a Vegas topless show.
posted by mkultra at 3:49 PM on June 5, 2006

unSane (and others with actual professional TV writing experience): Suppose that one wanted to get a job writing drama with an episode-to-episode narrative. What's your take on how to do that in a spec? My spec episode of Buffy contains a one-paragraph prelude that explains where it falls in the long-term continuum, but that's not such a big deal, since they effectively had a new bad guy each week (despite there being an ongoing long-term narrative as well). But suppose you did want to spec something like 24...if you write in the true style of the show, you'll have to work with events that happened in a certain previous episode (or a previous episode that you implicitly make up), and then leave things hanging at the end, without ever explaining how they will resolve. Is that considered acceptable?
posted by bingo at 4:43 PM on June 5, 2006

TV is hard, but what about the Internet? Cameras are cheap. Get some friends who will work for free (the better they can act, the better) and film the script. Put it on youtube or something to try to build some buzz.

If you do get some buzz, then shoot a few more. Distribute them via a web site or bittorrent with ads wrapped around it.

You may not get millions of viewers, but you'll have fun, and you may find an audience if it's good. You may even start the next new wave of entertainment. How cool would that be?
posted by willnot at 4:49 PM on June 5, 2006

I think if you want to spec something like 24 you might need to do something like a season opener, or alternatively take a point in one of the already filmed series and take the story in a different and intriguing direction.

But I think it is dangerous unless you absolutely hit the ball out of the park since you are setting yourself up for comparison in a very obvious way.

But I do not pitch much TV and have never written a TV spec so what do I know?

I did write a series pilot and a series bible once and it was a LOT of fun, very satisfying.
posted by unSane at 6:17 PM on June 5, 2006

I don't have any actual knowledge on this subject but I do read Ken Levine's blog and he has much to say to upcoming writers about the process of writing and submitting spec scripts.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:28 PM on June 5, 2006

Jane Espenson (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls) is another professional tv writer who been covering this topic in her blog.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:32 PM on June 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Take a page from Kevin Smith and film it yourself!

Digital cameras are cheap. You're more likely to sell a work or sell yourself if you can show something besides words on paper.
posted by frogan at 9:43 PM on June 5, 2006

unSane: I agree with you about the advantages and disadvantages of living in LA for a film career. But to get a job in American television, you pretty much have to live in LA (unless you want to write for a sketch comedy show like Saturday Night Live or a talk show like The Daily Show, in which case, you could be in New York as well.) As a film writer, you are essentially self-employed. As a TV writer, you essentially have a desk job. There is a limited amount of freelance TV writing work available, so theoretically you could live elsewhere and fly in for pitch meetings, but I gather the odds would be heavily stacked against you getting much work that way.

On the question of prodco's reading unrepped writers: I currently have no agent, and I've actually found that, wlth a killer query letter, I can get most people to read my scripts. However, part of what makes the query letter effective is that it mentions my work for the BBC and HBO. Obviously if you are starting off, you won't be able to do this (unless you lie, which I wouldn't recommend.) But there are certain contests that, if you win or place, offer enough credibility to get you read. The Nicholl Fellowship is the most prestigious of these; as unSane has posted before, doing well in it can make your career.

Filming your pilot yourself is a great idea, but you should go into it with realistic expectations. You'll definitely learn a HUGE amount; I learned more from making my first 5-minute short than I did in a year at USC's screenwriting program. And you can probably get it screened at your university, and you can put it on YouTube. Just keep in mind that it is very, very unlikely that you will make something good enough to get you the attention of Hollywood. The Kevin Smiths and Robert Rodriguezes are the exceptions; for every one of them, there are thousands of people whose films fade into obscurity.

For this reason, it is imperative that you don't go into heavy debt making your first film, or shooting your own TV show. If you do, then you are unlikely to be able to afford to make future films. If, however, you can shoot it ultra-cheap, you can make film after film, and really master your craft. (This is actually what Rodriguez did; by the time he shot El Mariachi, he had made vast numbers of films starring his family members on their home video camera, so by the time he was ready to invest $7000 in making a feature film, he knew exactly what he was doing with every shot, and he could make sure every penny was used to maximum effect.)

This is a case where a university student has a massive advantage. You can likely borrow a camera for free from your school, round up student actors who will work for free, shoot in on-campus locations for free, etc. If you have any interest in film or TV, take advantage of all the resources your university provides. You will never again have this much access to free stuff in your life.

The only problem with applying the do-it-yourself ethos to TV rather than film is that there aren't as many outlets for indie TV shows as there are for indie film. The only ones I know are: Channel 101; Channel 102, and The New York TV Festival. The first two are just for five-minute shows, not full-length ones, but the NY TV Festival will screen full pilots, and has actually led to distribution deals for the winners.
posted by yankeefog at 12:44 AM on June 6, 2006

Another vote for filming and doing it yourself.

Fuck Hollywood. They're drowning in good ideas but haven't got the sense to implement any of them.

Do it yourself and do it well. Tap YouTube's free bandwidth and go from there. Set up a MySpace profile. Set up a website with loads of background information. Accept donations. Sell DVDs and schwag.

You might go broke doing it but it'll be yours! and untainted (for now) by the stink of Hollywood.
posted by loquacious at 5:35 AM on June 6, 2006

Lots of good advice in this thread already, but as someone who spent 10 years in the sitcom trenches, I'll throw in a little more:

1) a spec pilot script (like the op mentioned) makes for a great writing sample; however, you'll need a spec version of a television show currently on the air to accompany that submission. Generally, first-time and low-level TV writers need two specs, as invariably whoever's reading will ask to see something else if they are impressed by the first script (anybody can write one good script, they'll say).

2) shopping a spec pilot script on its own is probably a bad idea, unless you have some other published writing experience. Internet writing alone usually will not cut it, but if your blog/site is particularly noteworthy then maybe that will be enough to get your spec pilot read.

3) register your script w/ the WGA. You can do that online, and it's only $20 for non-members. The registration is good for 5 years, I think.

4) once you've registered your script, don't write "WGA registered" on its cover; doing so sends a subtle "first timer" message. Besides, production companies know that its cheaper to buy your script than to steal it, and anyone who's gonna steal it is gonna steal it. (usually assistants who read the specs and decide they'll put their names on it and try to go out with it as their writing sample -- this happened to a friend of mine; but ironically, it helped his career, as Variety discovered the snatched script, reported on it, and it gave my friend a great ice breaker in general meetings).

5) If writing for telelvison is your desire -- and you don't have have an established writing career or sufficiently strong industry connections, moving to LA or NY is a must.

6) If you move to and are hungry for your first break, consider submitting writing samples to the WB Writers Workshop, or the Disney Fellowship. Both should have info available online (it was the WB workshop that landed my agent and got me "in the room"). Occassionally AFI, and I think unCabaret will have tv screenwriting competitions/workshops. Consider these as well.

7) keep your TV specs fresh. Especially if you're a new writer. Shopping specs of dated television series make the already uphill struggle more difficult. Some people won't read old specs; shopping an old/outdated spec can suggest that you haven't written anything as-good or better since that spec was written.

8) Try to have a diverse pool of sample material. My friends who wrote exclusively sitcom specs (myself included) have not whethered the transition from tons of sitcoms to tons of dramas nearly as well as my friends who wrote sitcoms but also had those quirky-drama specs on the backburner.

9) going on your own is always great advice. Nothing is easier to shop around town than a great 5-15 minute video (worked for South Park's creators, and Family Guy's creator, and several current SNL writers). Execs get upwards of a hunderd spec scripts a week (no exaggeration). They get only a handful of tapes during "staffing season." I can guarantee you they're more eager to pop a tape in the VCR than read another spec.

10) Finally, if professional television writing is your goal, then congratulations. While it's frustrating and filled with creative compromises, but you already knew that, it's also a lot of fun, and an opportunity to spend all day surrounded by creative people. Don't make the plunge to a NY or LA till you're ready. And don't wait to start writing till you've moved -- you may find that your best spec writing is done in the place where you're happiest/most comfortable, which is more likely to be where you are now rather than where you want to be.

Good luck!
posted by herc at 6:15 AM on June 6, 2006

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