About that Writing Sample… Writing To Industry Mandates

Emerging writers putting pen-to-paper or, more likely, fingers-to-keyboard, have faced a confusing, and largely conflicting challenge for some time:

On one hand, just a little bit of research reveals that most screenplays and TV pilots from new and emerging writers don’t actually go on to sell, get set up or made. Instead, it can be argued that the job of those writing samples is to land the writer representation, to get the writer consideration for TV writing fellowships and, most ideally, staffing. In addition and at their best, those samples are used to open doors for general meetings and potential consideration for OWAs (Open Writing Assignments). Sure, everyone would love to see such pilots get set up for development, or those screenplays that they labored over get produced. But ask most working writers today, and they will tell you that while those pilots and screenplays opened doors for them and led to where they are today, they rarely actually sold, got set up, or got made.

Therefore, an emerging writer would be smart to think about that screenplay or TV pilot as a writing sample, setting her up for opportunities. And… if it’s not likely to get produced, purchased, or developed in earnest, wouldn’t it then mean that, within the world of writing samples, she could write anything, as long as it was great?

Therein, unfortunately, lies the rub.

While everyone, from reps to execs, usually understand that the fate of some of the best TV pilots and screenplays is to become a door-opening writing sample, we still hear those writing samples challenged with comments and questions that include:

“The pilot is great, but what’s the show?”

“It’s too expensive a screenplay. No one is going to make it.”

“Period pieces can be a non-starter.”

The question then becomes… If all the screenplay or pilot is fated to become is a writing sample (and I use “all” loosely here, as I am a big believer that writing careers are built on the shoulders of those all-important writing samples), why does that even matter?

Here is what it boils down to:

A writing sample’s job is to put on display the writer’s story sensibility and craft, to convey the writer’s voice, skillset and strengths. However, and this is a big HOWEVER that I can’t emphasize enough, fair or unfair though it might be, the job of that writing sample is also to illustrate the writer’s grasp of current industry mandates.

That means that your screenplay or pilot should reflect not only your voice, craft and skillset, but also communicate your understanding of industry expectations and mandates as they currently stand.

And while no one can predict the future or know exactly what every executive, network, and studio is planning, here are some of the mandates that have held strong through changing times and ongoing industry and cultural challenges:

Period pieces are always hard to place. Therefore, consider long and hard whether you want to fight the fight it will require to get a period piece read, be it screenplay or pilot.

If you are writing a pilot, be sure that said pilot clearly makes a case for the show that it is the starting point of. In other words, be sure that the pilot doesn’t only stand on its own, but also makes a case for the show that’s to come.

Black Mirror was a singular anthology, as was Twilight Zone. We do not make a lot of shows that are contained, single-episode stories. Therefore, if you write a single-story episode, don’t be surprised if it’s dismissed as a particularly extensive short.

Big world-building usually originates with pre-existing IP; don’t take on a project that requires a ton of world building if you’re not ready to hear ad nauseam that the industry rarely engages with such material unless it’s based on a book, comic, or graphic novel before it goes scripted.

Much like when it comes to world-building, superhero movies and TV shows are, almost exclusively, based on pre-existing IP.

There are only a handful of buyers for huge, big-budget features. With that in mind, an epic action-adventure or VFX-rich bonanza can be dismissed as “too big” or “too expensive.” Instead of writing those, try to focus on smaller, more character-rich material that presents an interesting and unique plot. It usually takes a really unique, voice-y, interesting sample to land those big studio assignments.

The above mandates have not been assembled in order to deter you from a project that you are working on; instead, they are here to familiarize you with some of the industry’s expectations for new and emerging writers, so that whatever you decide to write is chosen with full awareness of some of the hurdles, fair or otherwise, it may encounter in the professional space. In my experience, the most important factor for any screenplay or a TV pilot is the passion and vision that its scribe brings to the page. So even if you are writing a period western or big inter-galactic escapade, if you’re super passionate about it and have a strong vision, you will already be a few steps ahead right out of the gate!