Answer These 3 Questions About Your Screenplay or TV Pilot

The other day, I met a new writer, who sent me his pilot to read ahead of our session. He was a talented writer, for sure; the world of his show was rich, and his plot well thought out. But it also left a number of questions for me, the sort of questions that go beyond the content itself, and that every writer, whether writing TV pilots, features, or both, should be able to clearly answer about their own work.

These questions are:

What are the comps for this project?

Knowing those projects that are comparable to your own, and being able to speak to them intelligently says a lot not only about your understanding of the space in which you are writing, but also about your ability to look under every rock when developing a project. It’s simply part of the research in preparation for a project that every writer should do. 

When speaking about your project, no one should be more educated about it than you. The choices you make for your project should be – in the very least – done with an awareness of other projects, whether current or older, that came before yours, and display your understanding of how your project fits in this particular arena, as well as what you are doing that is new or different in your project, that makes it exciting enough for agents, managers and execs to want to pay attention.

Not knowing other projects in your arena is akin to wanting to be a recording artist, but not listening to or being familiar with other hit songs in your genre, playing on the radio today. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across from a writer who was pitching me a pilot or screenplay, in the space of which they didn’t quite know. Let me give you an example. If a writer pitched me something to the tune of family drama/ thriller set against the backdrop of sugar cane farms, where there’s a serial killer on the loose, the first thing I would think of would be QUEEN SUGAR. If the writer went on to tell me that he’d never watched that show, well… He’s already lost some points.

People in the industry are paid to know content. To have watched, or at least have an extensive understanding of, projects in the space that they are working in. It’s the writer’s job to show up armed with that knowledge and be able to go toe-to-toe with any manager, agent, executive or producer. 

Where does it live – or – who is the audience?

For agents, managers, producers and execs to be able to get behind a project, they have to have a clear understanding of where it “lives.”

In TV, this means – quite literally – what would be the natural distributors or outlets, for this work? Is it basic cable, premium cable, a streaming show or a network show? Determining this is not based on where the writer would want the show to live (after all, everyone always wants to write for HBO), but rather in whose slate the show would be a natural fit based on other material, very similar or even just adjacent, that outlet had programmed up until this point.

Some time ago, I was pitched a show that the writer told me could “fit in anywhere, from CBS to HBO and anywhere in between.” Let me be very, very clear here: Very few shows, if any, could fit in quite so widely. Which is why, when a writer goes out to pitch a show, they pitch to 8, or 10, or maybe as many as 12 or 15 buyers, at the most. And while it’s not up to the writer to set those meetings when her pilot is being shopped, it is very much her responsibility to understand where the show would live, and who would be the core audience watching it. It is possible for a CW-type show to end up on Freeform or Netflix, or for an NBC procedural to end up on, say, (maybe) TNT or FOX, but HBO doesn’t do weekly procedurals for the most part, so… You get the point.

In features, it’s more of an audience question: Would this be a four-quadrant movie? While many writers want to write for the four quadrants, the reality is that few do. Understanding who your audience is, and what are their behaviors, would also dictate what sort of movie for what kind of budget can be made for that audience. If it could be a big summer release, the story can be told against a bigger, more expensive backdrop. If the movie would cater to the over-70 audience, its chances of being made are going to be smaller, as the over-70 set goes to the movies less often. Identifying the audience for your movie will also dictate the fashion in which it’s released (small release or wide? festivals first or straight to streamers) down the road.

Understanding who your movie or TV show is made for would help you discuss the project with a more authoritative and knowledgable voice.

What is the tone?

On most projects, tone can go many different ways, which is why it’s so important that you know not only how to define the tone of your project, but also have it sown in consistently on every page and into every plot twist. All too often we read screenplays that read like one thing for the first 10-, 20-, or 30- pages, only to transform into an entirely different kind of screenplay as we get along in the story. Which means that if an executive, agent or manager puts your screenplay or pilot down on page 10, 15 or 20, they wouldn’t have quite gotten the general gist of your project.

This is not to say that dramatic screenplays can’t have some levity, or that tension shouldn’t build in a horror or thriller screenplay. But if you are writing a thriller, banana peel type scenes or sequences will likely feel out of place with it, while lighter fare would lose its momentum if suddenly encumbered by darker, more contemplative turns that last more than mere moments.

On the reading end, we want to understand tone from the word Go. Because tone not only galvanizes a particular piece; it also informs its target audience. If your screenplay is aimed at an adult audience, it likely can’t thrive if its tone is, in part, that of movies or TV shows made for children and teenagers; similarly, if you’re writing a family movie, it can’t take on a too deep and somber tone overall. You have to find the balance in order to really deliver on the screenplay’s progress. Not sure how to do this?

When a screenplay fails to have a cohesive tone, we hear comments like “the screenplay doesn’t know what it is yet,” or “it feels disjointed.” To avoid such comments, go back to your comps, and use those as a reference point. 

The most important takeaway from this blogpost should be: No one should know more about your project than you. If you want to make sure you are ticking all the boxes and are sure that you’re ready to talk about your project as it relates not only to audience, comps and tone, but also to other elements execs, agents and managers are looking to hear about from you, you can reach out to me through my Project Pitch Cheat Sheet through my CONTACT FORM.