Industry Speak: Terms and Vernacular for Screenwriters

A few weeks ago, a screenwriter who has yet to break in, reached out to me over email. It became clear in the first one or two lines of his message that he was not yet a working writer, was not of the industry, and not yet familiar with industry terms.

For agents, managers, producers and executives, these sorts of indicators can serve as a huge red flag when coming from someone unknown to them. Not knowing or understanding the jargon used by the industry day in and day out is a sure giveaway of the fact that the writer may well just be starting out.

It’s the writer’s job, no matter the career stage, to try and show up as professionally as possible at every opportunity. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it; it’s about having a clear understanding of the terminology and vernacular used in the space you are working in or trying to break into.

With that in mind, I put together a list of industry terms for both emerging and working screenwriters and TV writers. Some are room-specific, others more universal, but as a whole, these are (at least some of the) terms that a writer should anticipate folding into his language if he wants to effectively participate in industry conversations.

Disclaimer: For the sake of writing a list, rather than a book, I tried to keep things simple. This means that some of the definitions provided below are broad and potentially lacking nuance.

Above-the-Line: (Production basics) Movie and TV budget terms, derived from the top sheet of a budget, referring to funds allocated to such elements including screenplay and talent such as actors, director and producer. Note: The above term is usually utilized industry-wide when pertaining to “above the line talent.”

Act Out: (Writing basics) An act break in a TV pilot or TV episode.

Bald: (Writers room speak) Something in a script that is too obvious. Stated too plainly. In need of finessing.   

Beat Sheet: (Writing basics) A chronological breakdown of all major story beats that move the story forward in a pilot, TV episode or screenplay.

Below-the-Line: (Production basics) Derived from the top sheet of a production budget for movies or TV shows, which refers to every budgeted line item of the production, including crew, materials, transportation and much more that appear below the line separating top talent from other budgeted elements. The term “below the line talent” refers to key department heads whose budget placement is below the line, such as Director of Photography.

Blind Deal: (Industry speak & terminology) A development deal entered into by a writer and a production company, studio or network, without a specific project in mind, the first step of which would entail both sides providing potential concepts to develop under the deal.

Button: (Writers room speak) The end of a scene punctuated by a punchy line or an unexpected plot twist.

Chyron: (Writing basics) Updated term for superimposed title.

Comps: (Industry speak & terminology) As it pertains to a screenplay or pilot: Other completed projects, be they TV shows or movies, that are comparable to yours.

Competitive Situation: (Industry speak & terminology) A situation in which multiple buyers are competing for the same piece of material, be it a screenplay, pilot or pitch. Also known as a bidding war, though that term is rarely used any more.

Coverage: (Industry terminology) A written assessment of a screenplay or a TV pilot, which includes a logline, synopsis, comments and recommendations, generally generated internally in an agency, management company, production company or studio.

Crafty: (Production speak) The craft service/snack table on set for a movie, pilot, or TV show shoot.

Day-and-Date: (Industry speak & terminology) Movie release strategy that entails a film dropping simultaneously in theaters, DVD and via a digital platform all on the same day.

Development Season: (Industry speak & terminology) Traditionally (and specifically for broadcast networks), the period between when a pilot is picked up (i.e. end of pitch season) and January, during which pitches and pilots are developed with input from the buyer. Note that with basic cable, pay cable and streamers, development happens year-round.

Directing on the Page: (Writing basics) Writing very specific direction, including camera direction and character expression/nuance on the page in a non-shooting script.

Dual Timelines: (Writing Basics) A screenplay or pilot that follows storylines unfolding during different times/years/decades.

EP: (Industry speak & terminology) Executive Producer. Note that on a TV show, the showrunner’s official title (which you would see in the front credits) is Executive Producer, though not every EP is a showrunner. There are cases of EPs having minimal actual involvement with the show itself, despite playing part in bringing it to the screen.

Elements: (Industry speak & terminology) The above-the-line elements such as name actor, director, showrunner, writer and/or producer attached to or in consideration for a screenplay, pilot or project. Also known as Attachments once commitments have been secured. These elements increase and expand the value of a screenplay or pilot.

First Look Deal: (Industry speak & terminology) An agreement in which a production company gives its home studio or network a first right to any of the projects it develops.

Gang Bang: (Writers room speak) A very uncouth term that speaks to the collective, deadline-driven writing of a complete outline or TV episode by a group of writers or all writers available in the writers room. Following the #Metoo movement, some rooms have adopted the more palatable term Group writing.

“Go” Project: (Production basics) Fully funded, top priority feature or TV pilot that is given a green light.

Hang a Lantern: (Writers room speak) Characters – in dialogue – illuminating or highlighting a particular element of story to ensure that it is not missed, or acknowledging a logic problem.

Hard Ground: (Writers room speak) An immovable beat or plot point in an otherwise developing pilot or TV episode

Hip Pocket: (Industry speak & terminology) Tentative engagement from an agent or manager; in this scenario, a rep may engage in everything from giving notes to sending material to the industry without fully committing to bringing the writer onto his official client list.

“I bumped on… ”: (Writers room speak) A scene, moment, plot point or character action in a screenplay or pilot that rang untrue or illogical and therefore stopped the flow of a read.

If/Come Deal: (Industry speak & terminology) A deal in which the writer develops content, usually in conjunction with a studio or network, without any money changing hands until the project is sold.

IP: (Writing basics) Intellectual property.

Jumping the Shark: (Industry speak & terminology) The moment that in some way signifies the beginning of the end for a TV show as we knew it, purely based on a blunt and sudden decline in story/quality; when a TV show resorts to outlandish, integrity compromising plot to preserve false stakes (and yes, this does go back to Happy Days and The Fonz… )

Linear: (Writing basics) In writing, a story told in a straight-forward, chronological fashion. Note that this can often be used as a negative, implying that the plot is too simple, or that things fall into place too neatly, despite the fact that the best plot is built step by step… 

Martini Shot: (Production speak) The final set-up (i.e. camera/lighting set up) shot during a day of production/principle photography. 

McGuffin: (Writing basics) A plot device that moves the story forward in a specific direction or provides plot-driving motivation for a character, but is later revealed to have no actual substantive meaning to the story.

Mini Room: (Industry speak & terminology) A small writers room, usually gathered before a show is picked up, receives a season commitment or goes into production, that is gathered in order to explore seasonal storylines and develop episodes.

Mini-Major: (Industry speak & terminology) A large production company creating material that is able to compete with those produced by the majors, i.e. big studios.

Naked Spec: (Industry speak & terminology) A spec screenplay that has no attachments.

Non-Linear: (Writing basics) In writing, a story told utilizing time jumps, flashbacks, etc., and therefore engaging a storytelling style that doesn’t follow chronological order.

On a Desk: (Industry speak & terminology) A term referring to an assistant on someone’s (agent, manager, lawyer, executive) desk.

O.S.: (Writing basics) Off Screen. Dialogue spoken by a character who is off screen.

On the Nose: (Writers room speak) Lacking any subtlety, subtext, sophistication or nuance. Or all of those.

Option Agreement: (Industry speak & terminology) An agreement entered into by a writer and a production company and spanning a fixed amount of time under which a production company or studio pays the writer a sum of money (could be a little as $1, hence the term Dollar Option) in order to take a screenplay or pilot off the market to develop and package it.

Ordered to Pilot: (Industry speak & terminology) A pilot that is ordered for filming. Whether or not the pilot will go on to become a series will be determined once top brass views the pilot and decides whether or not it is worthy of a season, or partial season, order.

Ordered to Series: (Industry speak & terminology) A shot pilot that goes on to receive a season order, complete with number of episodes.

Out to Market: (Industry speak & terminology) When a screenplay or a TV pilot is taken out into the industry marketplace (i.e production companies, studios, networks and financiers), usually by an agent, a manager, or both.

Outline: (Writing basics) The architectural breakdown of your screenplay, giving us the major beats and turns of each scene that moves your plot forward. 

Package: (Industry speak & terminology) The collective elements attached to a project that create an intrinsic value beyond the screenplay, pilot or pitch itself.

Paper Team: (Industry speak & terminology) Non-partner TV writers, teamed up on paper only in order to fill a single writer’s spot in a TV writers room.

Pilot Pick-Up: (Industry speak & terminology) A commitment from the network (or buyer, i.e. streaming service, basic cable or premium cable) to pick up a pilot for development and possible filming.

Pilot Season: (Industry speak & terminology) Traditionally (and specifically for broadcast networks) the period between January and April when pilots previously in development are selected for filming, are cast, filmed, and edited.

Pitch Season: (Industry speak & terminology) Traditionally (and specifically for broadcast networks) the period between July and October, when new pilots and TV concepts are pitched to networks, studios, streamers and other potential buyers. Note that, as is the case with Development Season, with basic cable, pay cable and streamers, taking pitches for new shows is something that happens year-round.

Phone Sheet: (Industry speak & terminology) An executive, lawyer, agent or manager’s sheet of calls to return, usually compiled, tracked and updated by the assistant. Not to be confused with Call sheet, which is the daily agenda detailing all the elements needed for a movie or TV shoot, distributed the night before.

POD: (Industry speak & terminology) Production overall deal, in which a production entity develops content exclusively for its home studio or network.

POV: (Writing basics) In a screenplay or pilot, when something is seen from a specific character’s point of view (note that over usage could be perceived as directing on the page)

Put Pilot: (Industry speak & terminology) A deal that entails the production and airing of a TV pilot; the deal includes substantial penalties if the pilot is not aired. 

Scale: (Industry speak & terminology) Minimum guild-regulated pay.

Spec Screenplay: (Writing basics) A screenplay written speculatively, i.e. without pay and not as part of a writing assignment or at anyone’s behest.

Spec Sale: (Industry speak & terminology) The sale of a screenplay written on spec in the known industry marketplace. 

Spec TV Episode: (Writing basics) An episode for an existing television show written independently of the show (i.e. on spec), usually written to be used as a writing sample or to satisfy the requirements of a TV writing program.

Spec TV Pilot: (Writing basics) Also known as original pilot. Same as spec screenplay, but written for TV.

Scene Blow: (Writers room speak) The final big joke in a scene of a TV comedy.

Screenplay: (Writing basics) The scripted, detailed blue print for a feature film, including scenes, action lines and dialogue. Do not use “Screen play”.

Screenwriter: (Writing basics) The person writing the screenplay. Do not use “Scriptwriter” or “Script writer”.

Shooting Script: (Writing basics) The final version of the screenplay or pilot that is used to make on-set decisions. A shooting script does include scene numbers and specific camera direction, unlike previous drafts, and is usually finalized by the director and DP (director of photography).

Schmuck Bait: (Writers room speak) This one has multiple uses: 1) An all-too-obvious object or device… The big red button with a warning sign on it, or anything of that ilk… 2) An audience fake-out such as: our protagonist has to disarm a bomb but the clock is ticking down! Is he going to live? (spoiler alert: of course he is. He is the star of the show).

Scripty: (Production basics) Also known as Script Supervisor, this is the on-set position responsible for tracking continuity, both verbal and visual, from take to take and shot to shot. This is done in order to ensure that the material cuts together in editing.

Shopping Agreement: (Industry speak & terminology) An agreement entered into by a writer and a production company and spanning a fixed amount of time, which allows the production company (usually) exclusive rights to shop the material to buyers, financiers, distributors, studios and networks, in order to get the project set up.

Staffy: (Industry speak & terminology) Staff writer, as in the person in the staff writer position (rather than a writer staffed in a room, who may be at a different level).

Step it Out: (Writers room speak) A moment, usually in a TV script, that needs to be enhanced, developed, or further built out.

Straight-to-Series: (Industry speak & terminology) A new TV show that bypasses shooting a pilot first, and instead gets an order for the first season’s worth of episodes.

Take a Flyer: (Industry speak & terminology) Take a chance

TV Pilot: (Writing basics) The scripted blue print for a TV show. Can also be describes as a Spec Pilot. Teleplay may also do, though it is dated. Do not use: “Television screenplay” “Television screen play” or “Teleplay script”.

Treatment: (Writing basics) A compelling, prose-driven description of your story, providing a broad overview.

V.O.: (Writing basics) Voice Over, which may be narration, inner monologue (as in the case with YOU), or dialogue leading into next scene.

Writing Partners: (Industry speak & terminology) Writing partners on a single or multiple screenplays or TV pilots. Also known as writing team. Do not use: Business partners, as this has entirely different parameters.

Are there any important terms that I left out, or others that you would like to see defined? CONTACT ME with the information and I will be sure to include it in the next iteration of vocabulary breakdown! It takes a village. 

And a quick note of thanks to all of my very smart writers who weighed in – I could not have put this together without you guys!