The Harsh Truths About Selling Your TV Pilot

A client once accused me of not believing in him. He said it just like that:

“After our last session, I realized that you don’t really believe in me.”

So I asked:

“Why would you think that I don’t believe in you?”

“You made me realize that you think I can’t run my own show.”

Hmmmm…. For the record, that was not what I said. But he was right: I don’t believe that any person can be plucked out of obscurity, never worked a day in the industry, to adequately run their own show. And if there is such a person, I don’t know a network or studio that would give all that power to a person who doesn’t have any professional experience to speak of.

But I digress. Let’s break it down: What happened during that fateful last session that this scribe spoke of? To be honest, it was fairly straight forward: I told the writer, who had written roughly 24 episodes for his proposed anthology, that if he – unestablished, unknown writer that he was – was lucky enough to sell his pilot, there will likely be a showrunner hired and a room assembled to break future seasons and future episodes.

I didn’t tell him this because I didn’t believe in him; on the contrary, I was very impressed by him, and thought that he, despite the lack of any formal education, was quite talented, undeniably charismatic, and potentially the sort of one-in-a-million writer who had a strong enough vision, who could be exciting enough to sell his pilot from “the outside,” i.e., without first staffing on a show, or getting traction on the feature side, or living in Los Angeles, or working in any capacity that’s industry-professional. In fact, I had thought to myself more than once that if there is someone who could do it, it could very well be him. But the writer was offended that I told him that he would give himself a better shot at selling his pilot if he tried to staff first, and really, really didn’t like it when I told him that if he was fortunate enough to have Netflix (his dream home) pick up his show, it was pretty much impossible to imagine that they would let it move forward without a more seasoned showrunner overseeing it all.

Now for the record, this was a smart writer. As I mentioned earlier, talented, ambitious, determined. He had heard all of this before and told me as much – he just didn’t want to think that anything of what he’d heard and read would apply to him.

Back then, I thought it was an isolated incident. But lately, I’ve been meeting more and more unestablished writers who told me that they were busy writing every episode for their mini-series, that they are on episode 7 of season 1, aiming to complete it and jump into season 2 scripts soon enough.

And so… here we are! Breaking it down.

It is absolutely true that television is booming. In 2018, we are expected to have 528 original scripted programs on the air. So, obviously, there is a lot of buying and selling that’s going on, in order to get to this amount of content. However, it’s been said that 5,000 pitches produce 500 viable scripts; 500 viable scripts produce 50 viable pilots; 50 viable pilots produce 25 new shows, and of those 25 shows, 2 go on to a successful run. And most, if not all, of those pilots will come from seasoned professionals.

Writers who have been in a room, even just as lower-level writers, are, for the most part, the people selling those pitches and pilots. Feature writers with any success to their name can also be taking a piece of that pie. But for first-time writers without a ton of experience in the writing space, be it television or features, the reality can be tough:

It’s possible, but really not probable, to sell a pilot from the outside

Here is what I wrote in my blogpost BREAKING INTO TELEVISION WRITING: WHAT’S POSSIBLE, WHAT’S PROBABLE? in late 2017:

Yes, it has happened. If you’ve been in this industry for more than a moment, you’ve heard all about Mickey Fisher, whose pilot EXTANT surfaced through the TrackingB contest and went on to run on CBS for two seasons with Steven Spielberg executive producing and Halle Berry in the starring role, so… yeah. Possible. But probable? Hmmm. Don’t get me wrong: As I write this, scribes that I work with who have yet to prove themselves in the television/episodic space are being sent out there by their agents and managers to pitch new shows and try to sell them. Even so, one has to remember that television shows are a BIG investment, each show representing a satellite business for the parent company (be it a network, basic cable outlet, premium cable outlet or digital outlet) that finances them. While the pilot may hold a great deal of promise, it is usually only part 1 of a business that will have many consequent, and equally expensive, parts to it. This is why most networks, basic cable, premium cable and digital content providers often prefer to buy content from a name content creator who has the in-the-room or industry experience, and who has the track record that he will be able to see the show through from first episode to last.

When I interviewed him for my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, manager Zadoc Angell of Echo Lake Entertainment confirmed this: It kills me when writers are just so focused on: how can I write a pilot that can sell? The likelihood of that happening is so low. And here’s why it’s low: in the feature world, the writer is not king. If it’s a beautiful screenplay, that’s all a studio really needs to acquire. They can buy it out from you. They don’t care if you live in LA or Montana if the script is amazing so they acquire it, then they can have traditional Hollywood screenwriters do the rewrites for them, throw on a big director who’s going to make it his vision, go cast it, shoot it, and the writer is totally out of the process. In TV, if you buy a pilot from a writer, you’re buying that writer’s vision, not just for one episode, but hopefully for 100 episodes. So you’re investing in that writer in a much bigger way, and it’s a long-term ongoing relationship. So that’s why just writing a great pilot and hoping it will sell is sort of limited in its thinking, because they’re not just looking to throw a bunch of great pilot scripts into development and see what happens, they’re looking to invest in writers that they believe in and who they think have a vision for the long term and that they can see executing that vision week to week.”

If you are lucky enough to sell your original pilot, expect a room to be assembled.

Everyone wants to be Julian Fellowes. But Mr. Fellowes is a unique creator, with a specific track record, allowed unusual freedoms. GAME OF THRONES, too, is a unique situation. For most shows, writer’s rooms are going to be assembled, with the showrunner overseeing the vision, and writers, from Staff Writer to Executive Producer, taking on specific episodes. Some rooms are all co-writes; every episode is written by a lower level writer paired with an upper- or mid-level writer. Other rooms vary, some co-writes, some sole Written Bys. Other rooms “room write” with every writer contributing to every episode. Some rooms assemble the team only for the breaking of the season, after which episodes are assigned for writers to dig in from the comfort of their own home. Others room break episodes together, after which the writer is sent off to put it on paper and do his job. It’s done in many different ways. But for the most part, and barring the exceptions… There is almost always some sort of a room. And when there isn’t, it’s because an experienced showrunner made the case – and won – for doing it with one or two other writers, if not entirely on his own.

First time running a show, without any staffing experience? Expect there to be a showrunner.

In his famous and widely shared ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS I’VE BEEN ASKED, show creator Mickey Fisher (whom I mentioned earlier), wrote of building the team for EXTANT following Amblin getting involved in the setting up of his show:

“The next step was finding a Showrunner. For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, they’re the person (or persons) in charge of running the day to day creative operations of a television show. Like piloting a 747 or performing brain surgery, it’s not an entry level job. For someone like me who had never even worked as a P.A., clearly I was not going to be handed the keys to tens of millions of dollars of shareholder money. I knew I was going to be partnered with someone who would be in charge, so I decided two things right away: 1.) I was going to be as open and collaborative as possible. Whoever it was, if they were going to eat, sleep and breathe this show, so it had to be as much theirs as it was mine. And 2.) I would treat this experience as primarily a learning experience, soaking up as much as I could from then.

“I was heartened to learn recently that it’s basically the same advice the WGA gives in its one-day workshop for new creators who have just sold a show. Basically they tell you (I’ve heard) that this first show isn’t really your show. Your show is the next one. For this first one, your job is to help the Showrunner keep his/her job and be as helpful as possible in general. I got very lucky in that I felt this instinctually and followed through. Again, I was just thrilled to be there.”

If you’ve never worked in a writer’s room or never wrote/directed/produced a successful feature film, in all likelihood, there’s going to be a showrunner. It’s a non-negotiable.

You can read Mickey Fisher’s complete document HERE.

Even though you are the show’s creator, you could find yourself sidelined.

Once a seasoned showrunner is brought on to your show, they are the captain of the ship. In a perfect world, they would be open to and interested in your vision. But if they don’t agree with it? They are going to steer the ship along the course they envision as most meaningful and successful. And if you push back, protest, complain, argue or demonstrate… they can opt to tell you to stay home for the remainder of your contract. Yes, you will be paid whatever fees you are due. But the harsh reality there is that they really do not owe you anything beyond that.

This blog post is not written to discourage you from writing pilots. In fact, and as mentioned earlier I work with a number of writers who don’t currently have any in-the-room experience, who are being encouraged by their very well-regarded reps to write those exciting original pilots, the same reps who will then go and fight the good fight for the material once it’s ready for market. Let me go on the record and say that I do believe in those writers and those pilots. And I know that with a rep by your side who is willing to be your pilot’s champion, you have the ability to get that much closer to selling your pilot. But selling your pilot is one thing. Showrunning your show is a whole other mountain, and it’s that understanding that this blog post aims to foster.