Evil Rat Sitiing On Hind Legs

by Guyot

If you didn’t read last week’s post, please go back and do so.

Okay, so about three weeks after you and the studio hammered out the network pitch, you show up at the network offices, along with one of the studio’s young beauties, and sometimes (depending on who you are), your agent shows up.

You walk in and realize they are eerily similar to the studio offices you originally went into. An assistant – looking exactly like the studio assistant – tells you that they’re running behind and will be with you in a few. They offer you bottled water, and if you say yes, they ask if you’d like it cold or room temperature. Or… if your meeting is scheduled near the end of the pitch season, they will tell you they only have room temperature.

About twelve minutes after your scheduled meeting time – it’s always twelve minutes – the assistant tells you they’re ready for you. You and the studio’s young beauty, walk through a mouse maze to the network executive’s office. There will always be one or two more people than you expected, and they are eerily similar to the studio’s young beauties. Often, the network’s young beauties will know your studio’s young beauty and they will all hug and laugh and talk about who had to wear a fake mustache at club Play the other night.

So, you go into the office and choose your seat, and about two to four minutes of small talk ensues – network beauties are much busier than studio beauties, and therefore have limited time for small talk. And then your studio beauty does a little introduction, saying how excited they are about you and your idea, and how they think it’s perfect for this particular network.

And then you pitch.

The network beauties nod, and put interested look masks over their faces, and occasionally write things down on their notepads. When you’re done – if it went well – they ask you questions. Their questions differ slightly from the studio’s questions. The network beauties’ questions will all sound different, and all seem different, but they are all the same question: Can we get 100 episodes out of this idea?

Then the network beauties tell you how great it was, how much they loved it, and that now they’re gonna talk internally and get back to you.

No, “Rati faithful, I am not kidding. It is exactly the same as the studio pitch process. Except that you have your own young beauty with you. Which is always comforting.

The major networks hear about 100 pitches each, so figure the total number of pitches heard by all the major networks and bigger cable nets, is anywhere from a low of 600 to a high of about 1,000.

Out of those, the majors will buy maybe as many as fifteen. The cablers maybe five or so. Of those, the major networks will shoot (actually put on film or DV) anywhere from six or seven, to the record eleven ABC shot a year or so ago. The cablers are much more prudent, usually shooting no more than three or four tops.

Of those pilots actually shot, each major will put as few as two on the air, or as many as five, depending on how badly they need product. The cablers anywhere from one to three.

So, those are the odds just to get on the air. Then to stay on the air… yeah, right. Every year the show’s that debut with the most hype ALWAYS FAIL. Always. The years that shows like CSI, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, and ER premiered, other pilots had all the hype. And those are long gone.

So, the network says yes to your idea. Now you know you’re going to get paid to write! And after a few hellish weeks “breaking the story” with your studio beauties, you write an outline of the pilot. This is for the network, but first, the studio must sign off on it, so you send it to them. Then, they tell you all the things wrong with your outline – all the things they know the network is not going to like about the outline. So, you make the changes because who knows better, right? See previous post.

Then your outline goes to the network, and they call and tell you that the very things the studio had you put in are what they hate. And when they tell you what they want, you realize that 75% of it is what the studio had you take out.

So, you rewrite. Another outline. And another. And this – both in features and TV – is where outlines get a bad name. See, the outline itself, used by the writer for his/her own purposes, is not a bad thing. It’s not counter to the creative process, or confining, or any of the other things people who bash outlines say they are. But this outline, the studio/network outline, this, this, this COMPLETE FREAKING WASTE OF TIME THAT SERVES NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN TO ALLOW SOME PUNK-ASS LOW LEVEL EXECUTIVES A REASON TO JUSTIFY THEIR JOB EXISTENCE, is not the most productive thing in a screenwriter’s life. This is where your wonderful locomotive of an idea can begin to derail. In television, what a writer must do is survive the outline phase. Give them whatever the hell they want so they will utter those three glorious words: GO TO SCRIPT.

Because once you start writing the script, you can do anything you want. So long as the structure, at least vaguely resembles the outline. And again, the more Emmys you have (within the last 15 years) the more you can adopt a Fuck-You stance during the outline phase.

So, you go to script. You write your ass off, you create the single greatest pilot since DOPE, or FREAKS AND GEEKS, or BOOMTOWN, or MY SO-CALLED LIFE, or any of the other absolute genius pilots that have been written over the years, and you type THE END or FADE OUT or whatever, and you’re actually happy with it. You survived the outlines and the silly notes and God smiles on you and the network says they’re shooting your pilot! Yes, now, you can pop the champagne.

And drink up, because hell is on its way.

Next, you go through endless meetings about locations – can we make Toronto look like the Nevada desert? True story: I had a pilot set in St. Louis – all about the mindset, etc., of the Midwest, and the network asked me to rewrite it for New York, saying it wasn’t even a rewrite really… “All you have to do is change the sluglines from Ext. St. Louis to Ext. New York.” Yes, they actually said that.

So, you figure out location, and then it gets fun. You nearly wet yourself because they send you lists of the directors they want to go after. Steven Soderbergh? PT Anderson? Ang Lee? Are you kidding? But then you start to hear a phrase uttered way too often: “So-and-so won’t do television.”

Then they go to the next list, which is still not bad. Michael Apted? Walter Hill? Anyone who ever directed an episode of The Sopranos? But Mike’s in Europe, Walter’s pissed off, and the others are all booked. Eventually, you settle on someone you like, but don’t love. Trust me, it could be way worse. It can always be worse.

Next, you nearly wet yourself again when you see the list of actors they have in mind for your pilot. Andy Garcia? Brad Pitt? Charlize Theron? Are you kidding? But then you hear it: “So-and-so won’t do television.”

So, you go to the next list. Casting directors have tons of lists. And the next one ain’t so bad. John Cusak? Sandra Bullock? Jennifer Lopez? Ah, but Sandy’s tied up on a feature, and Jenny’s cutting an album, and John won’t do TV.

Once you get to the third or fourth list, you start to get worried because you notice a trend taking place… the beauties seem more concerned with getting a name – any name – than they do with casting the thing with the right actor. You think about all the big name actors who have done failed pilots, and you think about all the smash hit pilots that had no big names in them. You mention this to one of the beauties and are told to keep quiet; you don’t understand the business.

This is where you will bond with your director. He/she doesn’t want a name, but rather an actor… excellent! An ally. Then the director mentions that his/her good friend is an underrated superstar, is available, and would be perfect. “It will be like Travolta in PULP FICTION,” the director says. You then spend three sleepless nights praying that the offer to Scott Baio won’t be accepted.

Eventually, all the bullshit subsides for a moment. This is what I call the gloaming of screenwriting. This amazing phase when you’ve gotten your location, your cast, and everything else set. And you show up on the first day of shooting and before you’ve even taken a bite of your breakfast burrito, your entire life has been worth it. All the shit you’ve ever swallowed and slugged through… all the humiliation you felt at the hands of Michelle Brady back in fifth grade when you confessed your love for her and she laughed at you; how your parents locked you up in that juvenile criminal rehab facility and you took the screwdriver that that guy Tony had smuggled in up his butt, and unscrewed the mesh over the window and escaped, running eleven miles back home; all the endless drivel you endured about needing something to fall back on; and how freaking right you were when your high school principal threatened to deny your diploma if you didn’t rat out your friends, and so you stood up in her office and said, “So what, I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Pictures,” and walked out, never graduating… yes, yes, yes! You were right, and it was all worth it because:

An actor comes up to you, and asks YOUR opinion about a scene. You feel incredible. Even if it’s Scott Baio, you feel incredible. And it gets better when you go to the set and they have a chair for you. And the sound guy brings over your own set of headphones. And a PA asks if he can get you a bottled water – cold or room temperature? Note: Feature writers rarely make it to the sets of their films, television writers are always there.

And the scene is blocked and the scene is lighted, and the actors are called for, and everyone gets quiet, and the A.D. says “Roll camera,” and the director – sitting right next to you – says “Action,” and wham! Real actors are being filmed with real cameras, saying THE WORDS THAT YOU WROTE.

It’s magical. And you want to cry, but you don’t. You want to call your buddy back home and say, “You’re not gonna freaking believe this!” but you don’t. You wanna call Brenda Collins – your high school principal – and tell her where you are, and ask her how much she made last year, but you don’t. You sit there and try to act like it’s not your first rodeo. Not your first barbeque. Try to look like you belong.

The gloaming goes on for about two weeks. There are highs and lows, many fires to be put out, many worries, a few freakouts, but basically it’s a beautiful time. The studio and network beauties show up, and even their bosses show up, and everyone loves you. And then, on the last day, as the director yells cut, and the A.D. says, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is a wrap!” and everyone cheers, and hugs each other, you want to cry your eyes out because it’s over. But you don’t. You act like you’ve done it before.

The beauties congratulate you and say they know it’s going to be a hit, and over the next few weeks the editing process happens, and you still feel good. And your agents call and say there’s buzz about your pilot. Buzz is good. I always thought buzz was bad, thought it meant mosquitoes or something. No, buzz is good. They say it’s good. So, you’re happy there’s buzz.

But there’s a reason I call it the gloaming. The gloaming is a stunning, amazing, beautiful moment in time… and it’s always right before everything goes pitch black.

See, a few weeks later you get a DVD sent to you – the first cut of YOUR PILOT. And you call friends and family, and invite them over, and you buy the good vodka, and you pop the thing in, and you watch it.

And you wonder what the hell happened to your pilot???

You think you must have been delivered the wrong DVD. But no, you remember that scene in the restaurant. Only it wasn’t dramatic when they shot it, it was funny. But it sure as hell ain’t funny now. How did they do that?

You call your agents, and they tell you not to worry, that’s only the director’s cut. Oh… that guy. Scott Baio’s buddy. Always hated him. So you wait another week or two and get another DVD, and you watch it, and it’s even further from your pilot than the first cut. And you’re freaking out, and your agents are out of town, and the studio and network beauties aren’t around anymore, and you’re getting way too many emails from that one actor, who had like, three lines in that one scene, and he wants to know when the show is gonna premiere, and you can’t for the life of you remember giving him your email address, and you’re still freaking out, thinking your career is over the second the network sees this pile of trash.

And you have multiple sleepless nights, and your agent finally calls back and says not to worry, everyone will know it wasn’t your fault.

I sound bitter, but I’m not. I would dearly love to be able to make my living as some of you do – writing prose. But that’s not my thing. Not right now. And this silly, stupid, annoying business of screenwriting pays very well. Too well. X will back me on this – we make much more than we should, as does all of Hollywood. So, when I complain, it’s done with the slightest twinkle in my eye. Or maybe that’s a cinder I got at one of my pilots’ cremations.

How does a pilot go from being shot to getting on the air? Some pilots with big name elements have big penalties, too. Meaning, the studio/network makes a deal with big name to produce their pilot, and if it doesn’t make the fall season lineup, they will pay Big Name a penalty – usually heavy six figures. This is a big reason why you see a lot of terrible shows by big name people premiere and then die. So they don’t have to pay the penalty. Yes, I know it’s stupid.

The more traditional way is your pilot, once finished, is screened, along with the other pilots that network made, for the head honchos of the network. These are the corporate guys – who know even less about creating art, than the beauties – and they screen them, and then maybe test screen them. That’s when they show your pilot to a bunch of fire watchers out in Canoga Park, and let them decide if it’s worthy of the air. God, is that an excruciating process.

So, a show makes the air either because 1) someone had a big penalty, 2) a group of bankers think it could get certain ad revenue from certain demographics, 3) a bunch of out of work Big Gulp sippers in the Valley liked it. HBO is the exception and it shows. They decide. And they don’t have to worry about ad revenue. Unfortunately, they recently put bankers in charge, so who knows?

As stated earlier, your odds are the same as buying a lottery ticket. But I’d much rather write, and drink room temperature water, and write, and sit with young beauties, and write, and deal with stupid notes, and write, than walk into a Quik-Mart and buy a lottery ticket.

Next week: An interview with an actual working television writer: Paul Guyot!

(Part One of this series is here)

11 thoughts on “Evil Rat Sitiing On Hind Legs

  1. JT Ellison

    Isn’t it amazing what desire makes us go through for the big finish?

    Thanks for this G. It’s fascinating, and humbling, to know the inside machinations. Makes me happy to be a novelist.

  2. Louise Ure

    Guyot, is it the same routine/craziness if a big star is associated with a pilot in its initial conception. (Maybe that’s part of the “big name/penalty” paragraph up there.)

    I’m thinking of shows like Damage, or Saving Grace. Would Glenn Close and Holly Hunter have been brought it at the casting stage or initial conception?

  3. David J. Montgomery

    Glenn Close was in on Damages almost from the beginning, from what I read. The creators pitched the show to the network, the network suggested Glenn Close, they got her interested, and then wrote it with her in mind.

    She’s perfect for the part and so far the show is very good. I don’t know what kind of legs it has, but I like it up ’til now.

  4. Guyot

    Yes, the big stars are the big names I speak of.

    Ever since her season on THE SHIELD, Glenn Close has been on a one woman crusade in Hollywood. She is telling all her big name female actor friends how great TV is. Cable TV, specifically.

    You only work four months out of the year – so you can have a family – and you get a big producer credit – so you can be in control – and you make gobs of money. She was the one who convinced Holly Hunter to do TV, and now there are several other big name actors looking for juciy roles.

    But as I said, it’s a weird phenomenon. When big stars are involved from the get-go, rarely do those shows ever make it. Close had a deal of sorts with FX – they were on a quest to find something for her. But the DAMAGES idea came in to the network on its own, without her.

    And yet, studios and networks are always salivating for big stars.

  5. gregory huffstutter

    Thanks for the interesting posts… I forwarded them to all my friends who’ve tried to make it in the nutty scriptwriting industry.

    I work in advertising, and part of my gig is to evaluate all the Fall pilots for our automotive client.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a tone-deaf, train-wreck of a pilot — especially with a ‘big name star’ attached — and wondered how the hell it ever got made. And then, how the hell it ever got picked up on the network primetime schedule. (That’s right, Jeff Goldblum, don’t think I’ve forgiven you for “Raines”).

    Mystery solved. Next time I won’t be so quick to judge the writing staff.


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