I recently attended a UCLA class taught by the always impressive Tom Nunan, where one of his guests, the head of HBO, Michael Lombardo, shared that HBO is planning to buy approximately 200 new pilots this year–roughly 120 dramas and 80 comedies.
To put this in perspective, if recent trends continue, we’ll see somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 feature spec scripts sell this year, meaning HBO will purchase more scripts than all of the movie studios combined.
And HBO is just one buyer.
Add in all the other cable and broadcast channels, plus Amazon and Netflix, and you quickly realize why so many writers are rushing to cash in on this second golden age of television. In my writing classes alone, I’ve seen forty-seven of my students sell pilots over the past two years, with dozens more getting staffed on shows such as Community, The Fosters, Bones, Justified, Young and Hungry, Playing House, The Mentalist, Marvel’s Agents of Shield, Up All Night, State of Affairs and Treme.
But just like the real prospectors of old, the vast majority of writers seeking to launch TV careers are going to come up empty-handed. Why is that? One of the main reasons is that many of these folks, perhaps unknowingly, won’t be able to fully execute on some of the key aspects needed to entice a buyer, including two of the most important: compelling characters and story structure.
Feature films last ninety minutes or so. They are like a one-night stand, or weekend affair, with the short duration helping to heighten the intensity of the experience. TV shows, on the other hand, are more like a marriage. We are asked to spend year after year with the same characters, often inviting them into the intimate spaces of our living rooms and bedrooms. Which is why most managers and agents I know refuse to represent any writer who isn’t an absolute rock star at character development. No matter how great an overall concept might be for a show, without compelling characters, it’s hard to get much traction in the marketplace.
And it’s only getting harder. Given all of the potential money and creative control TV can offer, top novelists and screenwriters are jumping into the game. I recently read pilots by Charlie Kaufman, Scott Frank and Richard Price to name a few. These scripts all had achingly beautiful characters, and like it or not, this is the competition that you will be measured by.
Most aspiring writers will fall short on this front, only they don’t often know it. One of the biggest mistakes I see writers making is overestimating the strength of their characters and dialogue, often based on the praise given by their friends, writer group colleagues and teachers. At the end of the day, the only opinion that matters is that of industry readers, who are tasked with weeding out all but the absolute best of the best.
If you suspect you might benefit from some help with characters and dialogue, I’d suggest giving a listen to this interview on creative integration, a training process that writers can use to significantly enhance their abilities on these fronts.
Compelling Story Structure
One of the points Michael Lombardo made in the UCLA class is that with the growth of on-demand digital libraries, audiences are much more sophisticated than ever before. They know what’s truly different and exciting, as opposed to what’s simply the reheating of stuff we’ve already seen. This has led more and more of the buyers to turn away from doing the usual fare. Cable companies, and even some of the broadcast networks, increasingly want to do smart, elevated projects that don’t follow the same old tired story formulas.
But too many aspiring writers are still utilizing the paradigms taught in the popular books and seminars. Such approaches might have worked five years ago, but read the pilots that are selling today and you quickly realize it’s a brave new world. More and more of the writers succeeding in this marketplace are embracing new organic ways of telling stories found in such shows as True Detective, Transparent and Bloodline.
This is even more important for new writers looking to break into the industry. Nobody really cares if you can successfully follow a formula. There are a ton of writers who can do that, many of whom have a proven track record on hit shows. So when a staffing spot opens, those folks are always going to have an advantage over an unproven writer. The way to get your foot into the door is to write something unique and exceptional that grabs people’s attention.
One example is the Mad Men pilot, a script that definitely doesn’t follow the standard A-B-C story arc construction. And that’s one of the reasons why Matthew Weiner was able to get staffed on the hottest show at the time, The Sopranos. In Alan Spinal’s book, The Revolution was Televised, David Chase explains why he hired Weiner. “We were looking for writers. I read a bunch of material when I was on hiatus, and Mad Men was one of them. I thought it was remarkable. It held my interest. I didn’t feel like I’d seen it 100 times.”
Adam Levine, a partner at the Verve agency, put it this way, “Challenge yourself to do something different. Because what I think really sticks out at the end of the day from the clutter is something that is obviously well-written, with great characters, but is also something that is innovative, that we haven’t quite seen before or that challenges us. And so the stuff that is formulaic and that has been done a million times, it’s not going to stand out and it’s not going to make your career.”
But the problem is that pulling off successful organic story structure is damn hard, and almost nobody starts out with the ability to write like that. It takes a lot of training to execute at this level. Where do writers acquire such knowledge? Some did it as an assistant working in a writers’ room. Others were mentored by a manager or an experienced writer. One of the main reasons I offer the Organic Story Structure Workshops is to provide an alternative to writers without access to either of those options.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what route you take to master these skills, only that you do so. Because there’s never been a better time to jump into the TV game.
Posted in Corey’s Blog | January 16, 2017