Hi Greg, thank you for your encyclopaedic knowledge on the career route. Something which has cropped up in the course of preparing for a shoot, of a short I recently wrote, is exactly how much of the original script survives from first draft to shooting script. Does it hurt to stop being the original singular vision and take on a more communal feel to the themes explored?
@Jarlabrelk: Both excellent questions! Let's take 'em one at a time.
Does TV writing lead to Producing?
The short answer is yes. One of the benefits of working in TV is that the writers, by and large, are at the top of the food chain. Showrunners are Executive Producers of their shows and are the ultimate bosses. With this comes more responsibility of course, including managing all the other producers on the show. Staff writers and Story Editors are not producers in terms of financial compensation but even at those levels, the writer is always on set acting in the capacity of a producer. Meaning, when people have questions the writer/producer gets to give their input and, depending on their position, often times has final say in the matter.
This doesn't go on in features at all. In features, the director -- if not the producer -- is the end all be all.
So, yes. Being on a TV track benefits your career greatly due to the fact it forces you to also learn the responsibilities of a producer. The more successful you are, the more producing you do and more control you have over your material. A lot of writers translate this into a producing career on the feature side -- or at least try to.
How does a TV series go from idea to a series:
This is worthy of it's own column. Maybe I'll do a log here during pitch season... hmm. I'll have to think about that. This process is unique to every project but I'll try to give you the basics that I've experienced. The disclaimer being I'm certain my experiences aren't the ONLY ways these things come together.
There are two ways that ideas become TV shows. The first way is for a baby writer to spec a pilot themselves. They create the idea, own the content, and then shop it to producers/studios/networks themselves. Once someone else is attached or has optioned the material, it then goes into the development process that is detailed a bit below.
The other way, which is becoming more common, is for Producers to buy an existing property (comic book, graphic novel, old show or movie) and try to find a writer to attach to it. This is also done with more loose "ideas", though producers like to use existing properties because they're easier to sell to networks who want "built in audiences" for the material.
Once the producer has the property or idea, they'll call in a bunch of writers who they like or have worked with in the past and pitch them the concept. These writers then go off and come up with their own take on how they would execute the show. Most of the time the producers are out to a handful of writers simultaneously. Meaning these writers are off developing the idea, doing the leg work, and forming their pitch knowing full well that their competition is out there doing the same thing. And ... this is all done for free. Just for the CHANCE to pitch the show.
Once that is done, the writers come back in and pitch the producer their vision. The producer then picks the best one or two (smart producers like to leave themselves options) and takes it to their boss (usually a director, writer, producer or company president) who decides ultimately which writer to use on the project.
Once the writer is "hired" (hired is a loose term as there is still no payment at this stage), the producer and writer will then work to shape the pitch/project into something they can sell to the networks. Sometimes they will look to attach a name to help the project sell -- someone like a big director or perhaps a big producer with clout in the genre -- but not always. Once the pitch is set and locked in -- meaning you have 5 seasons broken out, characters, episodes, structure, tone, sustainability etc -- the producer will then throw the weight of their company behind the project and set a bunch of pitch meetings with the appropriate networks/studios.
Unlike features, TV has a very defined calendar for when they do business. August through September is when the network pitch season is. September through November is when the cable pitch season is. That means for those few weeks, every writer in town (thousands) and every producer is out there pitching their new ideas to the networks. Of those pitches, only a handful will get picked up to go to pilot. 75% of those will be established writers or directors who've had other successful shows on the air. Of those 75%, 50% will be put pilots, essentially guaranteeing they get shot and aired. What those (very broad) numbers mean is that every year there are less opportunities for baby writers to get their shows to pilot. Still ... it happens.
Once the shows get bought to go to pilot, that's when the writer will get paid. Then, he or she goes off to write the pilot under the guidance of the studio and producer. The pilot normally will get shot in the late winter/early spring. Then, once all the pilots are shot, the networks decide which ones they want to buy and carry on to the season.
Those are the quick beats of how it all shakes out.
Greg, once again you have been a font of genius: Thank you.
I'm interested to know, does the career path of a writer for T.V eventually lead to producing or is it strictly regimented between strata's? In the same vein of thought, how does a T.V series go from spit balling ideas between producers and writers to a fully fledged pilot and then a show?
@Holly: Glad I could help! And never fear beginner-ish questions -- asking those sorts of questions is the only way to learn :)
This is an excellent question that I think all writers, at one point or another, worry about. Sometimes we write in fear; worrying that there aren't any new stories to tell. Other times we write without ENOUGH fear and end up writing material that feels stale and old because it's been done to death. There's a healthy balance to be found between both those extremes.
Personally, I believe every writer is influenced by the stories they loved children. Most of the time these influences are subconscious, but I know I've looked back at some of my work and see the fingerprints of Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes) and Gary Larson (Far Side). Not in terms of ripping stories directly from the comics, but in terms of the heart, humor and intelligence both men imbedded in their work. The same can be said for movies like Raiders, Shawshank, Some Like it Hot, the Goonies, and Die Hard -- all of which had tremendous impact on me as a kid and continue to influence my writing in various ways. I also was an avid reader of a wide range of authors including Michael Crichton, King, Clancy, Twain, Hemingway and others. I jumped around genres, periods, and styles -- which I tend to think has led to my genre mashing and jumping that I do in my own work today.
But again, most of those are subconscious as I'm writing. And I think most writers are impacted by the stuff they read and watch when they're young -- even if they're unaware of it. And that's a good thing because there is one simple truth that all writers have to realize at one point or another in their development:
Every story has already been told.
The Bible says as much. "What's been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there's nothing new under the sun" Ecclesiastes. In 1921, Polti proved this in his (highly recommended) book, "36 Dramatic Situations". On its face, this prospect sounds incredibly daunting when you are faced with it. I know more than a few writers who disagreed with my take on this, but after reading Polti they quickly changed their tune.
Rather than be frozen by this revelation, I found it to be freeing. This doesn't give me an excuse to not search for new material, rather it gave me the conviction to find NEW ways to tell OLD stories. That's the trick. Understanding this, I've found myself finding inspiration from other sources and seeing how they managed to solve obstacles that my characters were facing. Then, rather than just lifting their solution directly and applying it to my work, I'd find ways to twist it into something completely new. In essence I was finding old solutions to reoccurring dramatic problems and finding new ways to dress them up that make them feel fresh.
Understanding that there are no new stories to tell takes the load off your shoulders. It also makes plagiarism silly because it never works. Simply taking someone's character or plot won't help you no matter how amazing it is. But using other sources to find inspiration or to see how they managed to solve problems can be incredibly helpful.
I hope that helps ... otherwise it was just more rambling from me:)
Hi. Great thread. Greg, what you said about subtext in dialogue really resonated with me, especially since when I get characters talking I really tend to go off on one. I actually copied and pasted your post into the planning doc for the novel I'm working on. Hoping to break that habit of writing long scenes of babble, so thanks for the advise.
Anyhow, I don't really have a question. Just making myself known I guess. I'll probably be back with something highly beginner-ish soon enough.