Friday, March 14, 2008
Lessons from the Script Pile
We topped out at 210 submitted scripts. For four slots. That's co-showrunner Chris Downey there, by the way, still maintaining the youthful appearance he had when we started as baby writers on Cosby. I am the bloated, angry drunk just O.S. right. All of these tomes were read, and 99% all the way through.
You can get just a hint of the "Wall o' Cards" behind the scripts -- we've taken over a spare office here at Electric Entertainment, and we've got our possible story beats and antagonists for each episode of Leverage scrawled on index cards and then tacked up with painter's tape on the big, empty white wall. Yellow for antagonists, pink for "clients" of our team, green for the enormous well of miscellaneous scams/heist techniques/ wild-ass impossible crimes, white for half-developed story ideas as they come together.
That's right. I am a 21st Century tech fetishist, and we're breaking off index cards. Sometimes the old ways are indeed the best.
We'll collect the following in some coherent manner later, but since I got in a 8am this morning, I want to dash these observations down before the staffing meetings start.
1.) Wow. There are a lot of really goddam great writers out there. I am seriously concerned, in a straight-on script shoot-out, I could not get hired on my own show. The general increase in the quality of television in recent years has led to an exponential increase in talented young writers choosing it as their medium of expression.
2.) Definitely want the double-team when submitting. One on-air show/one pilot. On-air to see how you adapt your voice to another show, a pilot to show what sort of tone and structure you dig when cut loose. I personally don't mind reading movies, but when facing a mountain of scripts they are generally wince-inducing. If submitting a movie, make sure it's got a helluva first act. A screamingly funny one-act play isn't bad either, and may even be preferable to the pilot when doing half-hour submissions.
Having now plowed through a ridiculous number of on-air specs, for what it's worth (and this is purely personal) I'd recommend writing a House. It's one of the few one-hours where you can show off your research and plotting skills, AND the characters are both joke-funny and engage the emotional issues presented by the case-of-the-week. Without a Trace is a fine show, for example, and we interviewed a couple writers of WaT specs, but the characters do not lend themselves to banter.
If you've been on staff, that second original work is important. We've been on staff, we know how the rewriting process goes. It's very hard to break out what's yours and what's derived from the mandatory template of the sow and your own particular show-runner's idiosyncracies.
If your on-air spec show has been off the air for two years, time for a new spec.
3.) If you are submitting a play: take your first play, the one where the protagonist is a thinly veiled version of you, and the antagonist is a thinly veiled version of your ex, and the "comedy" is you showing how shitty they were and how wronged you were for 90 pages -- and put that one down. Send the second one.
4.) Size of agency does not matter. Our first and so far only baby-writer hire came from an agency so small we have affectionately named it "the Yarn Barn". The agent was aggressive as hell, got the scripts in front of our face, and got the job done. Do not fixate on the big agencies -- not only do they have a ton of other clients to work through, some of them are less nimble when dealing with the new model/economics of television. Speaking of which --
5.) Your network quotes? Heh. You're adorable. It's the writer apocalypse out there, folks. The days of 12 person rooms, each person clocking in between $10-50k an episode for 22 episodes a year are GONE.
This isn't actually the End Times, it's more a re-alignment to how television worked in the 70's thru mid 80's. The context will be lost on you Spec-monkeys and baby writers, but the 80's/90's/00's were like the oil boom for writers. Tons of cheap energy distorting the economy. Those days are gone. We are at Peak Staffing.
On a separate note -- word on the street is NBC won't be developing pilots, CBS are shooting presentations only, rumor has it Fox is going to be doing the (pilot script + 2) development system. All these changes were coming (some of them welcome) but the strike accelerated their arrival. More discussion later about the full ramifications.
6.) Sexy descriptions. I have read a disturbing number of character descriptions, particularly those of women, which go on for a full damn paragraph about how sexy they are, or describe how the camera lingers over them, or even explicit complements about their ass (I am not kidding) ... Okay. Listen. We are all in the Television Business. The Business of Televising. Are you somehow worried that without some Maxim-style adjectives ladled in, some misguided Network Exec is going to forget and cast ugly people in your show? This is the person who was cast as the geek-physicist in Global Frequency:
Jenni also happens to be a really good goddam actor. But, c'mon. We get it. All you're doing is creeping me out and making the actresses who read the script uncomfortable.
The following notes are primarily for the Spec-Monkeys and baby writers (although not exclusively):
7.) The "As you know ...": Indeed, it's fucking miserable to lay pipe in the tiny amount of page space you have in a TV script. That said -- NO. The only thing worse is --
8.) The Sibling Tag: "C'mon sis, don't be like that."
There was even one script with the double-whammy ...
9.) "As you know" with a Sibling Tag: "You know as well as I do, bro ..." Hey, I've written some crap. Some steeeeeaming crap. But this is an auto-fail.
Okay, back soon with some screenwriting book reviews, and I'll try to answer any questions you post in the Comments. Good luck all.