Is Your Script Ready For TV Pilot Season?
Pilot season officially takes place from January through May. This is when the pilots for the upcoming TV season are ordered, made and either picked up or canned. However, you are a screenwriter and that means your timetable is different. Summertime is when network and studio executives sit down for pitch meetings. Typically, more than 500 show ideas are pitched to these executives each year. Based on these pitch meetings each network may order as many as 70 scripts for these pilots. These must be completed and in the hands of the executives before the holidays so that they may read them over their holiday break (a two week period starting at the end of December.) Upon returning from holiday break, the networks dissect these scripts and determine which ones to order pilot episodes to be made. In most years, between 20 and 30 pilot episodes are made for each network. So how do you get your pilot script inserted into this process?
First, you have to have a great idea and an awesome pitch. The pitch includes your logline, elevator pitch and a short synopsis of the show’s premise and characters. Then you need to get yourself and your idea in front of the executives who can greenlight the pilot script. While this sounds like a giant leap forward, in reality it’s the time when elation can turn to heartbreak. The executive you pitched your idea to may have loved the idea based on what they thought they heard but there’s a good chance your script does not match what they had in mind, or strays outside of their brand, or is too expensive to produce. Now you’re into rewrites until everyone is satisfied which means hard deadlines and compromises come into play. If your script, as rewritten, makes the cut and the top network executives greenlight it, a pilot gets made. Out of the 20 to 30 pilot episodes each network orders every year, only a handful actually become a series.
While screenwriting for TV shares many traits of screenwriting for film, there are a few fundamental differences that must be adhered to. A film has a beginning, a middle and an end. A TV series is (hopefully) never-ending. A film is usually 90 to 120 minutes long. A Network TV series is usually either 30 minutes (sitcoms) or 60 minutes (dramas) of overall airtime, which in reality is around 22 minutes of actual screen time for a 30 minute show and 44 minutes of screen time for a 60 minute show to allow for commercial breaks. On Network TV there are usually two to three commercial breaks for half hour shows and four to six breaks for hour shows. However, there is no standard, and new outlets like Amazon and Netflix air their series without commercials.
For the most part, TV pilots should include the following four elements:
1. The premise—is your show a sitcom, a drama, a mystery and what is the underlying theme or message it will tackle?
2. The characters—who are they, how do they interact and why will the audience embrace them?
3. The structure—is your show procedural where each episode is a stand-alone or is it serialized where the storyline and character development is ongoing?
4. The hook—ideally your pilot will leave your audience with an idea of what’s in store down the road and a reason to watch the next episode.
It’s vital that you know your audience: before you pitch your idea, give great thought to who you are going to pitch to. A show idea that ABC loves might not stir any interest at CBS or Netflix. If your idea gets the greenlight, make sure you come to an understanding of the format it will be produced in (single or multi-cam; commercial breaks or commercial length; actual running time of the show, etc.) before you start working on the script.
A few other suggestions for those deciding to try their luck at writing a TV pilot screenplay. Make sure your social media profile portrays you accurately and in a good light because you will be checked out. It’s also a great idea to have two sample scripts ready to show in your first meeting. The first should be an original script for an original show—even if the executives don’t like the idea, this demonstrates that you are a creator. The second should be a sample script that you have written for an existing show on their network to demonstrate your ability to adapt to a show’s premise, tone and characters. It may not lead to you getting your own pilot the green light, but it could end up getting you a job as one of the show’s writers.
How to be a Screenwriter (article).
Eric Abrams’ Tips for Successful Screenwriting.
Paul Guay and Sandy Stern are Film Connection Screenwriting Mentors!