Supersalesman Mark Gordon Reflects on the Nets

…Yes, he’s a producer, not a writer. But that’s the thing. Producers know. Which is why producers get laid and writers…well, not as much. (What? You thought it was the producers’ charm? Good looks? C’mon!)

Hmm, Mark Gordon looks like a nice guy. Maybe we should give him a call…

Exclusive Q&A: Hot Producer Mark Gordon Reveals What TV Projects the Networks Are Buying – by Lacey Rose

Becoming a successful film producer is hard enough. But Mark Gordon has achieved the extremely rare feat of conquering television as well as movies. As of Sept. 20, the prolific producer had sold at least 11 new TV projects (eight dramas, three comedies). If they make it to air, they’ll join Gordon’s other small-screen offerings: ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy andPrivate Practice, CBS’ Criminal Minds and Lifetime’s Army Wives. On the film side, the Producers Guild of America co-president has been behind movies big (2012, Speed) and small (The Messenger,The Details), with several more (includingAngelina Jolie’s Kay Scarpetta project, based on Patricia Cornwell’s novel) in development. The ABC Studios-based Gordon, 54, a soon-to-be-remarried father of two girls who got his start in off-Broadway productions, sat down in his artsy West Los Angeles office to discuss network buying habits, studio missteps and the genre he’d love to tackle.

The Hollywood Reporter: What are the networks looking to buy this development season?

Gordon: It’s gotten much narrower in terms of what each network wants. People are still interested in procedurals, but they want more character. ABC and NBC want more character, but they don’t necessarily want the same kinds of characters in their procedurals. The pilots that were picked up this year at ABC say “fun;” the pilots that NBC picked up say “smart, a little more sophisticated, a little more intellectually challenging.” CBS continues to do what it does, but even the three procedurals it picked up are more character-driven than they used to be. Fox didn’t pick up much, and the CW is still the CW.

THR Are you comparing NBC to what it previously had been or to the other networks?

Gordon: I don’t know what NBC has been over the past couple of years. It had been more of a hodgepodge before [entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt arrived. If you look at the pilots he picked up, there’s more thought-provoking; they’re not as easy to watch as the ABC shows, which are more candy.

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LB Answers: “Where Can I Find Scripts for Current Shows?”

People ask me questions. They call. They email. They rush up to me on the street.

The most frequently asked question, especially by those rushing up to me on the street, is “What the #&$@! do you think you’re doing?”

The second most frequently asked question is “Mind if I ask you a question?” Which almost always is the sign that a showbiz question is coming.

The most commonly asked showbiz question, as I’ve said many times (usually when answering a question about my questions), is, “How did you get started?”

The second most commonly asked showbiz question, as I’ve also said many times (often without being asked because I tend to get on a roll), is, “How do I get an agent?”

And, right up there in the Top Five, is the following question, asked this time around in an email from a new visitor to this site:

I have read your book (Television Writing From the Inside Out – I won it in a contest – “thank you”) and I realize that different shows have different expectations. So if I wanted to write a script for a specific program, would I be able to find formatting rules somewhere (besides and beyond your book) that are specific to each particular show?

I understand that all programs have their own writers, but I think the experience of writing for a show that is already running would be challenging and exciting. If a resource like that doesn’t exist, can TVWriter be a resource for that kind of information?

So, since I received this inquiry just the other day, and I’ve got an answer right at hand, I’m going to sit back here and now with a broad smile and say:

Thanks for the great question. Yes, my definition of a “great question” is one I can answer, so you know they’re few and far between. I understand the desire/need to feel as comfortable with what you’re writing as possible and I too need to feel that I’m using the correct format when I write.

(And when I do most other things because, frankly, one of the worst feelings in the world to me is that of being ignorant/out of it/just plain – gasp – wrong.)

Fortunately, after a few years of trudging in the trenches I became the person who decided the format on the shows I did, and I hope you will too.

Until you reach that point, though, here’s what I think you should know. The two top-selling screenwriting programs, Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, both come with templates for as many current/recent series as they can get hold of. So that’s one avenue to explore. The other major place to find what you want is via the magic of Google because teleplays written by staff members on most shows definitely are available on the web.

Which brings me to the fact that TVWriter™ has for many years indeed been a “resource for that kind of information,” although not on the main site because the sources are always changing and it’s hard to keep specific pages current. So what we’ve done instead is put all the info we’ve gathered over time on the TVWriter™ Message Board in a thread, reasonable entitled, I believe, called Places to Get Sample Scripts from Current Series.

I encourage all of you to check out the link above. And I hope you’ll go further and take advantage of the fact that the TVW Message Board is filled with almost a decade’s worth of nuggets on a wide variety of  topics (most of them related to that thing we do called “writing,” others focusing on, well, just about everything). You’ll find answers you didn’t even know you wanted or needed. And you can answer other people’s questions and post your own as well. If anything was ever win-win, it’s this.



“Write What is True”

…which isn’t necessarily the same as “writing the truth.” At ComicMix.Com, John Ostrander, one of our comic book writing idols, is all over this with some very good advice:

John Ostrander: What is True? – by John Ostrander (ComicMix.Com)

One of the primary rules for writing is “Write what you know.” As I’ve discussed before, the corollary question becomes “what do you know?” I can write characters that, on the surface, are totally unlike me because underlying there are elements that true for both of us. Granted, I need to get the details of those lives correct but the essentials – the feelings, the doubts, everything that makes us human – are the same. I just have to find out where that is in me and what it looks like.

So, for me, the more important rule is “Write what is true.” That will vary from person to person, from character to character. The corollary question then becomes “What is true?” I’m not asking “What is The Truth?” because I don’t think that The Great Objective Truth exists or, if it does, it can be perceived as such by each of us through the lenses of our own existence. What I’m asking is “What is true?” for each person, be they a living and breathing reality or a fictional creation.

Socrates famously said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add: “The unquestioned belief is not worth having.” As kids, we’re all given a set of beliefs, be they about God, country, family, love, values and so on. That’s fine; we all have to start off somewhere. Parents have their beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad and it is both their job and their duty to instill those in their children. As the children grow and come to adulthood, it is their job to examine those beliefs and see if they are true for them. Do you believe something because your own experience, your own questioning, has brought you to that place or are you there because someone told you that is true and it’s what you must believe?

That’s my problem with dogma. It tells me that this is the truth and this is what I must believe whether my own experiences agree with it. It may be that my own experiences and my own questioning will bring me to the same place, the same conclusion or belief and that’s fine. I will have then earned that belief; it’s not a hand-me-down. It’s mine.

Dogma, whether religious, political, social or what have you, is easier. Questioning takes time, takes effort and may take you to places that you’re not comfortable to visit. It can shift your foundations. My questions about the existence of God made me feel like I was on a trapeze in the dark. I had just let go of one bar but I couldn’t see if there was another trapeze swinging towards me or if there was a net below. It’s still that way. I’m on a boat in the ocean but I don’t know which port is the destination or how long it will take to get there. The voyage, however, is necessary.

Where I wind up may not be your truth, and that’s fine. I accept that what is true for you is your truth and valid. It just may not be mine. Our truths could be opposite and we both may feel compelled to act on our truths and that may bring us into conflict. That’s also fine. I can oppose you and respect your truth without accepting it for my truth.

As for us, so with the characters we write. The best stories challenge the characters on a deep level, on what they regard as true. The situation challenges or shatters the character’s beliefs. They must find out what is true. If you as the writer have never done that yourself, how can you write it? First you must live it and understand the process and then it becomes useful to you as writer. Aside from talent, aside from skill, all you have to offer as a writer is who you are as a person and your own strengths and weaknesses as that person will become your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

You Call it “Developing” – These Doods Call it “Winning”

Way back in last November, The Hollywood Reporter, um, reported on the most successful TV producer/salesmen of the year 2011. Although both the year and their numbers of projects have changed since then, this is still very much the “A” group. The folks who can make or break you.

We present these kingpins now with one Very Important Bit O’Advice: Just reading about ’em ain’t enough. You need to find a way to say hello to:

Peter Chernin-Mark Gordon-Brian Grazer

10 Biggest Winners of TV Development Season – by Lacey Rose, Lesley Goldberg

“An invitation to an invitation to a pre-party.”

That’s how ABC chief Paul Lee describes his network’s fall script purchases, only a tiny percentage of which will end up on the air. Still, every hit show starts with an executive saying yes to a pitch, and during the past few months, networks sand studios have bought hundreds of promising new projects, from original ideas like “mechanical-human dramas” to remakes of classics like The Munsters and The Rifleman.

Now, with the pitch portion of development season nearing its end, The Hollywood Reporter is crowning the 10 biggest winners, based on volume of network sales rather than size of commitment or fees paid.

The Chernin Group, 20th Century Fox TV | 16 projects sold

  • Highlight: NBC’s Untitled Gene Hong, an ensemble comedy set in a karaoke bar with The Voice coach Adam Levine attached as an EP. The network has given a script commitment with penalty.

Mark Gordon Co., ABC Studios | 14 projects sold

  • Highlight: CBS has given a script plus penalty commitment to Source Code, an action/procedural that follows three former federal agents who are part of a top-secret program; loosely based on the Gordon-produced feature film.

Peter Traugott Productions, Universal Television | 13 projects sold

  • Highlight: ABC has given a script order to I’m With Stupid, a buddy comedy with Party Down duo Martin Starr and Ryan Hansen. Starr will pen the script alongside Better Off Ted‘s Justin Adler.

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Characters aren’t the Only Ones Who Need Conflict

…Creators do too. Alex Epstein has a solid handle on it:

Creative Conflict – by Alex Epstein (ComplicationsEnsue Blog)

I listened to Margaret Heffernan’s TED lecture, “Dare to Disagree” today. It starts with an anecdote about Alice Stewart, a scientist who was able to prove that it’s not a good idea to X-ray pregnant mothers because she had a great collaborator. He was her statistician, and his job, as he saw it, was to prove her wrong. Only by mining the data sixteen ways from Sunday, trying to dredge up any way to show that X-raying pregnant mothers was not correlated with childhood cancer, could they prove that it is correlated.

 In a writing partnership, you want a certain amount of creative conflict. If you agree with each other all the time, who needs two of you? You need to be willing to criticize and shoot down each other’s ideas. To say, in Denis McGrath’s old catchphrase, “Here’s why I hate that.”
This is hard to learn. (Unless you are from New York, in which case you have to learn when to shut up). In companies, most people often feel they can’t voice their concerns. The whistleblower is the odd man out. Or look at American politics, where almost no current politician dares criticize the country’s utterly insane drugs policy.
In a creative partnership, you want different points of view to clash.
On CHARLIE JADE, Sean Carley, aside from being a very fine writer, was the guy in the writing room who would call shenanigans on Denis and me when we came up with something he didn’t believe.
After all, if someone in the room doesn’t believe it, what are the odds that the audience will?
What makes creative conflict useful is restraint. You have to agree on the underlying premise. I’ve got notes back on my writing where the analyst did not buy into the basic premise of the material. That kind of note is not constructive. (It may be accurate, just not constructive.)
You also have to agree on what you’re critiquing. If you’re working on our premise, you critique your premise. If you’re working on your outline, you critique the beats, and maybe you critique the premise if the beats cannot be made to work. If you’re working on pages, you should no longer be critiquing the premise. A creative partner who keeps going back to the drawing board will hold you back. This is particularly true on a TV show, where you just don’t have time. But at a certain point you just have to have faith that your premise will hold up.
It’s crucial because about 40% into anything, you’ll probably start to question whether the idea has any merit. You’ll also question whether you’re capable of writing it. Or writing anything. You will possibly get the idea that you have lost any talent you had, if indeed you ever really had any. That’s why I call 40% in “The Sucky Point.”
In the WaPo, Emily Matcher makes the claim that overentitled millenials can help, since they expect everyone to listen to their thoughts.
Criticism is essential to making anything good. But just like heat applied to steel in the forge, what makes it productive is focusing it on the right part of the material at the right time.