More TV Questions and Answers for and from LB

This picture perfectly captures my writing process. And my mental age when I write too.
This picture perfectly captures my writing process. And how old I feel when I write too.

by Larry Brody

Related questions from a TVWriter™ visitor who needs answers.

Actually, she demands answers, as in this particular questioner re-sent her questions when it took me more than two days to respond. You’re a tough one, lady. Which means you’ll probably go far.

Now where were we? Oh yeah:

From MP:

I was just wondering, how long would you say it should take, generally, from idea to a completed hour-long pilot? To a completed spec episode of a series on TV you know well? To a completed 90-page movie? This is including all the steps from idea to completed first draft, outline, treatment, etc. I’m just looking for a rule of thumb for a working writer, I can’t find this kind of estimate anywhere.

From LB:

Ask and ye shall receive.

Since you’re inquiring about conditions if you’re a “working writer,” I’m going to answer in terms of my own experiences as a full-time writer…because I have no experience being any other kind.

So, assuming that TV writing is what you do all day and not something relegated to your spare time, the answers are:

One-Hour Pilot Time

I’ve never written a spec pilot but have been paid to develop and write more Big Media pilots than I probably can remember over the years.

I’d say that it took about 4 to 6 months from pitch meeting to final draft for me to fulfill most of these assignments. I’ve worded it that way because believe me when I say I put in much more waiting time between steps than writing time. It usually took a couple of weeks of meeting time for everyone – network execs, production company, and lowly Larry the writer-producer) to agree on the specifics of the concept and the overall structure of the outline, and then about a week for me to write the step by step story, then another couple of weeks to get any response to the story, followed by another meeting or three for everyone’s notes, and, yes, another week, at least, to do the next story draft.

If everyone liked the next version, or if the notes were minimal, then I’d sit down and write the script. Actual writing time would be about 3 or even 4 weeks, followed by more waiting, more notes meetings, and, usually 2 or 3 more drafts. Second drafts usually took about a week. Third drafts often took longer, maybe two weeks, because that’s when network execs get into re-thinking the entire commitment they’ve made (because they’ve been reading other pilots they commissions and their needs have changed), backtracking on suggestions they made that they now realize don’t work, etc.

I don’t know about other writers, but for me the third draft was usually the final one unless the network put the pilot into production. Then there’d be more rewriting – for the network, for the production company (mostly to deal with budgetary needs), and to address creative suggestions made by the director who’d been hired, the star or stars we’d cast, and the husbands, wives, and significant others of everyone involved. Plus, of course, overnight changes made most days of production, which could either be for creative or financial reasons.

Bottom line: In terms of actual writing time, my experience has been that it takes a couple of weeks of real writer work to get the story where it should be, another 3 weeks to write a first draft, and probably 2 or 3 more writing weeks to “perfect” the script. So we’re talking a couple of exciting yet agonizing months.

Spec Episode of a TV Series You Know Well

Once again I have to start by saying that I’ve never written this kind of spec. All the episodes I’ve ever written were on assignment, and after the first 7 years or so I was the producer of whatever I was writing.

As a producer or supervising producer or executive producer, I knew the shows I was writing very, very well. But I still faced the network, production company, director, cast, production problem hurdles. And, of course, the “Dreaded Dealine Doom” that came with having to shoot something new every two weeks.

With experience, my writing method for episodes became efficient and condensed. I usually would come up with 2 or 3 episode ideas at a time and write up a one page synopsis of each one. Then I’d run them past the network programming person with whom I was working, usually over the phone, at lunch, or, later, via email. After the concepts were approved, I’d write the outlines in two or three days, get approval within another two or three days, and then start writing whichever episode seemed easiest (I admit it), the most fun (because you have to enjoy what you’re doing), or, most likely, whichever episode the network exec said his bosses needed first.

I would write the first draft in 4 days, wait for notes anywhere from 4 hours to another 4 days, depending on internal politics and how much time we had before we had to start prepping to shoot, and then take another couple of days to implement the notes, polish everything, and distribute the result as the Final Draft. Then, as we went into prep and production, I’d get into the daily rewrites to appease the director, stars, and production problems. And by the time I was at that step I was also working on the outline or first draft of the script that would follow the one being shot. Even if it was being written by another staff member because it’s a collaborative business, remember?

Bottom line: If you’re experienced – and desperate – enough, actual writing time for a one-hour episode can take a total of 1 week to develop the story and write the first draft, and maybe another week to revise and polish. But if you’re not experienced and don’t have a deadline – just desperate because what’s the point of writing if it isn’t to feel pang after pang, or wave after wave, of disorientation and terror? – you really should give yourself a solid month to make things “perfect.”

A Completed 90 Page Movie

Is that how long feature films scripts are supposed to be these days? 90 pages? The ones I see often are at about the 105 page mark. Less often, 115 to 125 pages, and even less often than that (but still a thing) 75-90. These are production finals. Maybe earlier versions were longer? Or shorter? I really don’t know.

And, since I haven’t written many feature length films (and no specs) from scratch (as opposed to some behind-the-scenes script doctoring), I really don’t feel qualified to say how long it should take. If you don’t have a gig and a deadline, or a contest and a deadline, the only should that I think should apply is that you write for as long as it takes for you to love what you’ve written and be proud to send it out, show it around, and generally put your reputation and career on the line with it.

Actually, that last bit should really be the answer. If you’re working on spec, hell, consider yourself lucky and dig in and enjoy the process as well as the result. Don’t worry about time. Don’t worry about anything but fulfilling your creative needs and desires. Because if you’re a really good writer, destined to succeed in showbiz, your whole concepts of creativity and writing are going to drastically change.

Whew. This took forever. Sorry to be so long-winded. I’m outta here but will do my best to get to the rest of your questions soon.



One thought on “More TV Questions and Answers for and from LB”

  1. Thank you very much for the thorough and helpful response.

    Sorry for the double e-mail, I actually had thought the first one hadn’t gone through, so no pressure was intended by the second one, though I guess it gave you a great way to open this article with a bang! Nevertheless, I hope I am a tough one, and I hope I’ll go far.

    As far as feature-length, most scripts I read come in at around 140 pages, which was way too much even in “the olden days” of Robert Evans and William Goldman and what-not (if you haven’t seen it, Evans was brilliantly spoofed by Martin Landau on an arc of “Entourage” years ago). A good movie script used to “feel” like 120 pages when you held it in your hand. Now it has to feel like a bunch of pages are missing.

    So these days I’m always told to get them down to the “new normal” of 90 pages. I find the first thing everyone does when reading a script is look at how many pages it is.

    If they see 90 (or better yet, 89 — as in, a turbo blender is way less expensive at $89.99 than it is at $90), they sort of let out a contented sigh as if to say “ah, a writer who knows what they’re doing…”

    Those perception points do help your cause. I think I saw an article earlier on this site about the great importance of structure, and the right number of pages seems to be a hallmark of knowing your way around structure. The whole script could be crap but as long as the page count is according to Hoyle, you’ve got the benefit of the doubt long enough for them to actually start reading (another helpful tidbit, “I’ll read it this weekend” is code for “my reader *might* read it and get back to me in 6 weeks”).

    I’ve also noticed TV hours (whether with commercials for a network or without for premium or OTT) are now *under* 60 pages, when 60-70 pages was fine just 5 years ago. Unless you’re Shonda Rhimes with a 712-page script for an hour episode, make sure yours is 59 pages or less.

    Thank you again.


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