One Writer’s Diary for Television Pitch Season

That writer is Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, and her experience definitely has inspired the TVWriter™ minions. Read and learn, gang. Read and learn:

TV-PILOT1

Hatching a Pilot
by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

You with your feet up, remote in one hand and beverage in the other, being all judge-y about this fall’s new network dramas and sitcoms. Just take a moment, will you, and think of us writers gutting ourselves trying to create them. Think of us lumbering from lot to Hollywood lot, fingernails in our teeth and oil in our bowels, pitching what we hope you’ll be criticizing next fall.

The Big Four — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — have recently wrapped two months of listening to about 350 series pitches each. (I know what you’re thinking: Someone out there has to sit through five or six television pitch meetings a day, and there is no Nobel Prize in that category.) Each broadcast network will buy up to 60 pitches. Hallelujah for those lucky pitchers, who will then write their scripts for the pilots. At year’s end, each network will pick a dozen or so to produce. Those pilots will shoot in the spring. Next May in New York, in the ad-buying extravaganza called the upfronts, the networks will announce the precious few that will become full series.

I am a journalist and author who stumbled into writing pilots. I had an idea for a drama, called “The Ordained,” about a former priest trying to stop an assassination. I pitched it to networks. None bought it, so I wrote a script on spec.

In 2012, the script sold to CBS, which produced it. This is unusual. As Deadline Hollywood noted, by way of saying pigs are flying, I had no TV credits and live in New Jersey.

Then the 2013 fall lineup was announced — and my pilot wasn’t on it. After I stopped rocking in a dark corner, I told my clarinetist husband that we should buy a house. New beginnings, I told him. Besides, now that I had one produced pilot, surely the deals would be rolling in. We bought the house. The following pitch season, I didn’t sell anything at all. We sold the house. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Why would any would-be show creator suffer the agony of pitching to networks, when everyone knows cable is where it’s at these days? Because money (still way more than cable). Because audience (ditto). Because creating a hit show for broadcast television — maybe one that even the critics like — still makes you an American hero.

So here I am again. This is my diary of the 2014 network TV pitch season.

June 10 The very start of pitch season is like dating; producers need writers for their projects, and writers need ideas. Producers have ideas, but more important, they have rights: to books, to foreign TV series, to whole entire lives. This is not as awesome as it sounds. I can’t make the colossal mistake I did last fall of believing that projects originating with producers are inherently better, and that I will be able to sell them. They aren’t. And I didn’t.

And now I’m desperate for a sale. Last week, I spent 10 minutes in the cereal aisle, choosing between Kellogg’s and the nasty store brand. Let’s face it: My family’s primary source of income is a total crapshoot. And in a crapshoot, it’s better to fail with an idea of my own. For my dignity or whatever.

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