A couple of TVWriter™ visitor questions that have been gnawing at me for the past few days:
1) From JW:
‘Morning Mr. B,
I’ve written and entered a TV pilot that has done fairly well in contests but has not been picked up or optioned. Does it make sense to write another episode from the same series and enter it in next year’s contests?
For example, my Season 2, Ep. 1 has a great opening and compelling new characters added to the cast but doesn’t establish the original “big picture.” Will I lose points with the judges for that?
And my reply:
I can’t speak for other contests, but I do kind of know my way around the People’s Pilot, where, believe it or don’t, people do what you’re talking all the time.
Well, not exactly all the time but fairly frequently. Sometimes they entire another episode in the same running of the PP so that in effect the judges have two pilots to choose from. In the 2016 Peoples Pilot, for example, two different writers working on the same future series sent in two separate scripts to serve as pilots.
The actual creator of the show entered his pilot script, and his fellow writer on the hoped-for series send in a later episode. Both scripts placed highly. In fact, the creator’s script finished third in its category and the other script placed second because even without including a series set-up per se, it was an excellent example of what should or would happen on the show.
In other words, I think submitting another episode of your series would be a good idea. If the fact that the script doesn’t present what you call “the big picture” worries you, I suggest you also include a short series presentation as additional material for the judges to take into consideration. We’re big on additional material in the PP.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of original pilot scripts like yours not being picked up or optioned, I’d like to point out that very few series created by writers who are outsiders in the biz are ever sold. That’s just not how the system works.
Original pilots, however, are absolutely the best writing samples you can send out because they show both how you handle material you love and your understanding of the needs of whatever genre or category your script is in. And original pilots that have won, or placed highly in contests, are pretty much beloved by agents because they also demonstrate that other readers have been impressed by your writing so taking a chance on you, the new writer seems less risky. In the People’s Pilot, by the way, those other readers are TV and film writing pros, and that reduces the risk factor even more.
2) From WJ:
I’m a college student in a film and TV program that has given me the chance to write two of my own pilot scripts in the past year. Both have been well received by my teachers and advisor.
One of the scripts is drama. The other is a dark comedy. I read where writing in different genres can cause identity confusion for potential agents, managers, hucksters. Should a writer avoid muddying the waters and stick to one niche until he/she is established?
My oh-so-very-thoughtful reply:
Oh, for Christ’s sake, WJ, give yourself a break. Who are you going to confuse? You’re brand new to the writing game and not even in L.A. yet. No one in a position of genuine authority or influence even knows you’re alive.
Your job is to get noticed. To demonstrate that you’re better than everyone else who’s showing their material to all those to whom you’re sending yours. Why in the name of the Great God of Ambition would you want to hogtie yourself by hiding one of the scripts you genuinely believe is the greatest of its type?
Send them both out wherever you can. Get yourself discovered. That’s what it’s all about. Besides, most people, even knowledgeable professionals, conflate dark comedy with drama anyway because of the serious undertones that dark comedy gets its name from.
The only reason to hold back material is if you have doubts about it. I mean genuine doubts with a basis in reality, not neurotic self-doubt.
Um, what’s that you just asked? How do you tell the difference? That, my friend, is between you and your shrink.
Thanks for the questions, you two! And to everyone else out there: I love hearing from you, so, by all means, keep ’em coming!
Don’t believe me? Have a look at…sigh…a certain Beloved (or not) Leader over the past 25 years:
Hmm…that latest version looks kind of shellshocked, huh? And that’s the retired me. The earlier three are all writin’ fools, oh yeah.
Careers start, grow, wane (and if you’re lucky grow again), finally – ulp – die. Some version of this happens not only to those of us who leave our homes and come out to Hollywood to roll the dice but to all of us, no matter what we do and where we are.
I, however, don’t get a lot of questions from chiropractors in, say, Butte, or architects in Iowa City. Mostly, this page is visited by men and women preparing to embark on, or embarking on, careers in TV and film writing. Young, old, anywhere in between, working their buns off and hoping to become the next Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, Judd Apatow, Tina Fey, whatever.
Some succeed – in fact, a startlingly large number (see this for some shows they’re working or have worked on). Some get tantalizingly close. Others…fill in the blank.
Which brings me to the point of this post, a question I received last week, which I’ve been thinking about long and hard.
I’ve watched this clip of you many times: https://youtu.be/TjfkuN73EtM
And I feel as though you’re speaking about/to me. As I approach the one year mark in Los Angeles, I feel my ambition to break into writing is making me focus so much on the goal that I’ve forgotten to live.
The obsession has gotten to the point where I hate writing when I’m writing, and all I want to do is write when I’m not writing. Perhaps I’m just chasing validation in the one area I’ve felt myself best suited for so many years, but I feel trapped: Do I keep chasing a dream that may no longer be my passion, or do I leave, always wondering if I was just a day away from breaking into the big time and finding my purpose.
Seeing my work on the screen sounds amazing. Millions of dollars sound amazing. Hearing how my work has affected others sounds amazing. But when do we decide that we did our best and move on to new things? And once we’ve made that decision, how do we follow it?
Do you or the Navajo Dog have any wisdom to impart?
The Navajo Dog never really saw herself as imparting wisdom. Like all good medicine people, she simply spoke the truth. She was the first one to let me know how pointless allowing ambition to guide me was because even if I achieved my goal I would still be only a partial human being. To the Navajo Dog, being was what life was all about. It was an end in itself, with the doing thing merely a part of it.
In other words, long before “being in the moment” was popular, D’neh was seeing our individual human awareness as more than merely individual at all because it exists within the context of the wholeness of life.
Which helps you not a bit, so while you mull over the philosophy of it all, I’m going to completely blow off any attempt at being wise and try to give you some more practical advice.
Anyone pursuing a showbiz writing career in L.A. needs to be aware of a couple of Basic Truths.
Basic Truth 1: No one in the biz feels an affirmative duty to discover or help new talent. Their major duty is keeping their jobs, which more often than not conflicts with the use of new talent because new obviously means “untested,” and if the new talent fails the test of any new job whomever hired him/her is one big step closer to a big slide down their own career ladder.
Basic Truth 2: The absolutely most important part of starting a showbiz career is networking. Yes, in spite of the fact that you can’t count on anyone to help you. Because you have to do everything you can to help yourself, it’s an absolute must to get yourself out there and interact with every human being who can take you from being an outsider to a member of the creative community we call showbiz.
I’m not talking about using people but about making them genuine friends. Because friends do hire friends, especially those they have learned can deliver – not necessarily to help them but to make their own lives more enjoyable and their jobs easier.
Bottom line: If you’re as shy as most writers are, you need to blast through that or things probably won’t go well. More writers are hired to be on TV staffs because they’re “good in the room” (meaning they’re fun to hang with and sometimes come up with good ideas) than because they can write the hell out of anything. Being able to do both is, of course, a great career bonus.
The above advice is predicated on the idea that you’re searching for a BigMedia career. That you want to do national/international broadcast work, have films you’ve written be made or distributed by major companies, etc. Which means I have to give you another tip you might not expect.
The big successes in BigMedia I’ve known have pretty much all been assholes, and becoming a major success often means that you too have to be an asshole. It’s likely that any employer you deal with will be at least as difficult to be around as Donald Trump. Trump, in fact, is actually at the low end of the showbiz asshole spectrum that I was part of for so long.
Is devoting your entire life to making it given what I’ve told you so far worthwhile? While I was doing it, it seemed worth it to me. But as I got older I more and more realized something was missing – a genuine home life with genuine love, a relationship with someone who demonstrated true tenderness toward me and life in general, an ability to face reality and allow both my emotions and my intellect to react to it, et al.
In the early ’90s, guided my desire to find these things, I severed all ties with my showbiz life and went off with the Navajo Dog to search for what I jokingly called magic but which was, I think, a deeper reality. A reality that didn’t involve sacrificing everything on the altar of writing.
It all worked out for me. I’ve been happy and content and easy in my own skin. I realize, though, that I’ve always been an extremist, and over the last couple of decades, I’ve learned that I probably didn’t need to make such a clean break. There was at least one other direction I could have gone in that eschews many of the pitfalls of narcissistic bosses (and coworkers) and financially based creative decisions that usually end up not being creative at all.
If I had it to do all over again, knowing what I know, I most likely would avoid BigMedia from the get-go and instead plunge into Indie Prod.
See, here’s the thing. Over the last 20 years I’ve helped hundreds of people start BigMedia careers and careers as indie creatives. I’ve watched them climb their ladders and been part of many of their lives as well as their work, and generally speaking it seems to me that in the long run filmmakers who concentrate on indie production are happier with their lives than those doing the H’wood thing, no matter how much or how little success those in either group attain.
More students, friends, and even family members than I ever expected have made fortunes writing and producing TV shows, running major and minor studios, being A-listers or just a notch or two below, and so many of them in shared moments of reflection have ranted and raved and even cried about how totally unfulfilled they feel, how unfaithful to their original talent and purpose they see themselves as having been.
Know what their daydreams are? They’re of chucking it all and doing web series and what used to be called “art films.” To a man and woman, they don’t care if anyone ever sees the films they daydream about but express the hope that if they at least make them they will be putting their talent and skills to genuinely good use.
Meanwhile, students, friends, and you guessed it, family members who have avoided BigMedia and gone indie instead seem in large part to lead lives of genuine joy. Some took that route from the beginning, others headed that way later (some much later). Instead of daydreaming, they now are making shows and films (and museum installations!) that they find meaningful and exciting.
Almost all of those in the indie group are far from household names and don’t have many fans. Many of them, to their frustration, haven’t made a penny through their oeuvres. But most seem to have more time for living “real,” grounded lives and are proud of the intrinsic value of what they’re doing. If having to work day jobs is what gets them to this point, “Well, hell,” they’ve told me time and time again, “it’s worth it.”
This reply is taking forever so I’ll cut to the Big-City-Destroying-Superhero-Fight-That-Ends-this-Career-Discussion. Take it from a guy who thoroughly enjoyed every moment – every argument and knock-down-drag-out creative difference – of a very successful TV career but has enjoyed my current lifestyle of being with my family and working with talented newbies and rooting from the sidelines even more: Making my definition of success “doing what I love, with those I love, instead of throwing myself away in search for fame, fortune, and a couple of interviews at TheWrap.Com has given me a far better life than any I could have imagined before.
So here’s my overall answer to your questions. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you do it. Commit yourself to a process that fulfills you and makes you proud…and enables the rest of your life instead of crippling or even destroying it.
EDITED TO ADD: One final thought. I’m glad you’ve seen that We, The Screenwriter clip. It was 50-year-old me, a few years after returning from various adventures, and misadventures, tracking the magic with D’neh and my wonderful and magical wife. I don’t fully recall what that version of me said, but you’re getting the absolute, most recent update right here, right now.