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Writing For Television: The Top 10 Reasons to Write a Spec TV Pilot

By Ellen Sandler

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Whether you're an established film/TV writer or an aspiring one, you've heard it – everybody in town has said it – you should write a spec pilot. Didn't used to be that way. Up until about five years ago, it was considered crazy or just plain clueless to write a pilot that wasn't commissioned by a network – nobody would read it, no agent would consider looking at it. (I did it anyway – tell you more about that later)

But all that changed in 2004 when Marc Cherry, a veteran TV writer experiencing a downturn in his career (he'd moved in with his mother and was sleeping on her couch in Orange County), looked around at suburbia and wrote Desperate Housewives ON SPEC. ABC, which was experiencing a little desperation of its own that year, hovering as they were at the bottom of the ratings with no hot prospects in their development pipeline -- picked it up and put it on the air. The rest, as they say, is Emmyland! And now, everybody wants to read an original pilot.

If you've been circling around the idea of writing a pilot but haven't been able to put your landing gear down, here's a list that may give you reason to put your hands on the keyboard and start typing.

10. Ray Romano does a very funny routine about his family on your talk show and you think there may be a series there

Okay, you're not David Letterman and you don't have your own talk show. You still might discover a character or a situation that could spark a series. You read the paper— and please, let me recommend that you do read a newspaper before they are all gone—so, you read an article in, say The New York Times, about a thirty year old guy who got downsized and started a baking company with his mom. You think, hmmm, I wonder what that would be like? And that leads you to think about what kind of problems you'd have working with your mother. And just like that, you've got an idea brewing for a comedy series. (Or an episode of CSI Miami, if it turns out one of you kills the other.)

Maybe your cousin is a lawyer for a city agency that provides counsel for Family Court. Every time you talk to her, she's working on another real-life case full of pathos and drama. Aren't those cases waiting to be turned into dozens of episodes of a legal or police procedural series?

I read an article in a magazine about teenage girls having babies – not exactly my own experience; I had kids about as late as humanly possible – but the idea of a very young mom was interesting to me, so I transplanted my own motherhood experiences into a pilot about girl who became pregnant in high school and was now a 30-year-old mother of teenagers. I sold that to idea to ABC Family Network. I wrote it, fell in love with my characters and their stories and then was heartbroken when it didn't get on the schedule. (The executives thought it was too much like a show that had just been picked up for the [then] WB network's new season -- that was Gilmore Girls. And that's show biz.)

9. An agent told you to

Agents, good ones at least, read your material to gauge you as a writer with the potential for a long career. Original material is going to be fresher for an agent to read than the 173rd spec of The Big Bang Theory. And yes, you could give him your screenplay, it's original, but he would much rather read a pilot. It's shorter. He can see that you know how to tell a story, create original characters, and write sparkling dialogue in less than half the time it takes to read a screenplay. When he's at home facing a weekend stack of scripts, which one do you think he would rather pick up – the 3-inch thick screenplay or your breezy 45-page pilot?

8. You want to have a piece of original material to sell

And you're not the only one. Another reason agents would rather read a pilot than an on-air spec is because there's a possibility they can sell it. An agent can't sell an on-air spec—shows don't buy spec scripts. Maybe it happened once, but it's not generally the way business is done. But it is possible to sell an original pilot. You created the characters and you've got the rights. More and more cable companies are looking to produce original series now. Most of them can't pay the price demanded by The Sopranos alumni and they're looking to you for original material.

7. You work in an environment that would make a great drama or comedy series

If you work anyplace where there's more than one other person, you've got conflicts. You've got people with agendas, egos and mood swings who can't get away from each other and that's a great place to start building a show. Your job and your life experience are not keeping you from realizing your dream – they're giving you material!

I can't tell you the number of people who have come up to me and said, “You should come to where I work – it's so crazy there! You should write a sitcom about it.” And I always answer, “You should write a sitcom about it.” They never do, but you can. You're a writer and you've lived it.

6. You come from a family that is so dysfunctional it has to be a sitcom

If you've ever watched TV, you know this is the mother lode. Lucky you! Write that great pilot about your family and you may be able to afford the therapy they've made necessary. Better yet, there's always the possibility that when your family sees what you've done they may never speak to you again. Voila! Problem solved.

5. You have an active fantasy life and it would make a great sci-fi or supernatural series

Put your fantasies to good use by creating a whole new universe with its own rules and customs where your unique show takes place. Who knows, you may be able to quit that job you spend so much time mentally escaping from and turn those dreams into money.

4. You want to prove you can write

The perfect way to prove to everybody in your high school and in your family that you are special. This will do it! Believe me, none of them will ever write an original pilot. Guaranteed.

3. You've watched hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of TV and you think you can do better than what's on

You know what? You probably can. Especially since you won't have to deal with network notes, also known as Development Hell. I've seen many truly wonderful ideas – a couple of them were my own – turned into mush with too much meddling and marketing research. You can avoid all that with an original spec pilot. Then later, when someone buys it, you can turn it into any kind of mush they want.

2. You want to see your life on TV

Who doesn't?! If only for the casting. You, but better looking, probably younger and much, much thinner without ever having to do stomach crunches, or give up chocolate cake.

And the NUMBER ONE reason to write a spec pilot, drum roll, please


The very best reason of all.

By the way, I'm not telling you to do anything I wouldn't do. Here's the story about my own spec pilot, which I wrote well before anybody thought it was a good idea to do so. Years ago when my then husband ran away from home and left me with two little kids, I needed to start over. He'd been my writing partner as well as my husband (stupid, yes, thank you, I know that now) and I needed to reinvent my career. I wanted to write about what I was going through, so I wrote a spec pilot about me – a single mom dumped back into the dating pool. My pilot didn't sell, but it did get me a staff job on Baby Talk – you probably don't remember that show, but it was about, yup, that's right, a single mom in the dating pool. Oh, yeah, and the baby talked; in Tony Danza's voice. It wasn't the greatest show in the world, but it did jump start my moribund career and led to all the better shows I got to work on later.

Republished with permission from The Writers Store.

About Ellen Sandler

Ellen was nominated for an Emmy for her work as a Co-Executive Producer of the CBS hit series, Everybody Loves Raymond. She has written for many other prime time network television comedies, including ABC's long running Coach, and has created original television pilots for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Family, Oxygen Network, and the Disney Channel. Internationally, she has consulted on series development for The ABC, Australia and The Australian Children's Television Foundation in Melbourne; the CBC, Canada; and for producers in Dubai, UAE, Egypt, Tokyo, and Germany. Most recently she ran a two week training intensive for 40 South East Asian writers sponsored by MediaCorp, Singapore's major producer of television content. Currently, Ellen is Executive Producer and Director of Marisa Rules, a webisode series for teenage girls, and is the author of The TV Writer's Workbook (Bantam/Dell), which is used as a text by both UCLA an USC film schools. Ellen is also a playwright, director, teacher and a consultant, and provides script development and career coaching for professionals and emerging writers.
Screenwriting Article by Ellen Sandler

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